x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Convenient truth

Books Thomas L Friedman's flat world is getting hotter. But, Bradford Plumer writes, the giddy evangelist of globalisation sees a future painted bright green.

Catch the wind: Friedman contends that free-market forces can stimulate radical innovation in energy technology.
Catch the wind: Friedman contends that free-market forces can stimulate radical innovation in energy technology.

Thomas L Friedman's flat world is getting hotter. But, Bradford Plumer writes, the giddy evangelist of globalisation sees a future painted bright green by free market solutions to the climate crisis.
Hot, Flat and Crowded Thomas L Friedman Allen Lane Dh135
Loosely speaking, environmentalists these days come in three shades of green. On the light end you've got your "green living" folks, who aren't trying to tip over the applecart or regulate corporations or anything drastic, no; they're just focused on making eco-friendly decisions in their own personal lives. If you drive a Prius and wash your organic hemp T-shirts with biodegradable detergent, you've done your part. At the far other end of the palette are the "dark greens", those radical types who insist that fending off ecocatastrophe will require ending consumer capitalism as we know it. (They're a gloomy lot.)

Somewhere in the middle, then, is the ever-expanding group of "bright greens". They, too, lie awake at night sweating over the dangers facing Mother Earth - global warming, deforestation, dwindling freshwater supplies and so on - and focus primarily on government action. What really distinguishes the bright greens, though, is their belief that environmentalism and economic growth can go hand in hand - indeed, that countries can actually prosper by going green. Nicholas Stern, the former World Bank chief economist, falls into this camp, with his argument that preventing runaway global warming will cost a mere one per cent of global GDP (a pittance, really, compared with the havoc serious climate change could wreak). The same is true of Barack Obama, who likes to assure Americans that the United States can create five million new jobs by weaning itself off fossil fuels.

And then there's Thomas Friedman, the perennially jovial New York Times columnist. Friedman has never identified himself as a bright green, but in his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, he's gone and written a manifesto for the bright-green worldview. Humanity, in a nutshell, is on an unsustainable trajectory: The planet's aflame. China and India are pushing the biosphere to the shattering point in the pursuit of first-world living standards. And the only way out is for the whole world to embark on a gargantuan clean-energy push that will make the Space Race look like a beanbag. These facts barely faze Friedman, who - despite dubbing himself a "sober optimist" - is as giddy about our clean-energy future as he has been in the past about globalisation. Indeed, Friedman often attracts mockery and scorn for his comically overheated reactions to even the most banal facts of life. ("Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling me the world is flat!" was his response, in his last book, to the news that technology has - brace yourself - made the world a more interconnected place.) But environmentalism has long suffered, let's be honest, from a too-gloomy veneer, and Friedman's buzzy optimism - "green," he practically bursts into anthem, "is the new red, white, and blue" - may be just what this movement needs.

Friedman is rightly alarmist about global warming, and while his folksy recap of the known facts isn't quite pop-science writing at its finest, the nickel version is still worth retelling. Climate scientists are now warning (screaming, really) that unless the world gets on pace to lower greenhouse-gas emissions 50 per cent or more below 1990 levels by 2050, it may be impossible to stop global temperatures rising more than two degrees Celsius. At that point, dangerous feedback effects can start kicking in (as permafrost in Siberia begins to melt, say, the soil carbon and methane underneath starts bubbling up into the air, leading to even more warming, and round it goes?). From there it's on to millions at risk from heat waves, droughts, and floods; rising sea levels swamping the coast; whole ecosystems being wiped out. While we can't pinpoint exactly how brutal things will get, that uncertainty cuts both ways - many scientists now fret that the hallowed consensus on climate change may actually understate the calamities lying in wait.

Wealthy countries bear most of the responsibility for all the extra carbon dioxide that's already in the air. But there's no point in glossing over the role poorer countries are now playing. Carl Pope, the president of the Sierra Club, tells Friedman that the United States and Europe got filthy rich by exploiting the "biological commons" - the Industrial Revolution chugged along because there were forests to mow down, fisheries to ravage and blue skies aplenty to blacken with flue gas and coal exhaust. But now China and India want to follow suit, and there are no more commons left to pillage - at least not without paying a terrible price. The atmosphere simply can't afford two new coal plants per week popping up in China or millions of new gasoline-powered cars hitting the road in India.

Since there's no way to tell developing countries to stay dirt-poor (nor should we want to), the only alternative is for the world to hop on a more sustainable growth path. Is that possible? China? Actually, Friedman is quite sanguine about the Chinese government, which is well aware that its chemical-dyed rivers and smog-clogged skies need scrubbing, not just because they're provoking riots and social turmoil, but because out-of-control environmental degradation imperils the country's economic growth. Lately, Beijing has issued a slew of radical (at least on paper) green policies and renewable-energy goals, fostering a boom in windpower markets. But Beijing can barely enforce its own edicts in the provinces - which have been given remarkable autonomy since the 1980s - and pollution laws are routinely flouted. Friedman notes this in passing, but mostly skips over the problem. (One big question is how much slack Beijing will grant green civil society groups to agitate for environmental action at the local level.) Still, whatever the outcome of China's current efforts, it's certainly true that a major overhaul in energy and climate policy won't transpire unless the United States gets serious about global warming first. Friedman quotes one American environmentalist in China who frequently bumps up against officials sceptical of green policies: "If it's so good," they always ask, "why aren't you doing it?"

