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.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

Buzz. BUZZZZZZZZZ. There are so many buzz phrases in Thomas Friedman's new book that it practically vibrates in your hand. Code Green. Day-trading for electrons. Green is the new red, white, and blue. Subprime planet. Petrodictatorships. The Common Era, Friedman tells us, should be supplanted by the Energy Climate Era; the year is 1 ECE.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded asserts that artificially triggered climate change is a deadly threat to society. Rising global population, accompanied by rising rates of resource and energy consumption as the developing world grows affluent, may overwhelm both the Earth and the marketplace. Only fundamental change in energy production and use—"a whole new system for powering our economy"—can stave off disaster. Yet there's an upside, Hot, Flat, and Crowded contends: Radical change in energy use represents an opportunity for the United States to preserve its global economic leadership, by beating the world to clean-energy ideas that will sell.

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Recently Friedman, in his influential New York Times column, has climbed aboard the green-energy bandwagon. The cynical view is that his embrace of max-PC alarums about global warming is Friedman's bid to make everyone forget he pounded the table in favor of an American invasion of Iraq. But let's take Hot, Flat, and Crowded at face value.

First, the author. Few who reach the top of any occupation have remained so hard-working, intellectually curious, and professionally conscientious. Despite considerable personal means, Friedman is in constant transcontinental motion, including to not-glamorous parts of the world, and constantly exposes himself to criticism by speaking at colleges. Most who achieve money or celebrity in the literary realm stop doing their own research and stop challenging their own assumptions. Friedman isn't like that. His work ethic helps make Hot, Flat, and Crowded provocative, rich, forward-thinking, and powerful.

Friedman's contention—first in a Foreign Policy article, now detailed in this book—that oil prices and democracy are inversely proportional is a breakthrough thought. When oil was $20 a barrel, he notes, Russia was becoming democratic; as oil prices rose, Russia reverted to autocracy. Bahrain is the first Persian Gulf state to move toward democracy, also the first Gulf state to deplete its oil reserves. Bahrain's leaders understand that freedom and education are needed to convert from oil kleptocracy to a modern productivity economy. Friedman shows that when, in the aftermath of 9/11, neither George W. Bush nor Congress took any action to improve fuel-efficiency standards and thus restrain U.S. oil demand, they set in motion a chain of events that has transferred hundreds of billions of dollars to the sheiks who support anti-Western and anti-Israel terrorism, and to Putin. Had Bush asked sacrifice of average Americans by a $1-a-gallon gasoline tax after 9/11, the money from the pump price run-up would have stayed here instead. The blowback effect of Bush's inaction against petroleum waste stands as one of the worst foreign-policy failures in U.S. history: a case Hot, Flat, and Crowded makes well.

Other parts of the book are less satisfying. Friedman expresses distaste at rising global population density—the long passport line at the Shanghai airport, the gridlocked road to the Moscow airport. He presents many examples of higher world resource demand, noting that even if America cuts back, reductions here will be swamped by increases elsewhere: "The biggest downside [of globalization] is that in raising standards of living, globalization is making possible much higher levels of production and consumption by many more people." Yet if resource trends and climate change are driven by rising population and rising affluence, which of these, precisely, do you propose to ban? I don't like crowding, either, but that is the world's fate for the next century or so, after which declining fertility is likely to cause population levels to fall.

Friedman embraces worst-case scenarios for climate change, warning not just of global warming but "global weirding." Yet his factual assertions are impossible to weigh, since Hot, Flat, and Crowded contains no footnotes or source notes. Friedman asserts, for instance: "In fact, the American pet food industry spends more each year on R&D than the American utilities industry does." Good luck figuring out the "in fact" part. Supposing this Paul Harvey-like line is true, it is also silly, because utilities do not build power-plant systems—vendors such as General Electric and Combustion Engineering perform the technical R&D. Friedman devotes several pages to asserting that the strength of Hurricane Katrina was caused by greenhouse gases, a claim that is first sourced to "many climatologists," none of whom he pauses to name; later in the book, his authority is a climate analyst for the Weather Channel. That global warming causes strong hurricanes, however, is far from a settled scientific view. In May 2008, Science magazine reported that climate models suggest "a modest increase or even a decrease in the frequency and intensity of Atlantic tropical cyclones." (Subscription required for full text.)

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