Three years ago I helped organize a week-long series of lectures, workshops, even artistic events, at Loyola Marymount University around the topic of “ Environmental Responsibility.” During that week, we premiered Laurie David’s HBO documentary on global warming, Too Hot Not to Handle. I thought it a devilishly clever title.
In a sense, if it had not already been taken, Thomas Friedman could have chosen it as a title for his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: How We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America. Friedman views the energy crisis and global warming as not only a crisis (one that is too hot not to handle) but a profound opportunity economically ( a hot property which is too hot not to handle).
I had, initially, resisted reading the Friedman book, when it first appeared a year ago. I found his earlier books on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat much too glib, too one-sidedly serving as cheerleaders for a fairly unmitigated market capitalism. I felt that Friedman took that famous Chinese symbol for crisis (which means both potential peril and opportunity) almost one-sidedly as opportunity. He had not counted the costs and down-sides of globalization. Friedman’s earlier books were fairly silent on the salient issue of climate change.
With the deadline for the Copenhagen meetings for a new global climate treaty looming close in December (and with the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment, coming in early October) I decided to give Friedman’s new book an honest read. The book is much too long, the result of copious citations from knowledgeable informants. Its section on how the planet got hot will not be new to those who have followed closely the debates on climate change. I think the books by Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet and James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World and Red Sky in the Morning superior presentations of the data. Friedman, writing in many ways to a business class readership, appeals more, however, than Speth and Lynas could, to can-do business types. He makes the data of how the world got to its present precarious position accessible to an audience, outside the world of the already eco-converted. On the theme of the crisis being too hot not to handle, Friedman cites Rajendra Pachauri, co-chair of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change: “If there is no action before 2012, that is too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” Our choices are between consequences which are serious or ones that are catastrophic.
What I liked best about the book was its section on the opportunities presented to us by what Friedman sees as an inter-connected fivefold set of global issues: tightening energy supplies; an intensified extinction of plants and animals; deepening energy poverty in the third-world; a strengthening of petro-dictatorships; the acceleration of climate change. Friedman (although he shies away from giving cost estimates of the proposed shifts) charts the policies we will need to address the energy issues: target mandates for renewable energy sources for all utilities; a price signal on carbon expenditures—either a tax or, preferably, a cap and trade scheme; new regulations fostering greater energy efficiency in building codes; dual use buildings to save on energy; a much expanded research and development program for new, clean energy. Friedman argues that if we are only looking for easy quick-fixes on energy renewal we merely play games. What we need is an energy system.
Such a system, however, promises the possibilities of a green revolution (with concomitant creation of jobs) equal to the information and bio-tech revolutions of the late 80’s and 90’s. Germany has learned how to harness solar (while America, more climate friendly to solar, dithers); Denmark has excelled in wind. Both have reaped huge economic benefits. As Friedman sees it, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” when its shadow side is true economic opportunity.
I would have liked more explicit attention to ethics. Not that Friedman does not evoke conservation, or shared sacrifice. Citing Harvard philosopher, Michael Sandel, Friedman insists that an ethic of conservation would embrace several norms: “A sense of responsibility, a sense of stewardship for the natural world… an ethic of restraint that says we have a responsibility to preserve the earth’s resources and natural wonders in and of themselves.” Friedman also notes that we are more likely to act responsibly if we actually experience the world as a place of beauty and wonder and joy. This made me think of Saint Francis’ famous paeon of praise for the wonders of nature, The Canticle of the Sun.
Some think Friedman too glib and too close to the on-going consensus. If so, we can take heart if all now agree with Friedman’s assessment of what he prefers to call global climate “disruption” to the more neutral term, “change.” He argues: “It is real, it is accelerating, it’s already doing significant harm; human activities are responsible for most of it; tipping points into really catastrophic disruption are likely along the ‘business as usual’ trajectory and there is much that could be done to reduce the danger at affordable cost if only we get started.”