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Jeremy Rifkin on San Antonio, the European Union, and the lessons learned in our push for a planetary-scale power shift

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, Jeremy Rifkin, Palgrave MacMillan, $27, 291 page

On the climate side, do you agree with [NASA scientist] Jim Hanson? I mean, he uses the term 'game over' as well as he's fighting the Keystone pipeline and the tar sands.

Well I think Jim Hanson’s absolutely on the right track. My mistake was I kept underestimating the speed of this, the acceleration of climate change, because I couldn’t anticipate, couldn’t get my mind around all this subtle feedback in this pretty complex system we live in, this biosphere. The feedback loops are terrifying. So when we went to [the UN Climate Change Conference 2009] Copenhagen, we went there and we said, “Look, we want to talk the countries in the world into mitigating at 450 parts per million carbon by 2050. To do that, we go up two degrees, which is devastating. I mean, 2 degrees is really devastating, but we might survive it. But then Jim Hanson really threw us a curve and he said, “You’ve got your numbers wrong.” He and his scientific team looked at the geological record and said we have never been over 300 parts per million in 650,000 years” — which we all knew — “We're now at 370. If we go to 450 ppm the record shows we go up 6 degrees and this is the end of civilization as we have come to know it.”

What I believe is that we are really in trouble. I think we haven’t even begun to anticipate all these new feedback loops like the Siberian permafrost melt. And we know in agriculture we've got big trouble around the world. The biggest problem, and I wish Al Gore and others would mention this, I don’t think he did in his film, it's all about the water cycle. For every one degree Celsius the temperature rises, the atmosphere discharges 7 percent more precipitation. That's a frightening thing. That means more floods, more droughts, the change of the whole water cycle affects everything. Snow melts in the mountains to seawater, that is something so dramatic it takes my breath away. I think that we are in a difficult moment right now, probably the most difficult we have faced since we have been on the planet. In the short run, we are at the end game for the fossil fuel age. We could go to tar sands, heavy oil, and coal, which would up the CO2 even quicker, which means more losses in agriculture and infrastructure and everything that goes with that. (That’s why this tar-sands pipeline is an ominous sign.) Or we can begin to phase into a post-carbon era quickly. If there’s any positive sign here, it’s this: There have been other moments in history where economic eras collapse because there was no alternative option on the horizon. As you know in the book, the point I try to make, which I think is a new point, is that the major economic revolutions in history appear when the new energy regimes emerge. And when they emerge, they make possible more complex, integrated social and economical arrangements and more specialized scales and more complicated societies. When energy and communications revolutions converge you are really changing history because they narrow temporal-spatial orientation allowing you to socialize and engage in trade over bigger areas.

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