IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

And for the rest of the hour, a look at the state of our planet, something like an annual check up on planet Earth actually, because my next guest has been charting the relative health of Earth and its systems at least since the 1970s when he founded the Worldwatch Institute.

In his career, Lester Brown has coauthored or authored over 50 books on topics ranging from "Who Will Feed China," which he wrote in the '90s, to the "Future of the Automobile." And those two things - feeding China, fueling our cars - are related as Lester Brown will tell you. He's been warning all these years that if we turn corn into fuel, food prices are going to go up and they have. He's warned us that once oil hit a $100 a barrel that would be a turning point, too. Well, it has. And now, what should we expect?

Lester Brown is here to answer that question and lots of others. He's the founder and president, as I say, of the Earth Policy Institute. His new book is called "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization." And he joins us from Washington.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. LESTER BROWN (Founder and President, Earth Policy Institute; Author, "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization"): Ira, it's great to be here.

FLATOW: Well, it hit a $100 a barrel, now what do we expect?

Dr. BROWN: If I knew the answer, then I wouldn't be here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BROWN: The pressures are clearly upward on oil prices and it will be fluctuating for sure, but there's a - there's growing evidence now that world oil production may, in fact, already have peaked. If not, it's probably not going to increase much more. And this will introduce an era so different from the one that we've all grown up in. That it's hard to imagine.

For example, when oil production is no longer increasing, no country can get more oil unless another gets less. And that, in a sense, is going to be the political storyline, as we move in to the post peak oil period, whether it's next year or a few years down the road. It's going to be forcing us to rethink so many things, every dimension of our lives - from transportation to diet to housing and - in a way that we never had to think before.

And the thing that surprises me is the extent to which various industries and even international financial institutions keep projecting economic growth into the future, as though, it's going to continue in much the same way that it has in the past. One looks, for example, at the airlines industry, and they're projecting, I think, a 7 percent growth in air travel from now until 2020 or so. But if peak oil is here or getting close, we're probably not going to see anything like that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BROWN: Because again, in a world where oil production is no longer increasing, no sector can get more oil unless another gets less. And we're not at all prepared at the national level in almost any country to cope with this, this new reality.

FLATOW: What are some of the, and I know in your book, this is sort of a rewrite, that it's sort of taking the temperature of the Earth. You're advising - you're not advising, you're sort of saying we have to do things that we may not like to do.

Mr. BROWN: Well, we're faced with an enormous amount of change in the years immediately had and the question is will that be a designed, orderly changed or will it be more chaotic sort of change, as we now see in the growing lists of failing countries. We're in a situation where the number of failing states in the world is increasing each year. And one of the principal reasons for that is there's a growing backlog of unresolved problems that are putting, that is putting more and more stress on governments and the weaker governments are simply beginning to break down. Within the developing countries, where most the failing states are, one of the causes of this is continuing rapid population.

If you look at the 20 top countries on the list of failing states, 17 of them have reached a population growth between two and three and a half percent per year. And just to remind ourselves of the arithmetic, a population that's growing at three percent per year multiplies 20-fold in a century. I mean, it sounds like a mathematical error, but unfortunately it's not. So we have a number of countries now who have developed enough to lower mortality, but not enough to lower fertility, they're in what demographers call the demographic trap, where rapid population growth begets poverty, poverty begets rapid population growth.

And countries cannot stay in this area over the long term. They either will figure out how to break out of it or they will begin breaking down and what we're now beginning to see is a substantial number beginning to break down because of land scarcity, soil erosion, deforestation, water shortages and inability to build schools fast enough, an inability to expand food production fast enough.

So these stresses are beginning to manifest, manifest themselves in the growing number of state failures, but we also now have three major new stresses on governments that are just emerging. One is associated with peak oils we've just noted and then the very high-price of oil and we may, in a matter of years, look at a hundred dollar a barrel of oil as cheap oil. So these put stress particularly on low and middle-income countries.

And then we have the effort particularly in the United States to convert a growing share of the U.S. grain harvest into fuel for cars. And this is driving up world grain prices and world food prices. In effect, what we have is a situation where the - because we can now convert grain, in effect, into oil, actually into ethanol, the price of grain is tied to the price of oil. Because if the food value of a commodity is less than its fuel value, the market will move that commodity into the fuel economy.

So we have this unique competition we've never seen before between people who own cars, 860 million, and the two billion poorest people in the world competing for the same grain supplies. This is from a moral and political point of view. An entirely new sort of issue the world is facing and we're having trouble grasping it and addressing it. And the third thing, of course, is the fallout from climate change.

