Worldchanging Interview: Lester Brown
By Mark Tovey
In Canada right now, we're looking at what some might consider a sea-change in public opinion about Climate Change. According to a new poll of 1,500 Canadians conducted by McAllister Opinion Research and Globe Scan Inc, the environment now tops Canadians' political concerns, "even more than health care at its peak" (Ottawa Citizen, January 31st, 2007, A1-A2). Yesterday's Ottawa Citizen had a front-page photo entitled "Great Barrier Reef: The Latest Victim of Climate Change". On the same day, The Globe and Mail's front-page lead was: "The fallout of global warming: 1,000 years."
Should we be encouraged by this kind of trend? Lester Brown thinks so. The influential founder of WorldWatch, and author of Plan B 2.0, gave a talk at the Global Environmental Taxation conference, where I caught his keynote, and sat down with him for half an hour of fascinating conversation, distilled below. Brown talked about the educational challenge that we're facing as a society, and suggested that the media is the only institution capable of meeting that challenge. I asked him for his thoughts on solutions to the twin themes of his talk, global warming and the peaking of oil production. He noted the strong wind resource in Canada, and the value in developing non-environmentally disruptive biofuels. He sees developing the necessary political will, moving towards a "social tipping point", as the key to developing the necessary technologies and policies. - MT
Mark Tovey: So one of the things that I'm wondering is how big a problem is it that so much of our infrastructure that runs on oil right now (combines for farms, trucks to ship things, individual automobiles, industrial machinery to actually make things), was designed with petroleum in mind, and doesn't necessarily run on biofuels, or at least not out of the gate. Do you know of technologies that allow those kinds of things to be retrofitted without scrapping that infrastructure and rebuilding it fom scratch, or if we did have to scrap portions of it are there ways of doing that that we can re-use a substantial amount of that?
Lester Brown: A large share of the world's oil is used for transportation and we know that a good part of that can be substituted -- we can substitute, as I mentioned using plug-in hybrids with, we can substitute wind for example, any source of electricity, but wind, because it's clean, or -- for automotive fuel, for gasoline, or for diesel. So that takes care of a large part of our use of oil. But there's still a lot more. And the more difficult ones to substitute are construction machinery -- heavy duty construction machinery -- some farm implements, jet aircraft. They're more difficult. But what we can begin to do with, I mean jet aircraft can run on ethanol as well as jet fuel. So that's entirely do-able. The trick is to develop sources of liquid fuel that are not environmentally disruptive -- and are not socially competitive with, for -- the food supply. And that means developing cellulosic ethanol as a form of liquid fuel that can be used in the place of gasoline and biodiesel.
But that's a smaller, a relatively small part of the total -- it's automobiles -- but we can look at urban transport systems that are almost entirely electricity driven with light rail, begin to substitute light rail more and more for buses for example, and, so, much of our passenger transport is fairly easy. Some farm implements, I mean, farm implements can also operate on ethanol, tractors and combines and those sort of things. So we will need something other than electricity for a piece of the automotive fuel and transport fuel use, but we can begin to see how to get most of that energy from renewable sources, importantly wind.
MT: And what do you make of the argument that we as a civilization don't have enough cheap energy to build all of those wind turbines, for instance? Are those kinds of arguments based on assumptions that are sort of submerged or invisible, or should we be taking them seriously, or what is a good way of looking at those arguments?
LB: The fortunate thing is that it does not take a lot of energy to build wind turbines, and they last for a long time, and produce an extraordinary amount of energy. But it is important that we start this sooner rather than later, because the longer we wait, the less energy we'll have, and the more difficult it will be to get enough energy to build the new system. The exciting thing about gas electric hybrid cars and wind energy is that they operate with the existing infrastructure. We have the gasoline service stations in place, we'll be using a lot of that ... and we also have grids in place, electrical grids. Now we'll have to strengthen them in some places, but that's entirely do-able. I mean one of the things I didn't mention this morning is what's happening in Texas with wind energy. There's been a lot of focus on California and the new program there that Governor Schwartzenegger has introduced and so forth but what's happening in Texas may be even more important because a group of wind-farm developers, plus local utilities, plus the state government of Texas, with a Republican governor by the way, have come together to develop an agreement to build some transmission lines from West Texas, which is sparsely populated, and very wind rich, and carry the electricity east into central Texas, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and parts further east. The plan is to develop 7000 megawatts of wind-generated capacity. This would be a total investment by these companies and utilities of close to 11 billion dollars. But it will supply the residential electricity needs of 2.1 million homes, or 5 million people. This is just one project. But it's an example, and that incidentally is equal to at least -- 7000 megawatts -- 15 coal-fired power plants. So I mean we're talking big time now in terms of potential structural changes in the energy economy.
