Exclusive Interview: Tom Friedman On The Urgency of Climate Action and Clean Energy Deployment

Friedman: “I’ve never been more concerned about climate change than I am now….”

Tom Friedman had another good NY Times column Sunday on climate and clean energy, “Take the Subway.” The gist of it was that because of the urgency of climate change, we need to start aggressively deploying clean energy ASAP. I interviewed him about his thinking this morning.

What I’ve always liked about Friedman is that he is just about the only major columnist anywhere in the political spectrum (other than Krugman) who regularly writes about climate and clean energy in his op-ed column.

Even though Friedman is a “centrist” or “moderate” — or perhaps because he is a centrist — he gets the two key points:

  1. Climate science makes increasingly clear that inaction is ever-more dangerous, which is why we have to keep talking about the problem
  2. The only way to avoid the worst of climate change is a price on carbon coupled with aggressive deployment of clean energy.

That could not have been clearer from his previous columns, his books, and his recent column, which I’ll excerpt below.

So you can imagine how surprised he was to learn that some folks were trying to twist his latest column to argue that somehow he was no longer for explaining the dire climate situation to people, for enacting a carbon price, and for aggressively deploying clean energy.

He told me, “It is sort of pathetic that people grasp at any perceived shift in emphasis in my column to drive a wholly different agenda.”

Consider this puzzling tweet on the article from NY Times blogger Andy Revkin:

Tom Friedman pushes smart-energy endrun past CO2 stasis echoing climate pragmatism @GlobalEcoGuy

I have previously noted that “climate pragmatism” as it was famously popularized by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and others is one of those phony terms like “clean coal” (see “The Road to Ruin: Extremist ‘Climate Pragmatism’ Report Pushes Right-Wing Myths and a Failed Strategy“). It has come to mean basically ignoring the climate, and it isn’t pragmatic — unless doing little other than R&D in the face of humanity’s self-destruction is pragmatic. So it’s pretty much the opposite of what Friedman has been talking about for years and the opposite of what he said in that article. If you go to the link on “climate pragmatism” you’ll see it shares some similarities to AEI’s “climate pragmatism.” Revkin explicitly linked the two here (though they aren’t quite the same).  In any case, it is not what Friedman has been writing (though the author of that piece, Jonathan Foley, has a great TEDx video, “The Other Inconvenient Truth,” on how agriculture is the biggest contributor to global warming, and asking “how do we feed the world without destroying it?” a question very similar to the one I raised in the journal Nature).

Friedman did note to me that op-eds are only several hundred words long, so he can’t repeat his full position in every article.  You’d think that would be obvious to professional journalists. Indeed, you’d think that professional journalists who were trying to figure out if another journalist had in fact changed his views from multiple articles and a book on a subject would just call that person up. You’d be wrong.

I chatted with Friedman today about the piece and about his current thinking.  What’s ironic is that Friedman is exceedingly pragmatic and evidence-based about climate change and solutions. Here’s what he told me:

  • “I’ve never been more concerned about climate change than I am now, especially after having been to Russia and the Middle East recently.”
  • “I’m still 100% for a carbon tax.”
  • “Addressing climate change is not about R&D.  Breakthroughs come from deployment, and driving prices down come from deployment. Those two together are what give you scalable responses to our climate problem.”
  • “The only way you get down the learning curve is deployment. That’s what happened with cell phones. That’s what China is doing with solar power. If we don’t get down the learning curve someone else will.”

And no, he’s not against R&D — he just thinks it’s perhaps the smallest piece of the climate solution and not something one should build a climate policy around (unlike, say, the climate pragmatists).

This of course is the point the International Energy Agency has made many times:

Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

And of you want the IEA’s work on the learning curve, see here.

He very much doesn’t want to lose the industry and jobs that will come with “The Sixth Wave” — the resurgence of resource efficiency driven by resource scarcity and climate change that is also the title of one of the books he is recommending in the piece.

As for the basic message on climate science, he writes:

This is a column about energy and environment and why we must not let the poisonous debate about climate change so tie us in knots that we cannot have any energy policy at all, particularly one focused on developing much more efficient use of resources, through better designs and systems. If you are so reckless as to dismiss all climate science as a hoax, and do not accept the data that our planet is getting hotter and the oceans rising, I can’t help you. That’s between you and your beach house — and your kids, whose future you’re imperiling.

It’s amusing that some bloggers lopped off the end of that quote.

Yes, Friedman is mocking the climate science deniers here. Duh. But he’s also making a larger point I have made many times: Clean energy technologies have so many ancillary benefits that one can make a case for aggressively deploying them without climate change. But the aggressive deployment is key.

Indeed, Friedman quotes a bunch of people who are very concerned about climate change who make the case that energy efficiency combined with renewable energy can solve the climate problem.