So we have three - whether it's droughts or heat waves or floods or rising sea level or what have you - so we have these new stresses on governments now. And the risk is that the number of failing states will continue increasing and the culmination of that risk, of course, is that if you have enough failing states, then civilization itself begins to break down. So the stakes now are very high in terms of what we need to be doing and the consequences of failing to take the needed actions.

FLATOW: Talking with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization." And in your chapter on mobilizing and the great mobilization, you say things have gotten so bad that you say, forget about the Kyoto Treaty, global warming-wise, that's not - that's not even going to save us. We have to take even more draconian methods of saving the planet.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. The idea of negotiating another successor to the Kyoto Protocol and then waiting some years for enough countries to ratify it for it to take effect would take so much time that the game might well be over even before it was ratified. So, I think, if we're going to make it, it's going to be because individual governments begin to step forward and take major steps.

FLATOW: What are - let's name some of those steps, what steps?

Mr. BROWN: Well, let me use a concrete example of New Zealand where they have taken three steps so far in their effort to cut carbon emissions and to maybe someday be carbon-neutral as Prime Minister Helen Clark describes it. One is they are going to increase the renewable energy share of their electricity supply, which is already quite high at 70 percent to 90 percent by 2020.

A second is they're going to cut automotive fuel use in half by 2040. A third thing there they've decided to do is to plant over half a million acres of trees. In a country with four million or so people, it comes to 31 trees for every person in the country. That's a lot of carbon fixation. Now they've just decided to take these steps on their own and they have several more coming there in the plate line being worked on.

But they haven't said we'll do it if Australia does it or if the United States does it or if the rest of the world does it, they're just doing it. And that's probably the way it's going to have to be done and we're seeing some encouraging examples of that coming from within the United States from state governments, for example. We see California moving ahead very aggressively to increase energy efficiency and develop renewable sources of energy. And they haven't said, we're going to do this if the other 49 states do it. They're just doing it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

MR. BROWN: In Texas, somewhat surprisingly, we have a governor and a state legislature working together to develop - to put together a program to develop 23,000 megawatts of wind energy. That's…

FLATOW: Yeah, that's an amazing story down there.

MR. BROWN: That's - I mean, you know, think 23 coal-fired power plants. This is an amazing development. Or in the U.K., just in the last few weeks, we've had the minister of business - in this country we'd call him probably the Secretary of Commerce - say, we need to build, we want to build 35,000 megawatts of wind-generated electricity offshore.

Now, people worry about the offshore view and so forth. He said, you know, this is something we're going to have to get used to. We're going to have wind turbines probably every half mile off our coast. But when you think about it, the alternative is not to have a coastline there, because if we keep spilling out carbon emissions on such a huge scale, the temperature is going to go up, ice will keep melting and sea level will rise.

So we're beginning to see interesting steps now. We have Algeria, for example, deciding to build 6,000 megawatts of solar thermal power plants in the desert, and to export that electricity to Europe by cable. They see the day when their oil is going to be gone and they expect to replace it with, in effect, the exports of solar energy in the form of electricity to Europe.

So we're seeing some dramatic advances. Another one in Germany - very - also very recently, in just the last few weeks, I think it's by January 1st, 2009, all new buildings will have to have - including homes - all new structures will have to have a solar heating and cooling - sorry - a solar water and space heating facility on the roof. So we're beginning to see some exciting advances here.

And another one, Iceland, which used to get all of its heat for buildings from coal. Now, 90 percent of all the homes and buildings in total in Iceland are heated with geothermal energy.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me just interrupt because I have to remind everybody that we're talking with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization," a really interesting book, one of the upgrades that he has done on his original work, on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I'm Ira Flatow talking with Lester Brown.

One of the - we're in a political season. One of the political issues about global warming is the debate over either - it's about greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide. It's either a cap and trade or a carbon tax. One, the cap and trade worked with other kinds of pollution. People are saying it'll work this time. Other - the other scientists, no, we actually just have to tax the carbon, that's the way to go. Do you have a view on either one of these?

MR. BROWN: Yes. The cap and trade idea is one that worked very well in this country with sulfur dioxide emissions probably 20 years ago now. It is not working very well in Europe, where they have been trying this now for the last few years. There's very little happening internationally in this area.

And in talking with economists who study this, almost all the leading economists that I know support restructuring the tax system, rather than cap and trade. And by restructuring the tax system, it means lowering income taxes and offsetting that with a rise in the carbon tax, and doing it over a period of a decade or so facing it in overtime, so people know what's coming in and can anticipate.

