Friedman Asks: Where is the Plan? Maybe it's Waiting on the Outrage

Today, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman points out that President Obama is wasting the crisis British Petroleum has unleashed with its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which should serve as an opportunity to get America focused on our energy, security and environmental problems that stem from our over-consumption of oil. I agree that the crisis in the Gulf presents an opportunity for the president to harness American will to address the fact that we buy too much oil from a region that causes us too many problems and it is hurting our environment. We need to think big about how to stop this loop and this is the time to do so.

However, I disagree with Mr. Friedman that the opportunity for boldness is lost. Instead, I would argue that the crisis has yet to hit home for most Americans. While we news junkies watch oil gush into the Gulf and hear the painful stories of fishermen unable to pursue their livelihood while miles long slicks ooze across the water, the impact of the problem is still a bit remote for most citizens. Sadly, the visible destruction caused by this crisis is coming.

Americans tend to react to the heart-wrenching sight of people or wildlife in desperate need. Soon the impact of this crisis will be hard to ignore and people will demand a way to help. More birds will wash up onto shore covered in gunk and dead fish will float to the top. The Florida Keys may be inundated with pools of muck and some beaches may become unswimmable. That is the moment when this crisis will reach the apogee that will create the public outcry for action that the president can harness for more bold proposals.

The bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000 were not enough to spur American outrage about terrorism, but the loss of 3,000 lives on American soil on September 11th sent us into hyper-drive. When the BP disaster in the Gulf hits the shore, I expect it may have much the same effect.

The good news is that President Obama understands the challenges presented by our overreliance on foreign oil and has been thinking about how to deal with it. In April of 2009, one of the major pillars of his New Foundation speech was to institute a carbon tax and "harness the renewable energy that can create millions of new jobs and new industries."

He went on:

But we can no longer delay putting a framework for a clean energy economy in place. If businesses and entrepreneurs know today that we are closing this carbon pollution loophole, they will start investing in clean energy now. And pretty soon, we'll see more companies constructing solar panels, and workers building wind turbines, and car companies manufacturing fuel-efficient cars. Investors will put some money into a new energy technology, and a small business will open to start selling it. That's how we can grow this economy, enhance our security, and protect our planet at the same time.

Using the crisis is important to jump start the conversation and maybe it will ensure we get a carbon tax passed. Also it is worth remembering that the president we have is keenly intent on dealing with problems deliberately and over the long term. As he said last April "When a crisis hits, there's all too often a lurch from shock to trance, with everyone responding to the tempest of the moment until the furor has died away and the media coverage has moved on, instead of confronting the major challenges that will shape our future in a sustained and focused way."

Though the big thinkers like Tom Friedman are ready to move now, he might be just a bit early. The oil is coming and so is the outrage. Hopefully a bold plan will follow from the White House.