MT: In terms of, and this is a bigger problem in Canada possibly than in the United States, although the eastern seaboard also has issues with heating, and now that we're seeing a peaking of natural gas in North America, and the cost of heating homes is going to be increasingly expensive, do you see a move there to electricity for heating homes, or to oil, and if it is to electricity, to what extent do we need to factor that energy charge into the equation of how much energy we need?
LB: Right. Well, for example just as Iceland has gone from using heating oil to heat homes almost entirely to geothermal energy -- almost 91% of all homes in Iceland are heated with geothermal energy, so Canada could go from using heating oil to using wind generated electricity. 'Cause it's so abundant. I haven't looked at the per capita wind energy resources, but Canada must be near the top in the world, given the enormous wind resources and a relatively small population. Another possibility is just investing in more energy-efficient buildings and homes and energy renovations in some cases. So there are a lot of things that can be done, but the US and Canada both have an abundance of energy resources -- a combination of wind and solar, and geothermal, and tidal, and wave energy. Wave energy for country with their own coastlines could become a major source of energy in the future. There's a lot of energy in those waves, it's a matter of converting it into [electricity]. And it's coming in engineering terms. It's definitely going to emerge as an important energy source.
MT: What are the features beyond tax neutrality that you think are likely to play best both in terms of convincing governments and offering common cause on both the right and the left for something they can all buy into?
LB: Well, one of the interesting things about conservatives is that I think they realize that we've reached the point where the market is no longer telling us the truth. I mean they sort of worship the market, and I mean the market is a remarkable institution. But we have a serious problem with it now because it's not telling the truth any more. And as I mentioned in the talk we're running much the same risk that Enron did, except on a much larger scale. So we gotta ... once you go through the economics, then it's pretty convincing, and I would point out that the emerging support for plug-in hybrid cars in the United States is coming from two sources. It's coming from environmentalists, and neo-cons. Neo-cons because they see the United States losing its political independence because of its dependence on imported Middle Eastern oil. And that, you know, we're at the end a, they're pulling the strings, and we can't do much about it. So it's interesting, and in some of the sessions of the Hill, the neo-cons have been even more outspoken than environmentalists on this issue.
MT: Are there ways that you can see that there is political will building on all sides of the political spectrum?
LB: I think Americans are more concerned about the future than any time that I can remember.
Two of the things they're concerned about: One is oil. They realize, in the Middle East, it's a mess right now, and to count on oil from there is really a high risk proposition. And also, that our reserves are being depleted. That's pretty clear. I mean, peak oil may be imminent. A world very different, when oil production is declining. Very different from any we've known. We've spent our lifetimes in an environment where global production was rising: there are temporary interruptions, but basically ... not.
I think concerns with oil are one thing, and concerns about climate change are another thing. And fortunately, they both have the same solution, or solutions. What reduces our dependence on oil also helps to reduce carbon emissions.
MT: What would you say is the piece which is distorting the market the most?
I think fossil fuels may be as big as they come, both in terms of scale and in terms the difference between them in terms of of prices and costs. How do you calculate costs of climate change -- I mean, the costs go up -- and the real question is whether civilization will be able to manage the kinds of problems that will develop. There's another way of looking at this, and I haven't really thought about it much or written about it yet, but what we have seen in recent decades is the emergence of serious threats, or problems, that are difficult to manage. For example, the HIV virus. Most industrial countries have succeeded in holding adult infections rates under 1% of the population. A lot of developing countries, especially in Africa, were not able to. And those societies are being decimated, today. I mean some villages are almost missing a generation. The grandparents, the kids, and not very many in-between. Food security is suffering in those countries.
Now, another problem that's emerged is the over-pumping of aquifers. In the last half-century we've built pumping capacity with powerful electrically-driven, or diesel-powered pumps, to pump water from underground faster than aquifers recharge. And one would think that when that happens, you know, that red lights would go on, the bells would ring, and someone would say, hey, you know, our water table's beginning to fall, we need to do something. I don't know a single country that's done that. And half the world's people now live in countries where water tables are falling. There's not enough pressure to deal with it until it becomes a crisis, by which time it's rather late in the day.
