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Monday, April 16, 2007

A Must, Must Read

posted by on April 16 at 10:30 AM


Whatever you think of Thomas Friedman, his piece on the geopolitics of climate change in the recent New York Times Sunday Magazine is tremendously important and well done, and should be read widely.

If you know anything about the problems of dealing with global climate change, you understand that they are primarily financial and political—but mostly financial.

The scientific “debate” is a distraction. The question is not whether global warming is happening and will cause catastrophic problems in the future if left unchecked. That question has been settled. It is, and it will. The real question now is: How do we make the switch to clean energy without having a seriously negative impact on the economies of both the developed and developing worlds?

Friedman answers that question in this piece and, most powerfully, he does so in a way that is comprehensible to people without advanced degrees in economics, international politics, or science.

This essay could be for the political class what An Inconvenient Truth was for the journalistic class: A way to move away from old, phony debates and toward real issues of importance.

And, while An Inconvenient Truth was mainly a warning and a call to action, Friedman’s piece provides politicians of both parties with an actual blueprint for action and a very pro-American way of framing the steps that will need to be taken to save our “way of life.”

Read it now. And then watch to see if politicians—especially the presidential candidates, who Friedman brutally calls on the carpet in this piece—start changing their talking points on global warming:

We need a Green New Deal… Bush won’t lead a Green New Deal, but his successor must if America is going to maintain its leadership and living standard. Unfortunately, today’s presidential hopefuls are largely full of hot air on the climate-energy issue. Not one of them is proposing anything hard, like a carbon or gasoline tax, and if you think we can deal with these huge problems without asking the American people to do anything hard, you’re a fool or a fraud.

Being serious starts with reframing the whole issue — helping Americans understand, as the Carnegie Fellow David Rothkopf puts it, “that we’re not ‘post-Cold War’ anymore — we’re pre-something totally new.” I’d say we’re in the “pre-climate war era.” Unless we create a more carbon-free world, we will not preserve the free world. Intensifying climate change, energy wars and petroauthoritarianism will curtail our life choices and our children’s opportunities every bit as much as Communism once did for half the planet.

Equally important, presidential candidates need to help Americans understand that green is not about cutting back. It’s about creating a new cornucopia of abundance for the next generation by inventing a whole new industry. It’s about getting our best brains out of hedge funds and into innovations that will not only give us the clean-power industrial assets to preserve our American dream but also give us the technologies that billions of others need to realize their own dreams without destroying the planet. It’s about making America safer by breaking our addiction to a fuel that is powering regimes deeply hostile to our values. And, finally, it’s about making America the global environmental leader, instead of laggard.

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Yes, it is a good read. We are in a pre-climate war state. And it will be a long battle. To ramp up we need to think and respond in chunks. For example

Year 1: Light Bulbs
Year 2: Thermostats (get a programable)
Year 3: Windows
Year 4: Packaging reform
Year 5: Tolling
Year 6: Refridgerators
Year 7: (ahh lucky 7) The Car
Year 8: Nuclear Power (yikes)
Year 9: Dirigibles (sp?)

Posted by Lawrence Molloy | April 16, 2007 10:56 AM

In the long run, there's one power source -- ONE -- that we are sure about that can easily provide all the power we could ever need: space-borne solar. Yes, solar panels in space shooting down power to be used by us. It is the ne plus ultra in clean (or, rather, all the waste will be in outer space, so fuck it), and it is almost inexhaustible.

And we already have all of the necessary technology. We could be doing this RIGHT NOW. In addition to earth based solar panels. I mean, for fuck's sake, I live in fucking CALIFORNIA and no one has solar panels! Oh, yeah, we have 300 clear days a year, but NO SOLAR PANELS. Not to mention solar towers in all those desert areas.

NOTHING is more powerful, or more accessible, or less controversial than solar power, which can be developed simultaneously on several axes at the same time (solar water towers, urban solar development, space based solar power satellites) but it's like no one knows this.