Well, why isn't the United States doing it? Friedman, for one, is certain that the benefits of embracing a more sustainable energy future are vast and inarguable: "Everything America can do to be green today will make it stronger, healthier, more secure, more innovative, more competitive and more respected." Fair enough, though some of the alleged benefits deserve more scrutiny. For instance, Friedman is excited that steering the developed world away from oil will drain the coffers of "petrodictators" in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. (Even though most US oil imports don't come from the Middle East, it is true that America's insatiable demand for oil keeps global prices high.) But this may be an oversold hope - the United States can and should reduce its dependence on oil, but developing countries will still gobble up enough of the stuff to keep Riyadh and Tehran afloat for decades to come. And it's hardly obvious that a green revolution will always and everywhere make the developed world more secure - as Western Europe has moved away from coal to meet its Kyoto Protocol targets, for instance, the continent has become perilously dependent on natural-gas reserves controlled by Russia. Nor is everything "green" unabashedly good: Witness the recent biofuels craze, which has jacked up global food prices and accelerated the pace of deforestation. One needn't be a reactionary global-warming denier to wish that Friedman tread with a touch more caution and humility.

That said, there's a solid case that moving to clean energy is a net winner. Apart from the staving off all the biblical plagues associated with global warming, there are the health benefits from not poisoning our air and water and the fact that we'd no longer have to fret about wild swings in the price of oil and gas. And it's all very much doable. What makes Friedman a prototypical bright green is his belief that decarbonising the economy doesn't require a command-and-control approach to government: "The only thing that can stimulate this much innovation in new technologies and the radical improvement of existing ones is the free market." Right. Except that markets are never truly "free" - the rules of the game are always written by governments and interest groups. Currently, the US energy market favours fossil fuels - in addition to all sorts of subsidies for oil, gas and coal, the basic infrastructure of the country is orientated around gas-powered cars and grids reliant on coal-burning plants. Many economists now agree that the United States could tilt the field in favour of alternative energy by doing what Europe has started doing and slapping a price on carbon emissions, letting companies adjust accordingly. That's a good start. But we need more than that. By itself, a price on carbon won't bring about all the massive changes needed to decarbonise the economy. Take energy efficiency, which Friedman rightly identifies as the swiftest, easiest way to curb carbon-dioxide emissions. He doesn't mean "conservation" in the sense of having people make do with less. He means cutting sheer waste out of the energy system. Home insulation, say. Or "smart grids" that even out the load on power plants - for instance, by telling the laundry machines and dishwashers in our homes to run only at night, when demand is low, thereby saving money in the long run. Why don't these things happen already? Often because the markets are poorly constructed. Electric utilities profit when they sell more energy, not less - and so have scant incentive to promote efficiency upgrades. Similarly, landlords often have no reason to invest in pricier efficient dishwashers and laundry machines that only benefit tenants paying the electric bill. In many cases, these gaps can only be closed by new rules and regulations.

That brings us to a central tenet of bright-green environmentalism: regulations aren't just an impingement on the economy that's sadly necessary to save nature. Rather, green regulations can - when handled wisely - give countries a competitive edge. Friedman tells the tale of First Solar Inc., a US-based company that invented a cheap cadmium telluride solar cell, but after being unable to find a market in the United States, moved to Germany, where utilities are required to hand out long-term contracts to producers of renewable energy. Policies like renewable-electricity mandates and tighter fuel-economy standards for cars can actually cultivate markets for new products and get creative juices flowing. (Indeed, studies show that environmental regulations often cost far less than anticipated, because they spur unexpected technological advances.)

But that leaves the big question mark that plagues Hot, Flat, and Crowded: If the green revolution is so beneficial, why aren't more countries taking part in it? Why is the United States holding back? Why are countries like Australia and Britain stumbling over their own emissions targets? The answer here is complicated, and Friedman gives it relatively shallow treatment. Yes, there are entrenched interests - Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Auto - that have the clout and wherewithal to oppose green policies. But people are also resistant to change - the recent spike in oil prices has already sated the appetites of many Americans for the sort of far-reaching environmental policies deemed necessary in this book, many of which may well raise energy prices in the short term (even if they would prove beneficial in the medium and long term). Yet Friedman's only real response is to demand a better class of leaders, leaders who can shake the public by its collective shoulders and just make them see that a green revolution will be a vibrant opportunity, not a wrenching change.

Maybe that's the way to go. Arnold Schwarzenegger has certainly had plenty of success pitching his brand of pain-free environmentalism to California, which is now adopting some of the most progressive green laws around. To date, Schwarzenegger - like Friedman - has taken pains to assure that curbing carbon emissions won't require anyone to give up the extravagant modern-day lifestyles we've come to know and love. The only problem is that lifestyle changes almost certainly will be necessary in a carbon-constrained world. For instance: Although we'll likely be able to swap our gas-guzzling SUVs for electric cars in a few decades, there's no similar alternative on the horizon for kerosene-fuelled jets, which means we may have to bid adieu to the age of mass air travel if we want to avoid serious global warming. The same may go for suburbia. (Schwarzenegger has remained notoriously reticent on policies to constrain sprawl, and Friedman hardly mentions it.) The dark greens aren't, after all, entirely wrong - parts of modern-day capitalism as we know it may prove incompatible with saving the planet. Of course, Friedman's sunny message may sway more voters. But in the long run, it's possible that a too-glib brand of environmentalism may prove to be, well, unsustainable.
Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.