Thomas Friedman: The Power of Green

In The Power of Green, a feature article in the April 15, 2007 edition of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Thomas Friedman writes that the United States can and should lead the world to a greener future.  He argues that there are solid economic and strategic reasons for doing this, not least of which would be to reduce American dependence on foreign oil.

Regular readers of Friedman’s foreign affairs column in the New York Times will be very familiar with many of the ideas in this article.  The environment has been a recurring theme in his column for about the last two years.  When I first read Friedman’s recent terrific book, The Earth is Flat, I remember thinking he’d given the environment short shrift.  Well he’s certainly made up for it since then! 

The first part of the article deals with the geostrategic implications of our dependence on oil imported from authoritarian regimes.  Friedman states his First Law of Petropolitics:

"The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions in states that are highly dependent on oil exports for their income and have weak institutions or outright authoritarian governments. And this is another reason that green has become geostrategic. Soaring oil prices are poisoning the international system by strengthening antidemocratic regimes around the globe."

He also discusses what we need to do in order to reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere — the key contributor to climate change.  He cites the work of Princeton University professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala, who have identified 15 initiatives, or "stabilization wedges" that could each eliminate the release of 25 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere by 2056.  These include

  • "Replace 1,400 large coal-fired plants with gas-fired plants;
  • Increase the fuel economy of two billion cars from 30 to 60 miles per gallon;
  • Add twice today’s nuclear output to displace coal;
  • Drive two billion cars on ethanol, using one-sixth of the world’s cropland;
  • Increase solar power 700-fold to displace coal;
  • Cut electricity use in homes, offices and stores by 25 percent;
  • Install carbon capture and sequestration capacity at 800 large coal-fired plants.”

You can find out more about stabilization wedges at Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative web site.

Friedman also describes how the rapidly developing economies of China, India and Brazil are compounding the problem of carbon emissions but cannot afford to do much about it, and, with some justification, point to the last 200 years of carbon output by the developed world as the largest cause of the problem. 

All this leads to the need for the US to lead the development of cheap alternative energy sources and other green technology.  Along the way, the US might also repair some of its recently damaged reputation for world leadership.

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