An interview with New York Times columnist and “geo-green” advocate Thomas Friedman
Photo: Greg MartinAs the green movement fends off accusations of impotence, Thomas Friedman has hatched an idea that could make a man out of environmentalism.
In January, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times debuted his “geo-green” strategy, a powerful proposal for reframing America’s quest for energy independence to appeal to hawkish neocons and lily-livered tree-huggers alike. By aggressively curbing America’s energy consumption, Friedman argues, the Bush administration could reduce the global price of oil to the point where it would force regimes in the Middle East to diversify their economies, thereby priming them for democratic reform.
Added geo-green benefits would include jumpstarting America’s 21st century clean-energy economy, addressing the global-warming crisis, and allaying international umbrage over the Bush administration’s royal dis on Kyoto.
“We are, quite simply, witnessing one of the greatest examples of misplaced priorities in the history of the U.S. presidency,” Friedman proclaimed in a March 27 column. “Look at the opportunities our country is missing — and the risks we are assuming — by having a president and vice president who refuse to … marry geopolitics, energy policy, and environmentalism.”
Friedman has been writing on matters of energy and diplomacy for nearly three decades. He began working at The New York Times in 1981 as a business reporter specializing in OPEC and oil-related news. He took time out of his vacation in Aspen, Colo., last week to talk to Grist about why neocons are taking a shine to renewable energy, his new book The World Is Flat, his geothermal home, and his brand-new Lexus hybrid.
If you were sitting down with President Bush to pitch your geo-green strategy in a few sentences, what would you say?
I would say that geo-green is the natural successor to neocon. The neocons basically believe in using American military power to drive the democracy agenda in the Middle East, and that, idealistically speaking, was the purpose of the invasion of Iraq. The reality is we do not have the resources to do that again — not in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or anywhere. Yet we have a fundamental interest in promoting political and economic reform in that part of the world so people have better governance, more opportunities, and less frustration. Like the president, I want to see that political reform agenda go forward.
So how would substantial reductions in American oil demand achieve that?
It will help bring down the global price of oil, and when you do that you create a burning platform under these governments that forces change. As long as we have $60-a-barrel oil, Arab gulf countries won’t diversify their economies and their regimes can buy off all the discontent. They will use huge oil windfalls to fund state-owned industries that soak up jobs, but don’t create an educated or dynamic economy.
You could actually track on a graph the rise and fall of political reform in Iran that mirrors almost perfectly the rise and fall in oil price. And look at Bahrain, one of the first Arab gulf countries to discover oil, and the first to run out of it. It was also the first to hold a free and fair election where women could vote and run, and the first to totally revamp labor laws to wean itself off dependence on foreign labor. A similar trend happened in Jordan.
What if Bush said, “I’m all for energy independence, but I’m going to get there by opening up lands like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil extraction”?
That’s stuff and nonsense. It’s brain-dead. It’s Karl Rove-ism at its absolute, undiluted essence: Politics and polls über alles — over everything. The truth is, I’m not against drilling in ANWR. I mean, look, I don’t want to be drilling in the wilderness, in the cathedrals of the environment. But if ANWR were part of a total strategy of geo-green, I can accept that, because it says we’re not going to have to do the next ANWR, because we have a total strategy.
And of course, drilling in these regions is never going to have any significant impact on the price of energy globally.
Exactly. And realistically, ANWR would be better for China than the United States — it’s much easier to get Alaskan crude to China than America. You’d have to take that oil from Alaska down through Panama Canal up to Houston, where the majority of refineries are. This whole notion that it would be a boon to America is absurd.
Where did your geo-green concept originate? The first dispatch on this idea came from the World Economic Forum at Davos.
Yes, I was just sitting at the Davos conference and actually having a conversation with a friend of mine on the phone and I was ranting and raving — this is where most of my ideas emerge — and I said, “You know, what we really need is something that merges neocons and environmentalists because they both actually have the same interests right now.” So I said we need a “neo-green” strategy, then I thought, no — “geo-green.” That’s how columns get written.
Yes, my book is called The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century. See, when the world goes flat it is a global leveled playing field. When 3 billion people who were out of the game called China, India, and the former Soviet empire walk onto the field with the American dream — of a car, a house, a refrigerator, a toaster, utilities — we are going to smoke up, burn up, or heat up the planet at a rate unlike anything we’ve seen before. There are about 800 million cars in the world today, and given what’s happening with China and India, by 2050 there will be around 3.25 billion. So if we don’t do something about this, we’re going to melt both polar caps and you can kiss Manhattan goodbye. Dick Cheney’s ranch out there in Wyoming might even feel the burn.
That raises a question about the plausibility of your geo-green proposal: Even if America and other industrial countries were to take aggressive measures to reduce our oil demand, won’t the ballooning demand in India, China, Russia, and elsewhere keep oil prices high? Won’t oil suppliers in the Middle East have plenty of takers even if our demand drops?
It would certainly have an effect, but as it is the U.S. has towering influence over the global oil economy. We consume 25 percent of the world’s energy and we’ve got 5 percent of the global population, so what we do matters not only in terms of what we do, but because our strategy will drive innovation and global trends. If we converted our entire auto fleet to hybrid, that would have a huge impact first in the U.S. and then in the rest of the world. As efficient technologies penetrate markets here, they will become the technology of choice and penetrate the markets globally. If we set the example, pioneer alternatives, and improve the energy products we export, it will hugely influence the level of demand created by the countries coming online.
You really think you could get the American people on board?
Absolutely. I have my own kind of Nielsen ratings for columns. I know what’s getting reaction from people and what isn’t, and every time I write about this the reaction is off the charts compared to anything else I write.
You argue that the Bush administration should impose a fixed price of $4-a-gallon gas to accelerate consumer trends toward hybrids. First of all, wouldn’t that have disproportionate effects on low-income families with long commutes?
There are millions of ways to compensate for that with tax rebates. For people who earn a set amount of income and also those who are professionally dependent on low gas prices — truckers, cab drivers, and so on — you set up a rebate system that would basically refund part of the tax. At the end of the year, those who qualify would get money back.
Still, wouldn’t a gas tax be political suicide? Given the outrage over rising gas prices, wouldn’t people revolt?
I don’t think there’s actually that much outrage — show me the outrage. This is about leadership. The hallmark of George Bush’s presidency is that he’s never asked Americans, let alone his own base, to do anything hard. And a president like that is going to leave nothing behind. He needs to say, “This is something that is going to drive our reform agenda, pay down our deficit, strengthen our international standing, leave a greener earth for your kids, and make us energy independent.” He could bring the whole country around. As my friend Michael Mandelbaum says, this is not win-win, it’s win-win-win-win-win. This would be the equivalent of Kennedy’s moon shot for the Bush administration. They’d get every young kid in the country excited about going into science and engineering and making us energy independent. It would vastly improve our reputation in Europe.
Besides a gas tax, what other methods for reducing energy dependence would you propose?
I’d focus on two other things: I would begin building more nuclear power, and I’d have a carbon tax on coal and all high-emission energies that would raise their cost and make wind and solar much more cost-efficient.
What about regulatory initiatives like CAFE standards?
That to me is captured by the [gas] tax because that makes hybrids a necessity and forces Detroit to convert large amounts of its fleet to hybrid technology — you drive the CAFE issue using a different mechanism.
What about feebates — the idea that people who buy fuel-inefficient cars pay a charge and people who buy energy-efficient cars get a rebate?
I love that idea. And while we’re at it, I think it should be against the law to drive a Hummer. My mantra is very simple: If you want to drive a Hummer, go to Iraq.
You say we need to ramp up nuclear power, but how would you deal with the storage and security problems it poses?
We’re going to have to bury it in a mountain in Nevada, and Nevada is going to have to suck it up. That’s how I would deal with it. The risk of climate change by continuing to rely on hydrocarbons is so much greater than the risk of nuclear power.
What’s the timeline on all of this? Realistically how quickly could we implement these proposals and see the rewards?
I think we could do it in the blink of an eye. If the president got behind this, imagine what leaps and bounds he could make. Imagine if George Bush did a Nixon-to-China and he brought the coalition together, bringing neocons and geo-greens together. It would be historic. He’s got the Congress. He’s got the White House. He has all the power necessary to do this.
But would he?
Photo: Michael Marsland/Yale UniversityWell, probably not. But my point to him would be: What are you doing? What would your presidency be remembered for? The deficit? The tax giveaway? A failed attempt to privatize Social Security so we can have no stockbroker left behind? Geo-greenism is smart geopolitics, it’s smart fiscal policy, it’s smart climate policy. But most of all, it’s smart politics! The Republican Party is much greener than George Bush or Dick Cheney. Even evangelicals are increasingly speaking out about the need for us to protect God’s green Earth. If you’re obsessed with the right to life, you have to be obsessed with sustaining the environment — that is also God’s creation. He didn’t create human beings to live in parking lots.
I can see that members of the conservative elite are cottoning to this idea — the Energy Future Coalition, for instance — but what about industry leaders and the oil-industry execs who have so much pull in the White House? What do they think about your idea?
Most business leaders get it, but the oil-industry guys — I don’t talk to them.
It’s hard to believe that this idea is sinking in among the powers that be of other major industries. Just last month we heard news that Detroit is now making SUV engines bigger and less efficient, so that a Grand Cherokee can go from 0 to 60 as fast as a Porsche.
It takes leadership, it takes the bully pulpit. It requires a new mind-set, and I think the American people and industries are there to be led.
It would also put us in a far better position to lead the rest of the world.
Exactly. As it is, we have no moral standing to lecture anybody today to conserve energy. There’s immense diplomatic value in removing our dependence on Middle East oil for that reason: Our own energy policy has tied our hands. Our politicians can’t push for democratic reform in that region because our economy hinges on the oil we’re buying from them. A geo-green strategy would buy us political freedom. And imagine how we would embarrass and stimulate the Chinese: “Hey, we’re doing this, you’ve got to do this now too.” We’re heading for a colossal global struggle with China over oil, and this would be a way to get the upper hand.
Your columns on geo-greenism generally describe the concept in terms of its foreign-policy advantages rather than its environmental advantages. Why?
I’m trying to bring in a whole new constituency. I’m not worried about the environmental community that’s already concerned about climate change, as I am. I’m trying to educate a whole different part of the populace to get them to connect these dots.
Could you tell us about your personal connection to the environment? What kind of lifestyle decisions have you made to reduce your own oil consumption?
We live in a big house in Bethesda, [Md.,] but our home is heated and cooled by geothermal. We drilled some 30 wells in our backyard. We tried to do solar but couldn’t get the capacity — there wasn’t enough sun to make it possible. We bought a Prius right after 9/11, and we just got a Honda Civic hybrid. I have one of the Lexus hybrids on order — I’ll be one of the first in the group to get those, probably within a month. Environmental awareness is very much a part of our household. My wife is on the board of Conservation International; it’s the biggest check we write every year.
How do we best get the mainstream to move in this direction? Is the media doing enough to raise awareness?
We can write about it seven days a week, but if the bully pulpit isn’t talking about it, it’s very hard to get a national movement. Nobody has a bully pulpit more influential than the president. When he talks about Social Security, everyone in the country is talking about it. The New York Times and The Washington Post are not going to start a movement. $4-a-gallon gas will. People would have no choice but to change their behavior. In reality, most people don’t change when you tell them they should, they change when they tell themselves they must.