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In an interview for DW, US economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin looks at what industry's move away from investment in fossil fuels means for policymakers and curbing climate change at large.
DW: Looking at climate change and what the world is doing to fight it, the situation might seem pretty dire, but in your book you say there is a plan, we can fix this. So what is the plan?
Jeremy Rifkin: We're on the cusp of a Third Industrial Revolution. It's the heart of "The Green New Deal." So the communication internet we're all familiar with, it's been about 30 years now. It's just now that the communication internet, which is digital, is converging with a digitized renewable energy internet where millions of businesses and homeowners and others are producing their own solar and wind. What they're not using they're sending back to a digitized renewable energy internet using the same data to share energy as we share news, knowledge and entertainment on the communication internet.
Now those two internets are converging with a third internet — a digitized mobility logistics internet made of electric and fuel cell vehicles powered by solar and wind from the energy internet, and within the next 10 years they'll be autonomous — road, rail, water — and they'll be managed by the data and analytics for their communication internet with no human labor involved.
And then all of those internets ride on the internet of things platform. The buildings are going to be turned into nodes. Every building we live in and work in is going to be a data center, a micro power generation site for your own energy. They're going to be charging stations for your electric vehicles. So we're creating a smart Third Industrial Revolution Green New Deal that will allow us to get off fossil fuels, move to the new-energy solar and wind, allow us to dramatically increase our efficiencies, create millions of new jobs and at the same time address climate change.
So what's going to happen to the fossil fuel industry? Where are the jobs going to go? What's going to happen to the money that's invested in that industry?
In "The Green New Deal" I point out that we're on the cusp of a collapse of the fossil fuel civilization. This is hard for people to imagine — we've lived 200 years off fossil fuels across all of civilization. Our construction materials, our fertilizers, pesticides, pharmaceutical products, food additives, power, transport, heat, light, packaging — it's everything.
But what's happened here and this is really enormous — this year the cost of solar and wind, the levelized cost of scaled solar and wind has now plummeted below the cost of nuclear, below the cost of oil, below the cost of coal and now below the cost of natural gas. So what's happening is we're sitting on the biggest bubble in history — stranded assets in the fossil fuel industry — because now the cost of solar and wind are cheaper, it means all of the gas-fired power plants and the pipelines and the refineries and all the way to the gas stations are stranded assets. They will not amortize out.
This is the biggest bubble in history. Citigroup, a big bank, says this could be some $100 trillion in stranded assets across the fossil fuel civilization. The Economist magazine's Intelligence Unit said it's at least $40 trillion. Our projections are that over the next 10 years this Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure made up of solar and wind electricity and electric transportation vehicles is going to mean that the fossil fuel civilization will probably collapse somewhere around 2028.
It's a huge vacuum and what it makes possible now is a new Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure, because the market is now speaking. The market is so powerful it makes no difference what a fossil fuel industry tries to do to lobby to stay in existence. The market is saying it's over. The problem is the invisible hand is there with the market, but now local governments, regional governments and national governments have to lay out this Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure.
So what you're describing here is essentially a free-market mechanism. Do we even need protests for climate change and do we need government intervention or is the market going to sort it out by itself?
No. What I made clear in "The Green New Deal" is that the market is a powerful force and is saying we're seeing the collapse of fossil fuels because solar and wind are now cheaper and batteries are cheaper and these are coming in and they're going to be cheaper electric vehicles. But that's not enough. You have to have a new infrastructure in place to manage power and move day to day life.
That means the digital communication internet has to join with an energy internet and a mobility internet. And we have to transform all the buildings to internet-of-things-smart platforms. Businesses don't do infrastructure. It's up to local governments and it's up to regional governments and national governments. They have to lay out the infrastructure to make possible the new business opportunities and the new jobs.
Eleven trillion dollars have now been taken out of the fossil fuel industry, especially by pension funds. And these pension funds say 'my God' if this is collapsing we don't want millions of workers not to get their retirement funds. The problem is they have all the money and they want to now invest in a Third Industrial Revolution Green New Deal. But it's up to localities and cities and states to come up with infrastructures that can be scaled as the money is there but they don't want to invest in little pilot projects like a hydrogen bus or a little bike path.
They want to invest in a whole transformation of a city or region. So all the money is there through public pension funds and other investments, they've all gotten out of fossil fuels but now the cities have to step up. The regions have to step up. Countries have to step up. Governments have to help lay out this infrastructure — involve their communities in this transformation and that's where the millions of new jobs will come from. The new business opportunities.
What's at stake if the governments, the local governments, the cities fail to act now?
Were at the most decisive moment in the history of our species on this Earth. We are in a climate event. And that's why there are parents all over the world and children all over the world — and they are afraid, they're going to the streets. They're seeing blockbuster winter snows, they're experiencing spring flooding and devastated homes and neighborhoods. They're seeing wildfires all over the world in the summer months.
So our scientists now tell us that we're in the sixth extinction event. It's the biggest story we've ever faced. We may lose over half the species of life on this Earth in eight decades. The last time we had an extinction event on this magnitude was 65 million years ago and it took thousands of years. So it's justifiable that the young people are on the streets. They are coming home and saying to their parents: Will I ever have children? Will I live on this planet? Will we be able to survive this? Our fellow creatures, will they be here?
This is a frightening moment but it's also an opportunity. We are the most social creature on the planet. We are the biggest neocortex. We have empathy built into our neural circuitry. Human beings can move mountains very, very quickly. So we have a plan, a Green New Deal.
We have an infrastructure transition to Third Industrial Revolution. The technology is here. The market is speaking. The price is there. The business models are there. It is going to employ millions of people. Now we have to have the political will. The question will be whether the young people on the streets — the millennial and Gen C's and their parents' generation — roll up their sleeves and become committed in each community, in each city and each region to make this Third Industrial Revolution the only mission to save our species, to save our fellow creatures and the planet.
If we get off on tangents, if every day something new on the Twitter sphere allows us to divert, we're going to lose the timetable. The scientists are clear. We have 12 years to transform civilization or we are in a runaway climate event. So I say to the American people and people all over the world what are we going to do? If you are a parent or grandparent, if you're a young person, it's time to make this the decisive mission, our life's mission in every single community to save the Earth, to have a Green New Deal to move this forward.
The interview was conducted by DW's Malte Rohwer-Kahlmann.