Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 8 2008 6:59 AM

It's Time To Turn Down the Heat

What Thomas Friedman's doomsday environmental scenario gets wrong—and right.

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Artificial climate change is real; even skeptics now call the danger scientifically proven. But Friedman, Al Gore, James Hansen of NASA, and others present climate change as some kind of super-ultra emergency. Global warming is a problem, one that must be managed via greenhouse-gas restrictions and a weaning away from fossil fuels. But in a world of poverty, disease, dictatorships, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, lack of girls' education, and more than 1 billion people without cleaning drinking water or electricity—climate change barely makes the Problem Top 10. Besides, the solution can't be a panicked pullback from the present economic system, though perhaps that system can be amended over the long term. Economic growth is needed to allow the world to afford environmental protection. At least for the next few decades, headlong resource consumption will be necessary to generate the capital that will pay for a clean-energy infrastructure.

Why does the cocktail-party circuit embrace claims about a pending climate doomsday? Partly owing to our nation's shaky grasp of science—many Americans lack basic understanding of chemicals, biology, and natural systems. Another reason is the belief that only exaggerated cries of crisis engage the public's attention; but this makes greenhouse concern seem like just another wolf cry. (Remember the electric power lines crisis? The beach needles crisis?) There also seems to be some kind of psychological compensation mechanism at work among corporate and Hollywood elites: that it's OK to be a runaway consumer so long as you theatrically denounce consumption.

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Friedman's book-talk schedule for the first month alone of Hot, Flat, and Crowded promotion requires jet aircraft trips that, the calculator at Terra Pass estimates, will generate about 3 tons of carbon dioxide—the same as driving a Hummer for almost half a year. Friedman counsels, "[P]ersonally lead as environmentally sustainable a life as you can" but himself lives in a 11,400-square-foot mansion, whose carbon footprint may be visible from orbit. Rather than address this straight on, he squirms to paint his lifestyle green: In Hot, Flat, and Crowded Friedman calls his house only "large" and says he and his wife bought the 7.5 acres "to prevent it from being redeveloped into a subdivision. … [We built] a large house on one end and turn[ed] the rest into a parklike greenspace." Must depend on what the definition of like is, since this parklike space is hardly open to the public and appears disguised as a palatial lawn. Friedman claims his address "has become a refuge for deer, rabbits, birds, butterflies and a fox or two." He neglects to mention the nearby forest preserve—all homes in Friedman's neighborhood have deer and fox wandering their lawns. Friedman can't bring himself to admit he is lord of a manor and racing through more resources in his daily life than 10,000 rural Africans.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded is wise to say that American innovation is the best hope for a clean-energy future. The book is wrong to advocate a government-subsidized crash program of energy research—just as Barack Obama calls for $150 billion in alternative-energy subsidies. Government should regulate greenhouse emissions, then let the free market sort out the details, including by funding the research. Government's track record at setting goals is good; its track record at commercialization is awful. Wind-turbine application went nowhere in the 1970s and 1980s when federally subsidized; actual use has come since the 1990s, when the government bowed out and the private sector took over. Friedman extols various energy-saving gizmos about to become practical, such as inexpensive black boxes for home power management. They sound great—but no government-subsidized research ever would have produced them.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded goes off the edge of the flat Earth when Friedman maintains that if the United States could be "China for a day," then the central government could use coercion to make Americans live greenly. But suppose Congress had had dictatorial environmental power in, say, 1975. It would have banned natural gas use, as gas was then considered near exhaustion; today it seems the more gas power the better, because gas is much cleaner than petroleum. Give Congress dictatorial environmental power today, and it would freeze all our current problems into place—because the knowledge necessary to create an affordable clean-energy economy does not yet exist.

Friedman concludes Hot, Flat, and Crowded by proclaiming greenhouse damage could cause humanity to be "just one more endangered species." Better to consult history on this topic. Greenhouse gases are an air-pollution problem. Smog and acid rain, the two previous serious air-pollution problems, once were viewed as emergency threats. Then federal standards were imposed, and inventions and new business models were devised; now smog and acid rain are way down in the United States and declining in much of the rest of the world. And no international treaty governs smog or acid rain! Nations have adopted smog and acid-rain curbs because it is in their self-interest to do so. The same dynamic will take hold for climate change, not long after the United States finally imposes greenhouse-gas rules. Unquestionably the future is flat and crowded. Hot? Maybe not.

Gregg Easterbrook is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

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