It’s Time To Turn Down the Heat

What Thomas Friedman’s doomsday environmental scenario gets wrong—and right.

Buzz. BUZZZZZZZZZ. There are so many buzz phrases in Thomas Friedman’s new book that it practically vibrates in your hand. Code Green. Day-trading for electrons. Green is the new red, white, and blue. Subprime planet. Petrodictatorships. The Common Era, Friedman tells us, should be supplanted by the Energy Climate Era; the year is 1 ECE.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded asserts that artificially triggered climate change is a deadly threat to society. Rising global population, accompanied by rising rates of resource and energy consumption as the developing world grows affluent, may overwhelm both the Earth and the marketplace. Only fundamental change in energy production and use—”a whole new system for powering our economy”—can stave off disaster. Yet there’s an upside, Hot, Flat, and Crowded contends: Radical change in energy use represents an opportunity for the United States to preserve its global economic leadership, by beating the world to clean-energy ideas that will sell.

Recently Friedman, in his influential New York Times column, has climbed aboard the green-energy bandwagon. The cynical view is that his embrace of max-PC alarums about global warming is Friedman’s bid to make everyone forget he pounded the table in favor of an American invasion of Iraq. But let’s take Hot, Flat, and Crowded at face value.

First, the author. Few who reach the top of any occupation have remained so hard-working, intellectually curious, and professionally conscientious. Despite considerable personal means, Friedman is in constant transcontinental motion, including to not-glamorous parts of the world, and constantly exposes himself to criticism by speaking at colleges. Most who achieve money or celebrity in the literary realm stop doing their own research and stop challenging their own assumptions. Friedman isn’t like that. His work ethic helps make Hot, Flat, and Crowded provocative, rich, forward-thinking, and powerful.

Friedman’s contention—first in a Foreign Policy article, now detailed in this book—that oil prices and democracy are inversely proportional is a breakthrough thought. When oil was $20 a barrel, he notes, Russia was becoming democratic; as oil prices rose, Russia reverted to autocracy. Bahrain is the first Persian Gulf state to move toward democracy, also the first Gulf state to deplete its oil reserves. Bahrain’s leaders understand that freedom and education are needed to convert from oil kleptocracy to a modern productivity economy. Friedman shows that when, in the aftermath of 9/11, neither George W. Bush nor Congress took any action to improve fuel-efficiency standards and thus restrain U.S. oil demand, they set in motion a chain of events that has transferred hundreds of billions of dollars to the sheiks who support anti-Western and anti-Israel terrorism, and to Putin. Had Bush asked sacrifice of average Americans by a $1-a-gallon gasoline tax after 9/11, the money from the pump price run-up would have stayed here instead. The blowback effect of Bush’s inaction against petroleum waste stands as one of the worst foreign-policy failures in U.S. history: a case Hot, Flat, and Crowded makes well.

Other parts of the book are less satisfying. Friedman expresses distaste at rising global population density—the long passport line at the Shanghai airport, the gridlocked road to the Moscow airport. He presents many examples of higher world resource demand, noting that even if America cuts back, reductions here will be swamped by increases elsewhere: “The biggest downside [of globalization] is that in raising standards of living, globalization is making possible much higher levels of production and consumption by many more people.” Yet if resource trends and climate change are driven by rising population and rising affluence, which of these, precisely, do you propose to ban? I don’t like crowding, either, but that is the world’s fate for the next century or so, after which declining fertility is likely to cause population levels to fall.

Friedman embraces worst-case scenarios for climate change, warning not just of global warming but “global weirding.” Yet his factual assertions are impossible to weigh, since Hot, Flat, and Crowded contains no footnotes or source notes. Friedman asserts, for instance: “In fact, the American pet food industry spends more each year on R&D than the American utilities industry does.” Good luck figuring out the “in fact” part. Supposing this Paul Harvey-like line is true, it is also silly, because utilities do not build power-plant systems—vendors such as General Electric and Combustion Engineering perform the technical R&D. Friedman devotes several pages to asserting that the strength of Hurricane Katrina was caused by greenhouse gases, a claim that is first sourced to “many climatologists,” none of whom he pauses to name; later in the book, his authority is a climate analyst for the Weather Channel. That global warming causes strong hurricanes, however, is far from a settled scientific view. In May 2008, Science magazine reported that climate models suggest “a modest increase or even a decrease in the frequency and intensity of Atlantic tropical cyclones.” (Subscription required for full text.)

