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Interviewing Tom Friedman On The Urgency of Climate Action

Joseph Romm's picture
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  • Mar 7, 2012 2:00 am GMT

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Friedman: “I’ve never been more concerned about climate change than I am now….”

Tom Friedman had another good NY Times column Sunday on climate and clean energy, “Take the Subway.” The gist of it was that because of the urgency of climate change, we need to start aggressively deploying clean energy ASAP. I interviewed him about his thinking this morning.

What I’ve always liked about Friedman is that he is just about the only major columnist anywhere in the political spectrum (other than Krugman) who regularly writes about climate and clean energy in his op-ed column.

Even though Friedman is a “centrist” or “moderate” — or perhaps because he is a centrist — he gets the two key points:

  1. Climate science makes increasingly clear that inaction is ever-more dangerous, which is why we have to keep talking about the problem
  2. The only way to avoid the worst of climate change is a price on carbon coupled with aggressive deployment of clean energy.

That could not have been clearer from his previous columns, his books, and his recent column, which I’ll excerpt below.

So you can imagine how surprised he was to learn that some folks were trying to twist his latest column to argue that somehow he was no longer for explaining the dire climate situation to people, for enacting a carbon price, and for aggressively deploying clean energy.

He told me, “It is sort of pathetic that people grasp at any perceived shift in emphasis in my column to drive a wholly different agenda.”

Consider this puzzling tweet on the article from NY Times blogger Andy Revkin:


Tom Friedman pushes smart-energy endrun past CO2 stasis echoing climate pragmatism @GlobalEcoGuy

If you go to the link on “climate pragmatism” you’ll see it’s pretty much the opposite of what Friedman has been talking about for years and the opposite of what he said in that article. Climate pragmatism is one of those phony terms like “clean coal.” It means basically ignoring the climate and isn’t pragmatic —  unless doing little other than R&D in the face of humanity’s self-destruction is pragmatic (see “The Road to Ruin: Extremist ‘Climate Pragmatism’ Report Pushes Right-Wing Myths and a Failed Strategy“).

Friedman did note to me that op-eds are only several hundred words long, so he can’t repeat his full position in every article.  You’d think that would be obvious to professional journalists. Indeed, you’d think that professional journalists who were trying to figure out if another journalist had in fact changed his views from multiple articles and a book on a subject would just call that person up. You’d be wrong.

I chatted with Friedman today about the piece and about his current thinking.  What’s ironic is that Friedman is exceedingly pragmatic and evidence-based about climate change and solutions. Here’s what he told me:

  • “I’ve never been more concerned about climate change than I am now, especially after having been to Russia and the Middle East recently.”
  • “I’m still 100% for a carbon tax.”
  • “Addressing climate change is not about R&D.  Breakthroughs come from deployment, and driving prices down come from deployment. Those two together are what give you scalable responses to our climate problem.”
  • “The only way you get down the learning curve is deployment. That’s what happened with cell phones. That’s what China is doing with solar power. If we don’t get down the learning curve someone else will.”

And no, he’s not against R&D — he just thinks it’s perhaps the smallest piece of the climate solution and not something one should build a climate policy around (unlike, say, the climate pragmatists).

He very much doesn’t want to lose the industry and jobs that will come with “The Sixth Wave” — the resurgence of resource efficiency driven by resource scarcity and climate change that is also the title of one of the books he is recommending in the piece.

As for the basic message on climate science, he writes:

This is a column about energy and environment and why we must not let the poisonous debate about climate change so tie us in knots that we cannot have any energy policy at all, particularly one focused on developing much more efficient use of resources, through better designs and systems. If you are so reckless as to dismiss all climate science as a hoax, and do not accept the data that our planet is getting hotter and the oceans rising, I can’t help you. That’s between you and your beach house — and your kids, whose future you’re imperiling.

It’s amusing that some bloggers lopped off the end of that quote.

Yes, Friedman is mocking the climate science deniers here. Duh. But he’s also making a larger point I have made many times: Clean energy technologies have so many ancillary benefits that one can make a case for aggressively deploying them without climate change. But the aggressive deployment is key.

Indeed, Friedman quotes a bunch of people who are very concerned about climate change who make the case that energy efficiency combined with renewable energy can solve the climate problem.

Here is a simple example that the energy expert Hal Harvey uses: “Consider a standard incandescent light bulb, powered by a coal-fired power plant.  If the coal plant is 33 percent efficient (the average in the U.S.), and the light bulb is 3 percent efficient, then the net conversion of energy to light is just 1 percent.  That is pathetic — and typical. An L.E.D. light, powered by an efficient natural gas turbine, converts 20 percent of the total energy to light— a 20-fold increase.”  Run it on renewables and it’s carbon-free to boot.

Harvey is a longtime champion of aggressive climate action — the 2°C target — in part because he understands climate science and in part because he understands how affordable it is to hit that target.

Friedman ends by quoting my old boss and co-author:

This is where Amory Lovins, the physicist who is chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, begins in his new book, “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era,” which is summarized in the current Foreign Affairs. The Rocky Mountain Institute and its business collaborators show how private enterprise — motivated by profit, supported by smart policy — can lead America off both oil and coal by 2050, saving $5 trillion, through innovation emphasizing design and strategy.

“You don’t have to believe in climate change to solve it,” says Lovins. “Everything we do to raise energy efficiency will make money, improve security and health, and stabilize climate.”

That’s certainly true.  You don’t have to believe in climate change to solve it. I’ve known Lovins for  2 decades, since I worked with him at Rocky Mountain Institute before he recommended me for a job at the DOE. I coathored an article in Foreign Affairs with him.

Lovins does not share the views of the do-little climate pragmatists. He supports an aggressive deployment policy and improved utility regulations, which would certainly get us much of the way to where we have to go. Lovins doesn’t fully agree with people like Friedman, who advocates a carbon tax, but he doesn’t oppose a tax either. He simply believes that we have the technology available today to solve the problem and we could deploy it without a carbon price if we were smart (unlike the so-called “pragmatists”).

The pragmatic view is that we have the technology available today to start down the path of rapid emissions reductions, which is critical to avoid imperiling the future of our kids, as Friedman says. I tend to agree with Friedman and not with Lovins — we need a carbon price as part of the overall effort. But the most important thing is to start aggressively deploying clean energy and keep shutting down dirty energy plants.

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David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Mar 7, 2012

And thus endeth the sermon for today.  

We’ll get back to Joe’s action packed story about how America can get off both oil and coal by 2050, saving $5 trillion, through innovation emphasizing design and strategy” while saving the planet in a moment, but first, let’s hear from TEC’s own Marc Gunther.  

Gunther interviewed a climate scientist, David Keith, on this very subject for his new book.  Here’s Gunther on Keith:  “He’s perturbed by the quality of the climate debate in the US.  Environmentalists who claim that regulating CO2 will drive economic growth by creating green jobs are being disingenuous, he says”. 

And here’s Keith himself, quoted by Gunther:  “Not a single competent business owner or economist really thinks that you are going to put a big carbon restraint on the economy and see accelerated growth.  It’s going to cost money to cut emissions.  So on that side, some in the green movement are overhyping to the point of bullshit.  And everybody knows it

Gunther again, summarizing Keith:  “Even more disturbing are conservative politicians and media outlets that sow doubts about climate science….  Facts matter, on both sides

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