Carbon Paper, Baby, Carbon Paper! Tom Friedman Weighs in on Energy Politics, Global Warming, and the Energy Technology Revolution

ibm selectric typewriter photo

IBM selectric typewriter from 1961 photo by: jeremy.

Love him or hate him, the one thing we all can agree upon is that Thomas Friedman is verbose and a very good self-promoter. (The concept may be essentially true, but if I hear the phrase 'hot, flat and crowded' one more time I may become sick.) Elizabeth Kolbert, of the New Yorker and Field Notes From a Catastrophe fame, recently interviewed Friedman for Yale Environment 360 on the themes he's been hammering home for some time now: the world needs an energy technology revolution, global warming is the most serious threat humanity has ever face, and the globalized economy. It's a long interview (you can listen to it if you like), but here are the highlights:On China and Cleantech Leapfrogging

Last year, I was invited to the China Clean Car Conference. China has a clean car conference — who knew? — in Tianjin, China, their kind-of Detroit, kind of a rather grimy city, the Marriott Tianjin.

And, I was the closing speaker. The audience was all Chinese car guys. All kind of grizzled Chinese car guys, all listening to me — nobody spoke English, they were all listening on headsets through an interpreter. And I thought, "What do I tell these guys?" And so, my basic message was this: "Guys," — it was only guys — "guys, I have got to tell you, every time I come to China young Chinese say to me, 'Mr. Friedman, you guys got to grow dirty for 150 years. Now it's our turn.' And my message to you, on behalf of all Americans, is to tell you, 'You're right. It's your turn.

Grow as dirty as you want.' Because I think we just need about five years now to invent all the clean-power technologies you're going to need as you choke to death, and we're going to come over, and we're going to sell them all to you. And we're going to clean your clock. I don't know how you say that in Chinese, we're going to clean your clock in the next great global industry. So, please, if you want to give me a five-year lead, I'd love five. I'd prefer 10. Take your time. Because we are going to clean your clock in the next great global industry."

Now it takes about 30 seconds for the translation to get through — and that's when you see everyone adjusting their headsets, eyes lighting up — and then about one second for them to understand exactly what I'm saying: That they basically have a choice. They can do what they did on telephony, which was to go from no phones to cellphones, and skip landlines, and they can do that in clean power But unless they really change, they're going to miss the new IT, which is ET.

On Gasoline Taxes, Hidden Oil Subsidies...
Politicians will always say, "If I do this, my opponent will hit me on taxes." And I say, well, let's just think about this. Let's imagine I'm the pro-green candidate, and Elizabeth Kolbert is the pro-nontax candidate. And I come out and I say I'm for a gasoline tax and you say, "There goes my opponent, Mr. Friedman." Just like Sarah Palin you would say, "He's never seen a tax he didn't like. And now he wants to come to Wassila, Alaska, and tax your gasoline?"

I'd say, "Let's get one thing straight. My opponent and I, we're both for a tax. Because if you don't think what OPEC oil cartel is doing to the real price of oil isn't an artificial price, isn't in effect a tax, then you're not paying attention. So we're both for a tax. I'd just prefer my taxes go to the U.S. Treasury to fund U.S. schools, U.S. roads, U.S. highways, U.S. research, U.S. innovation. It's just a little tic I have, that I like my tax dollars to build my country, not Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Kuwait, or Abu Dhabi, or Dubai, or Russia or Venezuela My opponent is indifferent where your tax dollars go." If you can't win that debate, you don't belong in politics.

...And Offshore Oil Drilling
Kolbert asks Friedman about the 'drill, baby, drill' slogan,
...that is just so stupid. I mean, it is as if on the eve of the IT revolution, on the eve of the birth of the Internet and the PC, we are out there pounding the table for more IBM Selectric typewriters. Carbon paper, baby, carbon paper! That's nuts. There's only one mantra for America, and that's "Innovate, baby, innovate!"

Barack Obama is the Better Green Candidate
Kolbert asks, "Do you actually like Barack Obama's energy plan or is it just better than 'drill, baby, drill'?" Friedman responds that the Obama energy plan is "just better" than 'drill, baby, drill' but as Obama has voted more consistently for renewable energy than McCain that to him,
basically there's a clear, clear choice. Now there's only one green candidate. It is Barack Obama. Would I like Obama to make the things I'm passionate about more central to his identity and his campaign, rather just another spoke in the wheel? There's health care, there's green technology, there's new roads, there's education, there's Iraq. Yes, to me, it's the center. It's not another spoke. But, you have to ride whatever horse you got. And right now he's all we got. And he's a lot better than the other guy. And so I ride.

On Geo-Engineering to Prevent Climate Change
Friedman calls E.O. Wilson "one of the great treasures of America" and goes on to paraphrase, and agree with, his comments on geo-engineering to prevent climate change:
..I'm not going to get it exactly right, but [Wilson] basically said,"Nature is regulating our climate for free. Mother Nature, she's been doing that for free, for a long, long time. Now do you really want to get in there and do geo-engineering and all this kind of stuff? Well, if you don't want to do that, then we need to get out of Mother Nature's way. Because do you want to be turning the dials and pulling the levers and think we can do that better than Mother Nature?" I don't think so. And it is a very, very powerful point.

Given the length of the interview, I've excerpted probably more than I normally would do, but there's still much more to read at :: Yale Environment 360
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