Posted by Chris Bradley | April 16, 2007 11:03 AM

Eli, thanks so much for posting this. Energy is the overarching issue of the 21st century, and Tom Friedman is one of the very few commentators out there with the open-mindedness and the lack of ideological baggage to really address it pragmatically. (You can tell Friedman is on to something because liberals hate him for being a conservative and conservatives hate him for being a liberal. And angry activists like to dismiss his ideas with a simple, two-word "Tom Friedman?!" as if the mere mention of his name is enough of an ad hominen attack to discredit any argument associated with it.)

There's nothing really new in this piece that Friedman hasn't covered in his op-ed columns. My favorite idea of his is a gradual $1 hike in the federal gas tax. Al Gore and Bill Bradley have championed a similar idea, with the twist that a gas-tax hike should be offset by an equivalent cut in payroll taxes. I guess it's no coincidence that politicians come up with their most far-sighted, courageous, and effective ideas only after they retire from politics.

Posted by cressona | April 16, 2007 11:06 AM

As Eli points out from this piece, the current crop of presidential candidates lacks any real vision on energy issues. Take Barack Obama. I happen to think the guy is quite promising, but it's hard not to look at the energy page on his Web site and be profoundly disappointed:

Ethanol? Clean coal research? Encouraging Detroit to make hybrids? Are you kidding me?

Barack Obama is no fool. He knows just as well as any other educated person that corn-based ethanol is a joke. And I can't even say I blame him for not sticking his neck out.

Posted by cressona | April 16, 2007 11:31 AM

It's amazing to me that this issue isn't being used as the glue that it could be to unite the left and right, conservative and liberal, educated elite and trade-school craftsman. If we fundamentally changed our economy and education / training-schools we could make the U.S. a leading economy once again. Engineering and innovation have always beeen the solution in the past.

Which provides more employment opportunity? A single coal plant or a fleet of turbines, solar panels and other smaller micro-generating equipment? We need to be excited about technology and the future again.

Posted by John at Work | April 16, 2007 11:36 AM

While Friedman's work is a positive sign insofar as it pushes green issues on politicians, I've got to call you on this, Eli--Friedman's tendency to provide answers "in a way that is comprehensible to people without advanced degrees in economics, international politics, or science" is precisely why it's so dangerous.

Green issues are very important, but Friedman's a booster for a variety of potentially foolish programs, like biofuels. While a promising alternative source of fuel, today, biofuel is produced by huge agribusiness corporations receiving huge government handouts. Producing biofuel crops--like all crops--uses massive amounts of fertilizers and other tradition petroleum based products, such that a gallon of biodiesel produced today likely used more oil to produce than a gallon of regular unleaded.

Additionally, politicians use investments in "green" fuels to pour subsidies on favored corporations in their home states, generally agribusinesses who are supposed to be losing their government subsidies as part of free-trade agreements. In other words, the US has opened markets in countries like Mexico to US food imports, which--because of massive American subsidies for production--we dominate, driving local agricultural producers into the ground. Yet when nations like Brazil--with cheaper crops and a more advanced biofuel program anyway--try to force the US to liberalize trade agreements, the government gets all up in arms about the national-security implications of the energy sector. In other words, a lot of talk about biofuels is nothing but cover for politics-as-normal in DC (read: corporate welfare, anti-environmental politics, and third world exploitation). The cost is that Americans start buying into the pipedream that Friedman tries to sell, "a new cornucopia of abundance" in his terminology.

Americans should be wise to such sales pitches; who believes that we can create an (a) environmentally friendly, (b) renewable source of energy that (c) will allow us to consume more--rather than less--energy in the future? Rarely in life can you both have your cake and eat it, too.

Posted by Jeremy M. Barker | April 16, 2007 11:57 AM

It doesn't matter what the US does. It matters what China does. And China doesn't give a fuck about global warming.

Get this, just for starters: in the next few years, car manufacturing is set to DOUBLE. Ford and GM will probably go out of business in that time, but their vehicles will be replaced by hundreds of millions of Asian ones.

Posted by Fnarf | April 16, 2007 12:31 PM

Fnarf, are you disagreeing with Friedman, Eli or a commenter? My understanding of Friedman's article (which was the first thing of his I have liked in about 8 years) was that he appreciated the importance of China very well. He wants the US to create incentives for cleaner energy technology that can allow China to develop in a clean way.