Whether it's Joseph Stiglitz or Nicholas Stern - former World Bank chief economist, for example, and the author of the Stern Report a year or so ago on sort of the economics of climate change - they all support restructuring the tax system as the first option.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also send us - on "Second Life," you can submit a question on "Second Life" on this SCIENCE FRIDAY island there. Or if you want, you can find - you can go to our Web site at sciencefriday.com and click on the "Second Life" button right there.

Let's see if we can take a phone call or two - 1-800-989-8255. Let's take line four, Megan(ph) in Syracuse, New York. Hi, Megan.

MEGAN (Caller): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

MEGAN: I'm a big aficionado of the whole global warming issue. And I've done some small things to try to - on a micro scale reduce my own carbon footprint. But one of the bigger things I could do is to put solar panels on my house and I have pretty much the highest thing in my entire town, which is great for solar power. But I found out that it's very, very expensive to install solar panels.

And so my question is, do you have any suggestions as to how to get funding for a project like that? I know there is some kind of government programs, but they don't cover everything - maybe selling carbon credits. But I don't know how to go about any of that.

FLATOW: Maybe Lester knows. Let me get an answer. Thanks for calling.

MR. BROWN: Maybe is the right word. There are now - I think as a result of the recent energy act that was passed - incentives for investing, that is tax incentives for investing in rooftop solar installation. So I would get in touch with the Department of Energy on that, their information office, and see what they can tell you.

The countries that have really moved fast in this, some of them have a lot of incentives. Germany is the case in point where - and they emphasized two-way metering quite a bit - so they went to homes that installed solar cells, for example, to generate electricity. When they have a surplus, they could sell it back to the utility. And they also had a feed-in tariff that was very, very attractive - that utilities had to pay for renewable energy. And that really has gotten them off to a quick start. And they are now leading the world in many areas in renewable energy, including both wind and solar cell installation.

FLATOW: I just have to interrupt because we have to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization."

We'll take your calls. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Lester Brown, author of "Plan 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization." Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

In your book, you talk about - in Plan B, energy economy, wind is the centerpiece. That we need to develop wind power at a furious wartime, you know, sort of Apollo-project pace. And you say that we could get three million megawatts of wind-generating capacity by 2020, and that's enough to meet 40 percent of the world electricity needs. It would require one and a half million wind turbines of two megawatts each.

Is it actually possible for us to build that many turbines? One, to put - to get them sited in the U.S. Two, to - and to get them connected together on a grid that we can depend on 40 percent for wind? Because every time I talk about this, I hear people saying, well, the wind doesn't blow all the time. What are you going to do when it doesn't blow?

MR. BROWN: Good question. First, let me say that the first chapter of "Plan B 3.0" is available online, free of charge, at earthpolicy.org. Next Wednesday, which is the official publication day - I think that's the 16th - the entire book will be online for reading or downloading free of charge. That's our contribution to trying to raise understanding of these issues.

By chance, I was talking last night with Michael McElroy, professor of planetary sciences at Harvard, who's been working on wind energy quite a bit lately. And he - I think he would say that these numbers I've used are probably on the modest side because there's just an enormous amount of wind energy out there. And he said that he also thinks that wind and - particularly combining it with plug-in hybrids that is - so we can run our cars on wind-generated electricity, largely, instead of gasoline - is going to be the answer. I mentioned that because there's a lot of thinking going on in this field now. And the convergence appears to be on wind energy and plug-in hybrid cars as two of the key answers to how we can cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020.

Three million megawatts sounds like a lot - 1.5 million turbines. But let me just remind you that we produce 65 million cars each year. And we're talking about 1.5 million wind turbines over the next dozen years - that is by 2020. It's not a lot.

It was interesting - and watching the Ken Burns series on war that was running on public television a few months ago. And they had this shot of the huge Willow Run automobile assembly plant - Ford's assembly plant in Michigan. And I think it covered some 78 acres or so. But the fascinating thing was to see - I think it was B24 bombers rolling off the assembly lines there. They were making them on the assembly lines. And that's exactly what we can do with wind turbines. So it's an entirely doable thing.

And I think what most people forget - unless they are old enough to remember World War II - is that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was December 6th, 1941, President Roosevelt laid out arms-production goals in his State of the Union Address on January 6th, 1942. So from December 7th to - '41 to January 6th, 1942, the government put together these plans. And the goal was to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, 20,000 artillery guns, six million tons of shipping. No one had ever seen numbers like this before.

FLATOW: Well, let me interrupt because I understand that you're making the point about we can do - we can turn out the product if we need to. But can we move the electricity from where the wind is blowing to where we need it?

