Why do we need a green revolution?
Talking with Tom Friedman: by Laurel Colless
Virginia Issues & Answers | Summer 2009 (21 - 25)
Tom Friedman, a New York Times columnist and author of the new bestseller, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How it Can Renew America, tells Laurel Colless of Virginia Tech, National Capital Region, why America needs a Green Revolution and how it will renew this country.
Some think Tom Friedman is out on a limb with his new Code Green strategy for fixing the world; others think he is completely out of his tree. With his new book’s call to action, Friedman lays out a strategy for America’s next big thing—a green revolution.
“It will be like no revolution the world has seen. It will be the biggest innovation project in American history. It will be hard, not easy, and it will change everything from what you put in your car to what you see in your electric bill.”
Speaking at his office in Washington, D.C., the three-time Pulitzer prize-winner asserts that America is ready for this and that, if it is a question of resources, then “we’ll just have to find them.” “Energy technology,” says Friedman “is the next great global industry. The country that owns it will have security and global respect. That country has to be the United States of America. There’s nothing bigger than energy technology.”
The top five most pressing challenges on Friedman’s list are  energy and natural resources supply and demand,  climate change,  petro-dictatorships, energy poverty, and  biodiversity loss. “But what’s cool about this list is that all the problems have the same solution: abundant, cheap, clean, and reliable energy technology,” says Friedman.
It is late afternoon, and we are chewing on chocolate-covered malts, a gift from one of Friedman’s many disciples. He has had back-to-back appointments all day. Leaning back in his chair, he ponders the sobering question of how much time the planet might still afford us to
move forward with his plan. For Friedman, who has been following greenhouse gas emission levels for some time, the current projections make grim reading and he concedes, “If we look at the climate challenges and the numbers we have in front of us, it would be easy to say, ‘We’re cooked, we’re fried—let’s party.’ But I’m never going to give up,” he says, “because I have kids.”
In line with the positive call-to-action feel of his latest book, which propels his vivid and often humorous prose style, Friedman is determined to keep focused and is far from giving up. “To give up would be giving up on the world your kids will live in, and I don’t think that’s responsible,” he says. “So no, I don’t think in those terms. I am focused on the here and now.” The “here and now” of today’s conversation might loosely be defined around one central issue: U.S. federal- level legislation, which would denote a price signal on carbon and provide something for America to put on the global table in Copenhagen in December.
How hard can it be?
Clearly Friedman is passionate about his subject, but despite the hyperbole and vaulting ambition of his ideas, he is also unwaveringly pragmatic when discussing them. On the daunting task of pushing through the country’s first federal climate bill, Friedman acknowledges that “change is hard” but adds that “necessity is the mother of invention.’ “You know it’s one of the oldest sayings we have,” says Friedman. “When the government creates a necessity, for example, that says by 2025 we will have 25 percent renewables, you will be amazed what people will invent.” He pauses. “But before that happens you will be amazed at how much and how long people will resist change.”
Friedman cites precedents at home and abroad (in Texas with wind and Germany with solar) where renewable energy portfolios have been imposed and ingenuity has flourished. He says categorically, “Sometimes governments just have to finally say, ‘This is how it is going to be. We have heard everybody, but this is what’s going to be and we are just going to have to get on with it.’” He adds, “There are a million reasons not to do it, but let’s just get on with it and we’ll see ingenuity take over.”
Who needs to lead the way?
While the international community might still be skeptical—and with good reason—about how quickly legislation might materialize and Friedman’s proposed U.S.-led energy-climate overthrow might take shape (keeping in mind that the U.S. was booed in Bali by peers at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in 2007), Friedman is confident that the U.S. will, and must, step up into an international leadership role. He also accepts that there has been a welcome attitudinal shift in Washington in recent months. However, Friedman wants to be clear. “There’s stepping up rhetorically and stepping up in substance. Without a price on carbon, without a national renewable portfolio of standards, without tougher efficiency laws, and without the real substance that will translate our stepping up into real appreciable long-term results,” he cautions. “I am not ready to congratulate our efforts yet. We are certainly talking a different talk, but we still need to walk a different walk.”
Friedman himself has gone beyond rhetoric, choosing to live in a geo-thermally heated and solar-powered home. He and his wife, Ann, sunk more than a dozen geothermal wells into their backyard while they were building their home in Montgomery County, Md., five years ago, enough to fully air condition the house. They also added two big solar arrays that provide around 8 percent of their home electricity use. “I get a big kick out of generating my own clean electrons,” laughs Friedman. But while he is happy with their investment, it was not an easy journey. Montgomery County law originally said that homeowners could not put a solar panel in the front or side yard of a stand-alone house. Given that the sun would not have hit them in the back and that they have a very large front and side yard, Friedman had to work with his solar company and the local government effectively to create case law that would change the code to allow solar systems in side yards. Now he believes that more and more families in the area are
following their lead.
Wordsmith to eco-star—how did that happen?
Friedman, who has recently become a leading mega-voice on the environment, is by no means an accidental eco-star. He has been immersed in environmental issues from the beginning of his journalistic career. “As a columnist for a major American newspaper, I’ve probably written more environmental stuff than anybody,” says Friedman. His very early years included extensive travel with Conservation International, studying biodiversity in the world’s ecological hotspots. While he reverted to this earlier focus on biodiversity in the 1990s, what really moved him in the direction of his latest book was the period following Sept. 11. “It was about not wanting to see my country depending on oil, which was enriching people who were attacking us. That was a huge issue,” he asserts. “[After Sept. 11], I really felt that America as a country had lost its groove. We had become a sub-prime country. We thought we could have the American dream with nothing down and nothing to pay. It was partly about national security, partly an American argument, and partly a concern with biodiversity loss.”
He adds that while he was looking at all this, the climate story also emerged. “I am not a climatologist. I have had exposure to some of the great ones, but climate became part of the story, so I took that on as well.”
Hot, flat, and crowded
“I think the world’s biggest problems all grow from a planet becoming hot, flat, and crowded,” he says. In his latest book’s title, “hot” refers to global climate change, and “flat” is a metaphor for the rise of middle classes all over the world, who can now compete and collaborate like and with Americans. “Or if you like,” says Freidman, “they can live like the people in Richmond, in American-size homes and eating American-size Big Macs.” “Crowded,” of course, refers to dramatic population growth. “We’re adding another billion people every 13 years,” says Friedman.
But there are still a lot of climate-change skeptics out there. How does he respond to them? Unmoved, he holds up a hardcover version of his book. “Do you want me to take out the ‘hot’?” he asks rhetorically, concealing the word with his hand. “By all means take out the ‘hot,’ and
let’s just go with the ’flat’ and ’crowded.’”
In the book, he asks readers what it looks like when “crowded” meets “flat,” and then presents them with the arrival terminal at Shanghai airport, where every other person on the passport line is on a cell phone or PDA. “When you unleash that much capitalist energy from so many people, the effect on our natural resources can be staggering,” writes Friedman. Without a code green on how we produce energy and protect the environment to accompany the spread of
American-style freedom and free markets, he warns that “Mother Nature will impose its own constraints and limits that will be worse than communism.”
Having said that, Friedman believes there is still time for China and others to take a different approach. The Chinese leapfrogged the developed world in telecoms—there is only 5 percent land-line penetration in China—so why not in the energy sector as well? In 2007, at a Green Car Congress in Tianjin, China, Friedman gave a hard-hitting talk to an audience of auto executives, most of whom were receiving his remarks via simultaneous interpretation. Friedman told them, “Every year when I visit China, young Chinese tell me, ‘Mr. Friedman, you Americans got to grow dirty for 150 years, you got to have your Industrial Revolution based on coal and oil, now it’s our turn.’ Well you’re right. It’s your turn,” he tells them. “And take your time, please grow as dirty as you like for as long as you like.” At this point, Friedman began to see a bit of earpiece adjustment going on. He continued, “I think my country needs only five years to invent all the clean power and energy efficiency tools that you, China, will need to avoid choking on pollution, and then we are going to come over here and sell them all to you.” At this point, Friedman noted that some heads started nodding as many began to get his point: If clean energy is going to be the next great global industry, the countries that get a head start are going to have a competitive advantage, not to mention the cleanest air and the fastest-growing business sectors.
Friedman’s thinking is, “The longer China focuses on getting its share from a world that no longer exists—a world in which people could use dirty fuels with impunity—and the longer it postpones imposing the policies, prices, and regulations on itself that will stimulate a clean
power industry at scale, the happier I am as an American.” The point Friedman would make to his compatriots back in the U.S. is that “we have to take the lead in this in and of ourselves, for our own reasons. We will not be able to maintain our standard of living unless we are the biggest player in the next great global industry.” “To what extent that converges with the interests of the other big players in the world,” Friedman shrugs that he doesn’t know and doesn’t really care. “We have to do this for our own reasons.” When the boom begins, Friedman says, “I don’t want to be buying the technologies from Finland.”
Who wins and who loses?
So how does this clean energy shift play out at home? For example, in the context of America’s coal-producing states, Friedman says, “There will be winners and losers.” Until now, America has been engaged in what he describes as a green party, with green as the new buzz phrase for saving the planet. Even the fashion industry has joined in with all the major glossy magazines releasing green issues and using slogans like “Ten ways to savethe Earth (and money) in under a minute.”
However, despite all this frivolity, if “green” is the color du jour, coal cannot be the new black. “There is no doubt,” says Friedman, “that in states such as Virginia, and particularly West Virginia, the coal industry is going to be a near-term loser. But the future depends on whether they see themselves in the coal business or in the energy business. If they’re in the energy business, there is no reason—and many coal companies to their credit have already done this—that they couldn’t now be taking their profits from coal and segueing into renewable energy.”
He continues, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. If they want their coal mother lode to sustain them forever, I think it is a bad strategy. I think we are entering a world where your country, your neighbors, your kids, your citizens, even your customers will start to demand that you pay the full price for the carbon you are putting into the atmosphere. So whether it’s cap and trade or a carbon tax, whether it’s tomorrow or the next day, that’s what’s coming. So I think just sort of blindly going ahead with coal would be a losing business proposition.”
Electronic buffet—at what cost?
Friedman continues with other examples of what he calls losing propositions, likening the U.S. utilities business to an all-you-can-eat-for-five-dollars electron buffet. “For a while they were making money by building more and more plants and selling more and more cheap electrons and never trying to manage demand,” he says. “But then one day a funny thing happened on the way to the all-you-could-eat electron buffet: a few people like Al Gore wandered out the back to the kitchen and saw the mess we were in. They came back around to the people at the tables and asked them if they knew what was happening back there. It turned out that the buffet was cheap but the cost was enormous. It was generating global warming, childhood asthma, acid rain, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and petro-dictatorship, and no one was factoring this into the per-kilowatt cost.” And by the way, Friedman’s point here is not to overtly bash the utilities. “These people are your neighbors and mine. They’re not out to harm society, they’re part of it.”
He adds, “Don’t get me wrong, I want our utility companies to do well. I want them to get rich, but to get rich doing the right things. And the right thing is to work with your customers to be paid by how much you help them save energy instead of how much you can get them to consume energy.”
Friedman, whose mastery is converting complex problems into pithy analogies, leans forward in his chair and says, “You know your mother was right, when she came in after you’d left the lights on in your room and told you that you owned shares in the electric company.” He explains that under the current system, when we leave the lights on, we benefit the electric company, which gets paid more when we use more. “We want to reverse that,” says Friedman, alluding to the somewhat controversial and developing practice of decoupling, which a number of states across the U.S., including Virginia, are now looking at. “It works,” he says. “It worked in California!” Decoupling seeks to address the underlying tension between the consumers’ interest in lowering their electricity bills by using less and the utilities’ interest in raising revenues through selling more. In his book, Friedman quotes Ralph Cavanagh, the utilities expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who compares this untenable dynamic to “driving with one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator.”
States such as Virginia are working to address this by developing new business models for electric and gas utilities that allow ratepayers and utility companies to share in savings from energy efficiency. Or, as Friedman puts it, “We want it to be that if you turn your lights off, someone will say, ‘Oh, you own shares in the electric company.’”
