NYT’s Tom Friedman is wrong: We are NOT (yet) the people we have been waiting for to solve global ‘weirding’

In general, I am a big fan of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, one of the few national columnists who writes regularly & intelligently on energy and climate matters. But his recent column, “The People We Have Been Waiting For,” goes off track — twice. First, he writes:

… sweet-sounding “global warming” doesn’t really capture what’s likely to happen. I prefer the term “global weirding,” coined by Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, because the rise in average global temperature is going to lead to all sorts of crazy things — from hotter heat spells and droughts in some places, to colder cold spells and more violent storms, more intense flooding, forest fires and species loss in other places.

Well, half credit. Yes, “global warming” is inadequate to describe the coming nightmare — but “global weirding” simply isn’t a serious enough term — it could just as easily be used to describe the world’s growing fascination with reality TV (or videos of piano-playing cats and skateboarding dogs).

Also, the word “weird” strongly implies something either supernatural or bizarrely unexpected. What’s happening to the planet is pure science and has been predicted for decades — nothing weird about that except maybe it’s happening faster than most scientists projected. Climate Progress readers know I prefer the term “Hell and High Water” — since at least it does accurately describe what is coming. [Note to self: It didn’t catch on. Let it go.] My guess is we’re stuck with “global warming.”

[As an aside, Hunter probably didn’t coin the term “global weirding” (see here), and, of course, she’s not at RMI any more. I am a big fan of hers since we worked together at RMI, but those seeking her wise counsel on sustainability should go to Natural Capitalism, Inc (for profit) or Natural Capitalism Solutions (non-profit).]

Second, the entire point of the piece is that what gives Friedman hope is a bunch of smart people working on clean energy technology, who he claims are the “people we have been waiting for.” I hate to break the news to Tom, but

  • We’ve had a bunch of smart people working on clean energy technology for about 30 years — and, of course, we’d have a lot more if Reagan and Gingrich hadn’t gutted key applied energy technology programs or if conservatives didn’t block efforts to create a carbon dioxide market.
  • People working on technology are the people global warming Delayers like Luntz, Bush, Lomborg, and Gingrich have been waiting for. The people the rest of us are — or should be — waiting for are political leaders with the wisdom and guts needed to pass laws limiting carbon emissions and accelerating into the marketplace the technologies we developed in the last 30 years.
  • It is way, way premature to say “we” or any group are the people we have been waiting for. Only future generations can say that. If we buck up and start now with the large-scale multi-decade actions needed to avoid catastrophic global warming, we might, come 2050, be viewed as the Greatest Generation of the 21st century. If not, we will surely be viewed as the Greediest Generation of all time, stealing the future well-being of the next 50 or more generations.

That said, I am a very big fan of all the clean energy folks Friedman names:

Google’s new program, “RE<C (Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal)” is a great idea, though I am a tad unhappy with their website, which touts “Supporting Breakthrough Technologies” — breakthroughs in energy technology that are fundamentally game changing are a very, very overrated pursuit, as I have previously noted. Also, Google is just a drop in the bucket of the huge surge in corporate, venture capital, and even state government money going into clean energy.

What gives me hope about Google’s effort is that it is being run by Dan Reicher, my savvy old boss at the Energy Department, who, as Friedman noted, is focused on bringing clean energy technologies “across the valley of death” (otherwise known as commericialization) — a very important task that the Gingrich Congress explicitly tried to stop the Clinton Energy Department from pursuing and that the Bush Energy Department squashed entirely.

[Note to Dan: As you know, commercialization is not the same thing as “Supporting Breakthrough Technologies” — not that the two are mutually exclusive, but the website should talk about both, especially since breakthroughs, while sexier, are just not likely and may not even be needed.]

Friedman is right to be impressed by the students of M.I.T., my old alma mater. The Energy Club does great work promoting entrepreneurship (see a keynote talk I gave at their 2006 energy conference here). And the multi-disciplinary, multi-country Vehicle Design Summit is working on the right car of the future, which is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, but Friedman’s line — “They’re not waiting for G.M.” — misses three points:

First, GM is in fact working on a plug in, the Volt, which they are promising to debut quite soon.

Second, if MIT developed a prototype plug in and GM doesn’t — really what good does that do? We need mass production to make these cars affordable, and only big auto companies do that. I would ask, in passing, for the name of the last successful new American mass-market car company launched by anybody (and Toyota doesn’t count). Hint — it has been many, many decades. You can start a major PC businesses in a garage in this country, but apparently not a major car company.

