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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Plan B — How to Stop Global Warming

It's called eco-anxiety — free-form worry triggered by concerns about the worsening fate of the planet — and if you suffer from it, you might want to give Lester Brown's new book, Plan B 3.0, a pass. Brown — the president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington-based environmental think tank — paints a comprehensive and depressing picture of the planet, with ream after ream of dire statistics. Here's just a handful: Arctic summer sea ice shrinkage increased by 9.1% a decade between 1979 and 2006, and this year an area of ice almost twice the size of Britain melted in a single week. In an era of unprecedented global economic growth, the number of hungry people increased from 800 million to 830 million between 1996 and 2003. At current rates of logging, the natural forests of Indonesia and Burma will be gone within a decade or so. Each year the number of failing states increases — Sudan and Somalia today, perhaps Pakistan tomorrow — a trend that climate change will only worsen. Global demands on the Earth already exceed sustainable capacity by 25% — and we're set to add another 3 billion people by 2050. As Brown writes: "Civilization is in trouble."


But take a few deep breaths and relax — a little bit. Brown, one of the U.S.'s most respected environmentalists, has a plan — and it's called Plan B. (Hear Brown talk about Plan B 3.0 in this week's Greencast.) After detailing just how screwed our overpopulated, overconsuming world is — thanks to an economic system that rewards production without regard for environmental impact — Brown lays out an alternate path that could save us from the worst consequences of climate change. At the heart is a call to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2020 — far more aggressive than anything you'll hear from political leaders or even most activists. It's an ambitious plan, one that is less concerned with political feasibility than the survivability of the planet. "This is not Plan A, business as usual," Brown writes. "This is Plan B — a wartime mobilization, an all-out response proportionate to the threat that global warming presents to our future."

The key to Brown's Plan B is winding down our dependence on coal — the carbon-heavy fuel that the people over at the environmental website Grist like to refer to as "the enemy of the human race." Right now the world is on pace to build hundreds of new coal power plants over the coming decades, adding vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and if that happens the fight against global warming is as good as lost. Brown argues that rapid action to improve energy efficiency, develop renewable sources of power and expand the Earth's forest cover could reduce carbon emissions enough to allow us to phase out coal power and meet that 80% target.


The numbers are simple. It's easy to ridicule the "switch a light bulb, save the planet" school of environmental planning, but Brown points out that by making the most of efficiency improvements in lighting and appliances, we could reduce power demand sufficiently to obviate the need for 1,410 coal plants. That's more than the 1,382 coal plants the International Energy Agency predicts will be built by 2020. If we start pumping out new wind turbines with the same industrial urgency the U.S. produced tanks and bombers in World War II, Brown writes, we could generate 3 million megawatts of wind power by 2020, enough to meet 40% of the world's energy needs. Solar thermal, plug-in hybrid and geothermal technology are all part of Plan B. (Did you know that the geothermal energy contained in the upper six miles of the Earth's crust is 50,000 times more powerful than all of our oil and natural gas? Brown does.)


To push the transition to a cleaner, more efficient economy — the Plan B economy — Brown argues for a worldwide carbon tax to be phased in at $20 per ton each year between 2008 and 2020, topping out at $240 per ton. That might seem excessive, but Brown points out that even a carbon tax higher than $240 per ton wouldn't cover all the environmental and health costs of burning fossil fuels, from climate change to air pollution–related illnesses. And while it's difficult to imagine any politician standing up for such a tax, he reminds us that we already have a precedent for a heavy tax that takes into account negative externalities and attempts to discourage consumption: cigarette taxes.


Altogether Brown calculates that his Plan B would cost the world an additional $190 billion a year. That might seem high, until he compares the price tag to the global military budget, which stands at more than $1.2 trillion. All we have to do is find the political and popular will to implement the plan. But that's the problem. Brown's proposals are solid, but the real battle over climate change is now political, not technological, and it's one that too many environmentalists tend to discount. If you've drunk the green Kool-Aid, it can seem frustratingly obvious why we need a $240 carbon tax, or why the climate change challenge is on par with World War II, and thus demands Rosie the Riveter redux. But the true, painstaking challenge of the next few years will be building a broad political coalition that will support that level of commitment. Brown's Plan B is a great blueprint for combating climate change, but we might need a Plan C to put it into action.


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