Given that, I agree with Jeremy that I am not 100% excited for watching the politicians co opting the Green message. Ethanol is not a real option but politicians in the US have reasons for liking it.

Capitalism and politics are ugly, so its unfortunate that capitalism and politics are going to be needed to solve this problem, but that seems to be the case.

What I am worried about is the economists. I heard Jeffrey Sachs, who is responsible for the the shock treatment in the former USSR that lead to a huge drop in life expectancy and a tripling of alcoholism and has now taken on development, argue that sustainable development would be possible without a decrease in standard of living in the west, and he aimed to prove it economically. (reminded me of Bush after 9/11 and the war, deemphasizing sacrifice) He fucked up in Russia with his economic policies, and if we fuck up our response to climate change we might not have another chance to redeem ourselves.

Friedman's stance on standard of living in the rich world was not clear to me. He said we would have to sacrifice and do a lot, ala New Deal, but at another point seemed to be setting NYT mag readers minds at ease saying we won't have to change our lives THAT much...

Posted by Jude Fawley | April 16, 2007 12:44 PM

Friedman, like Al Gore, seems to feel that "sacrifice" is the equivalent of "doing something rather than nothing." Friedman, who's a major proponent of neoliberalism, believes the magic of the free market will save us. He may be right; personally, I think there's a lot that can be done now.

For instance, we need should end tax breaks on "light trucks." They're no longer being primarily used for work, and it makes it too affordable for people to buy fuel-inefficient roadway behemoths. We should increase fuel-efficiency standards in a meaningful way. And we should abnsolutely oppose this idiotic "clean coal" movement, which is a patently lame idea with little promise.

As for the argument that the US has nothing to do with and China has everything to do with it, that's really just a Republican argument. Yes, China's a massive roadblock. That doesn't excuse the US. Moreover, it's a defeatist posture to assume that since China's not moving now, the entire planet's fucked and we shouldn't bother doing anything. That's the beatnik solution: we haven't tried anything, and we're all out of ideas.

The reality is that standard of living has to be seen as relative--so long as the benefits of managing our environmental impact outweight the costs, the standard of living continues to improve. Ultimately, shorter life expectancies and poorer public health due to environmental contamination negate the argument that any substantive change to environmental policy will lower standards of living.

And this is, I think, the crux of my criticism. While long-term thinking and investment is crucial to solving these seemingly intractable problems, that shouldn't excuse inaction in the short term. Some small measures could go a long way to managing emissions currently; Friedman's crime is his unwillingness to accept that sometimes government regulation can achieve the most bang for your buck, a status he exclusively seems to reserve for free-market entrepeneurs.

Posted by Jeremy M. Barker | April 16, 2007 12:55 PM

I'm just expressing pessimism. I agree that we should devote some serious research dollars to finding cleaner sources of energy, but I don't think it's going to make any difference. If we cut our carbon emissions by 50% -- which is extremely unlikely -- global carbon emissions will STILL probably double in the next 25 years or less. China emits far more pollution per unit of GDP than we do, and they are hell-bent on coming up to our level of consumption.

The other thing that makes me pessimistic is that the only answer that's going to work is politically impossible: nukes.

Posted by Fnarf | April 16, 2007 1:51 PM

Friedman is such a joke and so inconsistent. I totally agree with the majority of his article but it is quite strange to see a man so devoted to neoliberalism embrace a position that positively requires government putting a cap on corporate activity. Maybe he should open his eyes to other issues like water rights, housing, medical access, etc...

Posted by Faber | April 16, 2007 2:33 PM

Friedman understands the problem well enough, but not the solution. His solution, as always, is "free-market capitalism"--the same ideological construct that is largely responsible for the mess we're in.

It's not that markets don't have an essential role to play, it's that every market is the result of government policies that respond to political interests. Globally, the most powerful interests are (mostly corporate) economic interests, which would not exist without strong government regulation to protect the assets of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Policies to prevent the worst outcomes of global climate change threaten these interests, and the only way to enact them is to regulate markets differently, for the benefit of other political interests. We need to change how we build cities, how we grow our food, how we make goods, and how we transport people and goods. It's possible to do that in a way that encourages the cooperation of those who benefit from the current arrangment, but not if we persist in the delusion that "free markets" even truly exist, much less that they represent some kind of panacea.