Here is a simple example that the energy expert Hal Harvey uses: “Consider a standard incandescent light bulb, powered by a coal-fired power plant.  If the coal plant is 33 percent efficient (the average in the U.S.), and the light bulb is 3 percent efficient, then the net conversion of energy to light is just 1 percent.  That is pathetic — and typical. An L.E.D. light, powered by an efficient natural gas turbine, converts 20 percent of the total energy to light— a 20-fold increase.”  Run it on renewables and it’s carbon-free to boot.

Harvey is a longtime champion of aggressive climate action — the 2°C target — in part because he understands climate science and in part because he understands how affordable it is to hit that target.

Friedman ends by quoting my old boss and co-author:

This is where Amory Lovins, the physicist who is chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, begins in his new book, “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era,” which is summarized in the current Foreign Affairs. The Rocky Mountain Institute and its business collaborators show how private enterprise — motivated by profit, supported by smart policy — can lead America off both oil and coal by 2050, saving $5 trillion, through innovation emphasizing design and strategy.

“You don’t have to believe in climate change to solve it,” says Lovins. “Everything we do to raise energy efficiency will make money, improve security and health, and stabilize climate.”

That’s certainly true.  You don’t have to believe in climate change to solve it. I’ve known Lovins for  2 decades, since I worked with him at Rocky Mountain Institute before he recommended me for a job at the DOE. I coathored an article in Foreign Affairs with him.

Lovins does not share the views of the do-little climate pragmatists. He supports an aggressive deployment policy and improved utility regulations, which would certainly get us much of the way to where we have to go. Lovins doesn’t fully agree with people like Friedman, who advocates a carbon tax, but he doesn’t oppose a tax either. He simply believes that we have the technology available today to solve the problem and we could deploy it without a carbon price if we were smart (unlike the so-called “pragmatists”).

The pragmatic view is that we have the technology available today to start down the path of rapid emissions reductions, which is critical to avoid imperiling the future of our kids, as Friedman says. I tend to agree with Friedman and not with Lovins — we need a carbon price as part of the overall effort. But the most important thing is to start aggressively deploying clean energy and keep shutting down dirty energy plants.

This piece has been updated.

19 Responses to Exclusive Interview: Tom Friedman On The Urgency of Climate Action and Clean Energy Deployment

  1. Alex says:

    Looks like Revkin’s been “cultivated” by the Heartland “Institute” as they intimated in the documents recently made public.

  2. Doug Bostrom says:

    Getting past “R&D” in the “it’s not yet perfect” sense as opposed to R&D meaning “Ready for Deployment” is key.

    This seems to be a market failure. Decades ago Israel made a concerted push leveraged by strong “encouragement” from their government to pluck the low hanging fruit of solar domestic hot water. Today over 80% of Israeli homes have solar hot water; Israel has avoided wasting vast amounts of money by simply accepting solar DHW technology as “good enough.” Here, we’re still mostly “researching” the topic, which actually means spending money pointlessly on endless efforts to further refine and perfect something that’s as mundane as a mud puddle and simply works, even in places like the UK (link to EST report).

    There’s nothing particularly exciting about solar hot water, it’s not techno-erotic, it won’t yield a slew of exciting patents, but widely deploying it in such places as the US would be a nice, reasonable wedge. Smoke detectors had the same problem but we now don’t consider a new home complete without them. A collective nod from us all is what it sometimes takes to get things done, aka “government mandate.”

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    I’d like to see Friedman and Krugman take real world climate science to the NYT publisher and editorial board, specifically to discuss the bad reporting being done by Revkin, Tierney, and Nocera, among others.

    These derelictions really have disgraced the newspaper, causing it to fail in its mission to inform the public about vital information.

    Otherwise, the Times will continue to muddle along with showing “both sides”, and using excuses to forestall serious action. Many of us think that this is deliberate, but whether it is or not the damage to the Times’ reputation is becoming close to irreparable. Ads from Exxon won’t mean much a decade from now, when the Times’ credibility- already shaky from promoting the Iraq War- will be so bad that other outlets will have replaced it.

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Great article Joe, its nice to see the thinking behind Friedman’s article and this was needed with the way his words were getting twisted.

    Maybe instead of calling him “NY Times blogger Andy Revkin” we should call him Heartland Institute endorsed blogger Andy Revkin (based on those leaked documents).

  5. John Tucker says:

    “clean?” hmmmmm.

    Eventually you are going to have to address nuclear power upfront and realistically no matter how uncomfortable it makes the company. Friedman does. Lovins repeats the unscientific mantra on that issue.

    When combined with thought out renewable options it is the only out of the box, doable way now to significantly reduce greenhouse emissions. Renewables and Nuclear power are not equitable much less competing strategies and should have never been approached as such.

