EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Climate Change and the Energy Transition: A Challenge Without Precedent

Given the need to simultaneously stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the earth’s natural systems, our early twenty-first-century civilization is facing challenges that have no precedent. Rising to any one of these challenges would be taxing, but we have gotten ourselves into a situation where we have to effectively respond to each of them at the same time, given their mutual interdependence. And food security depends on reaching all four goals. There is no middle ground with Plan B.

As political stresses from oil shortages, food shortages, and climate change intensify, the number of failing states is growing. Beyond this, there are dangerous signs that the strong system of international cooperation that evolved after World War II, and on which global economic progress is based, is weakening. For example, concern about access to oil led the United States to convert part of its grain harvest to fuel for cars regardless of its effect on world food prices and low-income consumers.

More recently, we have seen how grain-exporting countries faced with soaring food prices restricted or banned exports in order to control internal food price rises, thereby creating a growing sense of insecurity in food-importing countries. As importing countries lost confidence in the market to supply their needs, the more affluent among them began buying or leasing massive tracts of land in other countries, many of them land-scarce, hunger-ridden countries. How do we reverse this trend toward each country fending for itself rather than working together for the common good?

Plan B is shaped by the urgent need to halt the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, to reverse the decline in world food security, and to shorten the list of failing states. In setting the climate goal of cutting net carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020, we did not ask what sort of cut was politically feasible. Instead we asked how much and how fast do we have to cut carbon emissions if we want to have a decent chance of saving the Greenland ice sheet and avoiding a politically destabilizing sea level rise. How fast do we have to cut carbon emissions if we want to save at least the larger glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau, the glaciers whose ice melt irrigates wheat and rice fields in China and India?

With energy, our goal is to close all coal-fired power plants by 2020, replacing them largely with wind farms. In the Plan B economy the transportation system will be electrified with a broad-based shift to plug-in hybrids, all-electric cars, and high-speed intercity rail. And in the Plan B world, cities are designed for people, not for cars.

Plan B is shaped not by what we have done in the past but by what we need to do for the future. We are offering a vision of what that future might look like, a road map of how to get from here to there, and a timetable for doing so. Plan B is not based on conventional thinking. That is what got us into this mess. It takes a different kind of thinking, a new mindset, to get us out.

Plan B is obviously ambitious and, to some, impossibly so. Recognizing the enormity of the challenge the world faces, Paul Hawken, corporate entrepreneur and environmentalist, counseled the graduates at the University of Portland in May 2009: “Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.” 90

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90. Paul Hawken, Commencement Address to the Class of 2009, University of Portland, Portland, OR, 3 May 2009.

Copyright © 2009 Earth Policy Institute