By Mark Wolf
Los Angeles—The United States and the world needs a third industrial revolution to battle the forces of climate change and slowing economic growth, Jeremy Rifkin told a session on "The Grid of the Future" during Monday's opening day of NCSL's Legislative Summit.
Rifkin, an economic and social theorist, political advisor and best-selling author, painted a daunting picture of a planet heading for ecological crisis unless its leaders act decisively.
Climate change, he said, changes the water cycles of the earth and for every one degree of temperature rise, the atmosphere absorbs 7 percent more precipitation from the ground, which produces more concentrated precipitation in clouds and more dramatic and extreme water events.
"We have flooding going on in every part of the world. That's the new normal," he said.
Industrial revolutions, he said, are based on new communication technologies, new sources of energy and new modes of mobility. He sketched the previous two industrial revolutions fuled first by the invention of steam-powered communications, which allowed the production of cheap textbooks and catalogs, converging with the cheap energy of coal, and then steam-powered rail transportation. Then came the American industrial revolution of centralized communication ("The telephone was a big deal"), joined with cheap Texas oil and the mobility of the internal combustion engine.
Today, he said, the world is in an endgame of fossil fuel dependency and must change to renewables, especially solar and wind.
He cited a Bank of America study that the fossil fuel industry has $100 trillion in stranded assets, which made them a risk for investors.
"And we're going back to coal? Shale?" he said.
He said the future should move toward a system of small communities that collect energy from the sun and wind with traditional utility companies acting in partnership with them to manage the energy distribution.
Rifkin cited projects in rust belt Northern France where communities have created thousands of jobs retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient.
"These revolutions are transformational," he said. "You have to see them as 40-year construction sites."
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.