Tom Friedman is back — and he’s pessimistic


First the good news from the New York Times:

We have ended TimesSelect. All of our Op-Ed and news columns are now available free of charge. Additionally, The New York Times Archive is available free back to 1987.

Good for them. Interestingly, even though I had paid my money to get TimesSelect, I pretty much stopped reading the stuff behind the barrier because I couldn’t connect Climate Progress readers (i.e. you) to the material. The NYT had basically taken some of their best columnists out of the global discussion. Now they are back.

doha2.jpgFriedman has a new piece titled “Doha and Dalian” — “Doha [top] is the capital of Qatar, a tiny state east of Saudi Arabia. Dalian [bottom] is in northeast China and is one of China’s Silicon Valley.” Their growth rates have surprised even itinerant Tom:

dalian-skyline-1.jpgIn Doha, since I was last there, a skyline that looks like a mini-Manhattan has sprouted from the desert. Whatever construction cranes are not in China must be in Doha today. This once sleepy harbor now has a profile of skyscrapers, thanks to a huge injection of oil and gas revenues. Dalian, with six million people, already had a mini-Manhattan when I was last here. It seems to have grown two more since — including a gleaming new convention complex built on a man-made peninsula.

What does this have to do with climate change? Friedman explains:

If you want to know why I remain a climate skeptic — not a skeptic about climate change, but a skeptic that we’re going to be able to mitigate it — it’s partly because of Doha and Dalian. Can you imagine how much energy all these new skyscrapers in just two cities you’ve never heard of are going to consume and how much CO2 they are going to emit?

I am not blaming them. It is a blessing that their people are growing out of poverty. And, after all, they’re just following the high-energy growth model pioneered by America. We’re still the world’s biggest energy hogs, but we’re now producing carbon copies in places you’ve never heard of.

Yes, “Americans” are popping up all over now — people who once lived low-energy lifestyles but by dint of oil wealth or hard work are now moving into U.S.-style apartments, cars and appliances.

Our planet cannot tolerate so many “Americans,” unless we take the lead and change what it means to be an American in energy terms.

Tom’s conclusion:

That’s why we’re fooling ourselves. There is no green revolution, or, if there is, the counter-revolution is trumping it at every turn. Without a transformational technological breakthrough in the energy space, all of the incremental gains we’re making will be devoured by the exponential growth of all the new and old “Americans.”

I don’t fully agree. Yes, we should be pessimistic, especially as long as Bush is President, but I don’t think we need a “transformational technological breakthrough” — that might never come. We really need a sustained commitment to adopting the clean technologies that we have already developed, plus those that are in the pipeline, like plug-in hybrids and cellulosic ethanol. That commitment will need to be of a scale comparable to what we did during World War II — no mean feat. Later this year I will try to lay out the “solution to global warming” as I see it.

5 Responses to Tom Friedman is back — and he’s pessimistic

  1. Lou Grinzo says:

    A silver bullet would indeed be nice, but I can’t imagine what it would be. Our CO2 emissions are so large in volume and come from a broad enough range of fuel sources and applications that I can’t see how there could be a single silver bullet.

    The solution is to find the political will and foresight to use the silver BB’s at our disposal. I agree completely on plug-in hybrids (particularly the series variety) and cellulosic, but I think we’ll also have to resort to a healthy dose of conservation. In other words [insert dramatic music here] sacrifice. Getting mainstreamers over the conceptual hump to accept even a little sacrifice could be the biggest challenge of all.

  2. Lloyd Alter says:

    He makes me crazy. He doesn’t mean to be but is acting like your classic delayer. The two points that everyone will take from this article are:

    1) everything we do is irrelevant because it is subsumed by all of the growth in the rest of the world, -so why bother?

    2) the only thing that will save us is a “transformational technological breakthrough in the energy space” (he likes sequestered coal and nukes, who is in denial?) -so why bother?

    Thanks, Tom, for making all of your readers on Central Park West feel better about their four homes.

  3. Doha, like many development centers in the Pwesian gulf lies far to close to sea level for the comfort of far sighted investors. How long man made islands and beach front developments will take to slip under the waves, but locally produced CO2 will only quicken the day of reckoning. The Chinese are beginning to recognize the folly of expanding the use of fossil fuelsm but knowledge and awareness take ttime.

  4. Earl Killian says:

    I tend to disagree with Tom Friedman often enough that I am pleased just to see that he’s not playing the total fool like Alexander Cockburn. For example, given what he has written, what it takes is someone to show him a path that will work, and he could just become an enthusiast for that path.

    For example, Doha might fall on hard times in a post-petroleum world, except they might find that energy is still their lunch ticket, but instead of pumping it out of the ground, solar thermal electricity generation in the desert might be what keeps those skyscraper lights on. (Whether Europe would like to buy that electricity is another matter, given the security issues.) China has plenty of desert too for solar (though not in Dalian), and of course global warming is expanding those deserts all the time. China also has a pretty large fleet (percentage wise) of alternative fuel vehicles. They are experimenting during their growth spurt. There is a better opportunity to lock in a change (e.g. EVs) in China during the spurt than perhaps here in the U.S.

    I’ve yet to ever have the NYT print one of my letters to the editor, but if people submit enough “there is a way” letters, the editors are likely to pick one to print. As Felix Kramer of CalCars likes to point out, when we needed to after Pearl Harbor, ‘In a few short months, Detroit turned from producing Studebakers and Buicks to Sherman tanks and B-24 bombers. It was the engine for the “arsenal of democracy,” and we couldn’t have won the war without it.’ We are capable of enormous change when challenged. The problem is that we don’t feel challenged, despite 2005.08.29 (a far more important wakeup call than 2001.09.11). How to generate that sense of urgency is the key question.

  5. I do think it’s interesting that during his profile of China, Tom fails to mention China’s movement towards an all-electric public/ private transportation system. It’s been said the China has invested more money in overhauling it’s transportation system than any other country in the world in order to address their pollution problems. While China is continuing to develop, I think it’s only fair to recognizes the many efforts they have also invested in to counter balance their urban growth.

    In fact, some of China’s efforts are beginning to spill over to the United States as they are now beginning to export electric vehicles through an LA distributor/manufacturer called MILES Electric Vehicles. Associated with company is also a very interesting non-profit called No Gas Required that helps students learn about the environment and teaches them how to take action on their campus through conventional and unconventional methods. is the website. Very interesting. Despite Tom’s pessimism there are people continuing to make an effort despite the challenges. This message is more powerful than Tom’s persistent lazy whining.