Could Climate Change Topple Modern Civilization?

Lester Brown, president and founder of the Earth Policy Institute, argues for an aggressive increase in renewable energy production, better energy-efficiency standards and a return to human-centered urban design in his latest book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Next up, we're going to talk a little bit more about wind turbines - but not how they affect bats; how they affect humans, maybe helping us out of a climate change pickle. The Senate is considering a climate change bill, the Boxer-Kerry Bill, that aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions 20 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. And those percentages are based on 2005 emission levels.

Some environmental groups are applauding this, but my next guest proposes a far more ambitious target. He wants an 80 percent cut by 2020, not 2050. Sound impossible? Maybe it's more straightforward than we think, because there may be simple solutions that we're overlooking. And can we move - can we actually move that fast?

Joining me now to talk about is my guest - you know him - Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization." He's also founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. Welcome back to the program.

Dr. LESTER BROWN (Founder and President, Earth Policy Institute): Glad to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: What do you think of that bill up there on the Hill?

Dr. BROWN: Well, I have mixed feelings about it. And I think those feelings derive from the fact that on the Hill, as in other situations around the world where political leaders are looking at this issue, one of the first questions they ask is what is politically feasible? What will my constituents support? If instead of asking the question about political feasibility, we talk about scientific reality, then the question becomes how much and how fast do we have to cut carbon emissions if, for example, we want to save the Greenland ice sheet? Or how much and how fast do we have to close coal-powered power plants if we want to save the glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau whose ice melt sustains the major rivers of Asia during the dry season?

When you ask the latter question, then it becomes clear that we do not have very much time, we have to move quickly. And that's why we talk about cutting carbon emissions 80 percent, not by 2050 but by 2020.

FLATOW: How can we do that?

Dr. BROWN: Well, there are any number of things that we can do. One, there's an enormous amount of wind energy in the world. You mentioned in the earlier introduction to the bats segment that we have overtaken Germany in terms of both total wind generating capacity and in annual installations. I think that was about three years ago.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: But we're about to be overtaken by China. And the interesting thing about the U.S. and China, the two biggest economies in the world right now and the two principal sources of carbon emissions, is that each has an abundance of wind energy. In this country, we've known for nearly 20 years now that three states - North Dakota, Kansas and Texas - have enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy not only national electricity needs but national energy needs. That is to say we have an enormous amount of wind energy. In China...

FLATOW: Lester, let me just interrupt to remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, talking with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 4.0," about wind energy. I'm sorry to interrupt, Lester. Go on. You were talking about China.

Dr. BROWN: No problem. Incidentally, "Plan B 4.0" is online at earthpolicy.org. It can be downloaded free of charge.

FLATOW: No kidding.

Dr. BROWN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Wow. You do feel strongly about this.

Dr. BROWN: Yeah. And it's interesting, people think this must reduce sales. In fact, it increases sales.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BROWN: Just between the two of us.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. BROWN: The - there was a joint U.S.-China study that appeared in Science just a few weeks ago, pointing out that the Chinese now know that they have enough harnessable wind energy to increase their current electricity consumption seven times. So, in both of these countries there is an abundance of wind energy. And we're beginning to see the Chinese move very fast. They were latecomers to the wind energy field, but they have been doubling their wind electric generation each year for the last four years, and probably will do so again this year. We're seeing thinking on the development of wind resources that we couldn't have imagined just a couple of years ago.

FLATOW: But Lester, from what I read in articles, in particular one recent Wall Street Journal article, it says that while China is building all these wind turbines, they're also building these coal-fired power plants as backups to wind turbines. Doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose?

Dr. BROWN: Well, that's not entirely the case, though there is an element of that here of course. What has happened in China is that their sort of business-as-usual that's been doubling wind-generated electricity output each year for the last four years has now suddenly mushroomed into something even bigger with the nationally developed plan developed by - and I think coordinated by the National Development Resources Commission. I believe it now - it's a cabinet-level body in China, has a lot of authority and influence to sort of cut through things and get them done.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: But they are planning and have actually begun some construction on at least one, if not more, of six wind mega complexes, with each of these complexes having between 10 and 30,000 megawatts of generating capacity. I mean, just to put that in perspective, it totals over 100,000 megawatts. I mean, think 100 coal-fired power plants in terms of actual electricity output.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: It is huge. We've not seen anything like this before. And in that situation where they're moving so fast on wind, one, they're having trouble building the transmission capacity fast enough to keep up with the wind farm construction. And two, when you suddenly have a lot of wind coming into the system, you need to be able to take care of intermittencies. Now, in this...