    Out in the trenches anti nuclear movements are now on the whole working against greenhouse gas reductions. They are working against science. Its unconformable to admit but nonetheless provable, especially in the short term.

    There is enough information available to make informed decisions.

    The bottom line is you are going to have to provide a forum for reasonable debate on the issue here or lose credibility in the energy discussion. I think its in the back of many peoples minds every time you mention energy anyway, they are just afraid of appearing rude or making waves.

    Im not trying to tell you want to do or whatever, or imply that nuclear must be embraced in all forms wholeheartedly or that it should be allowed to pollute even a small amount, it just needs to be discussed as a partial option at least.

    I just don’t see any other way around it and certainly not on paths we are currently following.

  6. Joe, I’m glad you clarified Friedman’s perspective. My first quick read (admittedly it was on my iphone in the airport, so really was quick) made me worry about his framing of getting past the “poisonous debate on climate change”. It sounded a lot like the “let’s do R&D” crowd. Great to see that I misread the op-ed.

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    Some dust bunnies from the schizosphere:

    Great post, as it highlights some good (if not surprising) advice from someone who tends to get a lot of cross-divide respect.

    Revkin/”climate pragmatism”: Can just start referring to “dot Earth” as “zero-point-Earth (0.Earth)” because following Revkin’s energy crusade or whatever the heck he calls it will result in decimating the human habitability of our planet?

    Doug: I will shameless steal “techno-erotic”. Nicely turned phrase.

    Mike: I would love to see the NY Times hold an extended public debate online and in the dead tree version where each side gets to cross examine the other, plus a moderator chooses publicly submitted questions from readers (so we can see not just which ones were selected but which were rejected), with both sides forced to answer. In other words, something light years better than the non-debates we get between candidates every presidential election cycle.

  8. dan allen says:

    Friedman’s lack of understanding of resource depletion & its economic implications (e.g. the work of Richard Heinberg, Chris Martenson, etc.) makes most of his analyses nonsensical.

  9. John Tucker says:

    Some dont see the urgency. TEPCO plans to stop buying CO2 credits: Japan ( ).

  10. M Tucker says:

    I am glad the experts have agreed that 2 degrees will secure a safe and healthy environment with plenty of food and no interruptions to fresh water and will not result in excessive melting of the glaciers and ice sheets. It is good to know that 2 degrees will not cause an increase in water vapor nor cause the Arctic ice cap to melt away in the summer. I am also very glad the experts have decided that 2 degrees will not cause sea level to endanger our coasts causing enormous government spending to maintain our seaports and to protect the coasts from flooding. I am no expert but I feel confident the experts are correct. Now I need to get back to whistling past graveyards and practicing spitting into the wind.

  11. WyrdWays says:

    Very true, very funny – but even getting within spitting distance of the fabled ‘2 degree limit’ is looking hard from where I’m standing (aghast across the Atlantic at a US political scene where politicos uttering ‘climate change’ always seem to suggest those invisible quotes)

    Trying to keep temps below ‘2 degrees’ may take us up to the edge of the cliff; but at least the grandkids might still be able to decide whether we’re going to jump off or not..

  12. Mike Roddy says:


    Friedman accepts the science of global warming and seeks solutions. The fact that he doesn’t agree with you notions about resource depletion does not make his opinions nonsensical.

    Don’t be too pure and dogmatic. We need allies, and Friedman is a powerful one.

  13. fj says:

    yep, there are a lot of people publicly “running around with their hair on fire” about climate change catastrophe like just before 9/11

    and, “20/20 hindsight” won’t be an excuse when the stuff hits the fan

    (ie, as if it hasn’t really started already)

  14. Paul Magnus says:

    2 degrees or not 2 degrees,…. that is the question:
    Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
    The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
    Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles.


  15. Joe Romm says:

    This is why my posts are so long — because every time I omit something, somebody says my opinion has changed. Friedman only gets several hundred words. he can’t waste them repeating his core views.

  16. John Tucker says:

    why would changing your opinion be a bad thing?

  17. thanes says:

    If you were right before and dangerously dead wrong after, that would be bad. Good if the opposite.
    For example, if Fred Singer changed his mind and decided that yes, second hand smoke, say by elementary school teacher, had bad health effects on kindergarteners, that would be good.
    If Diane Fossey decided that gorilla meat was just too tasty to put down, that would be bad.
    All clear on that?

  18. John Tucker says:

    no I am not. You should change your mind to incorporate new information or truths into your world view – not to incorporate disjointed falsehoods if thats even possible.

    I really dont consider that “changing your mind” as it is just substitution of irrational beliefs within a disconnected framework.

  19. ltr says:

    Friedman is a war-monger and anything he says about climate change makes me want to waste all the energy I can. A truly insipid, inane and immoral writer.