Book Review

Warmly embracing clean energy

By Bill Williams
September 17, 2008
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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 pp., $27.95

After painting a frightening picture of where the world is headed, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman says he remains a "sober optimist" in his new book, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded."

The title refers to the accelerating increase in average global temperatures, the ballooning of the world's middle class with its insatiable thirst for energy, and the steady increase in world population, expected to hit 9.2 billion by mid-century.

Despite these facts, the author says America has time, if it begins immediately, to lead a green revolution based on advances in energy efficiency, conservation, and research to discover new energy sources to replace fossil fuels. Friedman does not pretend the revolution will be easy, calling it "the biggest single peacetime project humankind will have ever undertaken." Washington has slept through the growing crisis, he argues, even as scientists sound alarms about the disastrous consequences of continuing to spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Now that China has replaced the United States as the world's No. 1 carbon emitter, its government is belatedly acting to reduce emissions, realizing that inaction could undermine Communist Party rule. Friedman remains skeptical about China's intentions, but notes that if Chinese leaders want to push a green agenda, they can do so by fiat. A fanciful chapter titled "China for a Day (but Not for Two)" imagines what could happen if a US president for one day had the authority to impose clean-energy mandates. Instead, he writes, Washington remains captive to the petroleum, natural gas, and coal industries.

In response, states have seized the initiative. California adopted strict energy-efficiency standards for buildings and appliances three decades ago. As a result, per-capita electricity consumption has remained flat, compared with a 50 percent increase for the rest of the nation. States are also unilaterally ordering electric utilities to generate more power from wind, solar, and other nonpolluting sources. Meanwhile, Congress last year defeated a bill to set a national standard for utilities, a crucial step before investors will pour money into renewable energy.

Friedman argues, not very persuasively, that galloping global warming will not require Americans to scale back their standard of living. Rather he foresees huge savings through conservation, efficiency, and the discovery of new ways to generate electricity, a dream he concedes might not become reality for decades. Government, he writes, must seed 10,000 innovators who one day will come up with clean, inexpensive alternatives to dirty fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, Friedman says, it would be hypocritical to ask poorer nations to give up their middle-class aspirations. But the alarming truth is that if other nations were to consume energy at US levels, "it would herald a climate and biodiversity disaster." That's why it is crucial, the book maintains, to begin a green revolution now to meet the world's mushrooming energy needs, without reliance on polluting fossil fuels. Such an American-led effort could become the envy of the world.

Friedman skewers American electric utilities for showing little interest in either conservation or clean energy: Their investment last year in research and development was less than the R&D budget of the pet-food industry.

Citing the roles of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt in bringing about historic change, Friedman pines for a leader who will rein in the "American energy beast" and "refocus it on the single priority of innovating and generating clean power, energy efficiency, and conservation through a smart system."

"Hot, Flat, and Crowded" is a compelling manifesto that deserves a wide reading, especially by members of Congress and candidates for president.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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