Keeping Cool in a World that's Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Gernot Wagner's profileHot, Flat, and Crowded - by Thomas FriedmanNew York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has completed his transformation from Middle East specialist to green energy expert. He wants the United States to similarly switch focus.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman's latest book, explains how and why we must stop relying on "fuels from hell" (coal, oil, and gas) as our primary source of energy, and instead switch to "fuels from heaven" (wind, water, and solar). Without this shift, he argues, not only will we cook the planet, but wreck the economy and destroy our way of life. It is tough to quibble with Friedman's assessments.

Friedman weaves a multitude of fascinating stories and personal anecdotes from all over the world into one master narrative. The book is packed with apt and memorable analogies, similes, and metaphors. For example, he refers to population growth as "our carbon copies", loss of biodiversity as "the Age of Noah", and global warming as "global weirding".

I have long struggled with trying to explain the concept of "environmental externalities" in a way everyone can understand. Friedman explains these hidden costs by likening our energy use to a too-cheap-to-be-true, all-you-can-eat buffet:

A few people – like Al Gore – started to wander around out back into the kitchen, and what they saw there was not pretty. And then they came back to the front of the buffet line and told the rest of us: "Do you know what is going on out back? Do you know why this all-you-can-eat electron buffet costs only $5? It's because there are all sorts of costs being incurred that are not being passed on to us customers. They are being paid by someone else."

These costs were being paid by society at large or charged to our children's credit cards.

The storyline is clear: We're using 19th century fuels to power a 20th century economy. To survive, we must transform into a 21st century economy powered by 21st century fuels. We need to undergo an ET (Energy Technology) revolution akin to the IT revolution of the 1990s, but there are important differences. We need a Green New Deal to push the ET revolution forward.

The ET (vs. IT) Revolution

Friedman is absolutely right that the ET revolution will not happen the same way the IT revolution did. The internet grew into a void. Consumers paid $1000 for the first mobile phones because they were new and filled a need not met by phones bolted to the wall.

That isn't the case with new energy technologies. Americans – and the additional billion who live like Americans – already enjoy cheap power. Clean energy that costs more than energy from dirty coal cannot make a profit – thus Google.org's goal of "RE < C" (electricity produced from Renewable Energy cheaper than that from Coal).

Actually, Friedman says that what we need is "REEFIGDCPEERPC < TTCOBCOG" (a renewable energy ecosystem for innovating, generating, and deploying clean power, energy efficiency, resource productivity, and conservation cheaper than the true cost of burning coal, oil and gas). I said Friedman was a great storyteller, not a great abbreviator. But the acronym soup makes an important point: the solution won't be easy.

The ET revolution will require a regulatory framework that reflects the true cost of burning dirty fuels. It's on this point that the book is weakest. Friedman says that "at a minimum … we need … a price signal – a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade regime, or a national renewable energy mandate." We do need a price signal, but there are profound differences between these three approaches. EDF backs a nationwide cap-and-trade bill for good reason.

Despite this small lapse, Hot, Flat, and Crowded is worth reading for anyone interested in why "Al Gore owes us an apology," how China is like the bus maneuvered by Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in Speed, what it will take for Iran's president to call for a "dialogue of civilizations," or why the Pulitzer Prize committee should award Friedman his fourth award.

This post is by Gernot Wagner, an economist in the Climate and Air program at Environmental Defense Fund.

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6 Comments

  1. Peter Black
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Would Tom Friedman classify geothermal energy as hellish energy?

  2. Posted October 1, 2008 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Hah! Good point. I guess the metaphor breaks down there.

  3. mikes
    Posted October 3, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I'm still puzzling over the 'crowded' part. Did you know the entire population of earth could be comfortably housed in an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma?

    You need to get out of the (admittedly) crowded East and West Coast cities and learn about the wonderful quality of life in the completely uncrowded central U.S.

  4. Posted October 3, 2008 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Come on, Mike. You can't be serious. Some of the Earth is uninhabitable, and some of it needs to be used for things like growing food to support all those people living in cities, etc. The problems of overpopulation have been widely documented and are widely accepted – this is not controversial.

  5. mikes
    Posted October 5, 2008 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Sheryl, do the math! The population of the world can be housed in a geographic area the size of Texas and Oklahoma (add Kansas if you want some extra room). Or, just look at a nighttime view of the world: http://www-static.cc.gatech.edu/grads/p/pesti/night/ . You'll see that the vast, vast majority of the world is dark (low population).

    As I have written numerous times: There are many genuine environmental problems. But global warming and WORLD overcrowding are not among them. Would it be a difficult challenge to move people from crowded areas into hospitable but lower population areas? Of course. But, it could be done with plenty of land to spare.

    Come on, think outside the box. That's where the solutions lie.

    Mike

    Mike

  6. Posted October 15, 2008 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    mikes – what you say is so irrational that I hesitate to even respond. I googled "overpopulation" and founds thousands of articles on it. Here's one from the first page of the search results. Read it.

    http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/science/09/25/overpopulation.overview/index.html

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