Monday, 4 February 2008

On the brink of collapse

Lester Brown has been warning of climatic catastrophe since the 1970s, and he believes we're running out of time, he tells Brian O'Connell .

The polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rat, oil production is almost at its peak and the question for Lester Brown is can civilisation be saved?

He is not so sure. For the best part of half a century, Brown has been documenting annual health checks on the planet in the 50 or so books on the environment he has authored to date. Since the 1970s, he has been regarded by many as one of the world's foremost environmental thinkers, and his thoughts on topics as diverse as climate change, the future of automobiles or how China will feed itself, populate academic shelves and general libraries the world over.

Brown created something of a stir in 2003 with the publication of Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilisation in Trouble. In it, he outlined his case for a renewable-energy-based, reuse-recycle economy spawning an adaptable transport system. It was time to build a new economy and a new world, he argued.

That was then, and four years later, Brown is back with another Plan B, entitled Mobilising to Save Civilisation, where he outlines his thoughts on how the planet can avert catastrophe. Optimists may want to turn away now.

"It is decision time," says Brown in the book. "Like earlier civilisations that got into environmental trouble, we have to make a choice." Saving civilisation, he argues, is not a spectator sport. "We have reached a point in the deteriorating relationship between us and the earth's natural systems where we all have to become political activists. Every day counts. We all have a stake in civilisation's survival."

You could argue that Brown's eco-anxiety has hit overdrive, yet speaking by phone from Washington (where he founded the Earth Policy Institute think-tank in the 1970s) Brown sounds very much like the environmental pragmatist. In his view, the biggest factor now working against the planet is time.

"There is this call for carbon emissions to be cut by 20 per cent by 2020, or in some quarters by 2050. I believe we don't have that much time. Things are moving so fast now, and it is really only in the last few months that this has become apparent, that I don't think we have ever witnessed anything on this scale before."

PART OF WHAT Brown argues in his new book, which is free to download online, is the potential effect a continued rise in temperature and melting of glaciers will have. For instance, if Greenland were to continue to fade away, then the subsequent seven-metre (23ft) rise in sea level will result in hundreds of millions of human refugees. The Tibetan Glacier, rescinding at a rate of 7 per cent a year, could result in the Ganges becoming a seasonal river, drying up at certain times of the year. The effect on the millions of people reliant on it for food and water would be unthinkable.

And Brown is not alone in his thinking. Last year respected UK environmentalist Mark Lynas outlined similar doomsday scenarios in his book Six Degrees. In it, Lynas illustrated degree-by-degree how large parts of the world will be made uninhabitable by the turn of the century if current trends continue. Ireland and the UK for instance, could expect summers on a par with North Africa by 2050, while flooding in winter will have disastrous effects on both coastlines.

"The book arose from the general sense of apocalypse that is prevalent in some quarters," says Lynas, "and the assumption that it might be just around the corner."

Brown reckons he has the answers. His new Plan B can avert global disaster, but only if governments and individuals sit up and take notice, he says.

Forget about Bali, or any other pan-national agreements, there simply isn't enough time. Given that oil production is close to peaking, the political story for the next decade will be that no country can get more oil unless another country gets less. So, in order for green energies to take the slack, Brown is calling for the type of mobilisation last seen when the US entered the second World War.

"What's required is an extraordinarily huge effort," says Brown. "In the US alone, a million and a half wind turbines need to be built generating three million megawatts of electricity. I don't think the political will is there yet to tackle this in the way it needs to be tackled. Tackling climate change is not going to succeed because of some global agreement, but because individual states start to unilaterally move ahead and take responsibility."

Others disagree though. Mark Lynas says that without global agreements, it will be very difficult to spark the rapid transformation Brown calls for. "Unless you have international agreement, there is the danger that free-riding states (such as the US at the moment) can gain competitive advantage by refusing to price carbon. So the international Bali roadmap process, due to conclude in 2009, is absolutely vital in order to eventually price carbon in all markets and in all countries," says Lynas.

Amid all the doom and gloom, there are some positive signs that certain governments are beginning to get serious about tackling climate change. Brown points to New Zealand and the recent steps taken by Helen Clarke and her government to cut carbon emissions significantly by 2020.

The first step is to increase the renewable share of electricity to 90 per cent, meaning that just 10 per cent of that country's electricity will derive from carbon-based fuels. The government has also outlined plans to cut automotive fuel use in half by 2040, and to plant half a million acres of trees by 2020. It's this type of radical thinking that is needed on a global scale, Brown argues.

SIMILARLY, IN IRELAND, there gave been recent moves, such as building regulations designed to improve energy efficiency by 40 per cent and the proposed incandescent light bulb. Lynas also points to the so-called "Cap and Share" idea, currently being considered by the Irish government. This is where money from auctioned carbon permits is returned to citizens in quarterly cheques.

"So even whilst petrol at the pump would go up in price to reflect carbon limitations," says Lynas, "people would find themselves no worse off, or even much better off if they switched to cycling, bus or rail. I think it is true that we need a radically new approach, such as Brown calls for, but we need to do it within existing institutions and via the market - there is no time to reinvent human civilisation in order to avoid this crisis."

Speaking at the MacGill summer school last July, the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, shared the immediacy of the situation: "Global warming threatens not just our quality of life, but the very survival of this planet and we who live on it. If global warming is allowed to continue unchecked, the sheer scale of potential disruption and destruction of people and the environment is almost beyond comprehension."

The kernel of Brown's plan to avert the crisis is for an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, a radical advancement on the 20 per cent reduction by 2020 outlined by the EU.

After that, it's a matter of stabilising world populations, restoring the ecosystem, such as fisheries and soils, and thereby preserving the planet for future generations.

"I'm fully convinced that the future of civilisation is at stake," says Brown. "If we look at how many states in the world are beginning to unravel, most clearly in Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, then you get a sense of where we could be headed. Seventeen of the top 20 failing states have a growth rate of between 2 and 3.5 per cent a year, which is not enough to sustain their growing populations.

"And the move to biofuels is driving up food prices, which leaves the price of grain now linked directly to the price of oil. Unless someone can intervene to restrict the amount of grain converted to fuel for cars, this trend looks set to continue."

Asked if he is more or less optimistic about the chances to avert a global crisis, Brown sounds uncertain. The frustrating aspect for him is that we now have the technology to tackle climate change, unlike decades ago when he first began highlighting the problem.

"The technology is now there to build a new economic system which can sustain progress without damaging the earth's system. It's a matter now of getting people to understand the urgency of the situation and tackling this problem hands-on."

Plan B 3.0: Mobilising to Save Civilisation can be downloaded free at

The Irish Times

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