Will it be a happy or a grim New Year?
In 2006, the Arctic melted more, rains fell heavier, fires burned bigger, the plants and animals were confused by a changing climate. This was the year polls showed the public is slowly getting the big picture. People are worried. Unlikely characters and corporations are calling themselves “green.”
It was also the year of plans to avert catastrophic change.
Most of these proposals did not come from governments, who are still, with a few exceptions, in paralysis, or denial. The visionaries are self-appointed, yet generally world-watching veterans and professional communicators.
We are talking about Al Gore, the former politician; Amory Lovins, a Green gone big time; British journalist sensation George Monbiot; Pulitzer-prize winning investigator Ross Gelbspan; the official World Watcher, Lester Brown; and perhaps urban critic James Howard Kuntsler with the Peak Oil movement. Radio Ecoshock has assembled their latest speeches on how to get out of the heat, in a special section of free downloads, at www.ecoshock.org.
Or course, there is an official plan of sorts. The Kyoto Protocol was organized by World governments, prodded on by the world’s largest group of peer-reviewed, climate-related scientists. It is a start, but half dead without the world’s biggest atmospheric polluter, the United States. Kyoto expires in 2012. It doesn’t have teeth to really accomplish much. Most governments give Kyoto lip service only, while actually increasing their greenhouse gas pollution. Beyond Kyoto, there is only the recent failed Nairobi Climate Conference, and an agreement to talk more.
When it comes to the big, big reduction really needed to have any impact on human-induced climate change, proponents of the Kyoto Protocol admit this plan won’t save us.
At the other extreme are the survivalists whose only plan is to grow local food, get off the grid, and wait for the crash. We might include urban critics like James Howard Kunstler and the Peak Oil crowd who think oil and gas supplies will dwindle even as world demand multiplies. They may be right, but if we just burn the remainder, the climate will spin out of control long before the oil shortage forces a major social adjustment. Worse, humans might just use even more coal, and there is plenty of coal.
One of the best Peak Oil sites is www.globalpublicmedia.com.
Others think big climate change is already upon us. Plans to limit CO2, to stop even worse heat and storms, may be necessary, but we need other, more urgent plans, to survive it. For example, James Lovelock is calling for new dikes to protect the City of London, and much of the Southern English coast, from the ravages of rising seas and storms. New Orleans and New York also need protection. Most of the less developed low lying countries, such as Bangladesh, may be unable to mount climate defenses.
We also have the plans of geo-engineers. One example: the people who would shoot gazillions of tiny mirrors into outer space, to block some of the Sun’s rays, and thus cool off the Earth. I can’t go into all those plans here, but George Monbiot offers this important caution. Even if we could succeed with such a wild space adventure, and cool down the Sun, without damaging the natural world – we would still have to turn off the carbon smokestacks. That’s because all that carbon is being absorbed by the ocean, and that makes the ocean so acidic that basic life forms, like plankton, may not survive. It’s not just the heat. We have to reduce the impact of carbon on the oceans as well.
Today you and I are going to rumble through five plans to avert climate catastrophe – from people serving as spark-plugs for the public mind.
Let’s start with the most famous man in climate change – Al Gore, Jr. The former Vice-President, and almost President of the United States needs no formal introduction. And he has real climate credentials. Gore began his climate fixation, as a convert in college under the scientist Roger Revel. Al Gore brought the issue to government very early, and published his book “Earth in Balance” in 1992.
Al Gore is now known for his movie presentation “An Inconvenient Truth.” There is also a book version published by Rodale Books. But since that unlikely best-seller, Gore has graduated from warning about climate change, to a grass roots plan to push the American, and world, public into demands for change. As a whole chorus of people convert to climate reality through Inconvenient Truth, Gore has become a kind of clearing house and meeting place. He’s a mixture of Hollywood, scientists, businessmen and believers, who want a new vision of not just America, but the world energy economy.