MR. BROWN: No question.

FLATOW: How do we do that?

MR. BROWN: It's just a matter of building transmission lines. And we actually, in this country, have already agreed that we need a national electrical grid. We have these locals sort of jerry-built things that have evolved over the last century or so, and they're not really that efficient. And after the power failure - was it three, four years ago in the summer, where a large part of the northeast lost power for a day or two - there was a commission that looked into that and their conclusion was that we need a national grid and a strong national grid that ties regions together.

So it's entirely within reach to do this and it would be, in the long term, a very efficient thing to do. But there are, even now, transmission lines being built in California, in Texas and in the Northern Plains beginning to link South Dakota and North Dakota with Minnesota and Midwestern cities. There is even talk in the Great Plains of building wind farms and transmission lines coming all the way to Northeast.

In Kansas and Oklahoma, the power companies there at looking at the potential for building wind farms and transmitting it to the southeastern United States. We've got enormous potential and the transmission is not a major issue. And, in fact, it's something that we need to be doing anyhow.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But so far, it's being handled on a state-by-state basis. As you say, everybody is on their own on this thing.

Mr. BROWN: Not entirely. There are some states beginning to work together now, to put this together. There are numbers of long distant transmission lines. There's one that originates in Wyoming and goes to Utah and Nevada into California. The four governors are working on there. And the purpose of that is to link the extraordinary wind resources in Wyoming with consumers in those other states, most importantly in California.

FLATOW: Do you think that Americans feel the same urgency that you do about this? Will it be an election issue this year? Is it moving up in the polls?

Mr. BROWN: It is not yet. But it is surprising how many people are now beginning to become concerned about these issues. One of the manifestations of this is the fast-growing movement to block the construction of new coal-fired power plants and to instead move toward investments in efficiency and in renewable sources of energy like wind farms, for example.

FLATOW: Yeah. I've just read it and I can't remember which state has successfully blocked - they blocked construction plans.

Mr. BROWN: I think there have been 41.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Mr. BROWN: Forty-one plants have been blocked. One of the biggest was in Florida. Governor Crist there, Charles Crist, who replaced Jeb Bush as governor just within the year or so, has completely turned around the energy policy. And he's basically said they are not going to build anymore fossil-fueled power plants in Florida and they are going to develop renewable resources. And they're planning one of the - maybe the largest solar thermal power plant in the world there. Same thing as a large coal-fired power complex was recently turned down in Kansas by the state government. And it's happened in many states now.

FLATOW: But you say the second part of this formula - for making us energy independent and getting so much energy from the wind - is the move toward plug-in automobiles.

Mr. BROWN: Yes.

FLATOW: We would be able - you know, it sounds like a no-brainer. You go - you park your car to go shopping or whatever and there's a little plug right there. Maybe, you know, you pay it through the meter. You pay it through, you know, some sort of a metering system. You're at home, you just plug it in when you're not using it, you know. To me, it's just like it's such a simple idea.

Mr. BROWN: There have two technological advances in recent years that have set the stage for creating an entirely new U.S. automotive fuel economy, indeed, a world on motor fuel economy. These two technologies are the hybrid car, thanks to Toyota which pioneered with the Prius, and the advances in wind turbine design. Once you have a hybrid car, you have the option of increasing the battery storage capacity in it and introducing a plug-in capacity.

So you can recharge those batteries at night while you're sleeping, when electricity is cheap. And then you can do most of your driving with electricity rather than gasoline. And this is an exciting option. Again, I was talking - when I talked with Michael McElroy last night, he's calculated that in Boston, the cost of a gallon equivalent of electricity for car is $1.40. And this is in a part of the country where the price of electricity is 19 cents a kilowatt hour. I mean it's way above the national average. So what we're looking at is the potential of fueling our cars with electricity under $1 a gallon gasoline equivalent.

FLATOW: You say in your book we need to persuade our elected representatives and national leaders to support the environmental tax restructuring and other changes outlined in "Plan B." What kind of tax structuring are we talking about here?

Mr. BROWN: Because of the way our tax system evolved, it turned out it was easier to tax income payroll taxes than almost anything else. And so we rely heavily on these income taxes to provide the revenue to run the government and the country. But what we're now beginning to realize is that we shouldn't be taxing work. We want people to work. And we want labor to be as inexpensive as possible. If you load a lot of taxes on it, it becomes more costly.