FLATOW: Hang on - hang on there for a second, Lester, because we have to take a break. And we're talking with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 4.0." Stay with us. We'll come back and take your questions. We'll talk more with Lester after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization." Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

Lester, so far we've talked a lot about the growth of wind power. Is wind power central to your mobilization to save civilization?

Dr. BROWN: It is. It is one of the keys to backing out coal-fired power plants. And the reason it is is because, one, it's widely distributed. It's extraordinarily abundant, and it scales up quickly. One can build a wind farm in 12 months. It may take years to build a nuclear power plant, for example, even if they were economically feasible.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: So we see wind - and basically we're looking at a situation where today the world gets 40 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants - we see wind supplying 40 percent of electricity by 2020.

FLATOW: What about solar? We're seeing huge solar farms, out in the Mojave, other places around the world with the solar thermal energy.

Dr. BROWN: Solar thermal energy is going to play an important role, and it's growing by leaps and bounds. The most interesting solar-thermal project, if you will, is one that has come alive in Europe just in the last few months. For, I would guess, close to 20 years now, the Club of Rome has been promoting the idea of harnessing the solar energy in North Africa to generate electricity for transmission to Europe by undersea cable. What's happened there is that Munich Re - Munich Reinsurance, which is one of the world's largest reinsurance companies and therefore very much concerned about climate change, has put together a consortium of a dozen companies including Deutsche Bank, Siemens, ABB and several other large companies to develop a strategy and a financial plan to harness the solar energy of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. A German research firm has pointed out that it's entirely economic to consider Europe getting half of its electricity from solar thermal power plants in North Africa.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. BROWN: Now, the Algerians were already building - I think they've completed the first plant, working on the second. And they have an agreement with Germany that sort of precedes this much larger project. They point out that in the desert of Algeria, which is most of the country, they have enough harnessable solar energy to power the world economy.

Now, that sounds like a mistake, but it's not because that basic point appears in the energy literature when it's pointed out that the sunlight striking the Earth in an hour has enough energy to run the world economy for a year. So it's a fascinating situation where we have not so much governments focusing on this, but corporations who look at it as an investment opportunity. And from Munich Re's point of view, as an insurance policy against climate change.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, how much - and here's a question from P.R. Mathis(ph) coming from "Second Life," how much of the time lag in these technologies is a factor of politics, resources, and how much is technology? And I'm thinking about our country where it seems that the politics are so polarized now that even talking about alternative energies, it's, you know, it's one side versus the other instead of saying, we're all in this together. How are you going to move anything forward like that?

Dr. BROWN: Well, things are moving much faster than perhaps most Americans realize. The state of Texas, for example, which for the last century has been our leading source of oil, is now our leading source of wind-generated electricity. They have 8,000 megawatts in production, another couple of thousand megawatts in construction and a whole bunch beyond that...

FLATOW: They just flipped the switch yesterday, didn't they? In a huge...

Dr. BROWN: Oh, on probably the - I think, it's the largest wind farm in the world…

FLATOW: Yeah. And it wasn't T. Boone Pickens who did it, either.

Dr. BROWN: That's right. It was a German firm actually, E.ON, that is the principal player on that wind farm.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. BROWN: But when you add these up, and this has been done by an energy research firm, it comes out to over 50,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity in operation, under construction and in development. That is more than enough to satisfy the electricity needs of the 24 million people who live in Texas. I mean, 50,000 megawatts is like 50 coal-fired power plants.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: So it's huge. And the interesting thing is that the people making the investments there are not doing it because of, you know, Copenhagen is coming or because they're trying to meet Kyoto goals or what have you in the past. They're doing it because it makes sense economically to tap the enormous wealth of wind in Texas. So we're going to see that in other places as well.

One of the things that is giving solar-thermal power plants such a dramatic boost - these are power plants where mirrors concentrate sunlight on a container with water or some other liquid to produce steam and generate electricity - is that they've come up with a technology for storing heat when the sun is brightest during the middle of the day using a molten-salt technology, most commonly. And that then permits the electric generators to keep going after the sun goes down for several hours, up until midnight or so, and to carry through the peak evening load. So that makes solar-thermal power plants much more appealing because their output begins to mesh very nicely with the daily cycle of peak needs.

FLATOW: So do I hear you saying that this gradual move to either solar-thermal or wind is a regional kind of thing? There's not going to be a national grid that hooks them all together?