What is Al Gore’s plan? First of all, Gore continues his initial role of awakening millions of people to the awful risks we face as the climate becomes unhinged. He used the hundreds of millions of dollars earned by the movie and personal appearances to create a new Institute, called the Alliance for Climate Protection, based in San Francisco. As the new year of 2007 arrived, about 1,000 volunteer communicators assembled for a combination pep-talk, media training, and grass roots organizing of Inconvenient parties. These are local events, which may be large or living-room size, like climate Tipperware parties. They aim to move people from worry to action. These will be the new Evangelists, or agents of social change, to save the Earth’s climate, as we know it.
In recent speeches, Gore has also outlined a larger political plan, centered in America, but reaching the whole globe. It is essentially a made-in-America plan, to sell to U.S. voters. Gore envisions a re-vamping of the failing U.S. industrial sector to produce prodigious amounts of alternative carbon-free energy tech. These mass produced solar panels, windmills, and super-efficient vehicles will fill the freighters that currently leave American ports empty, having disgorged their load of consumer goods.
As reported in the Washington Post of September 19th, and in Gore’s speech “Solving the Climate Crisis,” he proposes a Carbon Neutral Mortgage Association. This would let home owners stretch out the increased costs of more insulation, solar panels, and energy efficient houses as part of the mortgage – and these costs should pay for themselves as energy bills will be less. Gore also wants to revamp the electricity distribution system to let homeowners and businesses sell their own electricity back to the system. He calls it the “electranet.”
Like several other climate planners we will meet, Gore sees our carbon fix as a challenge that can save rather than wreck America. Alternative energy will end dependence on oil from unstable regions, make the U.S. self-sufficient, and rebuilt it’s manufacturing pre-eminence. At the same time, this new tech Renaissance will give energy to the billions of people in the developing world, without harming the world’s atmosphere. Unlike other speakers we will meet, Gore doesn’t go into details of how this transfer of new wealth will take place.
Gore’s plan targets America, and may well be part of a political platform – for himself or others, in the 2008 elections. And everyone knows America certainly needs a plan, an exit strategy from the deadly carbon fix.
Let’s move to another long-timer, Lester Brown, the founder of Worldwatch Institute. Brown is almost an institutional environmentalist. For more than two decades, he has been counting up the world’s resources, and identifying trends. His statistics have been used by people with different agendas. He perceives Earth as a limited system, with finite resources that dwindle not only as human population grows, but as those humans adopt consumerism.
In 2004, Brown proposed Plan B. Our present direction, Plan A, isn’t working. Lester Brown has a relatively comprehensive alternative direction, that employs existing institutions, whether governments, banks, or large non-profits. He relies on reforming trade and agriculture, for example, rather than counting on new technology or a radical change in our social system.
One of the key indicators pursued by the World Watch Institute under Lester Brown was world grain stocks. Both production and back-up supplies of grain are falling due to water shortages, soil depletion, increased population pressure, and climate change. In many parts of the world, such as the grain growing areas of India, the crop depends on pumping fossil water from long ago, from ever-falling water tables.
His Plan B calls for three major changes of direction. First of all, we must learn to use water much more efficiently, all over the planet. This includes recycling waste water in the world’s mega-cities. Agriculture needs to use seasonal rains, rather than draining aquifers.
None of that works without reducing the pressure of new population. We are adding between 75 and 100 million new mouths to feed every year, and we have already bypassed sustainable food production.
His third vector of change is to cut carbon emissions in half in the next ten years, to preserve the climate. His book Plan B describes various tools we can use, from new fuels, conservation, and re-thinking society.
We can count Lester Brown among the macro thinkers who is concerned not only with climate, but with a wide range of problems facing the human project. These days, you can find Lester Brown at www.earth-policy.org
However, like almost all our planners in this series, his emphasis is on humanity, rather than the whole range of species on Earth now facing extinction.
At a different pole of society, Amory Lovins is an American environmentalist and experimenter, who definitely believes that new technology could save us from a climatic wreck. This is a man who goes to the high places of Colorado, and builds an experimental home/workshop to test out alternative energy and lifestyles. He claims to grow bananas in the winter in a home without any central heating system. The passive house he inhabits with his wife Hunter Lovins grabs heat from the ground, and the sun, and never lets it go.
