Author Lester Brown explains climate change's impact on food security

As shifting weather patterns and weather-related disasters become more prevalent, food insecurity is a growing concern. During today's OnPoint, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the updated book, "Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization," explains why he believes food security is "the weak link" for our civilization. Brown also discusses recent worldwide progress on renewables, including solar, wind and geothermal energy.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the updated book "Plan B 4.0." Lester, nice to have you on the show.

Lester Brown: Monica, I'm pleased to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: You've just released an updated version of your widely known "Plan B" book, some new trends that you're focusing on; food insecurity and the global push for renewables. Why are these themes so important as we move forward with the climate change discussion?

Lester Brown: Well, you know, in thinking about the conference in Copenhagen on climate change it's really a conference on food security because climate change affects food security in so many ways. I mean for one thing higher temperatures beyond a point reduce yields. The rule of thumb among crop ecologists is that for each one degree Celsius rise in temperature we can expect a 10 percent decline in wheat, rice, or corn yields. The second thing is ice melting. The Greenland ice sheet is melting. If it were to melt entirely sea level would rise 23 feet. So is the West Antarctic ice sheet. These are the two big sources of ice melt that are raising sea level now. If the Greenland ice sheet melts only partly, I mean if we get a 3 foot rise in sea level it would inundate half the rice land in Bangladesh or it would put much of the Mekong Delta underwater and I mention the Mekong Delta because that's where half of Vietnam's rice comes from and that's where a lot of their exported rice comes from. They're the number two rice exporter. The other ice melting threat, and this is probably the biggest of all, is the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau. It's the ice melt from these glaciers that sustains the major river systems of India and China, the Indus, the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Yellow. And if those glaciers disappear, and they are shrinking and some of the smaller ones are gone, if they disappear entirely then some of the major rivers in Asia will become seasonal rivers, flowing during the rainy season, but not during the dry season, for example the Ganges or the Yellow rivers. I lived in Indian villages in 1956 and I've tried to imagine what India without the Ganges flowing would look like and my imagination is not quite up to seeing what that would actually translate into. But the importance of these glaciers as a water storage system for irrigation for both India and China is huge.

Monica Trauzzi: You said that the Copenhagen meeting is really a food security meeting, but do you think that it's recognized as such? I mean is there enough interest on the international level to address this issue?

Lester Brown: I think people think climate change and they have a lot of trends in their mind, more destructive storms, more drought, more flood, higher temperatures and so forth, but I don't think they really analyze it and focus it, but when you do that it's really food security that's the big challenge. And the reason the melting of the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas are so important is because China is the world's leading wheat producer. India is number two. We are number three. And they totally dominate the world rice harvest. So what happens to those glaciers is of importance to everyone in the world because as those glaciers shrink and the river flows diminish in the dry season grain prices go up for all of us.

Monica Trauzzi: The biofuels industry was hit hard a couple of years ago for food security concerns, but it sounds like the issue stretches far beyond that, but we also need to be looking at the impacts of energy production on food supplies.

Lester Brown: No question. What we are doing here in the states now is subsidizing the conversion of grain into fuel for cars and driving up our food prices. I mean, what's wrong with that picture? And we get to pay twice as taxpayers to convert grain into fuel and then at the supermarket checkout counter paying higher food prices. That's an issue. One of the interesting things about China moving into the world market for massive quantities of grain as it almost certainly will and has already done for soybeans, it now imports 70 percent of all the soybeans it consumes, but if they do they'll come to this country. And it's a nightmarish scenario for Americans. The prospect of 1.3 billion Chinese with rapidly rising incomes competing with us for our grain harvests is scary. I mean historically, if we were faced with something like this we would restrict exports, but China is our banker now. They're the ones who buy the treasury securities every month here at the auction in town to finance our fiscal deficit.

Monica Trauzzi: I want to move on to the renewable energy portion of what you talk about in the book. Is there a renewable energy tipping point?

Lester Brown: I think there is and we may have passed it. It may already have tipped. When we were working on "Plan B 3.0" two years ago we could not have imagined the scale and the rate at which renewable energy resources have developed in the last year or two. Just two or three quick examples. Texas, Texas has either in operation, under construction or under development over 50,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity. I mean think 50 coal-fired power plants. Texas has been our leading producer of oil for the last century. It is now our leading producer of wind generated electricity. Or consider China. China started late with wind energy, but in the last four years they've been doubling their output each year. So if you keep doubling each year you're going to get someplace before too long and they are. But beyond that, the semi government agency has stepped in and has organized six huge mega-wind farm complexes with a generating capacity ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 each, so this puts China over 100,000 megawatts. For the last three years the U.S. has led the world in new wind generating capacity. Within the next few months China is going to go by us so fast we may not even see them. I mean they're really pulling out the stops.

Monica Trauzzi: I want to move on before we run out of time to the climate debate that we're seeing in Congress right now. The Kerry-Boxer bill has stronger 2020 targets than the Waxman-Markey House version of the bill. In the past you've called for an 80 percent reduction by 2020. I mean is that even a politically feasible number and what number do you think can be done politically, but also provide environmental benefits?

Lester Brown: Was the total restructuring of the U.S. industrial economy in a matter of months in 1942 politically feasible? Most people didn't think it could happen even after President Roosevelt announced that we were going to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, several thousand ships. People thought he had lost it. We were still in a depression mode economy at the time, but in the end we exceeded every one of those arms production goals. And the reason then was Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything and what we are beginning to see with renewable energy for example is that concerns are rising around the world about climate change and we're beginning to see the effects here and there. We're still on the edge. The big things are yet to come, but people are worried about that and so we're seeing this enormous interest in renewables. I mentioned China because when you mention China people think, oh, another coal-fired power plant every week. Well, they are still building coal-fired power plants, but they've slowed down a lot and they're really cranking up on wind and solar on a scale that no one else is. The other big one that's coming down the road is the proposal coming, it's called the Desert Tech proposal that Munich Ray has organized with a dozen corporations in Europe, including Deutsche Bank, Siemens, ABB, to develop the solar resources in North Africa. North Africa has enough harnessable solar energy to satisfy all of the electricity needs in Europe.

Monica Trauzzi: So it sounds like there's a lot happening around the world on the renewable energies.

Lester Brown: The interesting thing about this proposal and this plan, they're now working on the actual plan and the financial planning as well, is that governments have nothing to do with it.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, I'm going to have to end you right there, but thank you for coming on the show.

Lester Brown: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: It was a pleasure to have you here. And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

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