There is no Planet B: how do we stop climate change?

How do we stop climate change? Nancy Lindisfarne assesses The Burning Question.

smoke sky

Photo: Mikael Miettinen, flickr

The Burning Question: We Can’t Burn Half the World’s Oil, Coal and Gas. So How Do We Quit?

Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark, 2013
ISBN 9781781250457
From £6.99 ‑ £9.99


There are now plenty of books about climate change. This is a measure of two things: that many people now understand the urgency of the climate crisis, and they also understand how, systematically, over the past thirty years the people who rule the world have failed to act to avert it. The physics of climate change is inexorable. There is only one remedy – to reduce global carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels radically and without delay. The technology for doing this is available. What is lacking is political will at the top. And this in turn means ordinary folk like us feel overwhelmed and helpless as we try to make sense of the Alice in Wonderland world where there is a fracking rush for fossil fuels and dishonesty dominates the media and the claptrap of politicians.

For these reasons reading about climate change is not easy. But difficult or not, the topic of climate change is of direct importance to each and every one of us, so we can either decide on the ostrich option, or turn gratefully to books where both the science and politics are discussed with clarity and courage.

Among recent books the place to start is with The Burning Question published in 2013. Mike Berners-Lee, an energy expert, and Duncan Clark, an environmental journalist with The Guardian, don’t mince words. Their argument focuses on the notion of a carbon budget. We know that over the last two centuries – the period of the industrial revolution – emissions from carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal, oil and gas have already warmed our earth by about 0.8 of a degree centigrade. We now see the worrying changes of that warming on every side. Climate scientists agree that unless we keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade, we are likely to face runaway climate change which will mean fierce storms, drought, flooding, agricultural failure, environmental disaster and enormous human tragedy.

The earth’s atmosphere cannot handle more than one trillion tons of CO2 in total and stay below 2 degrees centigrade of warming. This means we shall overspend – twice over – what we have left in our carbon budget if we burn the coal, gas and oil that is currently available in commercial reserves. So Berners-Lee and Clark’s message is simple, and the same as the Reclaim the Power chant: “Leave the oil in the soil, leave coal in the hole, leave the tar sands in the land”.
Like the autonomists and socialists who want “System Change, not Climate Change”, Berners-Less and Clark are also acutely aware of what is stopping a move toward the sanity of renewable energy: the seeming impossibility of overcoming the fossil fuel interests which dominate our world. This is where the short-term, Alice in Wonderland, madness comes in. With the move to sustainable energy, fuel-rich nations face the greater economic loses than others, and energy companies use their wealth to dominate the national politics of those same nations, which tells us that the carbon capitalists, and their pocket politicians, care nothing for their children, nor have any sense of stewardship of the earth whatsoever. They make the mistake of many wealthy people and imagine their money will protect them from the drastic effects of runaway climate change, as if their clean water, food, electricity and security won’t depend, like those of everybody else, on peace and an infrastructure that works.

The subtitle of book – “We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?” – asks the burning question. Berners-Lee and Clark take us through a range of tactics and strategies might work to force the carbon giants and their political minions to stop burning fossil fuels. Part 3, “What’s stopping us?” is the heart of the politics of the book. They consider the question of writing off the value of fossil fuels and deal with the hard facts of who owns the fossil fuels and who stands to lose if there is a carbon revolution. They also unpick the distracting arguments for and against growth in the process of changing to sustainable energy. Most usefully, they consider the psychological arguments which blinker and paralyse us from acting, before discussing the problems with sharing.

The authors also consider how we might ramp up political pressure: on the streets, perhaps through the courts through Bill McKibben’s campaign group – They particularly favour divestment campaigns which ask individuals, and more importantly, pension fund managers, banks, universities and churches to move their money out of fossil fuels. Divestment makes moral and financial sense, and in both North America and in the UK, such campaigns are a new way of drawing public attention to climate issues.

But though they talk about Roosevelt and the New Deal, in the end they shy away from the answering the key question implicit in all they write: How can get back to their Keynesian world where national governments have the power, independence and determination to confront the threat of climate change head on? What is needed to change our energy economy is the strictest regulation of, and the eventual end to, the power of the carbon corporations. But the move to a sustainable energy system cannot, and will not, happen without centralized planning and the nationalization of, at the very least, a new smart electricity grid and the rail system and wholesale government investment in renewable energy. These are not outlandish expectations: they were absolutely mainstream in Britain throughout the second half of the 20th century. They are expectations not different from having a National Health Service, or a universal system of public education, or national system of roads and motorways, or a national army and navy. (The One Million Climate Jobs campaign ( sets out how this can be done in Britain. The campaign is backed by a number of unions and the Green Party, and is a charter which, for the next election, the Labour party could, if it so minded, easily adopt as well.)

But what has changed is the dominant political rhetoric which now routinely stigmatizes the centralized, but transparent and accountable organization of the welfare state. Berners‑Lee and Clark of course know this, but in the end, they don’t quite say it. This leaves readers with middle-range tactics about how to best raise awareness of climate issues. I take as a given that constant and continuous climate activism of all kinds is absolutely essential. And certainly as long as we don’t lose sight of the urgent need for radical change when we join a low carbon group, or become a guerrilla gardener, or concern ourselves with waste and recycling, or cycling not flying, each of these middle range tactics is valuable in and of itself. But neither will such middle range projects save the planet, yet there are now many committed climate activists in Britain who have decided that all they can do is to act locally and fervently hope that their modest interventions, in their incremental millions, will bring about a climate revolution in time.

So the real burning question is how do we change the system? Read The Burning Question for its clear, sane account of climate science and carbon capitalism. Read it too in anticipation – to have the background to read critically two important new books due out in the early autumn: Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate looks likely to argue for system change and a climate revolution, an argument made more strongly by John Cowsill in Safe Planet.

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