[Revised Saturday, 7:39pm]
Two years after declaring his support for the Iraq war in Kresge Auditorium in 2005, Thomas Friedman returned to Stanford today to declare “Green” as the way to “restore America to its natural place in the global order as the beacon of progress, hope, and inspiration.”
The three most important issues facing America, he said, are “jobs, temperature, and terrorism,” the solutions to which “are so large in scale, they cannot possibly be addressed by an America divided along red and blue state lines.”
“The power of a new Green ideology is that it can, properly defined, mobilize liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and atheists, red states and blue states, big business and environmentalists around a core agenda that can both pull us together and propel us forward.”
“The next president,” he said, “will have to rally us with a Green patriotism.”
Friedman said that Green “hit mainstream” through the convergence of 9/11, Katrina, and the internet revolution. The “bad news” is that, while Green has hit mainstream, it has not “gone down Main Street.”
“The dirty little secret is that we are fooling ourselves. … We have not even begun to be serious about the costs, the effort, and the industrial-scale change that will be required to shift our country and eventually the world to a largely emissions-free power infrastructure over the next 50 years.”
Friedman continued by painting broad strokes about America’s dependence on oil from the Middle East and the increasing “petro-authoritarianism” there, as governments staying afloat on oil revenues need not tax nor, therefore, represent their citizens. He then drew connections between these government revenues (especially in Saudi Arabia), funding for a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, and the strengthening of terrorist organizations.
Of course, in his new Green ideology, the long-term solution to this phenomenon, along with the solution to global warming, is massive conversion of our energy infrastructure to non-oil, renewable, and low-emissions energy sources (rather than changing our lifestyle in any way).
But as tough as this will be in America, he said, even if we are able to completely reduce our emissions to zero, countries like China and India will be emitting more than we ever did, given projections for their economic development over the next several decades.
This presents even more of a daunting challenge. How do we get them to go Green along with us? They apparently resent our proclamations that they should “grow clean,” after we got to “grow dirty.”
So the bigger challenge, he said, is not how to get America to go Green; we can afford more expensive energy. The bigger challenge is how to get green energy down to Chinese prices, wherein it becomes economically rational for them to deploy and use green energy over what’s cheapest. For China, that’s coal.
Friedman’s diagnosis is interesting. On its face, it’s obvious. Given the dirt-cheap availability of coal in China, we should not expect them to spend more on alternative energies and therefore risk hampering their growth. His analysis also seems to offer the first sort of roadmap for thinking about the challenges beyond what we will face at home in confronting global warming.
Friedman’s suggested solution is that the United States form a partnership with China to develop technologies that will work in the country and at their prices. This would certainly be beneficial.
But Friedman’s analysis is patronizing because he seems to assume that, while the United States would be willing to make tradeoffs between growth and lower emissions, China and others would not. Apparently, while we’re able to consider more factors than just what the cheapest energy source is, China cannot. The irony is that China’s political leadership has, in some ways, shown more of this consideration than ours has. Just look at their fuel efficiency standards.
In fact, it would be easier for everyone to confront global warming, not just China, if alternative energies were cheaper in every country than coal or oil. But they aren’t, and so we all must work to develop and deploy low-cost alternative energies if we are going to start to solve this problem.
It’s true that the United States will have more resources to spend on deploying alternative energy sources, even if they are more expensive. But, given what China has to lose from global warming, they will also find it in their interest to devote massive resources to deploying alternative energies.
So where does Friedman’s talk leave us? His approach to confronting global warming (and terrorism) is through innovation in alternative energies and a complete overhaul of the world’s energy infrastructure, at least in the biggest carbon emitters. All led by the United States, of course. This is not the most complete or comprehensive solution, but it would go a long way toward helping us confront the crisis.
As always, Friedman paints himself as an ardent optimist and a true believer in the power of humanity to make the right decisions to head off major catastrophe. The problem is that, in the past, as with the Iraq war, his optimism has hinged on some pretty big if’s. If we can stop the funding of terrorists operating in Iraq. If the Iraqis can form alliances across religious and ethnic lines. If the government can stop the violence from descending into civil war.
With global warming, now more than ever, the survival and future of our planet is riding on some huge if’s. I won’t suggest that Friedman will be wrong again, but we are kind of swimming upstream in whitewater rapids, to put it lightly.
Unlike going to war in Iraq, we have no choice but to address this climate crisis. This is the real war we should be fighting and should be spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year on. If we are going to lift a finger to spread democracy or to supposedly prevent 3,000 people from dying in another terrorist attack on American soil, we should at least also lift a finger to save the planet on which democracies, Americans, and everything else resides.