UXBRIDGE, Canada, Oct 7 2009 (IPS)
Lester Brown says his views sometimes appear extreme – because the mainstream media largely doesn’t understand the urgency and challenges in avoiding catastrophic climate change.
The founder and president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, he is also considered by many to be one of the world’s most influential thinkers.
“It looks like I’m a radical because the mainstream media aren’t reflecting the reality of our situation,” Brown says.
A farmer from the eastern U.S. state of New Jersey, Brown entered the U.S. Civil Service in the 1960s, becoming an expert on foreign agricultural policy before leaving to found the Worldwatch Institute in 1974.
The winner of many awards and honourary degrees, Brown is the author of 50 books. In 2001, he founded the Earth Policy Institute to provide a roadmap for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy.
His most recent book is “Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization”, the fourth and perhaps most urgent version of the Plan B series, available for download at the institutes’s website. In Plan 4.0, Brown calls for carbon emissions cuts of 80 percent by 2020.
“We cannot afford to let the planet get much hotter,” he explains simply.
IPS environmental correspondent Stephen Leahy recently spoke with Brown on the launch of his new book.
LESTER BROWN: Political leaders look at how much of a cut in emissions is politically feasible. At the Earth Policy Institute, we looked at how much of a cut is necessary to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change.
Already the massive Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are melting at accelerating rates. If they melt completely, it would raise sea levels by 12 metres (39 feet). Mountain glaciers around the world are shrinking and at risk of disappearing, including those in the mountains of Asia whose ice melt feeds the continent’s major rivers during the dry season.
To stabilise the climate and keep future global temperature rise to a minimum we need to keep the concentration of CO2 (carbon dioxide) to 400 parts per million.
IPS: Is such a huge global reduction in emissions even possible?
LB: It will take a worldwide mobilisation at wartime speed. First, investing in energy efficiency will allow us to keep global energy demand from increasing. Switching lighting to LEDs (light emitting diodes) and use of smart sensors like motion detectors could reduce the amount of electricity used in lighting by 90 percent.
Then we can cut carbon emissions by one-third by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources for electricity and heat production. In a few years time, Texas will quadruple its wind energy output to 8,000 megawatts. And it plans to grow to 40,000 megawatts, the equivalent of 50 coal-fired power plants. The rate of change is breathtaking.
A further 14 percent cut in emissions would come from restructuring our transportation systems and reducing coal and oil use in industry. Ending net deforestation worldwide can cut CO2 emissions another 16 percent. Last, planting trees and managing soils to sequester carbon can absorb 17 percent of our current emissions.
None of these initiatives depends on new technologies. We know what needs to be done to reduce CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2020. All that is needed now is leadership.
IPS: Most people, including our political leaders, don’t seem to feel any sense of urgency or danger about climate change. What will motivate this wartime mobilisation?
LB: Change is happening already and it’s accelerating. Carbon emissions in the U.S. are down nine percent this year and it’s not just due to the recession. I doubt that a new coal plant will be built in the U.S. in future – 22 are being closed or converted this year alone. When rising sea levels become more evident, then people will act.
This is bit like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. There were years of widespread discontent before the fall that festered and engaged many people at the local level and then seemingly overnight there is a political revolution that changes everything. We are moving towards this kind of tipping point.
IPS: What other signs do you see that we are reaching a tipping point?
LB: I see a change in socialising patterns. At one time, getting a driver’s license or owning a car was the key to social interactions for young people. That’s changing. In Japan, socialisation now happens through the internet and new car sales are in decline. Even in America, the car fleet is shrinking and bike use is going up.
I also see a lot of value searching going on: what are the health affects of cars and our commuting lifestyles? How can we build complete streets with sidewalks, bike lanes that are safe for everyone? The economic downturn has also shifted thinking, I think we will emerge as a much less materialistic society.
IPS: Will this be enough to restructure the world’s economies?
LB: I don’t know. In the end, the race to save civilisation is between social-political and natural tipping points.
For full story see Q&A: “We Can’t Afford to Let the Planet Get Much Hotter”