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Q&A with Jeremy Rifkin

The New Statesman talks to Jeremy Rifkin, economist, writer, political adviser and activist, about r

How urgent is climate change?
Scientists say we could see a 70 per cent wipe-out of all life on this planet by the end of the century. Climate change is the energy bill for two centuries of industrial-based carbon activity. We need a new economic vision and game plan. We have to get off carbon by 2040.

How could this be achieved?
If renewable energies are distributed in every square inch of the world, why are we only collecting them at a few points? The goal is to convert every single existing building in the European Union into a personal, clean micro power plant. So you can collect solar off your roof, wind off your side wall.

How would that translate into wider change?
We take internet technology and transform the power grid of the world into an energy internet. So when millions of us are producing our own green energy on site, storing it in hydrogen, our energy internet will allow us to sell and share any extra. We become our own energy producers. We then collaborate and share that energy in the same way as we share information on social media spaces on the internet.

Do you see this vision becoming a reality?
Young people now favour lateral and side-by-side power. That's the new politics, and it's favourable to a third industrial revolution. [They] grew up empowered on the internet to create its own information and share it freely. They now need to create their own green energy that they share in vast continental spaces.

Is this only possible during an economic boom?
The exact opposite. The second industrial revolution is on life support; it's dying. Why would you mend a 20th-century infrastructure that gives you no multiplier effect? The European Union has made a formal commitment to a plan to upgrade its infrastructure. That could create millions of jobs.

Which country is leading?
They are testing this smart grid in six major regions of Germany today. They are converting homes, factories and offices all over Germany. The Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Europe overall, will move quickly.

Which countries are behind?
The United States is an outlier country. I grew up in the heartlands of America. I know that once America gets the story, no one can move quicker. But we're lost right now, we're off track. Those countries that can't find the imagination and the will and the entrepreneurial spirit are going to fall behind really quickly.

Where does the developing world fit in?
The third industrial revolution will move faster in the developing world. It has no infrastructure. They can leapfrog straight into this and create a sustainable future.

What are the barriers?
The biggest barrier is imagination. There is growing denial about climate change. People don't want to recognise it because it is terrifying. It's overwhelming. It is also a moment of great opportunity. The third industrial revolution is a practical plan; it's not utopian. We have to get on to renewables and get off carbon.

Is the UK taking sufficient action?
I was approached by the Cameron people before the election. Certainly there are people in this administration that understand what needs to be done, but that doesn't mean it is being done. We have to move from talk to walk. They have a long way to go here and if they really want a third industrial revolution, as they said to me at the beginning of the administration, they have yet to prove it.

Should we be more worried about not having enough, or not having the right kind of energy?
Energies like coal, gas and uranium are found only in a few places in the world and they require huge military investment to secure them. Distributive energies are everywhere in the world. The sun shines all over the world every day, and the wind blows. We have enough distributed renewable green energy to provide for our species until kingdom come.

Where does the main responsibility lie for cutting carbon: with consumers, business or government?
We need political mobilisation. We need to have the narrative spread and we need to engage every community with business, society and government to make this happen.

During your work have you had your assumptions proved wrong or revised your opinion?
Back in 1972 I organised a protest. It was the first protest against the oil industry in history. It's been a long road from 1972 to 2011. During that period, I underestimated the speed of climate change, even though I wrote one of the first books on it. It is moving very aggressively. The urgency of this goes beyond the global economy. This is an urgency for our species and for life on this planet.

Are we all doomed?
The question is not "Are we all doomed?", but "What can we do?". We have a game plan, a third industrial revolution. It can get us to a post-carbon future in 30 years. I absolutely know this can be done. Whether it will be done is the question.

The CV

1967 Graduates from Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
1973 Organises mass protest at Boston Harbour following Opec oil embargo
1988 Co-ordinates first meeting of Global Greenhouse Network in Washington
1994 Becomes senior lecturer on Wharton's executive education programme
2007 "Third industrial revolution" formally endorsed by European Parliament
2009-2010 Develops master plans for San Antonio (Texas), Rome and Monaco

“The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World" is published by Palgrave Macmillan (£16.99)

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.