EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Climate Change and the Energy Transition: Introduction

Ever since civilization began, each generation has left the next a planet similar to the one it inherited. Our generation may be the first to abandon that tradition.

The earth’s temperature is rising. It has gone up 0.6 degrees Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit) since 1970, and it is projected to rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. This rise will be uneven. It will be much greater at the higher latitudes than in the equatorial regions, greater over land than over oceans, and greater in continental interiors than in coastal regions. 1

Sea level is rising too, as a result of the thermal expansion that takes place as ocean water warms and as ice sheets melt. Recent studies project a rise of 3–6 feet by the end of the century. During the entire twentieth century, sea level rose by 7 inches, but if it rises 6 feet by 2100, it will have risen an average of 7 inches per decade. 2

Geographically, the oceans will expand and the continents will shrink. Low-lying island countries will disappear beneath the waves. Rising seas will inundate low-lying cities and rice-growing river deltas, generating hundreds of millions of refugees.

The rapidly rising temperature that is projected for this century with business as usual will alter every ecosystem on earth. Up to one third of all plant and animal species could be lost. Despite the fences we have built around parks and wildlife preserves, the ecosystems within them will not survive the thermal stress. 3

Agriculture as we know it today evolved in a climate that was remarkably stable during its 11,000-year experience. As climate changes, agriculture will be increasingly out of sync with it.

At the same time that rising temperatures are reshaping the earth’s ecology and geography, declining oil production will be reshaping the global economy. The twentieth century was the oil century. In 1900, the world produced 150 million barrels of oil. In 2000, it produced 28 billion barrels—a 185-fold jump. This was the century in which oil overtook coal to become the world’s leading source of energy. It was also the century in which oil totally reshaped life for much of humanity. 4

The rapidly expanding supply of cheap oil led to an explosive worldwide growth in food production, population, urbanization, and human mobility. But today’s oil-based civilization is heavily dependent on a resource whose production will soon be falling. Since 1981, oil extraction has exceeded new discoveries by an ever-widening margin. In 2008, the world pumped nearly 31 billion barrels of oil but discovered only 7 billion barrels. World oil reserves are now in decline, dropping every year. 5

As we look at the future of oil in a Plan B context, it is not only geological constraints but also escalating climate concerns that will reduce its use. Today roughly 43 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels comes from coal and 38 percent from oil. The remaining 19 percent comes from natural gas. Because coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, any effort to quickly cut CO2 emissions means quickly cutting coal use. 6

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1. J. Hansen, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “Global Temperature Anomalies in 0.1 C,” at data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata/GLB.Ts.txt, updated June 2009; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 13, 15.

2. IPCC, op. cit. note 1, pp. 5–7; U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), Global Outlook for Ice and Snow (Nairobi: 2007), p. 103; W. T. Pfeffer, J. T. Harper, and S. O’Neel, “Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-Century Sea-Level Rise,” Science, vol. 321 (5 September 2008), pp. 1340–43; “Sea Levels Will Rise 1.5 Metres by 2100,” NewScientist.com, 16 April 2008; Stefan Rahmstorf, “A Semi-Empirical Approach to Projecting Future Sea-level Rise,” Science, vol. 315 (19 January 2007), pp. 368–70.

3. IPCC, Climate Change 2007: Impact, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group  II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 241–45.

4. International Energy Agency (IEA), Oil Market Report (Paris: August 2001), includes oil, natural gas liquids, and processing gains; historical data from U.S. Department of Defense, Twentieth Century Petroleum Statistics (Washington, DC: 1945), cited in Christopher Flavin and Seth Dunn, “Reinventing the Energy System,” in Lester R. Brown, Christopher Flavin, and Hilary French, State of the World 1999 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), p. 25; coal from Seth Dunn, “Coal Use Continues Rebound,” in Lester R. Brown et al., Vital Signs 1998 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), pp. 52–53.

5. IEA, Oil Market Report (Paris: June 2009); Colin J. Campbell, e-mail to Jignasha Rana, Earth Policy Institute, 18 June 2009.

6. IEA, World Energy Outlook 2008 (Paris: 2008), p. 507.

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