Calling for a Green Revolution: An Interview with Tom Friedman

Developing alternatives to fossil fuels – solar, wind or other energy technologies yet undiscovered – is the most pressing task confronting the globe, presenting a new frontier of opportunity. Tom Friedman, best-selling author and columnist with the New York Times, decries a planet being destroyed by climate change in his latest book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America.” In this interview with Nayan Chanda, YaleGlobal editor, Friedman contends that the country that leads in developing new energy technology will be the most competitive secure in the world. – YaleGlobal

Calling for a Green Revolution: An Interview with Tom Friedman

The nation that develops new energy technology will enjoy security and global respect
Friday, October 31, 2008

Nayan Chanda: I am Nayan Chanda, editor of YaleGlobal Online. As it turns out, I’m in São Paulo, Brazil. Tom Friedman, the author of “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” is actually in our studio at Yale. So, I’m going to ask Tom some questions about his book. Tom, welcome to Yale

Tom Friedman: Nayan, it’s great to be back here with YaleGlobal.

Chanda: Thank you, Tom. Since your last trip to our studios, you have produced another book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America.” It’s a most timely book and what struck me though is you wrote “The World Is Flat” as a cold analysis of globalization has flattened and shrunk the planet. Your current book is a cri de coeur, a very strong, emotional appeal to the world to save itself. What has made you so emotional?

Friedman: Nayan, it’s part of an evolution. It’s not like people haven’t been emotional on this subject before I have. Long before … whether going back to Silent Spring. I hardly discovered climate change or biodiversity loss. I certainly didn’t discover energy poverty, I didn’t discover petro dictatorship, I didn’t discover energy resource supply and demand. Um, what I’ve done in this book, I hope, is to bring them all together and try to show how they are all one problem and have one solution. I think that’s value add and to do it in a way that’s passionate. Because you cannot be a parent today and not be passionate about the world that we’re creating and abusing at the same time.

Chanda: What also struck me in this book is that your earlier book, “The World Is Flat,” was somewhat celebratory of globalization, how it consumed poverty and shrunk the world … but in this current book, your mood is distinctly gloomy. You say, and I quote you: “The impact of globalization is metastasizing to cause what has been called the world’s sixth great mass extinction.” Now perhaps you can explain to our viewers, how this mass extinction is happening because of climate change…

Friedman: Well, the extinction…

Chanda: … and why should citizens care about it?

Friedman: The extinction phase that we’re in right now, it’s a loss of biodiversity, plant and animal species, is happening for a number of reasons and one has to do with climate change, but that’s actually not the most important. The most important is simply – development! The fact we’re plowing up more and more of the world’s tropical forests, despoiling more and more of the world’s great fisheries, polluting more and more of the world’s great rivers and lakes. And the combination of that with then climate change is putting enormous stress on the world’s incredible bounty of plant and animal biodiversity and we’re now in the phase of a real biodiversity mass extinction, where, according to Conservation International, we’re losing one new species every 20 minutes. Species lost today is 1000 times the norm of 50 years ago. If anything today were a 1000 times the norm, if it were rainfall a 1000 times the norm or the spread of HIV Aids, we would sit up and that would be front-page news, but we don’t talk about this. And when we lose these incredible plant and animal species, we don’t only lose a part of nature and its natural beauty that inspire poets and artists and make life worth living, but at the same time, we lose that incredible knowledge and wisdom about nature in creating some of these things and we have no idea what cures, natural cures for disease, are being lost in this extinction phase.

Chanda: Your description of what you saw in the Amazon rain forest was really very, very moving. This is in fact one of the great merits of this book… that you have a very vivid description of what is happening to this earth. Now, you have coined a new phrase, energy climate era. Now what difference is it from what we had before and when does it actually begin?

Friedman: Basically, what I’m arguing, is the energy sources that powered the Industrial Revolution, we thought were going to be permanently inexhaustible, inexpensive, and benign. What we discovered as we’ve entered what I call the energy climate era, around the time of the Millennium, is that these energy sources that have powered growth since 1750, since the Industrial Revolution, oil, coal, gas are exhaustible, expensive and toxic. Toxic for the climate, toxic for the air we breathe, toxic geopolitically because of the kind of regimes they empower. And so, to me, the boundary line between the previous era and the energy climate era … is this crossing of the line, where the very fuels that power our growth, go from inexpensive, inexhaustible and benign to expensive, exhaustible and toxic. And I think that is a fundamental shift…. I like to call this new era the energy climate era because I think issues related to energy, its price, availability and impact on the world and the climate are going to really shape more politics than any factors as we move deeper into the 21st century.

Chanda: Tom you have also said in your book that it’s perhaps better for America to create green jobs rather than send these green-collar jobs to India, China and elsewhere. Now what would it take to create these green jobs?

Friedman: Some very simple and relatively low-cost initiatives, Nayan. Let’s start with green-collar jobs. Well, you change the building codes in cities and make it really economically advantageous to put up solar panels on your roof because the local utility will have to buy that solar power from you. Or you change the code around insulation, how a home is supposed to be insulated at any given time, at what level, you create a huge demand for home insulators and solar-panel installers. Those are blue-collar jobs that I would call green-collar jobs. And I think you’re going to see more and more of those kind of jobs – building a wind turbine, installing a wind turbine – that’s a big manufacturing, formerly a blue-collar, now a green-collar job. So, that’s what I’m focusing on that end. At the high end, of course, there’s going to be more and more need for the scientists who can design those solar panels and drive their progress forward, so that they can become more and more efficient. There’s going to be huge demand for middle, kind of white-collar jobs that will also be green-collar jobs, to come in and help design and implement energy efficiency in your own home. So I think all of those will come into the category of green-collar jobs.

