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NYT’s Tom Friedman updates the global warming threat and spells out the solution

By Joe Romm on March 29, 2009 at 8:54 am

"NYT’s Tom Friedman updates the global warming threat and spells out the solution"


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The NYT columnist Tom Friedman has another terrific global warming piece today, “Mother Nature’s Dow.” He is the only major national columnist or reporter consistently warning the public of what science now tells us is likely result of continuing on our current greenhouse gas emissions path — unmitigated unconscionable catastrophe. And he is the only one laying out the solution in detail. In this post I will endeavor to annotate his column for new and old readers who want more.

Friedman begins by noting, “I’m convinced that our current financial crisis is the product of both The Market and Mother Nature hitting the wall at once.” This piece is in some sense a sequel to his one from three weeks ago, see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?” He then lays out the climate realist position, noting:

If you follow climate science, what has been striking is how insistently some of the world’s best scientists have been warning — in just the past few months — that climate change is happening faster and will bring bigger changes quicker than we anticipated just a few years ago.

He cites two scientific sources:

For more sources on this climate realist position, see “An introduction to global warming impacts.”

Then he lays out the five key policies needed to avert this catastrophe, the “climate bailout.” He cites Hal Harvey, CEO of “a new $1 billion foundation, ClimateWorks, set up to accelerate the policy changes that can avoid climate catastrophe by taking climate policies from where they are working the best to the places where they are needed the most”:

“There are five policies that can help us win the energy-climate battle, and each has been proven somewhere,” Harvey explained. First, building codes: California’s energy-efficient building and appliance codes now save Californians $6 billion per year,” he said.

For more on the crucial role of energy efficiency and California codes, see (“Energy efficiency is THE core climate solution, Part 1: The biggest low-carbon resource by far” and “Part 4: How California does it so consistently and cost-effectively” and “California tightens building standards yet again“).

Second, better vehicle fuel-efficiency standards: “The European Union’s fuel-efficiency fleet average for new cars now stands at 41 miles per gallon, and is rising steadily,” he added.

Obama is already taking action here (see “Obama to push for California waiver that mandates cut in auto CO2 emissions“). Ultimately we need to set fuel efficiency standards so high that they drive the transition to Plug-in hybrids — a core climate solution.

Third, we need a national renewable portfolio standard, mandating that power utilities produce 15 or 20 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020. Right now, only about half our states have these. “Whenever utilities are required to purchase electricity from renewable sources,” said Harvey, “clean energy booms.” (See Germany’s solar business or Texas’s wind power.)

For more on this, see the following posts:

The fourth is decoupling — the program begun in California that turns the utility business on its head. Under decoupling, power utilities make money by helping homeowners save energy rather than by encouraging them to consume it.

See the following posts for more info on decoupling and a related strategy, national energy efficiency standards:

“Finally,” said Harvey, “we need a price on carbon.” Polluting the atmosphere can’t be free.


What I especially like about Friedman’s and Harvey’s policy strategies is that they don’t talk about a Manhattan project or Apollo program for technology breakthroughs. Yes, we need much more R&D — and thankfully both Obama and the venture capital community are delivering that, and a carbon price will drive even more R&D.

But if we don’t embrace the strategies above quickly to drive existing clean energy into the marketplace, then all the R&D in the world won’t save us, a point I will blog on (again) shortly.

I’ll end with Friedman:

These are the pillars of a climate bailout. Yes, some have upfront costs. But all of them would pay long-term dividends, because they would foster massive U.S. innovation in new clean technologies that would stimulate the real Dow and much lower emissions that would stimulate the Climate Dow.

An Introduction to Climate Progress

NYT’s Matt Wald blows the “Alternative and Renewable Energy” story, quotes only industry sources, ignores efficiency and huge cost of inaction

23 Responses to NYT’s Tom Friedman updates the global warming threat and spells out the solution

  1. amazingdrx says:

    A note to Tom Friedman: please get Romm a NYT blog, replicate “Climate Progress” at the times. Why not? You could convince him? It would be worth a try anyway.

    Joe needs to be pushed up front even if he is resistant at first. We, the climate activist community, need our best voices at the front of the virtual protest movement. And the times needs to make up for a lot of misinformation on climate and renewable energy over the years.

    Main stream media has a choice now, go to murdochization, like the WSJ, or get back to real journalism, the fourth estate’s proper function.