Or consider climate change - I mean it's hard to find a country out of the 200 in the world -- that's really responding effectively to this -- and by effectively, I mean cutting carbon emissions by 70%, not by the Kyoto of 7%. It's just not happening.
The question is, are the problems that civilization are facing becoming so difficult that our institutions, our political institutions, are not capable of managing them? It's a scary question.
MT: It's a very scary question. Thomas Homer-Dixon, for instance, talks about The Ingenuity Gap and suggests that we might be able to use collective intelligence, you know, large scale open source methods, very participatory democracies, to tap into people's abilities to manage things potentially better. What do you think of the potential of that kind of approach?
LB: My model is a bit different. I mean the real question is whether we cross the tipping point in social behaviour, attitudes, first, or whether we cross some of the climate change thresholds first. It's two tipping points, one social, and one environmental.
My model is one based on rising levels of information. I mean the reason for the smoking revolution in the United States is that in 1964 or in 1963, President Kennedy commissioned the first report on smoking and health in the United States. And then it became an annual report, done by NIH almost every year. And the existence of that report itself, reported on all the studies that had been done anywhere in the world linking cigarettes smoking with pancreatic cancer, you know emphysema -- the whole range of smoking related illnesses we now know about.
And what that did in the United States was gradually raise the level of awareness -- and more and more people stopped smoking. And more and more people began to support bans on smoking. Until today it's difficult to find any place in the United States you know inside you know where you can smoke. I mean there are still a few places but not many.
Cigarette consumption per person has dropped by half since 1970. And then suddenly we had this enormous change, beginning in the late 90's, I was talking about earlier. But that was based on a rising public awareness, you know, and suddenly in the late 90's we reached a point where it just overwhelmed the most powerful lobby in Washington, tobacco funding.
And we change behaviour either in response to new information or new events. Pearl Harbour, Katrina -- I think of the Berlin Wall coming down. You know, somewhere we crossed a social threshhold there. It was not like we anticipated it. There's not a single Political Science journal article in the 80's, saying watch Eastern Europe, big change coming. When the Berlin wall came -- what happened was that one morning, people in Eastern Europe woke up and realized that the great socialist experiment was over. A one party political system, a centrally planned economy -- it was history. Everyone knew it, including the people in power. So we had an essentially bloodless political revolution. And it happened very quickly.
So these changes do occur. Sometimes as with cigarette smoking it's a gradual rising level of awareness. In the case of Pearl Harbour it was a very dramatic event that just changed everything. And, so, I am inclined to think it's going to be information.
And interestingly, and the reason I'm always happy to do interviews, is because in the United States beginning of World War II, it was the automobile industry that really held the key to our restructuring quickly.
Today I think the equivalent are the communications media. Because we're faced with an enormous educational challenge. I don't think the formal educational system has the capacity, because of the built-in time lags. I think [that the media is] the only institution that can respond to the educational challenge we face, so that people everywhere are as aware of what's happening -- or almost -- as the people that are in this conference today. And that's going to take an enormous effort. Now, it's encouraging because the media's beginning to give much more coverage to Climate Change, for example.
MT: What might that look like?
LB: It would mean more news coverage, more news analysis of these issues, not just reporting there's flooding someplace, or drought, or an enormously destructive storm, but not reporting it as just weather events, but as quite possibly part of a change in the Earth's climate. And then people, are -- it sort of forces people to think into the future. And say, you know, if it's Katrina today, what might it be tomorrow? And documentaries of course -- analysing these things. And reality shows, that deal with these issues.
Leonado diCaprio, not a media person -- I mean media person in the sense, I mean film is an important medium, obviously -- but he is working on a film, a bit like "An Inconvenient Truth." It's not based on a Power Point presentation, but it's about the environmental challenges that we're facing, including climate change, and I think that is intended to go into theatres next April, or something like that. And also would be on television.
I mention it because here's an actor who is himself directing this, and involved in the production. In fact, next week I'm flying out to California just to do this -- I'm doing an interview for this -- but it's an example of someone who can command some resources and public attention beginning to make a major committment. Now the next thing is that he's thinking about a reality show.