Diana Wrightson has owned her guest house in Happisburgh, England, for nearly three decades. It’s protected from the rages of the North Sea by a simple sand and wooden berm. The British government recently informed her that more violent storms and sea-level rise — direct results of global warming — will prevent the maintenance of the sea wall in the future. One day soon, she will lose her home and business to the sea.
Ms. Wrightson puts a human face on the recent conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which plainly warn us that we don’t have decades to solve this problem. In Heat, George Monbiot gives us hope that we actually could cut our greenhouse gas emissions as much as 90 percent by 2030 and, in the process, avert the worst impacts of global warming that we now foresee with a growing degree of accuracy.
Heat is earnest and thoroughly researched, supplying stimulating contributions to every aspect of the climate-change problem and its solutions. While focused largely on examples in the United Kingdom, Monbiot offers us a tantalizing glimpse of what every industrialized nation might do if consumers and governments alike make global warming an urgent issue.
Examining the cushy, fossil fuel-dependent lifestyle many of us enjoy, Heat compares our material wealth, purchased at the cost of climate change, to the pact made by Faust with the devil. While weighing everything from the benefits of solar power to the impacts of cement manufacturing, Monbiot never fails to humanize both our ingenuity and our astonishing myopia. We can put a price on carbon, he notes, but we can’t value the human suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina, which was at least in part caused by global warming.
The book shines brightest when presenting bold ideas for rapidly changing the status quo. Monbiot describes the German passivhaus that captures natural warmth from the sun, from wasted energy, and even from the occupants themselves, then uses clever methods of insulation, air handling, and natural architecture to heat or cool the home without appliances. He makes the case for an “energy internet” that blends today’s smart electric meters with tomorrow’s distributed micro-generation from renewables. He also lobbies for rationing carbon, while recognizing the difficulty of persuading governments to implement such a program and consumers to accept its constraints.
Heat challenges conventional wisdom about energy alternatives. For example, Monbiot debunks the promise of biofuels — pointing out that growing crops like palm oil results in the deforestation of rainforests — and shows how we could use trains and buses more efficiently by redistributing cargo and passengers and by getting trucks off the roads. At times, he oversimplifies: his idea for swapping batteries in electric cars to avoid long recharging times ignores the resources needed to make more than one set of batteries per car.
While Monbiot shows us technical possibilities, warts and all, he ultimately doesn’t reveal which measures he believes would actually constitute the least painful way forward. Maybe, having armed us with clearheaded, concise analysis, he wants us to think for ourselves.
Heat is a valuable contribution to defining both climate-change questions and answers. Indeed, Monbiot takes the ball way down the field by being the first to pose the question we should all be asking: what if we had to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as 90 percent by 2030?