Chanda: The last rescue package that Congress passed had actually restored the tax credit for the renewable energy industry. That was of course a positive thing. But the crisis, it seems to me, is going to make it more difficult for people to argue for using alternative energy. What do you think is likely to happen?

Friedman: As David Rothkopf , energy consultant, says, will this financial crisis be the end of green or could green possibly the end of the financial crisis? I think that is a very, very important question. Right now, I’m extremely worried. I’m worried that the falling price of oil will reduce consumer demand for energy-efficient products and better mileage cars and at the same time reduce the willingness of venture capitalists to take risks on more expensive renewable fuel, knowing that it’s going to be harder for them to compete in a marketplace of $2 per gallon gasoline than it’s going to be as opposed to $4 per gallon gasoline.

Chanda: Yes, that problem is a little less clear in places like China. You’ve been in China since you wrote the book, you’ve been there many, many times before. What did you find during your last trip to China about what the Chinese are planning to do about alternative energy sources?

Friedman: Well, I think China is very ambivalent. I think on one hand their growth needs are so overwhelming and coal is so overwhelmingly cheap and available to China, both their domestic and foreign sources, that they’re going to continue building coal-fired power plants. At the same time, they understand for their own needs and in response to the world’s pressure, they’re going to have to move in time to a cleaner energy system. Right now, Nayan, they Chinese are on a fence. They’re sitting there, kind of waiting for us. They’re basically saying, if the Americans don’t move, why should we move, and we’re saying if the Chinese don’t move, we won’t move. And we have to break out of that. We in America have to take the lead. I think that if we take the lead, China will follow. But I don’t think China will lead this because the inertia for China, which is to keep up digging up coal and burning it for electricity is going to be just enormous.

Chanda: Yes, that’s been similar attitude I see in India, too … the Indians are also heavily reliant on coal and they’re saying that if you give us clean-coal technology, fine, but otherwise we simply have to produce electricity and we’re going to go with coal. So that’s the danger we have as we see the increasing challenge of climate change. What do you think the Indians could do and should do?

Friedman: As I see the young Chinese, and it could apply to young Indians, although they on a per-capita basis, produce much lower CO2 emissions, is that what … every time I come to China, young Chinese say to me, “Mr. Friedman, you got to go dirty for 150 years. Now it’s our turn.” To which I say, “I know how you feel. I understand how you feel. We ate the entrée, we ate the dessert, we ate the hors d'oeuvre and then we came to you and said, “Here’s some tea, let’s split the bill.’” Well, that’s not on, people think that’s really, really unfair. And I understand that. And so what I say to young Chinese, “You’re absolutely right, we got to go dirty for 150 years. Now it’s your turn. Take your time. Take your time. Grow as dirty as you want. Because I think my country just needs five years to invent all the green-power technologies that you, China, are going to need, before you choke to death and we’re going to come over here and we’re going to sell them all to you. And we’re going to clean your clock. And we’re going to clean your clock in the next great global industry. And that’s when I see them adjusting the headsets from the interpreter, saying, “What? What did he just say?” And so my point to young Chinese is, I understand you think it’s unfair that you should now not be able to burn coal after we did for 200 years. I understand that. But you have got two choices: Number 1, you have to understand, when we started burning coal, we didn’t know that it had the climate effects that it was having basically, and you do know, China today. But number 2, this is going to be the next great global industry, what I call ET, energy technology. All the clean power technologies to substitute for coal and oil. And some country in the world is going to lead and dominate in that industry. I want it to be the United States… I think we get there first, if we have a price signal. China will want it to be China, but I want to get there first.

Chanda: That’s a very good point. You have also written in your book about the “consumer volcano” erupting in societies which have had their human demand suppressed for many years and so how do you tell these people, who want to now enjoy what the Western world has enjoyed for so long, that this volcanic consumption is going to make life much more difficult and dangerous in terms of climate change.

Friedman: I don’t think you can tell them, Nayan. And I think what you can do is put everything we have into inventing the clean alternatives and taking the lead, and then selling them to India or China, or manufacturing them there, so we can get to the Chindia price, the price at which they could scale for India and China. Our job is to pay the big up-front costs because frankly we put the most into the atmosphere, the most CO2, and we have the most resources, at least we did before the financial meltdown, to start inventing the alternatives. We have to make the up-front costs and they have to provide the manufacturing platforms to get those upfront costs down, so these start scale quidckly in India and China.

Chanda: And so I think the one message that is very strong in your book is that here is an opportunity for the United States to reclaim its leadership in this area that’s going to be a determining event and determining technology for the fate of the earth. Do you think that the coming election and the new president will give the US an opportunity to make a clean break with the past and perhaps even reinstall the solar panel which was removed by President Ronald Reagan ceremonially from the White House?

Friedman: It’s an important question. I think the next president can – and not only can, must – lead the ET revolution. Because you know, Nayan, in a world that is “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” one thing I know for sure is that ET is going to be the next great global industry. I know that as surely as I’m sitting here in this interview with you. What I don’t know who is going to lead that industry. Is it going to be India, is it going to be China, is it going to be Japan, is it going to be America, is it going to be Russia, is it going to be South America? I don’t know that. My argument is that, the country that leads this ET industry, must be the United States of America. Why? Because if as Jeff Engle of GE says, “If you want to be big, you’ve got to be big in big things.” If you want to be big, you have to be big in big things. If we want to be a big power, then we have to be big in the biggest thing and that is energy technology. ET. And the country that owns ET is going to have the most, I think, national security, economic security, ecological security, healthy population, competitive industries, and global respect. That country must be the United States of America. Otherwise, our children will not enjoy our standard of living.

Chanda: Tom, thank you, it’s a great pleasure to have you at our studio at Yale.

Friedman: Nayan, it’s a great pleasure. It’s great to be back here with YaleGlobal.

© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization