Thomas Friedman: Don't Be a Wimp, Support a Gas Tax


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Is there a newspaper columnist today who has the influence of Thomas Friedman? Maybe George Will, but Will uses his platform to try to sow doubt about climate change, while Friedman uses his to be an evangelist for clean energy. In his Sunday NY Times column, Friedman returns to his idea that our national security and economic health are dependent on solving the twin problems of energy and climate. This week, Friedman suggest a gas tax, and uses our failure to adopt one as proof that maybe we're not as tough as we think we are. Friedman says that a gas tax could help pay down our national debt, reduce our oil consumption, spark innovation, and help lower income Americans cope with increased energy prices through subsidies financed through the tax. Failure to act makes us a little "wimpy" compared with our European allies.

But are we really that tough? If the metric is a willingness to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and consider the use of force against Iran, the answer is yes. And we should be eternally grateful to the Americans willing to go off and fight those fights. But in another way -- when it comes to doing things that would actually weaken the people we are sending our boys and girls to fight -- we are total wimps. We are, in fact, the wimps of the world. We are, in fact, so wimpy our politicians are afraid to even talk about how wimpy we are.

How so? France today generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, and it has managed to deal with all the radioactive waste issues without any problems or panics. And us? We get about 20 percent and have not been able or willing to build one new nuclear plant since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, even though that accident led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or neighbors. We're too afraid to store nuclear waste deep in Nevada's Yucca Mountain -- totally safe -- at a time when French mayors clamor to have reactors in their towns to create jobs. In short, the French stayed the course on clean nuclear power, despite Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and we ran for cover.

How about Denmark? Little Denmark, sweet, never-hurt-a-fly Denmark, was hit hard by the 1973 Arab oil embargo. In 1973, Denmark got all its oil from the Middle East. Today? Zero. Why? Because Denmark got tough. It imposed on itself a carbon tax, a roughly $5-a-gallon gasoline tax, made massive investments in energy efficiency and in systems to generate energy from waste, along with a discovery of North Sea oil (about 40 percent of its needs).

Freidman also says that a gas tax would help starve the finances of some of our adversaries, who are dependent on oil revenues to prop up their authority. This is a variant on A l Gore's famous saying, "We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change."

France President Sarkozy is going after a carbon tax, which would go into effect next year. The tax will be 17 euros ($24.72) per ton of emission of carbon dioxide, Sarkozy announced today. There would also be a 4 cents tax on gasoline.

More on Friedman:
Thomas Friedman: There is No Green Revolution
Video: Thomas Friedman on "Green" at Pop!Tech