Thomas L. Friedman in Singapore: Why We Need A Green Revolution

by Bhavani Prakash

Thomas Friedman, one of the world’s most influential columnists with The New York Times, with a following of over 20 million readers, and best-selling author of “Hot, Flat and Crowded” was in town (Singapore) yesterday to give an interesting lecture on “Why We Need a Green Revolution.”

He was invited by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP),  one of Asia’s leading thinktanks, and introduced to the audience by the Dean of the School, Dr Kishore Mahbubani.  Dr Mahbubani himself is a well known public figure in the region, and author of books such as “Can Asians Think” and “Beyond the Age of Innocence.”  He commenced the night with a sober note, “We are facing the biggest challenge in human history. The Earth is in distress. We don’t know what to do, and how to do it.”

Friedman asserted that though Hot, Flat and Crowded prima facie talks of energy and the environment, it is essentially about America rediscovering its ‘groove’ as a global leader by addressing the major and pressing problems of the world.

Hot is the planet warming up with increasing human made greenhouse gas emissions in the thin atmosphere that blankets it.  Flat is a globalised and interconnected world, where rising middle classes aspire for higher “America –like’” consumption standards. Crowded is because our population is going to balloon to 9 billion by 2050, with higher per capita consumption, and more pressure on the finite resources of the earth.

Here are some of the main points he brought out in his talk to an audience of about a thousand invited by the LKYSPP.

  • The environmental crisis and the financial crisis are flip sides of the same problem.  2007-2010 was when the markets and Mother Nature hit the wall, an early warning heart attack that we are growing unsustainably -financially and ecologically.
  • The world is seeing a never ending growth loop which is clearly unsustainable and has to be broken. Friedman explained it thus:

More and more factories built in China –> More and more stuff produced –> More and more coal used (with emissions) –>More and more dollars for China  –>More and more Treasury Bills issued by the US –>More and more factories in China…and back again to the loop.

  • The fundamental problems in both financial markets and in Mother Nature are due to three fold reasons. We are
  1. Underpricing Risk (such as credit risk in subprime mortgage or the risk of carbon molecules in fossil fuel emissions)
  2. Privatising Gain ( Profits accrue to owners of capital who benefit from financial markets, or due to cheap oil and coal)
  3. Socialising Losses ( If things blow up, the taxpayer bears the losses through bailouts, and our children and future generations pay the consequences of disruptive climate change)
  • There is a larger ‘values breakdown’ in society.  We have moved from sustainable values that used to be the basis for relationships, communities, business and politics, to situational values of the baby boomer generation. Ploughing up hundreds of acres of biodiverse Amazon rainforest to plant soyabean, is an example of situational value which places financial gain over long term sustainable value – which would dictate that this is the wrong thing to do.This is dangerous, because both markets and Mother Nature are fiercesome, cruel and unemotional when it comes to excesses. According to Friedman, if we don’t find a more sustainable way we will be ‘less free than if the Soviet Union had won the cold war.’
  • Friedman sees five megatrends that impact the world tremendously:

-          Supply and Demand of Energy and Natural Resources. Demand is increasing at a mind boggling rate, with the rise of new consumerist middle classes in China and India and other nations. In two cities he had visited – Doha in Qatar and Dalian in China, another ‘Manhattan’ had sprung up in a span of only three years.  This kind of development has staggering implications for resource and energy use. Friedman calls this the problem as ‘Too Many Americans.’ If the whole world caught up with American consumption rates, it would mean an equivalent of 72 billion people on this planet.

-          The impact on Petropolitics is the clear inverse relationship between the price of oil and the political freedom in the major oil exporting nations – which is graphed by the ‘Freedom Index’ By increasing our demand for fossil fuels, we are indirectly supporting petrodictatorships in these countries.

-          Climate Change as an issue is so polluted by climate deniers, he prefers not to use the term Global Warming using ‘Global Wierding’ instead. This is because the result of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is going to be increasingly extreme, frequent, and violent weather patterns.

In a tongue-in-cheek way, Friedman says he prefers to be like “Dick Cheney” during the Iraq war, who said “if there is 1% chance that nuclear weapons are found in Iraq, it would irreversible and catastrophic.”
Likewise he says, “If there is even 1% chance that what climate scientists say is true, it would be irreversible and catastrophic for the planet.”

-          Energy Poverty is something 1.6 billion people on this planet face as they are not connected to electric grid. This is going to leave behind a vast part of the population behind, as they have inadequate access to water, education, and technology.

-          Biodiversity Loss is happening at an unprecedented rate. We are facing the fastest rate of extinction since the age of the dinosaurs – about 1 new species every 20 minutes disappears, which is about 1000 times the background rate of extinction.

