Meet Lester Brown
August 2008: Agricultural scientist, prolific author, winner of innumerable international awards, one-time wrestler, long-distance runner and founder of the Earth Policy Institute, Lester R. Brown is, above all else, an original thinker. He met Bittu Sahgal in New Delhi during the launch of the Hindi edition of his path-breaking book, Plan B 3.0 and spoke about the future of civilisation and more specifically, about India’s ecological security and what we can do to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Welcome to India. May I start by asking you what central message of Plan B 3.0 – Mobilising to Save Civilisation you would like readers to take away?
I am delighted to be here. Hopefully, readers will understand that business as usual (Plan A) is not going to work because it will end up destroying Earth’s biodiversity and the global economy. In other words, no one could hope to win.
Is this a clash between ecology and the economy?
In our modern high-tech civilisation, it is easy to forget that the economy, indeed our existence, is wholly dependent on the Earth’s natural systems and resources. We depend, for example, on the Earth’s climate system for an environment hospitable to agriculture, on the hydrological cycle to provide us with fresh water, and on long-term geological processes to convert rocks into the soil that has made the Earth such a biologically- productive planet.
Is India going to be a major victim?
Yes. Scientists report that the Gangotri glacier, the principal glacier that feeds the Ganges river, is melting at an accelerating rate and could disappear entirely in a matter of decades. The Ganges would become a seasonal river, flowing only during the monsoon. Himalayan rivers irrigate the rice and wheat fields of India and are critical to the country’s food security.
Why should India and China be more concerned than most other countries about climate change?
Because, soon there may not be enough food to feed people. The world has never faced such a predictably massive threat to food production as that posed by the melting mountain glaciers of Asia. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that Himalayan glaciers are receding rapidly and that many could melt entirely by 2035.
You suggest this could deal a body blow to India’s food security?
Yes. Even as India and China are going to face future disruptions in river flows, over-pumping is depleting the underground water resources vital for irrigation. When an aquifer is depleted, the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge. In India, water tables are falling and wells are going dry in almost every state. In addition to this, losing the river water used for irrigation could lead to politically unmanageable food shortages. The Ganges river is the largest source of surface water irrigation in India on which 407 million people living in the Gangetic Basin depend.
What other impacts are we likely to see and do we have time to avoid them?
Among the other environmental trends undermining our future are shrinking forests, expanding deserts, falling water tables, collapsing fisheries, disappearing species, and rising temperatures. The temperature increases bring crop-withering heat waves, more destructive storms, more intense droughts, more forest fires, and of course, melting ice. We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and we are violating deadlines that we do not recognise. Nature is the time keeper, but we cannot see the clock.
What about sea level rise?
That is a huge concern. We can see from ice melting alone that our civilisation is in trouble. If the Greenland ice sheet melts, the sea level rises by seven metres. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet breaks up, and many scientists think it could go before Greenland, it adds another five metres to the increase, for a total of 12 m.
That sounds ominous. What would you have governments do?
Four things: 1. Stabilise climate. 2. Curb population growth. 3. Tackle poverty. 4. Restore degraded ecosystems.
Your earlier books highlighted somewhat similar objectives. How is this message different?
Earlier, we talked about saving the planet, now we are talking about saving civilisation. There is more urgency now. We are, for instance, in a peak oil situation. No country can get more oil now without another country losing some. The situation is getting worse because the price of food grains is increasing simultaneously. It is leading to unrest and instability and failing states in the world. Failing states point to a failing civilisation. We are close to an ecological tipping point.
Do economists even recognise this?
You don’t have to be an economist to see that we are in trouble. We are in denial. The trends are real and measurable and they are not based on abstract data. We have falling water tables in China, India and the U.S. This has to lead to a drop in food production. And if there is a drop in grain production in China and India, it is going to affect the whole world. The world food economy is integrated. Energy policy makers have not grasped the situation. They are not seeing that commissioning more coal-fired power plants is affecting food security. Scientists have done their homework; it’s now for energy policy makers to do their bit.
But policy makers place implicit faith in the ‘market’. Is climate change not the visible face of market failure?
When Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, released his ground-breaking study in late 2006 on the future costs of climate change, he spoke about a massive market failure. He was referring to the failure of the market to incorporate the climate change costs of burning fossil fuels. The costs, he said, would be measured in trillions of dollars. The difference between the market prices for fossil fuels and the prices that also incorporate their environmental costs to society are huge.
Yet economists refuse to move away from their obsession with growth.
The roots of our current dilemma actually lie in the enormous growth of the human enterprise over the last century. Since 1900, the world economy has expanded 20-fold and world population has increased fourfold. Although there were places in 1900 where local demand exceeded the capacity of natural systems, this was not a global issue. There was some deforestation, but over-pumping of water was virtually unheard of, overfishing was rare, and carbon emissions were so low that there was no serious effect on climate. The indirect costs of these early excesses were negligible. Now with the economy as large as it is, the indirect costs of burning coal – the costs of air pollution, acid rain, devastated ecosystems, and climate change – can exceed the direct costs, those of mining the coal and transporting it to the power plant. As a result of neglecting to account for these indirect costs, the market is undervaluing many goods and services, creating economic distortions.
Are things already out of hand? How close are we to a tipping point?
There is a race between natural and political tipping points. Which one will come first? Will we reach the political tipping point (the one that moves us to act effectively to counter climate change) before we reach a natural tipping point (the one that leads to failing states)? The one which comes first will determine our future.
What kind of targets would you have the nations of the world accept to counter climate change and what broad brush strokes can you give us in terms of directions?
We need to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2020 to keep the rise in global temperature at a low. We can achieve this by improving energy efficiency, harnessing renewable sources of energy, undertaking reforestation where advisable, preventing deforestation and promoting natural regeneration of ecosystems.
Is there any hope on the horizon?
That depends on whether we can mobilise to lower atmospheric CO2 concentrations before higher temperatures melt the mountain glaciers that feed the major rivers of Asia and elsewhere, and before shrinking harvests lead to an unravelling of our civilisation. The good news is that we have the energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to dramatically reduce CO2 concentrations if we choose to do so. Plan B advocates using the very best energy-efficient technologies for lighting, air conditioning and transportation. This includes solar, wind, tidal, geothermal and beyond.
How is all this to be financed?
By restructuring tax regimes. We should tax carbon and offset this by lowering income taxes. This way we end up paying the same amount of tax, while working to tackle climate change. That is what I have suggested as a way forward in Plan B.
Lester, it sounds like we should all just roll up our sleeves and start working to implement Plan B? Will that save the world?
Bittu, there is nothing sacred about Plan B. It is merely our best effort to lay out an alternative to business as usual, one that we hope will help save our civilisation. If anyone can come out with a better plan, I would welcome it. The world needs the best plan possible.