  2. Jim says:


    While you are commenting on today’s NYT, let us have your thoughts on the op-ed by Revkin and the cover story in the magazine on Freeman Dyson, who says that global warming “is more a matter of judgment than knowledge.” Huh?

  3. K Nockles says:

    Joe, I’m getting a opps when I try to access the Stanford U link. I agree we need Joe out front in some kind of main stream media format. I watched Extreme Ice last week and it’s visual impact was so scary, we are about to lose the race with the feedbacks.

    [JR: Fixed. The dreaded “http://http://”

  4. Robert says:

    Jeffrey Simpson for the Globe and Mail in Canada is our answer to your Friedman. Check his columns out (lots of comments on the oil sands) and his book Hot Air which explains why Canada has been so lax in implementing effective climate change legislation!

  5. Jared Tendler says:


    It just hit me like a ton of bricks after reading Tom’s article. Its illegal to pollute water, illegal to pollute the soil, so why is it legal to pollute the air/atmosphere? Because we didn’t know the damaging effects until recently. Like the policy changes that took place for water and soil we need them to happen now for our air – I’m calling my representatives. Thanks again for all the work you do.


  6. toaster says:

    Dear Colleagues:

    The following might be of interest on the use of highly reflective microcrystals (“micromirrors”) for increasing terrestrial albedo:



    This may be a more feasible approach as compared to other proposals.

  7. hapa says:

    joe — recommend reading climateworks website very carefully — they (and friedman by extension) are advocating increased carbon emissions well into the 2030s and probably beyond. “moratorium on coal” is conspicuously absent from friedman’s list. his language is dire but hia program is “green growth” which is not fuel switching.

    [JR: I have seen what climateworks is aiming at -- I don't think it's fair to characterize as advocating increased emissions well into the 2030s. Nor can you say Friedman endorses every single thing the people he links to endorse -- since he does link to me, too! Yeah, I'm a big fan of a moratorium on new dirty coal -- but that is one of the many purposes of a serious price for CO2.]

  8. David Scott says:

    Joe — I’m finding your blog very useful and informative. Great work.

  9. Lets first stop the information sabotage.

    For years we have absorbed a ruthless public relations campaign to deny global warming, then to claim carbon fuels do not increase greenhouse warming. Big oil and coal continue this campaign today. Theirs is perhaps the greatest sin,

    Carbon fuel industries were nurtured in the US – the very nation that grew up with the heroic story Paul Revere’s early warnings. Nothing is more patriotic than that early warning. We have been pushed into ignoring a thousand Paul Reveres.

    Today we have the very opposite of Paul Revere – it is an anti-patriotiot information sabotage campaign ($400 million per year from Exxon alone)

    Deliberate acts to obscure and cover up clear and present dangers to the world. As if they tripped Paul Revere’s horse. Such actions nauseate me. I am disgusted that they do it and shamed that we allow it.

  10. hapa says:

    40 gigatons of carbon pollution in 2030 is a cut? that’s their stated target.

  11. hapa says:

    throwing up your hands at the direction of the energy industry is a choice. taking sectoral disruption off the table is advocacy.

    i know and everyone knows you want coal gone as it is and likely will be. this is why it’s strange to see you endorse a cleanup program with such a weak delayed trajectory.

    the program as delineated in the column does not match the description of the problem.

  12. hapa says:

    and another thing: $20/ton and $200/ton are both carbon prices, but they leave different planets behind them.

  13. Joe, I am not that impressed with ClimateWorks either.

    Their seminal document is a report claiming that “Global warming can be limited to 2°C, but only if top-emitting nations and sectors take action now. ..” With the MIT prediction of 5.1 degrees – That may no longer be possible.

    Friedman and you suggest we might be thinking survival instead of “low carbon prosperity”

    But maybe soon they can catch up with current science and open up to new options. Perhaps you can advise them.

  14. Robert T says:

    Unfortunately none of these 5 policies would necessarily guarantee a net reduction in emissions. The global economy is carbon-based and predicated on growth and CO2 emissions are likely to keep rising even if you do improve efficiency, add renewables to the energy mix, etc. To demonstrate, the Formula 1 KERS system is the ultimate hybrid but the goal is more power not reduced emissions:


    Even a carbon price is not a guarantee of reduced emissions. If the money raised is spent on carbon-based economic activity in the public sector then how would it help?

    The real solution is too unpalatable for most to contemplate. We need to stop digging carbon out of the ground. This approach is about as popular as telling a smoker he needs to stop buying cigarettes.

