Tom Friedman: We Need "Overwhelming Force" To Green The Economy

Tom Friedman: We Need "Overwhelming Force" To Green The Economy

New York Times columnist and Hot, Flat and Crowded author Tom Friedman spoke at the CORE: club last Friday night on the energy crisis facing the United States, as well as some more post-election commentary.

Just before his first public appearance after the election, he was kind enough to make time for a conversation with Huffington Post Green editor Dave Burdick.


Dave Burdick: You've talked (and written) about greening the bailout. Why aren't green infrastructure projects widespread in the United States?

Tom Friedman: With oil or coal, no one ever said there had to be a payoff you had to pay it back in five years, but with something green, "What's the payback? What's the payback on that Prius?"

Well. What's the payback on your Hummer?

It can't be measured in very narrow terms. Our society at this time has all these needs. Needs for innovation, needs for jobs, needs for green technology, and needs for American companies to take the lead in innovation. So government investing in that, it seems to me, has the potential for multiple payoffs.

DB: I was reading last week's New Yorker profile on you, where they said that you believed that the United States could go through an energy tech revolution, but that "government must first have the good sense to withdraw its regulatory support for fossil fuels and favor alternatives." What are the subsidies that you and they are talking about?

TF: In the book, I actually list all of them. They range from research subsidies to depreciation of mines and wells, basically. I'm not even sure I want to get into that fight right now.

What I've been arguing for, just don't tell me -- this is the Cheney line -- let's let the market work. Just let the market work. As if the market is neutral. We give nothing to renewables. We give very little to renewables. And we have legacy subsidies and tax incentives for dirty fossil fuels. The whole thing is totally skewed. This market has been gamed from the beginning. If we're going to game the market let's at least game it so that clean fuels are on an equal footing with the dirty fuels.

We should be throwing money at this problem. This could give birth to a whole industry. This is not a thing you nickel and dime.

DB: So it's safe to assume you're not all that worried about a deficit?

TF: I am worried about a deficit, but I'm much more worried about another d-word, and that's depression.

I think we need not only a bailout, I think we need, to put it in Colin Powell terms, overwhelming force. There's a crisis of confidence. Dump money from helicopters on this economy.

DB: You said you didn't want to have that fight right now -- to remove the subsidies for fossil fuels. Can you think of anybody who does want to have it now?

TF: A lot of Democrats from oil states are just not going to be with you. No, I don't think so. The problem is it was just a huge fight to get the [wind and solar credits].


DB: One of the things we're all wondering is, who will fill out Obama's cabinet? But, throwing out all of the actual cabinet positions for now, if you could assemble an all-star environmental advisory board for Barack Obama?

TF: I wouldn't want to get into that. I think there are a lot of good people and I wouldn't want to leave anybody out.

I think the big challenge for Obama on this is finding someone to be a CEO -- a Chief Energy Officer. Because what has bedeviled us all this time on energy policy is our energy policy is all over the board. Mileage standards are done by transportation. Air standards are done by the EPA. Energy research is done by DOE. Transmission lines are done by FERC. Utilities are regulated at a state-by-state level.

You've got power atomized all over the place and I think the big challenge -- and I know this is something that John Podesta has been working on -- he's actually, they're considering having, just as we have a National Economic Council and a National Security Council, having a National Energy Council that would combine both the climate side and the power generation side under one White House coordinator.

Right now our energy policy is the sum of all lobbies.

DB: How long do you think an Obama honeymoon can last? How long before environmentalists really start getting on him about some of the -- I mean, he may not have been the greenest candidate. He and Joe Biden apparently support clean coal, and I don't know where you --

TF: I never met clean coal before, but if you meet clean coal, would you please introduce us? There's no such thing as clean coal. There's some coal that generates power in cleaner ways, but coal basically is a fuel that spins off a lot of CO almost any way you do it.

DB: And how long before you think people start really pressuring the new president?

TF: You know, I think we're in a bit of a "Black Swan" moment, to quote the title of a popular book now. We have not been here before. We are in the middle of a once-in-a-century economic crisis, and I think no one is going to begrudge the President for making it his priority to A, to prevent systemic risk and, B, to prevent a long-term recession that will really, not just hammer the middle class and the lower middle class and those not fortunate enough to even be that high, but will actually decimate them, set them back ten years.

So Bush is actually handing off two deficits to Obama. One is economic deficit. The other is a huge climate deficit. We basically did nothing for eight years, and in fairness to Bush we didn't do much in the eight years previous, either, to mitigate climate change. The tragedy is that we've got two deficits to overcome. We need people to care about both of those deficits.

DB: You've said we're in a unique moment, so maybe this is a ridiculous question, but is there any kind of historical model we can look to -- any country that dealt with both the economy and the environment in crisis?

TF: The model I give in the book is little Denmark, because in 1973 Denmark was the other country that got hit with the Arab oil embargo. They got hit so hard they stopped sunday driving. You couldn't drive in Denmark on sunday.

They said, "We're never going to be in that situation again." They instituted a gasoline tax. Gas costs $10 a gallon in Denmark today. And they instituted a CO tax. You go to your electric bill in Denmark and you actually see "CO tax."

They bit the bullet, they designed a program that would both diminish on a steady basis their energy use per unit of GDP and they stimulated a huge green energy industry. There are only 5 million people in Denmark, yet they produce one out of every three wind turbines and they have the top two cellulosic enzyme companies in the world. That should be us. That should be us.


DB: I was just reading the chapter in your book titled "205 Ways To Save The Earth." Do you ever wish that "green" hadn't become stylish?

TF: Yes and no.

When something becomes a fad, it has an upside and a downside. The downside is it can be easily trivialized. The upside is that it starts to really scale beyond the original core group. And when something starts to scale virally like that, you never know where it's going to go, and you never know what innovation it's going to trigger.

And there's just one word you can never use when you're talking about this project, and it's "easy." There is not room for "easy" here. It's so overwhelmingly difficult that if we pull this off it'll be the greatest industrial project since the Tower of Babel. Easy's not in the vocabulary.

DB: What about just the term "green" -- is it thrown around too much?

TF: My actual goal, as I say in the last chapter of the book, is to make the word disappear. That should be the goal of the green movement. It's not to drop the word green.

You'd come to me and say, "Hey, Tom, we're doing an interview with you for the Huffington Post and we've got a green camera" -- no, no. I want it to just be a camera and it's built to the most efficient power specifications, because no alternative would be possible.

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