Surviving the Century: Facing Climate Chaos and Other Global Challenges

  • Herbert Girardet
Earthscan: 2007. 208 pp. £17.99

A decade ago many involved in climate issues hoped it was a problem that the world would find relatively easy to conquer; the causes would be identified and mechanisms devised to reduce carbon emissions. With proper direction from a mixture of careful subsidies for low-carbon technologies and increased pollution taxes, the free market would eventually rein in our burgeoning greenhouse-gas emissions. But it hasn't turned out this way. Hopes of a strong and coordinated international approach have all but disappeared as most countries will fail to meet even the limited demands for emissions reductions imposed by the Kyoto Protocol.

Herbert Girardet's new book Surviving the Century: Facing Climate Chaos and Other Global Challenges brings together an eclectic mix of the initial optimists, from campaigning US journalist Ross Gelbspan to the German renewable energy pioneer Hermann Scheer. Containing a restrained but deeply felt passion, this book combines wisdom with an intense idealism about how mankind can make the radical changes necessary to deal with the issues that threaten our very existence.

At root, the authors argue, climate change is not a technical or scientific problem. The main impediment to tackling global warming is that many of the powerful institutions of the world, whether it be the World Trade Organization, BP or the investment banks that control the world's allocation of capital are resistant to radically changing the way we operate the world economy. The poor, whose share of world income is certainly not growing, are unable to successfully demand that policies be developed to protect them from climate change or from other environmental or economic disasters.

Large companies, the theory goes, are threatened by actions to reduce emissions. The oil and gas industry will suffer if the world moves to renewable energy. Monsanto's profits will fall if we switch from industrial agriculture back to low-input farming methods. The Brazilian government will lose elections if it resists attempts to turn more of the rainforest into soy farms and cattle ranches. Freely operating markets, the book says, do not solve difficult problems. Markets concentrate power, rather than dispersing it, with the result that the success of global capitalism over the last twenty years has produced an elite of immense power and wealth. Aggressive action on climate change threatens this power, and is being resisted at every turn. The core thesis of the book, highlighted by Frances Moore Lappé's analysis of the intertwining of democracy with free market economics, is that many of the world's most intractable problems are only solvable if we reduce the power of the global elite, whose influence is holding back any attempt to restructure the world's economic system.

But, rather than being merely a diatribe against the institutions of corrupted global capitalism, this is a far more nuanced and hopeful work. Most of the discussion is given over to proposals for substantial actions to remedy the world's bias towards using fossil fuels. Michael Braungart looks at how industrial processes can be re-engineered with fairness and ecological awareness. He points out that the most productive and efficient economies, judged in the conventional sense, are often the most wasteful and destructive. Herbert Girardet extols the virtues of the first city to be built with environmental issues firmly in mind. It is nevertheless worth pointing out that the world's first eco-city, in Dongtan, East Asia still has an ecological footprint larger than can be sustained, and is but one of a huge number of new urban centres rising across China.

Of the eight excellent essays in this book, I think the one that should most attract our attention is Paul Bunyan's work on the Amazon rainforest. Even those who know little about global warming are becoming dimly aware of the role of this enormous area on the world's climate. International treaties, including Kyoto, have failed to recognize the importance of tropical forests both as carbon sinks and as stabilizers of our weather systems. The maintenance of the forest depends on high rainfall, which largely comes from the evapotranspiration of rainfall elsewhere in the forest. Deforestation may cause diminished rainfall and eventual disruption of the Hadley cell circulation, changing the world's climate system in potentially catastrophic ways. And deforestation is, to reprise the core theme of this book, carried out “by just a handful of Brazilians” eager to use the land for soy and cattle. This elite, and other similar groups across the world, hold the world's fate in their hands.

But the reader cannot take much comfort from this book: the chances of its sensible recommendations being adopted by those in authority are low. Progress at weaning the world off its reliance on fossil fuels will continue to be blocked by those who benefit from the persistent under-pricing of carbon.

Chris Goodall is the author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life: The Individual's Guide to Stopping Climate Change.