Kicking the Carbon Habit

‘Kicking the Carbon Habit: Global Warming and the Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy’ by William Sweet; Colmbia University Press, 2006. 239pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 30 June 2006

This is a remarkably detailed analysis of the evidence for climate change and the causal link between carbon emissions and global temperature rise. Starting from an acceptance of the famous Milankovitch cycles – identified in the 1930s which are episodic periods of glacial and interglacial cooling and warming caused by sun spot activity, orbital fluctuations and the earth’s axial tilt – he provides a welter of backup information to support the proposition that anthropogenic, or human-induced, carbon emissions are the substantive causal factor in the process. The fact that Milankovitch is regularly used by climate change skeptics as evidence of the pre-eminence of natural global changes, Sweet, by citing him, is showing us his credentials for fairness, before going on to explain why the more frequent climate variations simply cannot be explained away by these natural cyclical events.

In a thoroughly researched, highly detailed and somewhat academic barrage of facts and source material, lay-readers may be bludgeoned into submission. But, as the title suggests, this is not really a text book appraisal. ‘It’s assumed,’ says Sweet, ‘that anybody picking up the book up already senses that there’s something to worry about and would like to know how serious the problem is and whether there’s really anything we can do about it.’ This book then, is meant to give scientific resonance to those arguments for something to be done about global warming and he does not purport ‘to treat in an even-handed fashion all significant aspects of the problem.’

This is a shame because the entire book reads as if he has gone out of his way to be reasonable. It is one of the best books I’ve read for presenting the facts, looking at the mainstream advocates as well as giving voice to the critics and doubters. The investigative journalism and credible scientific collation of data is admirable and long overdue and, to all intents and purposes, Sweet has pulled together all the parts of the convoluted global warming jigsaw to make his case. From climatologists to ice core drillers, Sweet has tracked them down, interviewed them, developed a clear narrative and projected solutions; most notably his advocacy of nuclear technology as the best zero-CO2 alternative to current carbon-intensive technologies.

It is an impressive case. But after reading his proviso, some of it is worth questioning. For example, his assertion that air quality is a ‘public health disaster’ in developing regions of China, is, in one sense clearly true. However, not only is the definitive causal links between pollution and morbidity open to query (models frequently generalise from projected reduced mortality of elderly people with severe respiratory diseases estimating how many fewer days they live), but also he doesn’t situate the problem in the broader societal context. China’s impressive industrial advance in recent years, albeit via dirty industrial processes, currently ensures that more people are living better, longer lives, freed from the drudgery of pre-industrial poverty.

Sweet pushes his conviction that burning coal is ‘a pact with the devil’; and carbon reduction is the key to salvation. This position statement is presumed to have greater rhetorical weight because Sweet is – say it in hushed tones – an American. In the clichéd world of environmentalism Americans are supposed to be the baddies and true to type, he is bold enough not to pander to the car reduction fanaticism or European climate change lobbyists. His main policy agenda, however, is for a range of carbon taxes and other fiscal interventions to modify producer and consumer behaviours.

This fairly anodyne conclusion is, at least, devoid of the overt moral posturing that we see in climate debates in Britain (see the European Commission’s campaign, ‘Turn down. Switch off. Recycle. Walk’, which hectors individuals to modify their personal habits for the greater good). But without the benefit of sweeping moral certainty perfected in the European arena, the tension between Sweet’s political rhetoric and his logical scientific approach become apparent.

For example, his prediction that ‘the material foundations of whole civilisations are at stake’ and his statement that ‘predictions are by nature treacherous’ occur within four pages of one another. In a British polemical context, this sort of contradiction is commonplace, but in Sweet’s austere book, such logical leaps are too stark. That said, for those interested in open debate, this book is a surprisingly worthy contribution.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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