Looking to WWII Lessons to Fight Climate Change: Lester Brown’s Plan 3.0

by Bill Chameides | November 12th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Lester Brown’s Plan 3.0 is ambitious, but is it too ambitious? (Photo: Catawba College)

Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, spoke at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina, this week. Both at dinner beforehand and later at his lecture, I had an opportunity to hear straight from the source about his Plan B 3.0 for saving civilization. If nothing else, it’s ambitious.

For decades I have read Lester Brown’s books. Think what you will of his dire predictions; his books are chockablock with fascinating, invaluable statistics. His annual State of the World publications, begun in 1984, are required reading for anyone concerned about global change, and a whole slew of them lines my bookshelf.

But while I have read his writings and even spoken with him on the phone, I had never met him before Monday night. Because his reputation loomed so large in my psyche, I hadn’t expected to be confronted with the real Lester Brown – a soft-spoken man in a loosely constructed blue suit, open-necked shirt and sneakers. Given the somber tone of his books, I was delighted to learn that he loves telling jokes – one after another, often poking fun at the political establishment but in good humor.

After dinner, the dinner party decamped to Catawba’s chapel to join the rest of the campus and hear his speech. Like his State of the World series, Brown’s Plan B has a history. In 2003, Brown published Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress – A Civilization in Trouble, which concluded that the world was on a catastrophic course and significant changes were needed. Plan B 2.0, published in 2006, furthered those themes. Now we have the third in the series.

Plan B 3.0 is based on three planks:

  • cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2020,
  • stabilize world population at 8 billion, and
  • eradicate world poverty.

Most of his talk focused on the first plank – cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Cutting Heat-Trapping Pollution: How Much, How Fast, and How

Much of the scientific community has concluded that to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate, carbon dioxide (CO2) must be stabilized at 450 parts per million (ppm), a reduction requiring an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. For reference, CO2 is currently at about 385 ppm, up from about 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution.

Brown belongs to a small but growing group of scientists who have concluded that CO2 is already too high, and that to save the Greenland Ice Sheet, CO2 must be reduced to 350 ppm. (For details, see this recent article.) So, instead of cutting CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050, Brown’s plan calls for the same reduction by 2020.

Such a rapid reduction seems unobtainable, but Brown laid out a scenario whereby it could conceivably occur, the cornerstone of which is a rapid, major scaling up of wind energy.

To be sure there is plenty of wind energy out there, but could we harness so much of it in such a short time? Brown thinks so and used a World War II story to illustrate his point.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt set a huge goal to produce armaments like planes, tanks, guns, and ships. To accomplish it, he tapped the manufacturing capability of the nation’s automobile industry, calling on carmakers to use their ingenuity and assembly-line know-how to mass produce the equipment of war. He even suspended the sale of most new cars. The outcome? Converting its production lines and building new facilities when the old ones were too small (e.g., cars versus tanks), Detroit delivered the goods, and, of course, we won the war, and Americans and the automobile industry survived without cars for a few years.

Agree to Disagree on the Details of How to Fix the Climate

While I don’t think Brown would suggest banning the sale of new cars today -– especially as carmakers join the line of companies seeking government help — I do think he believes that the President-elect Obama has the opportunity to leverage the various bailouts and stimulus packages in play and under consideration to force an economic transformation –- one similar in scope to what FDR engineered.

It was a fascinating, thought-provoking talk, but for me not completely convincing. Yes, we must cut greenhouse gas emissions and soon, but the science is uncertain enough for reasonable disagreement on how fast we should do this and how. And yes, there is plenty of wind energy out there, but making use of it requires infrastructure to get the generated electrons from where the wind is to where the people are. And building wind turbines requires energy, and that extra energy will likely have to come from fossil fuels delaying the benefits of those turbines.

It is also important to bear in mind that too precipitous a cut in greenhouse gas emissions could trigger further economic woes with disastrous consequences in its own right. So I belong to the slow-but-steady school of global warming mitigation.

I suspect Brown would counter that his approach is preferable since it is the more protective of future generations. Near the end of his talk, he talked about the fate of our children and grandchildren if we fail to act on global warming today. His eyes welled up with tears and his voice cracked as he speculated on how they would judge us. You could have heard a pin drop.

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