Christopher Flavin Energy Without Regrets

Sunday, July 01, 2001
Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., challenges the prevailing government view that environmental protection is the enemy of economic growth— a view likely to be aired again at this month's meeting in Bonn of the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change. As an expert on alternative energy sources, Flavin is optimistic that a switch away from fossil fuels to cleaner technologies will mean not privation but great opportunity. Discover associate editor Josie Glausiusz interviewed Flavin about the interconnections between energy, environment, and politics.

How do you regard President Bush's decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol?
This is one of the most anti-environmental actions that we've ever seen a U.S. President take. It is a huge step back for an international process that's been underway for about ten years. Ironically, though, I think this decision could actually speed up the implementation of the Kyoto protocol. This has spurred a huge world-wide reaction, and pushed countries together that otherwise might have had differences on these issues.

Is global warming really occurring, or is the jury still out?
There's no serious scientific dispute that the world is warming. Global average temperatures, both atmospheric and oceanic, are showing significant rises, and there are increasingly frequent heat waves in many parts of the world. Ice is melting almost anywhere you look— mountain glaciers, the big ice-caps on Greenland, for example. There's been something like a 40 percent thinning of the average thickness of ice at the North Pole.

In addition, there are more extreme weather events, more storms and floods, which are contributing to record levels of natural disasters around the world. Sea levels are rising. It's not possible to predict every detail, but among the possibilities are that the state of Georgia in the United States could end up with a climate like Guatemala's. We could also see significant reductions in food production in some parts of the world.

Would the Kyoto Protocol be sufficient to reverse global warming?
I don't think there's anyone that would claim that the Kyoto Protocol will by itself reverse global warming. This is a problem that took a century to get ourselves into, and it will take probably another century to fully work our way out of it. So this is a first step. What it does is reduce [carbon dioxide] emissions in industrial countries. But the most important thing it does is send a signal to the market that we need to be moving away from fossil fuels rather than towards them.

What's the basis for U.S. objections to the Protocol?
President Bush likes to point at the developing countries and say they aren't part of this agreement, so the poor U.S. is going to have to take the burden. But the U.S. contributes roughly 25 percent of the total emissions, and U.S. emissions are up 12 percent since 1990. In fact, that 12 percent increase is equivalent to the combined increase in emissions during that same period of all of China, India and Africa combined. If you add up those three regions, that's a population of 3 billion, compared to a U.S. population of 280 million.

It really shows, I think, why there is such anger around the world about the U.S. decision. The U.S. is really becoming a bit of an international pariah. This term that has been used to describe President Bush, which I think appeared in British newspaper recently, was "Polluter-in-Chief." To be honest, it's really getting to be a bit embarrassing to be an American traveling around the world to talk about these issues.

What about the argument that economic interests outweigh environmental ones?
That's true only if you're looking at some very narrow special economic interests— the coal industry, the oil industry. It's not true when you look the economy as a whole. As we move away from fossil fuels, there's going to be an energy revolution that would create one of the biggest new set of economic opportunities that we've ever seen. There's an awful lot of new high-tech equipment that would be required to deliver new energy technologies.

What are the most promising ways to wean ourselves off fossil fuels?
One element is developing renewable energy sources— solar energy, wind power, bio-energy. Already these are the world's fastest-growing energy sources. Creating a hydrogen infrastructure would allow these renewable sources to power vehicles and buildings using fuel cells. Another element is improving our energy efficiency. For example, we could reduce taxes on efficient cars and raise the taxes on those that are least efficient. We could also put more emphasis micro-turbines and fuel cells, where you put the power source right in the building and utilize the waste heat. Such technologies can reduce emissions by 90 percent compared to electricity from coal-fire plants.

How do you rate President Bush's environmental record so far?
I'd give him a two out of ten so far. The Bush Administration has made a very long list of mistakes. Opening up old growth forests to additional logging. Revisiting the arsenic standard in water. The Kyoto Protocol decision, of course. The decision not to move forward with carbon dioxide limits for power plants. The plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which bespeak a philosophy that is many decades out of date. But I am hopeful that they will manage to turn that record around. It's still relatively early, but I think they have misread both the environmental needs of the country and the world, and that's why they're now backpedaling so furiously.

What is your greatest love?
What really motivates me is a love for the planet and the extraordinary gifts that it provides to we human beings. I think that we've fooled ourselves over the last century, thinking that we could take those gifts for granted and simply exploit the Earth as if there were three or four more out there that we could get to next. But I think we're now finding that we really need to come into a balance with the earth's natural systems.

What do you imagine the world will be like one hundred years from now?
I see two different possibilities. One future is one where accelerating environmental decline begins to undermine living standards, causing a downward spiral, economically and socially, throughout the world. The other, much more optimistic possibility, is that we're actually able to address these issues, and that a hundred years from now we have a much cleaner world: one where we're not losing forests, we're not dramatically changing the climate, where human needs are being met, but on a sustainable basis. I think that rather than predicting the future, we have a choice before us as to which future we want to pursue.
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