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November 18th, 2009 HENRY STERN | Q & A
 

Lester Brown

Why this prominent environmentalist thinks the Copenhagen Conference is “probably obsolete.”

     
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BROWN: “The question is whether civilization as we know it can survive.”
IMAGE: Tom Martinez

Next month’s global climate conference in Copenhagen does not lack for dire warnings from environmentalists about what failure would mean for the world.

For example, Bill McKibben (“Q&A,” WW, Oct. 11, 2006) writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones that, “In fact, you could make a fair argument that this will be the most important diplomatic gathering in the world’s history.”

Lester Brown, the 75-year-old founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., shares the belief that we face imminent cataclysmic changes from global warming.But Brown doesn’t put much faith in Copenhagen.

Brown believes the dramatic change required by global climate shifts already appears to be at a tipping point in the world and in the United States. Here’s what else Brown had to say when he stopped by WW last week while in town at the invitation of Illahee, a forum for environmental innovators.

WW: Is there any reason for optimism that Copenhagen will generate a meaningful treaty?

Lester Brown: Someone has said if it’s a total bust, it might actually serve a useful purpose. The worst-case scenario is it will accomplish a little bit but not nearly enough and create the impression that we’ve got things under control. The same is true for the legislation in Washington. The worst thing is we won’t get very much but it creates the illusion that we’ve accomplished something. In this country, I think we’re moving toward a tipping point on the climate and energy front. What we’re seeing in the last two years is remarkable. It’s quite possible we will never license another coal plant in this country. And now that we have a de facto moratorium, 22 coal-fired plants [out of 614] are scheduled to close. In the last two years, coal use in this country has dropped 11 percent. That’s huge. At the same time we have brought online 190 new wind farms. Probably the larger share of that is the recession. But another share comes from gains in energy efficiency and shifting from coal to wind farms or natural gas.

Isn’t the United States much more likely to require the equivalent of a “Pearl Harbor” to make dramatic energy shifts?

It may. But we’ve seen some interesting changes now. As we become more urbanized, the attitude of young people is changing. For my generation growing up in southern New Jersey, a car or a pickup truck was a rite of passage. I was in São Paolo a few weeks ago and I was trying to imagine a couple of kids driving around São Paolo for fun. It doesn’t work. The car is no longer the focal point of socialization. Now it’s the Internet and cell phones.

Don’t kids in Beijing want cars?

In Beijing, maybe. But not in Tokyo. They’ve been there. No one would want a car in Tokyo. You can’t buy a car unless you have a parking place. It’s sort of becoming irrelevant for young people in Tokyo. Car sales in Japan have actually been declining for 20 years...I was in Beijing doing a seminar for graduate students and one of the students said, “Are you saying we can’t have cars like you do? This is our dream.” I said, “It may be your dream, but if you succeed in getting three cars for every four people, as we have, it will be your nightmare.”

What’s your educated guess about what will come out of Copenhagen?

My own sense is that internationally negotiated climate agreements are probably obsolete and we haven’t realized it yet. They’re obsolete for two reasons. One, by their nature they lead to minimalist agreements. No delegation wants to come back appearing to have conceded more than anyone else. Second, it takes years to negotiate them and years to ratify them. By that time, the game may be over. What I think is going to happen is that you’re going to see a lot of unilateral developments that are going to make a huge difference. I mentioned the movement to ban and now to close coal-fired plants in the U.S. Or China with its explosion in wind energy. The big one is a consortium of European companies. And its purpose is to devise a strategy to harness the solar-thermal resources of North Africa to provide electricity for Europe and for North Africa, too. That could be half Europe’s electricity. We’ve never seen anything like this before. There’s no government in this consortium, and they’re doing it for economic reasons.

So is Copenhagen a waste of time?

We need to go and push as hard as we can. But I don’t think we should count on it to save civilization. And that’s what’s really at stake now. The planet is going to be around for some time. The question is whether civilization as we know it can survive.

 
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