Friedman asserts that all these 5 problems can be solved by the “Green Revolution” by finding a way to produce “abundant, cheap, clean and reliable electrons” and the country which does that will get the most global respect. He wants that country to be America, as he thinks this is the only way that clean technology and energy will scale up with the speed required to solve the global crisis.  It’s not going to be ‘easy’ – a revolution implies suffering and radical change. At the moment, the world is seeing is only incremental and small scale change – or to put it more cynically, “we’re all having a big green party.”

According to Friedman, “We’ll know when we are really having a Green Revolution and that is when the word “green’ disappears. There won’t be a ‘green’ building. You simply won’t be able to build something that doesn’t adhere to the highest energy and resource efficient standards. There won’t be a ‘green’ car, only a car which is built to highest mileage and environmental standards. “

Friedman lays more faith on engineers and entrepreneurs than on regulators or “192 countries trying to agree on reduction in emissions” as in the COP meetings, for change to happen. Price matters in the Green Revolution, and a durable, long term price system for carbon is critical. He also favours subsidy support to renewables especially in the intial take-off stages, as well as a carbon and gasoline tax to reduce the price advantage on fossil fuels.

For systemic change to happen that supports ‘an ecosystem of innovation’, one requires firm leadership and Friedman wishes America could be China for a day, just to be able to impose all the rules and regulations to support the green revolution, and let the system take over.

My thoughts on Friedman’s call for a green revolution:

-          It looks increasingly like it may not be America’s call to take leadership on Climate Change. China for good or bad, does have the political advantange of firm leadership (or dictatorship) to make swift decisions on green technology.  Friedman himself admitted during the Q & A that necessity is the “mother of innovation” and that China is moving faster toward clean technology, as it discovers the downsides of  environmental pollution.

(According to BNEF, new global investment in clean energy reached $243 billion in 2010, up from $186.5 billion in 2009. Last year’s investment figures double those from 2006. The main factors in this growth were the massive Chinese market, the expansion of offshore wind, hot European solar markets and global R&D.

Investment in China was up 30% to $51.1bn in 2010, by far the largest figure for any country. In 2009 Asia and Oceania overtook the Americas, and in 2010 it narrowed the gap further on Europe, Middle East and Africa as the leading region of the world for clean energy investment. Facts from Renewable Energy World )

-          My question to Friedman during the Q & A was that though removal of fossil fuel subsidies is one key step in giving the right price signals to the market, political leaders do get ‘wobbly knees’ when actually taking action on this front. I wanted to know if there are case studies of countries who have been successful with this.  Look at India where the price of onions is enough to give politicians the jitters.  (I also had at the back of my mind the reversal of Bolivian President Eva Morales’ decision to raise fuel prices over the new year.  India too had deregulated petrol prices in June 2010 but not diesel prices because it was too sensitive an issue. )

Friedman didn’t answer my question directly, but he did give an interesting perspective about what fossil fuel subsidies really mean to an economy. If you don’t tax fuel in your country, you are simply handing that money over to the oil cartel, instead of using it for education, health and green tech within your own economy. Even though the per unit price of oil goes up, the total bill goes down leading to a more efficient system. Yes, it’s a difficult decision, but it has to be done, and all it may take is one gutsy polician to bring about that change.

-          Friedman doesn’t really mention a role for civic society, in fact he dismisses all the small, green actions that individuals take, without a larger systemic, macroeconomic change happening.  My take on this is yes, we absolutely need systemic change, but more often than not, it happens when millions of individuals start demanding that change, and no matter what level it is – at an individual level (as a consumer, employee or neighbour), at a community level, at a national or international level – it is at the end of the day,  individuals and groups of ‘thoughtful citizens’ who will change the world.

We can’t hang around and wait much longer for that change to happen, as there is no “later” in Friedman’s sober conclusion. I share his cautious optimism in these words, “We have exactly enough time – starting now.”

About the writer:

Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Eco WALK the Talk .com. She is passionate about the role of individuals and communities in bringing about the much needed change we need to see in the world.  She was an economist in her previous avatar, and is now an environmental and social justice activist using social media as well as offline community participation in her advocacy of a greener, fairer and happier planet. She writes and conducts talks and workshops on sustainability and can be contacted at bhavani[at]ecowalkthetalk.com. Follow Eco WALK the Talk on Facebook, Twitter, Linked IN and YouTube

Further links you may be interested in:

NYT: Serious in Singapore by Thomas L. Friedman


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Posted by on Jan 25 2011. Filed under Behaviour Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Consumerism, Energy/Renewables, Green Action, Green Meetings. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Thomas L. Friedman in Singapore: Why We Need A Green Revolution”

  1. [...] Green Dot – Today Voices: NSE not exactly the green choice – EcoWalktheTalk: Thomas L. Friedman in Singapore: Why We Need A Green Revolution [Thanks Bhavani] – Wild Shores of Singapore: Seen a raptor on our shores? Share your [...]

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