So the goal is a simple one. And, again, it's sorted by - supported by thousands of economists including a list of Nobel Prize-winning economists, to simply lower income taxes and offset that with a carbon tax. And those who are good at reducing the use of carbon, whether, say, electricity or gasoline or what have you, will be the winners in this, and they'll benefit. But the whole purpose of it is to get the mark-up to tell the environmental truth. And right now, the amount that we pay for coal-fired electricity, for example, doesn't begin to cover the damages from burning the coal in terms of climate change, air pollution, et cetera.

FLATOW: You sort of have a side campaign in your book against bottled water. You say with the amount of money we spend on bottled water, we could bring fresh water to all the people in the world who need it.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. The bottled water thing is an interesting example of how the American people have been conned into thinking that bottled water is healthier than tap water. In fact, the regulations for tap water in this country are much stiffer than for bottled water in most situations. And in some cities and states now - San Francisco being one of the early leaders, Los Angeles another - we're seeing city governments ban the use of bottled water or the use of taxpayers' money to buy bottled water.

I mean it costs a thousand times as much as tap water. And we complain about higher prices of gasoline, but we'll pay even more for water that's often inferior to what we can get from the tap. So this is and that doesn't begin to deal with all the energy use required to produce the bottles, to haul the water around. I mean, it's extraordinarily inefficient energy system, one that's contributing to global warming so unnecessarily.

FLATOW: Talking with Lester Brown, author of "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization on TALK OF NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I'll see if we can get a question in or two from some folks here on the line. Let's go to Scott(ph) in St. Louis. Hi, Scott, quickly.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. First, I just want to say to any politicians listening out there like whatever you guys have to do to solve the environmental problems, you got my vote, whatever it costs. But I wanted to ask Mr. Brown two questions. One, the oceans are acidifying, they'rr taking up a lot of carbon dioxide from the air which turns into carbonic acid, how bad is that problem and is that going to result in, like, extinctions of plankton and other organisms that are at the base of the food chain in the ocean? And do we need to be actively removing carbon dioxide from the air, like in the very near future...

FLATOW: Let me get an answer. Oops, traffic.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah, the problem with ocean acidification is a real one. That's one that scientists have begun to focus on particularly in the last few years. And it is altering the oceans in ways that are not desirable. And so the key - I mean this is one of the many consequences of burning fossil fuels on the scale that we are in driving up atmospheric CO2 levels. So anything we do to cut carbon emissions, as I described in "Plan B 3.0," will help deal with the ocean acidification problem.

FLATOW: What about carbon sequestration? We keep hearing that as a solution. Would that work?

Mr. BROWN: We keep hearing it is the correct phrase. But it's at least a dozen years away in terms of commercialization if ever. And what it does is it adds a great deal to the cost of coal, for example, if you're using coal-fired power plants to generate electricity. When we're looking at these things, I keep an eye on Wall Street. And what I do not see is any, any significant commitment of capital, of private capital in this area. They're just not getting close to it. And we're also seeing the U.S. government, which was planning a large project on the scope of I think close to $1 billion, beginning to back away from it in a very obvious active way because they're beginning to sense it's just not a good use of taxpayer money.

FLATOW: But there is a lot of money going into wind farms and things like that.

Mr. BROWN: Enormous amount. I mean, just to bring us up to date, world wind electric generation is doubling every two and a half years or so. Last year, 2007, solar cell sales worldwide went up by 50 percent. So solar cells are now more than doubling in every two years. So we've got some real growth rate here and enormous amounts of private capital now moving into the renewable energy field. And it's not just wind and solar, it's also geothermal energy. It's - investments now going into wave power and tidal energy. A huge amount of interest. This has become an extraordinarily dynamic sector in the world economy.

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

Mr. BROWN: Could I just remind everyone that chapter one is available free of charge at earthpolicy.org.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. BROWN: And by next Wednesday, the whole book will be available free of charge.

FLATOW: A public service. Lester Brown, thank you. Thank you.

Mr. BROWN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend.

Mr. BROWN: Take care.

FLATOW: Lester Brown is founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute and his new book is called "Plan B 3.0: Mobilization to Save Civilization." We have a link on our Web site if you want to find it and download that chapter and then the rest of the book.

Surf over to our Web site, it's sciencefriday.com. You can leave us e-mail there or you can write the old-fashioned way at SCIENCE FRIDAY, 4 West 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York 10036. Also, we're podcasting and blogging and we've got our representatives over there at "Second Life." Just click on SCIENCE FRIDAY, go to our Web site and click on the "Second Life" URL, the SLurl as you call it, and you can still to talk to the avatars and submit questions to us at SCIENCE FRIDAY.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.