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Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America

By From the November 2008 issue

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Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America
By Thomas L. Friedman
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 438 pages, $27.95)

Reviewed by Iain Murray

THOMAS FRIEDMAN has come up with a grand unifying theory for combating existential threats. The left worries about global warming and 14 inches of sea level rise extinguishing modern civilization and the right to choose. Neocons worry about evil Muslims lurking behind the bushes ready to set off one of their millions of dirty bombs in suburban malls. Neither worry is particularly realistic, yet they dominate much of American politics. Friedman has a solution to both, which he calls Code Green. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, he suggests that by the one simple, affordable step of, err, completely re-engineering the way we power America, we will stop global warming, destroy Islamic fundamentalism, and reinvigorate America’s position in the world at a stroke. Oh, and he can completely reform China too. This is, in short, the biggest conflation of wishful thinking, confused priorities, and megalomania that I have ever seen.

The scale of Friedman’s ambition is breathtaking. Friedman suggests that we will soon have a new dating system for years, replacing AD (or CE, as Friedperson calls it in his politically correct way). January 1, 2000, will become the first day of the Energy-Climate Era, year 1 ECE. This truly is millenarianism for the new millennium. He talks about global warming triggering “sea level rises, droughts and floods of a biblical scale,” at “just the mid-range projections,” and a choice between one scenario that might kill a million and another that would kill ten million. Al Gore actually has nothing on this guy.

Now Friedman, just like Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, supplies no references for any of this. We’re supposed to take his word for it. But this, as Friedman keeps saying, is the Internet age and we can fact-check his backside. Take, for instance, Indur Goklany’s meticulous research (google “Indur Goklany recent papers” and you’ll get them all) in examining the data and projections supplied by the British government. According to Goklany, the dangers are apocryphal, not biblical. He concludes, “Climate change is unlikely to be the world’s most important environmental problem of this century unless existing problems such as hunger, water-related diseases, lack of access to safe water and sanitation, and indoor air pollution are substantially reduced.”

Would following Friedman’s plans impinge on our ability to tackle these other problems? Err, yeah. Completely re-engineering the way we power our economy is expensive, enormously so. For instance, if we want to reduce global emissions from energy use to the level Gore and friends say is essential, that would take a cumulative reduction over 100 years of about 1,000 gigatons of CO2, according to the Department of Energy. How do we avoid a gigaton of emissions? Hold your breath. Avoiding one gigaton would require building 163 new nuclear power plants—about a third of current global capacity. Or replacing 273 million cars that get 20 mpg with new ones that get 40 mpg. Or converting a barren area to forest the size of Germany and France combined. In other words, this ain’t going to be easy. Yet Friedman supposes that if everyone uses an “energy internet,” everything will change by 2020—sorry, by 20 ECE.

At least Friedman does acknowledge that this isn’t going to happen without some government coercion. He suggests that we aren’t factoring in all the real costs of oil and coal use into the price, so government would be justified in raising the price to reflect this, by about a dollar a gallon. He’s off by a massive amount. The leading expert in the “social cost” of greenhouse gases is Dr. Richard Tol, whose extensive studies lead him to conclude that the cost is “unlikely to be more than $50 [per ton of carbon] and likely to be substantially smaller than that.” That translates to about 40 cents a gallon, maximum. Dr. Tol was recently quoted by Bjorn Lomborg as telling him his feeling was that the cost is more like $2 a ton, which would translate to a global warming tax of a couple of pennies. The Friedman Tax would be a massive overreaction to an exaggerated problem.

Ah, but Our Hero (who literally wants to save the Earth, after all), has another justification for his tax. He believes that if the political leadership had used the events of 9/11 to tax gasoline a dollar a gallon, we wouldn’t be in the foreign policy mess we’re in now, because it’s all about ooooiiiiiillllll. We wouldn’t be transferring billions of dollars a year to the petrostates because we’d be using less gas, they would be in financial trouble and so freedom would be on the march there, and we’d have a happy, green economy developing free from the tyranny of oil. Nice theory; let’s compare reality.

The price of gas on 9/11 was about $1.50. It took fewer than four years for the price to hit $2.50. Today we are facing $3.75 a gallon, on average. In other words, in the seven years since 9/11, market forces have imposed double the price increase Friedman thinks would have been a miracle cure. And guess what? Our gas consumption has only slightly curtailed recently—and is still up from what it was on 9/11. The higher price of gas has indeed changed consumer demand in terms of the size of cars they want (or at least it will until people realize those smaller cars just aren’t as safe as their SUVs), but it has also led to political pressure to reduce gas prices. That’s why gas prices are an issue in the presidential election and global warming isn’t. A $1 tax on a gallon of gasoline would certainly have mobilized public opinion in America—it would have mobilized a vast movement for the abolition of the tax. If Friedman doesn’t realize this, you’ve got to ask where he’s been living. Oh yes, Bethesda, MD, in an 11,400 sq. ft. mansion. That explains a lot.

What about those oil sheikhs? Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the royal family of Abu Dhabi recently used his oil wealth not to destroy America, but to take over the middling British soccer club Manchester City, paying $400 million for the privilege. He promptly financed the purchase of Brazilian soccer star Robinho for $65 million and promised more such signings to come. By contrast, the attacks of 9/11 cost the perpetrators about $400,000–$500,000. The simple fact is that international terrorism operates on a shoestring. Vastly reduced oil wealth would not reduce the amount of money available to terrorists by any appreciable amount. That’s not to say that stopping terrorists is a bad thing, but re-engineering America’s energy system is an extraordinarily roundabout and expensive way of doing it.

Finally, Friedman suggests that America hamstringing itself in this way will earn international adulation. That certainly might be the reaction of one of the international community’s two faces. The other will be sniggering. EU leaders have expressly said that the point of the Kyoto Protocol is actually to level the playing field between British and American business, by bringing America down. Meanwhile, anyone who has been paying attention to anti- Americanism knows that America’s existence is actually what people complain about—and have been complaining about for 250 years. If America does it, there must be something wrong with it. America is too moralistic and too degenerate at the same time, for instance. If America adopted Friedman’s Code Green, anti-Americans would view it as a way to keep the world in energy poverty and stop businesses exporting to it. And you know, this time they might have a point.

Friedman concludes by saying we are all pilgrims, sailing the Mayflower anew. He wants to do nothing less than restart American history. There aren’t very many happy precedents among those who wanted to start again at Year Zero, with a grand plan for doing so. Hot, Flat, and Crowded is overheated, crowded with bad ideas, and flatly wrong. 

Iain Murray is Senior Fellow in Energy, Science and Technology at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of The Really Inconvenient Truths: Seven Environmental Catastrophes Liberals Won’t Tell You About—Because They Helped Cause Them (Regnery Publishing).

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About the Author
Iain Murray heads the Center for Economic Freedom at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and is the author of Stealing You Blind: How Government Fatcats Are Getting Rich Off of You.