Lovins was a long-time environmental activist, but in the last 15 years has risen into the elite circles of big business and even the Pentagon. He has helped design ultra-light cars using carbamate instead of steel, that use very little fuel. Lovins investigates the most stingy energy mechanisms and then looks for real-world applications. His work has penetrated into the labs of General Motors, although apparently that car company didn’t listen or follow through.
Amory’s most recent big report was co-produced by the Pentagon. The American military is deadly serious about a future that doesn’t require fighting in the Middle East for oil. They want a fighting army, air force and navy that generate their own energy, and depend on anyone else. Although Lovins has been an outspoken critic of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power, he hasn’t shrunk from working with the military. Perhaps this is appropriate, since the U.S. military uses up to half the oil Americans import. It takes a lot of juice to ship, fly, or drive all that equipment, weapons, and people all over America and all over the world. Reform there might actually help save the world.
Lovin’s technical plans might make a more efficient world. His talks and ideas are exciting. In fact, he and Hunter Lovins propose a new model for capitalism, which they call Natural Capitalism. As a horrible simplification of a complex idea, we can say Natural Capitalism involves including the cost of nature in corporate book-keeping. It attempts a money-making world that can profit from such challenges as natural shortages, or even climate problems.
So there is a very large political and economic idea coming from the Lovins camp. We may wonder whether greed can really save the world, but short of outright revolution into completely unknown territory, some modification of Capitalism is definitely required when it comes to climate change. Perhaps Lovins’ proposals are just twenty or a hundred years ahead of their time. We don’t know.
Let’s get out of America, and cross the Atlantic to get a European perspective, another journalist and book-writer with a plan. George Monbiot has finished his initial book tour to promote “Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning.”
Unlike Amory Lovins, Monbiot insists on using technology we have today, to solve our problems. He points out the scientific consensus that time is short. To balance the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, in time to avert catastrophic climate change, we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 50% by 2030. And if we assume that the rest of the world’s population, especially in China and India, are growing toward life-style standards similar to our own – we will have to share energy and other resources much more evenly than in our colonial and corporate colonial past.
According to Monbiot, who cites experts he has interviewed and papers studied, that means people in the developed world must reduce our carbon emissions by a staggering ninety percent by 2030. That will leave just enough emissions for the developing countries to reach reasonable living standards, development, and technology. In a sense, we need to emit much less, so they can emit more, while they build up infrastructure, housing, and a modern economy.
Monbiot investigates the various major categories of energy use Western-style life. These include such things as heavy industry, electric power generation, and transportation. His speeches so far deal less with industry, other than a call for 90 percent reduction across the board. We presume he means alternative energy, collecting carbon dioxide for underground storage, and the like. We may have to do without certain products and processes that create climate havoc with their emissions.
His plan has more detail when it comes to electricity generation. Monbiot can tolerate nuclear power – as preferable to roasting without life as we know it. But he doesn’t think reactors can be build in time to save us, and, unlike Gaia founder James Lovelock, he doesn’t see nuclear power as the answer to our big problems.
Monbiot is also dismissive of small-scale electric generation as a solution to anything. A recent column derided greens who mount wind generators, or small solar panels on their houses. He doesn’t even like distributed small-scale power systems. Let’s think really big, he says, and build monster scale alternative energy plants. He wants offshore wind farms with thousands of gigantic rotors, similar to the recent mega-wind project recently proposed to help power the city of London.
But Monbiot advocates using DC, Direct Current, to carry this alternative energy for very long distances, with much less power loss than our Alternating, AC, current. Using new technology for these DC cables, he foresees grabbing vast areas of the Sahara desert for solar farms to power Europe and Africa.