  15. amazingdrx says:

    Joe might not be perfect,but no one is. Pretty great blog! Now if he’d listen to us once in awhile? hehey. Oh well.

  16. I haven’t seen Friedman or Climate Progress note the work on tipping points just published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (www.pnas.org/lookup/doi/10.1073/pnas.0809117106). 43 of the world’s top climate scientists carried out a sophisticated probability analysis . The study puts the risk of breaching tipping points–sudden, huge, irreversible changes in natural systems that determine climate–at 1 in 6 if global average temperature increases 3.6 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, and 1 in 2 if temperature moves higher. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology currently predicts 9 degrees Fahrenheit increase by 2100.

  17. David B. Benson says:

    robert benson — Do we know each other? If so, hi. If not, hi.

  18. paulm says:

    I think this article is right about a defining moment in the action on CC…

    The G2 interview
    ‘We’re the first generation that has had the power to destroy the planet. Ignoring that risk can only be described as reckless’
    Since publishing the Stern Review in 2006, the professor has become the global authority on climate change. Commissioned by Gordon Brown, his study of the economics of climate change shifted the debate away from polar bears and unseasonal summers, and reframed it in the cold hard language of the balance sheet. Unless we invested 1% of global GDP per annum in measures to prevent climate change, the review warned, it would cost us 20% of global GDP. Suddenly, the CBI and the Institute of Directors were paying attention. It was a defining moment for the credibility of a movement once belittled as too counter-culture to be taken seriously. Stern became the grey hero of the greens – powerful precisely because he seemed such an improbable eco warrior.

  19. Harrier says:

    With regard to stopping the use of carbon-based fuels, we are in one respect lucky that, according to some, we’ve already passed Peak Oil.


  20. paulm says:

    Obama adviser on new era for science in US
    Nobel prize-winning cancer specialist, Harold Varmus, who has been charged with the task of ‘restoring science to its rightful place’, talks to Newsnight’s Science editor, Susan Watts.

  21. Modesty says:

    Re the MIT Joint Program Gamble Friedman refers to and which you’ve blogged on, I would love to see three new policy pie charts, analogous to the “Policy” pie chart here:

    The first new pie chart, call it the what-if-you-really-are-stuck-with-whatever-warming-is-in-the-pipeline-in-2100 case, would use the same input as the Gamble Policy Case but show equilibrium warming, rather than warming in 2100.

    This new pie chart would also show warming compared to the pre-industrial average global temperature, rather than warming compared to 1990 levels.

    This pie chart would look a bit different from the Gamble Policy Case pie chart and not connote “2-degree-iness” so much.

    However unintentionally misleading on the part of the MIT Joint Program people, it’s a little jarring to have a 675 ppm CO2_eq stabilization scenario in any way connote 2-degree-iness.

    The second new pie chart would also use equilibrium warming compared to the pre-industrial, rather than 2100 warming compared to 1990, but would not use the “Level 2 stabilization scenario” used in the Gamble Policy Case and the first new pie chart.

    Instead, it would limit emissions so as to stabilize at, perhaps, 400 CO2_eq or whatever is needed to have the likelihood (ignoring tipping points) of equilibrium warming greater than 2 degrees relative to the pre-industrial be less than 50 percent. Call this one the blinkered-coin-toss-2-degree-policy case.

    It would be nice with a little online tool so that people can choose what risk level they are comfortable with, say, 30 percent risk (ignoring tipping points) of greater than 2 degree warming, instead, and have the corresponding pie chart (with the same temperature intervals and colors as in the (2009) “Gamble Policy case”) generated, along with a key that shows what “policy” ie atmospheric stabilization target it corresponds to. Perhaps this already exists?

    The third new pie chart would be generated by incorporating risks of triggering major additional feedbacks and once again recalibrating the “policy” so as to have the stabilization target (what would it be?) yield a better than a coin-toss chance of staying below a 2 degree rise over the pre-industrial global average temperature. This would be the “taking-the-problem-seriously” case.

    I think it would help to have all these policy pie charts side by side.

    Here’s the link explaining the use of the 675 CO2_eq or 4.7 W/m^2 input in the Gamble Policy Case:

  22. Susan Nortis says:

    Efficiency increases won’t work unless we tax the resulant savings. Iwhen people save money as the result of greater efficiency, they take that money and spend it elsewhere, usually on activities that produce the same amount of GHGs. Read up on “Jevon’s Paradox” and it’s implications on climate change. Eye-opening stuff!!