George Monbiot is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper; author of several books on environmental issues, including Heat; and, for many years, one of the most prominent voices calling for action on global warming. On Tuesday evening, I asked him about COP15 and the environmental movement.
The Nation: What is the significance of the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia? How has it affected the political debate around global warming?
George Monbiot: What they do show is that there has been a less than open culture among some scientists, which is a disappointment to people like me, who require the science to be above repute in all respects. And that less than open culture has meant that they have prevented people from getting access to data. Science has got to be about openness and transparency. If it’s not open and transparent, it’s not science. It’s all about being able to check the sources, see that it stands up, fight over it, argue over it. If any scientist prevents that from happening, they are working against the scientific process.
That said: the claims that some people have made that this shows that all climate change is a fraud is just total nonsense. This involves a tiny subset of a subset of climate science. It’s one or two lines of evidence out of several hundred lines of evidence. It’s three or four scientists out of ten thousand scientists. And it’s just nonsensical to blow this up as many people have done.
I believe that as environmentalists we should be demanding that we can trust science completely; that there is no possibility that anyone would be hiding anything from the public. But at the same time, I am not persuaded that anything in those e-mails suggests that the science of climate change itself has been dented one bit.
The Nation: At a recent COP15 plenary session, a representative from the small island nation of Tuvalu asked why is it that action on global warming is being held hostage to a handful of U.S. Senators. What needs to happen in the U.S. to change this?
GM: The issue preventing climate change from being dealt with worldwide – and, indeed, preventing many other progressive and useful measures from being pursued – is the lack of effective campaign finance reform in the United States. While Senators can be bought and sold, while they can still be used as the playthings of energy companies, they are not going to bite the hand that feeds them. While people like James Inhofe can still take millions from oil and gas and other energy companies and – by pure coincidence – deny that climate change is taking place, we are not going to see any deal done that is in the interests of the world’s people. It’s obviously not just about climate change; it’s the same with health care; it’s the same with taxation; it’s the same with any progressive measure that you would seek to introduce. It’s blocked by people who are taking money from corporations whose interests would be threatened by that measure.
That’s not democracy; that’s plutocracy. It’s corruption. If that were taking place in Africa, we would call it by its name; we would call it corruption. But because it’s taking place in the United States of America we just call it politics. And that’s what we need to see in the United States. We need to see very large numbers of people rising behind the banner of thoroughgoing and comprehensive campaign finance reform because until that happens we cannot deal with any of these issues.
The Nation: COP15 negotiations are deadlocked at the moment over very fundamental issues. What needs to happen here and beyond Copenhagen to bring about the necessary change to address global warming?
GM: It’s fairly clear at the moment that COP15 is not going deliver anything like an agreement based on the science. At the very best case, it will deliver an agreement that would produce about 4° Celsius of global warming, which is a catastrophe. It is nowhere near the rigorous agreement required to deliver no more than 2° Celsius rise, let alone the 1.5 ° that many developing nations are now calling for. So barring some miracle, we can be pretty confident that we will come away from Copenhagen with the situation not resolved and not dealt with in any recognizable form.
We need, then, to produce a civil society response on a scale much greater than we have seen so far in order to see a climate mobilization far more sweeping and impressive than the mobilizations that have taken place to date. That means pulling together groups that are already involved – environmental groups, human rights organizations, trade unions – to have as broad-base a response as we possibly can to start putting pressure on governments.
It’s amazing to me, given the sheer scale of the problem of climate break down, given the enormity of the challenge we face, how few people have taken to the streets over it. We saw a hundred thousand in the streets of Copenhagen, which is a fantastic achievement, but in capital cities around the world – a few thousand here and there, maybe, occasionally, a few tens of thousands. It’s not enough by orders of magnitude. We need to see marches with a million people or more in them. We need to see governments shamed into delivering a deal which is commensurate with what the science tells us we need to do.