Artificial climate change is real; even skeptics now call the danger scientifically proven. But Friedman, Al Gore, James Hansen of NASA, and others present climate change as some kind of super-ultra emergency. Global warming is a problem, one that must be managed via greenhouse-gas restrictions and a weaning away from fossil fuels. But in a world of poverty, disease, dictatorships, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, lack of girls’ education, and more than 1 billion people without cleaning drinking water or electricity—climate change barely makes the Problem Top 10. Besides, the solution can’t be a panicked pullback from the present economic system, though perhaps that system can be amended over the long term. Economic growth is needed to allow the world to afford environmental protection. At least for the next few decades, headlong resource consumption will be necessary to generate the capital that will pay for a clean-energy infrastructure.

Why does the cocktail-party circuit embrace claims about a pending climate doomsday? Partly owing to our nation’s shaky grasp of science—many Americans lack basic understanding of chemicals, biology, and natural systems. Another reason is the belief that only exaggerated cries of crisis engage the public’s attention; but this makes greenhouse concern seem like just another wolf cry. (Remember the electric power lines crisis? The beach needles crisis?) There also seems to be some kind of psychological compensation mechanism at work among corporate and Hollywood elites: that it’s OK to be a runaway consumer so long as you theatrically denounce consumption.

Friedman’s book-talk schedule for the first month alone of Hot, Flat, and Crowded promotion requires jet aircraft trips that, the calculator at Terra Pass estimates, will generate about 3 tons of carbon dioxide—the same as driving a Hummer for almost half a year. Friedman counsels, “[P]ersonally lead as environmentally sustainable a life as you can” but himself lives in a 11,400-square-foot mansion, whose carbon footprint may be visible from orbit. Rather than address this straight on, he squirms to paint his lifestyle green: In Hot, Flat, and Crowded Friedman calls his house only “large” and says he and his wife bought the 7.5 acres “to prevent it from being redeveloped into a subdivision. … [We built] a large house on one end and turn[ed] the rest into a parklike greenspace.” Must depend on what the definition of like is, since this parklike space is hardly open to the public and appears disguised as a palatial lawn. Friedman claims his address “has become a refuge for deer, rabbits, birds, butterflies and a fox or two.” He neglects to mention the nearby forest preserve—all homes in Friedman’s neighborhood have deer and fox wandering their lawns. Friedman can’t bring himself to admit he is lord of a manor and racing through more resources in his daily life than 10,000 rural Africans.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded is wise to say that American innovation is the best hope for a clean-energy future. The book is wrong to advocate a government-subsidized crash program of energy research—just as Barack Obama calls for $150 billion in alternative-energy subsidies. Government should regulate greenhouse emissions, then let the free market sort out the details, including by funding the research. Government’s track record at setting goals is good; its track record at commercialization is awful. Wind-turbine application went nowhere in the 1970s and 1980s when federally subsidized; actual use has come since the 1990s, when the government bowed out and the private sector took over. Friedman extols various energy-saving gizmos about to become practical, such as inexpensive black boxes for home power management. They sound great—but no government-subsidized research ever would have produced them.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded goes off the edge of the flat Earth when Friedman maintains that if the United States could be “China for a day,” then the central government could use coercion to make Americans live greenly. But suppose Congress had had dictatorial environmental power in, say, 1975. It would have banned natural gas use, as gas was then considered near exhaustion; today it seems the more gas power the better, because gas is much cleaner than petroleum. Give Congress dictatorial environmental power today, and it would freeze all our current problems into place—because the knowledge necessary to create an affordable clean-energy economy does not yet exist.

Friedman concludes Hot, Flat, and Crowded by proclaiming greenhouse damage could cause humanity to be “just one more endangered species.” Better to consult history on this topic. Greenhouse gases are an air-pollution problem. Smog and acid rain, the two previous serious air-pollution problems, once were viewed as emergency threats. Then federal standards were imposed, and inventions and new business models were devised; now smog and acid rain are way down in the United States and declining in much of the rest of the world. And no international treaty governs smog or acid rain! Nations have adopted smog and acid-rain curbs because it is in their self-interest to do so. The same dynamic will take hold for climate change, not long after the United States finally imposes greenhouse-gas rules. Unquestionably the future is flat and crowded. Hot? Maybe not.