Q&A: Columnist Tom Friedman on Climate Change
Why columnist Tom Friedman thinks we're dumb about energy.
In his bestselling book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman argues that countries that pioneer renewable-energy technologies will increase their national security and prosperity at the expense of those that cling to fossil fuels. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Sharon Begley:
Begley: A Gallup poll found that 41 percent of Americans—a record high—say concerns about climate change are exaggerated. Why is the public so resistant to the findings of climate science?
Friedman: What's ironic is that that poll comes out at a time when more and more studies are suggesting that climate change is happening faster, bigger, quicker and with more powerful impacts than we anticipated just a few years ago. For whatever reason, climate change was presented as a political issue, and because [of that] there had to be sides … Also, there is a real aversion among scientists to popularizing things, so sometimes they've been a little diffident about making the case strongly. And part of the problem is that the most vocal global advocate on climate change has been Al Gore. For all these reasons it's not surprising that the average person would be confused.
In the 1970s, the country was making progress toward renewable energy. Then things came to a screeching halt. What happened?
We were too successful. We imposed draconian mileage standards on cars, and it had a very big impact. At the same time, there was a global oil glut, and oil prices collapsed after Jimmy Carter left office [removing the economic pressure to move away from oil]. Ronald Reagan came in and instead of keeping up the initiative to have more solar energy, have more wind power, invest in energy efficiency and continue increasing mileage requirements for cars, he put the brakes on. Reagan proudly stripped the solar panels off the White House roof.
In "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" you use the phrase "dumb as we wanna be" to describe Americans' attitudes toward energy and climate. What examples did you have in mind?
There are so many. I was trying to convey this idea that we thought we could sit back and delay everything until we got around to it. As a result we fell behind in the renewable-energy industries that are going to be the next great global industry. I believe this industry, which I call ET—energy technology, the search for abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons—is going to be the IT of the 21st century. One of the problems with the term "green" is that the definition was imposed by its opponents, by the Rush Limbaugh crowd. They named green [as] liberal, tree-hugging, sissy, girlie-man, unpatriotic, vaguely European. What I've been trying to do in this book is to rename green as geopolitical, geostrategic, geo-economic, capitalistic, patriotic. The country that owns green, that dominates that industry, is going to have the most energy security, national security, economic security, competitive companies, healthy population and, most of all, global respect. I want that country to be the United States of America. This isn't just about electric power. It's about economic power, it's about national power.
You're critical of efforts to get people to make small, symbolic gestures to use less energy. What's wrong with that?
The danger is you think that if you change your light bulbs [to compact fluorescents], you've solved the problem. My motto is, change your leaders, not your light bulbs. Because what leaders do is rewrite the rules. They rewrite the rules of what utilities can burn as energy. They rewrite the car-mileage rules. They rewrite the rules of whether a nuclear plant can be built. These are the only things that give you [change at the scale we need]. Without scale change right now, in terms of climate we're really cooked. You know, I come out of the world of covering foreign policy, and that trained me to look for where the leverage points are. I don't think the leverage points now are in more consciousness-raising.
In the past, the public was ahead of politicians on issues such as civil rights. Is that the case with energy and climate?
It's all about how you frame the issues. We've done polling at The New York Times, and if you ask people, would you like a carbon tax or a [higher] gasoline tax, they say no, no. But then you say, would you like a tax that combats climate change over the long term, [and they say,] yeah, I could see that. And would you like a tax that relieves us from living under the thumb of petro-dictators, [and they say,] yeah, I'd like that. I mean, what is it we're trying to do? [To change things so] that there won't be such a thing as a "green car," there will just be a car, and you won't be able to build it except at the highest levels of efficiency. There won't be such a thing as a "green home," there will just be a home, and you will not be able to build it unless it is at the highest standards of green energy, efficiency and sustainability. You'll know the green revolution has been won when the word "green" disappears.