George Monbiot is one of the world's most influential radical thinkers. His website is listed by Yahoo! as the most popular columnist's site on earth, outside the United States. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian and he is the author of the bestselling books Captive State and The Age of Consent.
Mark Thwaite: Was it the fact that global warming still doesn't occupy a high enough place on the political agenda that made you want to write Heat?
George Monbiot: I noticed that while it was being discussed much more readily by politicians, they were - and still are - failing to get to grips with the scale of the cuts required. At the same time, they were - and still are - investing much of their efforts in false solutions (like biofuels, hydrogen cars and micro wind turbines) which are either ineffective or counter-productive. I wanted to determine exactly how great a carbon cut the science says we should make, then discover what the best and most realistic means of achieving it were. When I found that we require a 90% cut by 2030 to prevent runaway global warming, I realised it was a tall order, but I think I have demonstrated that it can be done, without bringing industrial civilisation to its knees.
MT: Since you wrote the book, have things changed for the better? Are little things like people re-using plastic bags a sign that the tide is turning?
GM: Welcome as this is, I fear it's a sign that people prefer tokenistic solutions to thorough ones. I know people who have stopped using plastic bags and buy only recycled toilet paper, but still fly to Thailand for their holidays. People aren't thinking systematically about the problem, and don't want to. I think our politicians have perceived that the public is sending them two conflicting signals: make extravagant promises about cutting greenhouse gases, then break them. We want to feel better about ourselves, but without having to give up any of the luxuries we enjoy.
MT: Is it just corporate special interests that makes some of the presentation of the science on global warming seem equivocal?
GM: This has certainly been a big factor. ExxonMobil in particular has spent tens of millions hiring people to cast doubt on the science. Many of them worked for the tobacco industry before, doing a similar job for cigarettes. They give themselves grand-sounding titles, but they are simply unscrupulous professional lobbyists. But many people have also wanted to believe them. We are in denial about climate change, just as we might be in denial about a serious illness or unpayable debts.
MT: How do you think the Channel 4 documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle, has effected the debate in the UK?
GM: I have lost count of the number of people who have written to me in confusion and consternation as a result of that programme. It used, in several instances, pure scientific fraud, and it is astonishing that it was broadcast. (You can read a debate I had with the man who commissioned it on my website.)
I made a programme for Channel 4 just a few days before. We were obliged to check and double check every fact it contained, and to make it clear that mine was a personal view. The Great Global Warming Swindle, by contrast, got even the most basic scientific facts wrong - in some cases deliberately - and used an anonymous voiceover to suggest that it was a straightforward, unbiased science programme. Why were the programme makers allowed to break every rule in the book in order to broadcast a concatenation of falsehoods?
MT: Should we go nuclear?
GM: No, for two reasons. While its carbon emissions are low, a new generation of nuclear power stations breaks the most fundamental environmental principle, taught to us from the moment we are old enough to understand it: you do not make a new mess until you have cleared up the old one. We still don't yet know what to do with the waste from the existing generation of power stations.
Also, all the countries that have acquired or sought to acquire nuclear weapons since the non-proliferation treaty was signed in 1968 have done so by diverting materials from their civil nuclear programmes. If we want a world without nuclear weapons, we must also want a world without nuclear power. We are in no position to tell Iran not to use fissile materials if we are launching a new atomic programme of our own.
MT: Your book is big on policy objectives, but a little dismissive of what we can do as individuals. Can we really leave remedying such an important issue as global warming to politicians?
GM: I don't by any means think we should leave it to politicians - we all need to act, but primarily as citizens, rather than consumers. Consumer power alone is useless. You can give up your car, but all you do is to create extra road space for someone to drive a less efficient car than you would have driven. Your decision becomes meaningful only if it is accompanied by a political campaign for the road space you release to be handed to pedestrians or cyclists or buses instead. You can replace your lightbulbs, but if you merely reduce the demand for electricity, making it cheaper, someone else will be burning more. We must keep demanding systematic environmental policies that apply to everyone.
MT: How do you write George? Longhand or directly onto a computer?
GM: I do just about everything on computer. Apart from books, we have an almost paper-free office. I find I can read about 600 pages of material a day on screen, and annotating and arranging it that way is much quicker - and less destructive - than printing the documents out and editing them on paper. I am amazed at the waste and inefficiency of many journalists, who seem unable to read a document unless it is in their hands.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
GM: I play with my daughter, take my kayak out to sea, walk in the hills. Living in mid-Wales means I get out more often than I used to.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
GM: No. I just write the book I would like to read.
MT: What are you working on now?
GM: I'm still quite exhausted from writing Heat, and from all the broken nights and bugs from the creche (my daughter is now 14 months old), so while I'm pretty sure what I will do next, I'm not going to start for a few months.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
GM: I'm a gluttonous reader, and I find this question very hard to answer. In the past month I've read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell and Balzac's The Black Sheep. They are all very good.