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Call to Arms for an American-Led Green Revolution

Author: David G. Victor, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
September 9, 2008
The New York Times

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When the Soviet Union chucked Sputnik into space in 1957, it galvanized America to come from behind and win the space race. The federal government opened its checkbook to finance an array of projects. Students shifted to new subjects like astronautical engineering and Russian studies to help the United States understand and eclipse the Soviet Union. The moon shot inspired a patriotic nation and produced useful commercial technologies along the way. The space race was expensive, but it worked.

Thomas L. Friedman’s latest book is a plea for a new Sputnik moment. His breezy tour of America’s energy policy documents a nation that has become dangerously dependent on fossil fuels. The bulging bank accounts of oil exporters like Russia, Iran and Venezuela give them the swagger and ability to cause lots of mischief.

Even more worrisome is all the carbon dioxide that comes from burning fossil fuels, not just oil but also coal and, to a lesser degree, natural gas. Since carbon dioxide pollution accumulates in the atmosphere, humans are recklessly changing the climate. The United States’ record is particularly poor because we are, per capita, among the biggest gulpers of oil and belchers of carbon dioxide. The need for American leadership has never been greater.

And if all that’s not bad enough, Mr. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, shows that the economic opportunities created by a technology-driven world where the economic playing field has been leveled are making these trends a lot worse. The stunning growth of Asia’s tiger economies, especially China’s, has been a miracle for the world’s industrial output but a horror for the environment.

Asia’s growth hinges on coal, which is bad news because today’s coal technologies are particularly intense emitters of carbon dioxide. The best data show that in the last six years alone, China’s coal-fired growth has been so rapid that the country has expanded its coal production by an amount equal to the entire output of the United States coal industry. Couple that with the worldwide population shift into cities, and the result is Mr. Friedman’s title: “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.”

The litany of dangers has been told many times before, but Mr. Friedman’s voice is compelling and will be widely heard. Dependence on fossil fuels is no longer just a topic for woodsy seminars or the grist for conspiracy theories from the threat industry. Mr. Friedman shows that both energy and environmental fears are going mainstream — “green is the new red, white, and blue” — and that is a great opportunity for bipartisanship. Unfortunately, the nation’s cockpit in Washington is stuffed full of special-interest lobbyists and partisan bickerers. China and other nations, Mr. Friedman warns, will seize the opportunities to invest in new green industries and leave us in the dust.

The alarm bells ring with pithy Friedmanisms. My favorite is his broadside against cheap talk about the coming “green revolution.” A revolution is needed, to be sure, because a whole suite of new technologies — from smarter biofuels that cut our dependence on oil to better power plants and a new digital-era electric grid — are badly needed to supplant today’s dirty fuels system. But buzz is not the same as revolution, because real revolutions force new directions, not just new talk. People get hurt.

Today, Mr. Friedman says, “the adjective that most often modifies ‘green revolution’ is ‘easy.’ That’s not a revolution. That’s a party.” This costume party is more about conspicuous environmentalism than facing the hard truths essential to effective energy policy, like what it will really cost to make a change and why that investment is worth it.

Mr. Friedman’s strength is his diagnosis of our energy and environmental nightmares. But blind spots appear when he turns to remedies. One is renewable power. Like most observers, Mr. Friedman assumes that the road out of today’s mess is studded with wind turbines and solar plants. Maybe that’s true, but maybe not. Such renewable resources account for only a tiny fraction of current power supply, and when the titans of today’s energy industry think about cutting carbon dioxide, they are more likely to imagine building carbon-free nuclear power plants or advanced coal plants that safely bury their pollution underground.

These two camps — the emerging renewable-resources industry and the titans who actually have their hands on the controls in today’s energy system — are pulling in different directions. Economists will rightly have heartburn that these 412 pages never dwell much on the cost of different policy options, nor does Mr. Friedman ever question his claim that building a renewable-energy system is automatically a good idea because many new jobs will flow (at unknown expense) into these new industries.

The other blind spot is politics. The most intriguing chapter in Mr. Friedman’s book is his last, which poses the toughest challenge. Can America be like China, where a visionary government can impose a new direction on the country in the face of national emergency? Or will America devolve into a country that is so mired in red tape and local opposition that it builds absolutely nothing anywhere, near anything? Societies like that get stuck because they can’t embrace new technologies, like the cherished wind turbines and the power lines needed to carry their current.

Mr. Friedman’s lament is that the United States is becoming such a place because parochial interests have created gridlock. But most striking is that this seasoned observer of the American political scene offers not much of a blueprint for fixing the political problem except the bromide that we need new leaders who are willing to embrace better policies.

Heads will be nodding across airport lounges, as readers absorb Mr. Friedman’s common sense about how America and the world are dangerously addicted to cheap fossil fuels while we recklessly use the atmosphere as a dumping ground for carbon dioxide. The Sputnik is heading into orbit, thanks to high energy prices, growing fear of the changing climate and pleas like Mr. Friedman’s. But whether we as a nation — and with us, the world — are really prepared to do anything to solve the problem is still in doubt.

David G. Victor, director of the energy and sustainable development program at Stanford University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is writing a book on global warming.

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