Meanwhile, Monbiot would re-think and re-tool simple transportation systems like the humble bus. The new bus system would operate only on already existing highways. A big fleet of deluxe and comfortable buses would run constantly between towns and cities, on the highway, loading and unloading at terminals right at the off-ramps. You would reach these terminals by fast-moving mass transit, like light rail or subways. The buses themselves never move into towns, where they bog down, but just move people between major locations. By being more convenient, safer, and almost a leisure-time experience instead of a frightening rush hour, these buses would soak up the inhabitants of private automobiles, mainly replacing the car. The energy savings are enormous, and emissions could drop the required 90 percent of current levels – without giving up our ability to get around.
There are many more ideas like this in his book, which you can find at www.monbiot.com. His talks are available at www.ecoshock.org, in the Audio on Demand Climate section. I have heard him live, and came away thinking we really could chart a way out of this climate mess, without going into a cave.
Back in America, Ross Gelbspan is also a credible advocate for a new alternative economy. He starts out with a vision to install carbon-free energy tech in the developing world on a crash basis. Without that, he thinks, the massive increase of oil and coal burning in China, India, and all the rest of the developing countries, will swamp any changes we make as concerned consumers in the developed world. We have to bring everyone along with the new wealth that technology can bring, he says, and we can’t let that happen using old-style industrial carbon pollution.
His alternative is to raise about 300 billion dollars a year, for ten years, to create a new alternative energy infrastructure in the developing world. Solar power galore, wind power wherever it works, big tidal power, even hydrogen as a transmission technology, where needed. I haven’t heard Gelbspan advocate nuclear power, but perhaps I just missed a speech.
Where will this money come from? Gelbspan advocates the so-called Tobin Tax. This is a tax on currency trading, which is believed to top 1.5 trillion dollars a day. If some agency, he doesn’t say which one, could grab point 5 percent of this trading, that would raise the 300 billion a year. It taxes speculation, and transfers a small portion back toward actual production – the production of alternative energy devices.
Perhaps a carbon tax, or a travel tax, could work just as well, Gelbspan says. The actual mechanism of raising this tax is less important than the imperative to arm the rest of the world with safe, carbonless sources of energy.
In addition, Gelbspan wants a global agreement, or decisions by national governments, to increase carbon efficiency by 5 percent a year. A country, or a company, could produce 5 percent more goods using their current energy, by increasing efficiency in production. Or they could institute energy saving plans. In the first few years, conservation would be the main mechanism to achieve this 5 percent annual efficiency gain. New technology could also help hit the target. But eventually, several years down the line, he thinks, the end result would be an over-all 5 percent reduction of carbon emissions, year-by-year. In ten years, this would cut carbon emissions in half, if it works. We don’t know how this will be measured, or who will enforce it, but perhaps that’s just a little too much detail to ask of one person suggesting a plan for a complex world. We may have to take Gelbspan’s ball and run with it.
Ross also wants an end to the $200 billion in government subsidies to the coal and oil industry world-wide, and he specializes in hunting down scientists and front groups who create doubt about global warming on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.
Find the real guts of his plan in his book, “Boiling Point” available at major booksellers and his website www.heatisonline.org, as well as his speeches at ecoshock.org.
We haven’t covered another British journalist and environmental activist, Mark Lynas. Watch for his new book “Six Degrees” coming out this spring from Harper Collins. It will show the different stages that Earth might expect for each degree of temperature rise. But I don’t know if Lynas adds a plan to avoid the worst extremes. His website is www.marklynas.org
That’s it for the 2007 Ecoshock round-up of plans to save the world. I have assembled speeches by our protagonists in a special section of the Radio Ecoshock website, called “Climate Plans”. Look for it on the Audio on Demand menu at www.ecoshock.org. Or see below for the exact address.
There you will find speeches with action proposals by: Al Gore, Lester Brown, Amory Lovins, George Monbiot, Ross Gelbspan, and James Howard Kunstler. We’ll throw in a feature on James Lovelock, too. They are all completely free to download in MP3 format. I encourage you to explore your own future and alternatives, because these are the questions you will have to answer in the next few years, at the ballot box, at the cash register, and in your own heart.
How will we save this gracious and fertile planet, from the perils of carbon garbage we toss into the atmosphere? How will we save the climate? It’s up to you.
Ths five speeches can be found at: