In general, I am a big fan of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, one of the few national columnists who writes regularly and intelligently on energy and climate matters. But his recent column, “The People We Have Been Waiting For,” goes off track — twice. First, he writes:
… sweet-sounding “global warming” doesn’t really capture what’s likely to happen. I prefer the term “global weirding,” coined by Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, because the rise in average global temperature is going to lead to all sorts of crazy things — from hotter heat spells and droughts in some places, to colder cold spells and more violent storms, more intense flooding, forest fires and species loss in other places.
Well, he deserves half credit. Yes, “global warming” is inadequate to describe the coming nightmare — but “global weirding” simply isn’t a serious-enough term — it could just as easily be used to describe the world’s growing fascination with reality TV (or videos of piano-playing cats and skateboarding dogs).
Also, the word “weird” strongly implies something either supernatural or bizarrely unexpected. What’s happening to the planet is pure science and has been predicted for decades — nothing weird about that except maybe it’s happening faster than most scientists projected. Readers know I prefer the term “Hell and High Water” — since at least it accurately describes what is coming. [Note to self: It didn’t catch on. Let it go.] My guess is we’re stuck with “global warming.”
(As an aside, Hunter probably didn’t coin the term “global weirding” (see here), and, of course, she’s not at RMI any more. I am a big fan of hers since we worked together at RMI, but those seeking her wise counsel on sustainability should go to Natural Capitalism, Inc. (for-profit) or Natural Capitalism Solutions (nonprofit).)
Second, the entire point of the piece is that what gives Friedman hope is a bunch of smart people working on clean energy technology, who he claims are the “people we have been waiting for.” I hate to break the news to Tom, but:
- We’ve had a bunch of smart people working on clean energy technology for about 30 years — and, of course, we’d have a lot more if Reagan and Gingrich hadn’t gutted key applied-energy-technology programs, or if conservatives didn’t block efforts to create a carbon dioxide market.
- People working on technology are the people global warming delayers like Luntz, Bush, Lomborg, and Gingrich have been waiting for. The people the rest of us are — or should be — waiting for are political leaders with the wisdom and guts needed to pass laws limiting carbon emissions and accelerating into the marketplace the technologies we developed in the last 30 years.
- It is way, way premature to say “we,” or any group, are the people we have been waiting for. Only future generations can say that. If we buck up and start now with the large-scale, multidecade actions needed to avoid catastrophic global warming, we might, come 2050, be viewed as the Greatest Generation of the 21st century. If not, we will surely be viewed as the Greediest Generation of all time, stealing the future well-being of the next 50 or more generations.
That said, I am a very big fan of all the clean energy folks Friedman names:
Google’s new program, “RE<C (Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal)” is a great idea, though I am a tad unhappy with their website, which touts “Supporting Breakthrough Technologies” — breakthroughs in energy technology that are fundamentally game-changing are a very, very overrated pursuit, as I have previously noted. Also, Google is just a drop in the bucket of the huge surge in corporate venture capital, and even state government money, going into clean energy.
What gives me hope about Google’s effort is that it is being run by Dan Reicher, my savvy old boss at the Energy Department, who, as Friedman noted, is focused on bringing clean energy technologies “across the valley of death” (otherwise known as commericialization) — a very important task that the Gingrich Congress explicitly tried to stop the Clinton Energy Department from pursuing and that the Bush Energy Department squashed entirely.
[Note to Dan: As you know, commercialization is not the same thing as “Supporting Breakthrough Technologies” — not that the two are mutually exclusive, but the website should talk about both, especially since breakthroughs, while sexier, are just not likely and may not even be needed.]
Friedman is right to be impressed by the students of MIT, my old alma mater. The Energy Club does great work promoting entrepreneurship (see a keynote talk I gave at their 2006 energy conference here). And the multidisciplinary, multicountry Vehicle Design Summit is working on the right car of the future, which is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, but Friedman’s line — “They’re not waiting for GM.” — misses three points:
First, GM is in fact working on a plug-in, the Volt, which they are promising to debut quite soon.
Second, if MIT developed a prototype plug-in and GM doesn’t — really, what good does that do? We need mass production to make these cars affordable, and only big auto companies can do that. I would ask, in passing, for the name of the last successful new American mass-market car company launched by anybody (and Toyota doesn’t count). Hint — it has been many, many decades. You can start a major PC businesses in a garage in this country, but apparently not a major car company.
Third, no country in the world has ever successfully launched a mass-market alternative fuel vehicle without government mandates. Apologies to all my anti-government readers out there — but you can’t solve either the oil problem or the global warming problem in transportation without mandates like CAFE, renewable or low-carbon fuel standards, and the like.
The people we are waiting for are the political leaders. Everyone else needed to solve the global warming problem has been around for a while.