Dr. BROWN: That's what we're talking about and looking at. That's what President Obama has said we need. That's what Steven Chu says we need to be working toward. And the interesting thing, if you look at wind power, for example, if you have a national grid with hundreds of wind farms, maybe even thousands, spread across the country, you actually have a rather stable source of electricity because no two wind farms have identical wind profiles. So the more wind farms you have, the more stable and the less fluctuation there is in the electricity supply. And it also would enable us to link the rich wind resources of the Great Plains with the Midwest and other areas that need electricity and to harness the enormous solar-thermal power resources in the Southwestern states.

FLATOW: Wouldn't we have to rebuild the grid, though, the electric grid to make this happen...

Dr. BROWN: Yes.

FLATOW: ...at the same time as we're building the solar and wind power farms?

Dr. BROWN: Yes. The answer is yes. And it's very much like the situation in the 1950s when President Eisenhower launched the construction of the Interstate Highway System which we take for granted today. But back then, there were not that many highways, you know, that were where you could drive long distances very smoothly. There were a lot of states sort of patched together, but each state was responsible for its own. And then, we didn't - we really didn't have a good system and then today we do. And so, we're in a very similar situation now with the electricity grid. We need to get beyond the local situation and integrate into a national grid.

FLATOW: But is that the plan? Is that what the - that we have as a plan or is it just an idea?

Dr. BROWN: Well, it's an idea but we're seeing pieces of it begin to take shape.

FLATOW: And who needs to lead this thing then if you want it to get it to work?

Dr. BROWN: It needs to be coordinated from Washington, and simply because to get an efficient national grid, you have to do it at the national level. You can't put pieces together from different states.

FLATOW: But your contention is that we can do this a lot faster than people think we can, we have the parts, you know, all you need is - you have the wind, all you need is the will to get this done.

Dr. BROWN: That's right. That's a good slogan: We've got the wind, now we need the will. The - it's a little bit like the situation in this country just before we entered World War II. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, then the whole country mobilized and we restructured the U.S. industrial economy, not in decades, not in years but in a matter of months.

And Roosevelt set these extraordinary arms production goals, for example, in a State of the Union Address in early January 1942. And what we have not yet quite fully realized is how serious the climate threat is and what it could translate into. And that's where I think we're going to - that's where the acceleration is going to come when we begin to realize that sea level is rising and that it is threatening coastal cities and communities, for example.

I mean, what we're looking at is the possibility, in thinking in terms of economic indicators, that real estate prices in coastal regions, low-lying coastal regions, could be falling, you know, could be plummeting when real estate prices in the interior of the country could be soaring as people start moving. I noticed that last year, Florida lost 28,000 people, for example, which is the first time that's happened, probably, in half a century. But that's an indication of - just an early indication of the kinds of population shifts we're going to see on a large scale if we stay with business as usual.

FLATOW: Do we - are we going to have to break the gridlock in Washington to do this?

Dr. BROWN: Well, circumstances have a way of doing that and - in thinking about World War II, for example. I mean, the thing that really changed Washington was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It changed everything.

FLATOW: So you're saying we need some major event that drives home the point?

Dr. BROWN: But not so major that it's catastrophic. The...

FLATOW: Just saying the ice melting in the North Pole is not enough.

Dr. BROWN: Well, if that leads to a dramatic warming in the Arctic region as it appears to be doing as the summer ice disappears, then we're looking at some fairly dramatic melting of the Greenland ice sheet. And that would wake us up when we begin to realize what's happening there.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BROWN: In thinking about social change in the last chapter of "Plan B 4.0," I talk about three models, and very quickly, one is what I call the Pearl Harbor model where there's a catastrophic event that triggers an enormous change.

The second is the Berlin Wall model where you have a gradually rising opposition to a political system that suddenly reaches a tipping point, and the sort of the visual tipping point was the Berlin Wall coming down. But what was behind that was a political revolution that changed the form of every government in Eastern Europe but essentially without bloodshed. I mean, it was a remarkable thing. It was not anticipated.

The third model I call the sandwich model, social change, where you have strong grassroots support for change and then change at the top in the national leadership. And I'm hoping that that's what we now have in the United States, and if we do then we'll see some fairly rapid change in the years ahead.

FLATOW: Lester, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. BROWN: My pleasure, Ira.

FLATOW: Good luck. Always great to talk to you. Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization." I'm Ira Flatow and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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