Third, no country in the world has ever successfully launched a mass-market alternative fuel vehicle without government mandates. Apologies to all my anti-government readers out there — but you can’t solve either the oil problem or the global warming problem in transportation without mandates like CAFE, renewable or low-carbon fuel standards, and the like.

The people we are waiting for are the politican leaders. Everyone else needed to solve the global warming problem has been around for a while.

11 Responses to NYT’s Tom Friedman is wrong: We are NOT (yet) the people we have been waiting for to solve global ‘weirding’

  1. JMG says:

    I have had good luck with both “climate disruption” and “global heating” (lifted from Lovelock, who points out how comforting and friendly “warming” sounds).

  2. Paul K says:

    Weirding is being incorrectly defined. It is not pejorative. It connotes an often contradictory complexity. I’ll bet Hunter Lovins read Dune.

  3. Max Kaehn says:

    I’ve also heard “climate destabilization”, which sounds sufficiently ominous.

  4. Ronald says:

    I remember a few years ago that some people in the science community and science magazines wanted to change the name Big Bang to something else because that name hardly described the start of the universe. Months of discussion and contests and Big Bang was still the best name for it, they couldn’t find a descriptor-name. They had gone thru many name combinations.

    Have a contest for a better name than Global Warming? Maybe. What could it hurt and the contest itself might give it some publicity and it could be educational by describing all the possible things it could affect to get a descriptor-name?

    Of course some will want to call it ‘The Biggest Hoax ever perpetrated on American People Thing’ but you can’t please everybody.

  5. Ronald says:

    I read the Tom Friedman article and I had the same reactions. I remember buying a book on electric vehicles a person could make themselves with all sorts of different batteries and generators. It’s got to sell to the main stream that’s hard.

    Which also forgets that there are very good engineers in, to mention 2, Japan and Germany, who have larger incentives for years to develop these plug-ins and none are still available for purchase.

  6. John Mashey says:

    I think this is just an attempt to get around a widespread problem, which is that people don’t use statistical expressions very well, and in particular, the differences between:

    1) No trend in mean or variance. [OK]
    2) No trend in mean; increasing variance [trouble] [weirding]
    3) Upward trend in mean; no change in variance [trouble] [warming]
    4) Upward trend in mean; increasing variance [bad trouble] * [warming & weirding]

    Even with the simplest interpretation (just temperature, and just in one place), anything but 1) can cause trouble. As an old farmboy and current skier, I hate high-variance unpredictability, which can ruin crops or ski-seasons, even if the season’s averages are fine. Of course, those are minor compared to the effects of one bad hurricane.

    Anyway, I’m not sure “global weirding” is such an awful phrase, as it may stick in people’s minds better than: “Increased temperatures will increase variability of temperature and rainfall, as well as the probability of extreme weather events.”

  7. JMG says:

    I would use climate derangement before destabilization — anything to avoid the long Latinate ending that makes peoples’ eyes glaze over.

  8. Paul K says:

    John Mashey,
    Very nice expression of trend and variance.

    I don’t understand your criticism of Friedman. It seems to come from a fear that the people might solve this global warming problem without much need for the government’s revenue grabbing presence. This is an example of contradictory complexity. Your solution requires the institution of a massive global government run system of tax trade-offs and penalty avoidance schemes. Corruption and bureaucratic bumbling aside, such a system is years away and guaranteed to be deeply flawed. As shown by Kyoto, even a ten times better program would not have much effect on 21st century temperatures. Yet, you say this system is necessary to force the use of non-carbon based energy. Friedman and others are saying that maybe it isn’t. You label this belief Delaying. That is a misnomer. Technos fervently desire accelerating into the marketplace the technologies we developed in the last 30 years. Artificially raising the price of carbon based energy is not the best nor only way to achieve the goal.

  9. CMann says:

    This kind of goofy writing from Friedman is what made him such a laughingstock w/r/t Iraq. It’s just typical him. Though he may do better on GW, it’s best to remember to filter him through appropriate BS/egotist goggles.

  10. Earl Killian says:

    There seem to be plenty of suggestions for alternate terms to global warming, but even JMG’s suggested “climate derangement” seems a bit technical. What about “climate wrecking”? “Wreck” is a good old English word.