What about a gas tax?
Of course, a discussion about efficiency would not be complete without touching on the U.S. auto industry. Friedman is firmly of the mind that a gas tax, while not being a cure-all, is certainly the reason why Europe today has much smaller, more energy-efficient cars and higher
energy-efficiency standards than the U.S. But when asked if Americans, now looking to play catch up with Europe on efficiency, might finally be ready for a similar tax, Friedman laughs without mirth. “It’s been off the table for so long, people have forgotten where it went.” However, he cites recent government bailout plans for some U.S. auto companies as evidence of the need for a tax. “For example, the government is basically telling GM, ‘We are going to bail you out, but in return, we insist from now on that you make smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.’
Well, if the government does that and doesn’t impose a gasoline tax at the same time, as the vice chairman of GM pointed out, they are doing the equivalent of ordering every shirt company in America to only make size small—and not asking the American people to go on a diet!”
Although Friedman acknowledges that a gas tax is almost certainly not going to materialize any time soon, he is willing to wait and see how things open up. “You know, we are eventually going to have to pay for all this stimulus we are doing, and if it isn’t through a carbon tax, what will it be?” He compares it to the practice of raising cigarette taxes to pay for children’s health care. “Why not raise gasoline taxes as well? We don’t want people to be smoking. Well, our cars are smoking, or doing the equivalent of smoking.” But with a gas tax off the table and a federal draft discussion bill floundering in Congress, one feels compelled to reassert the question, is America really ready for revolution? Certainly global expectations are running high, and some Europeans would hold that the U.S. is already so late to the table that they are in danger of finding themselves on the menu.
Friedman reaffirms that America is more than ready, but adds, “People want to know that it will come from the top, that it will work, and that it will be done fairly.” He pauses. “They also want to know that the pain will be apportioned fairly. I think that’s a big thing. You convince them of that and you will see Americans signing on in big numbers.”
Can Virginia take the lead?
We are close to wrapping up and Friedman must pre- pare for his next appointment, but there is time for one last question: In the context of Virginia, how relevant is this revolution? Friedman has a ready response, bringing us back to the notion of invention that is driven by effective policy—and we have come full circle. He suggests that state legislators in Virginia might well draw lessons from Scandinavian success, and he holds up the nation of Denmark as a case in point. “It’s a tiny little country with a CO2 tax and a five-dollar-per-gallon gasoline tax. It has all of these huge, very stringent regulations, and what has been the result? Well, they have a thriving economy. Their fastest-growing export industry is clean-tech. One out of every three
wind turbines in the world is made in Denmark, and the world’s two leading cellulosic enzyme companies, Novazymes and Danesco, are Danish. The government over there created all this necessity and the outcome was a lot of invention.
“And I would say to a state like Virginia, which has strong public schools, great universities, and forward-thinking policymakers, that if you create the necessity with very high environmental regulatory standards, you will start to see a lot of invention.” Friedman adds, “Which state is going to be the home of America’s renewable energy industry is still up for grabs, and if I were a Virginian, I’d want it to be my state.”
Thomas L. Friedman joined The New York Times in 1981 as a financial reporter specializing in OPEC- and oil-related news and later served as the chief diplomatic, chief White House, and international economics correspondents. A three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Friedman is also the author of several best-selling and award-winning novels, including The World Is Flat, which analyzed globalization, especially in the 21st century. Last fall, Friedman expanded his views in Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Needa Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America to bring “a fresh outlook to the crises of destabilizingclimate change and rising competition for energy,” according to the author’s website.
Laurel Colless is a faculty member of the research development team at Virginia Tech, focusing on technology for sustainable development. In 2007, she founded the Energy Efficiency Partnership of Greater Washington, a cross-sector partnership among government, business, and civil society led by Virginia Tech to address climate change through energy efficiency in buildings. Colless also serves on the board of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a nonprofit organization founded by former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin that works with emerging democracies on problem solving through training, technical assistance, and grants.
Summer 2009 | Virginia Issues & Answers