Friedman touches on some possible partial solutions--carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems among them--but his ideology is so reliant upon the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy of so-called free markets that he has a hard time getting beyond generalities, and most of his specific proposals are laughably deficient.

I mean, a $1 phased-in gas tax? That's a Year One kind of measure. What we really need is a honest evaluation of the costs of carbon emissions, and a carbon tax that phases in the FULL amount of these costs. Most estimates I've seen over the years show the true price of gasoline between $10 and $15/gallon, once all externalities are included. Similarly, a carbon-trading system is a good use of regulated markets, but only if the total amount of allowable carbon is sustainable and there's a working enforcement mechanism. Some of the solution has to come in different thinking about transportation infrastructure and urban development. But none of this will work unless everyone does it globally, which means that regulations will have to be built into the fundamental rules of international trade. For example, what about a carbon tarriff, whereby exported goods from countries without carbon regulation are taxed to offset the costs? But Friedman's history of blind support for "free" trade makes this kind of idea inconceivable to him.

Posted by Cascadian | April 16, 2007 3:03 PM

Jeremy M. Barker: Green issues are very important, but Friedman's a booster for a variety of potentially foolish programs, like biofuels.

Not to be the resident Tom Friedman apologist here, but... Not in this article but in past columns, Friedman has noted how corn ethanol is a wash when it comes to greenhouse gases and how there's a real limit on how much land can be used for sugar ethanol. Likewise, Friedman has been anything but a champion of American ethanol protectionism.

Jeremy M. Barker: Friedman, like Al Gore, seems to feel that "sacrifice" is the equivalent of "doing something rather than nothing." Friedman, who's a major proponent of neoliberalism, believes the magic of the free market will save us. He may be right; personally, I think there's a lot that can be done now.

Jeremy, I have to ask, which Tom Friedman and Al Gore are you reading? Some caricature in an alternative universe? The real Tom Friedman and Al Gore have been relentless in advocating for conservation, real sacrifices, and hard choices. To dismiss two of the most prominent advocates for a European-ballpark gas tax while instead suggesting we take relatively painless measures like ending tax breaks for SUVs and increasing fuel-efficiency standards -- well, that's a bit like attending a Live Aid concert and then complaining that Bill Gates doesn't do enough to fight disease in Africa.

Jude Fawley: … Friedman's article (which was the first thing of his I have liked in about 8 years)…

Jude, apparently you haven't been reading Friedman for the past eight years because he's been writing pretty much the same message in column after column for a while now.

Fnarf: It doesn't matter what the US does. It matters what China does. And China doesn't give a fuck about global warming.

Hmm, what should we call this, neo-fatalism, Sino-fatalism? Gosh, about a third of Friedman's article was about China. Anyway, others have already pointed this out.

Folks, how's this for a minor proposal? Before we attempt to represent a writer's positions, let's first at least read that writer's work. (Well, I'll at least give Cascadian credit. It sounds like he actually may have read Friedman's work before he went about misrepresenting it.)

Posted by cressona | April 16, 2007 3:31 PM

Faber: Friedman is such a joke and so inconsistent. I totally agree with the majority of his article but it is quite strange to see a man so devoted to neoliberalism embrace a position that positively requires government putting a cap on corporate activity. Maybe he should open his eyes to other issues like water rights, housing, medical access, etc...

Hold on. Let me try to translate this. I think Faber is saying he has no issue of substance with Friedman's story. He just doesn't like that Friedman is an old-fart, suit-wearing establishment guy who isn't about to blame corporations for all the world's evils.

This is pretty much what I was saying about liberals hating Friedman for being a conservative and conservatives hating him for being a liberal. It's also why problems like climate change and peak oil are just so, so hard to deal with.

To make any kind of dent in our energy problems requires a multi-faceted approach (as Friedman points out) that has to embrace both government regulation/taxation and free markets. There's still a generation of liberals out there that can't get over their aversion to free markets; there's still a generation of conservatives out there that can't get over their aversion to taxes; and there's still a generation on both sides who can't get over wanting to blame their longstanding ideological foes for the world's latest problems.

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