Tom Friedman divides the world into two kinds of people: clean-energy hawks like himself who believe that there are magical energy sources out there somewhere that:
are controlled by us and only go down in price as demand increases
and global warming denialists who:
believe the world is going to face a mass plague, like the Black Death, that will wipe out 2.5 billion people sometime between now and 2050. They believe it is much better for America that the world be dependent on oil for energy — a commodity largely controlled by countries that hate us and can only go up in price as demand increases
you’re willfully blind, and you’re hurting America’s future to boot
Let’s take a quick look at Mr. Friedman’s biography, shall we? He got an undergraduate degree in Mediterranean Studies which sounds like a melange of history, geography, anthropology, political science, and field trips to sunny places with good food and wine. Sounds good but it’s impossibly broad and vague and there’s every likelihood that such a major means he read a few books and otherwise learned nothing. It’s what we used to call a Mickey Mouse major or Mick for short. His masters degree is in Middle Eastern studies, again impossibly broad and vague.
I interpret his academic background as not having taken a mathematics course since high school trig, possibly never having taken a college level science course of any rigor, and possibly never having taken an economics course at all. Which in turn means he’s taking somebody else’s word for what he believes. He doesn’t have the background to do anything else.
Let me retort: what are these magical energy sources? He mentions none. I’ll answer: there are none.
The closest candidate would be nuclear energy which Mr. Friedman’s clean-energy hawk comrades have been fighting tooth and nail over the period of the last 35 years. Some, to their credit, are now seeing the error of their ways and are undergoing deathbed conversions. That may salve their consciences but it won’t undo the harm they’ve done all of their adult lives. I think there’s real promise in the small scale thorium reactors that are being experimented with but they’re still a few Friedman units away. Can we deploy them quickly enough?
And big nuclear reactors? Fuggedaboutit. They’re politically, legally, and economically impossible, largely due to the efforts of well-meaning dolts who think of themselves as environmentalists. And then, of course, there are the security issues.
Solar doesn’t fit. Whatever the imaginary economic future envisioned by solar power fans at the present state of the art it doesn’t have increasing returns to scale (remember Mr. Friedman’s claim?) and China will be the manufacturer of choice so we won’t control it in any meaningful sense. For practical purposes China has no labor laws, no environmental regulations, protections for intellectual property that mostly consist of wishful thinking, among the lowest paid labor forces in the world, plenty of capital to invest in the form of the trillions in foreign exchange sitting in their state-controlled banks, and a supine system of civil law. We will not be able to compete head to head against China in cheap mass manufacturing nor should we aspire to.
Leaving the immorality of bio-fuels aside for the moment, there are no prospects for sufficient biomass to replace oil and coal. Wind? The problem with wind power is that it takes land and that means that it’s responsive to the same forces of supply and demand that other goods are and will not provide increasing returns to scale. Besides, wind power has the problem of being most effective where it’s needed least.
I think that all of these things, i.e. solar, wind, bio-fuels (waste, algae, and crops grown on land too poor for food crops), and lots of others, are worth exploring and implementing as their economic merits warrant.
The sad reality is that there are no ready replacements for oil, coal, and natural gas. We’d be wiser looking for ways to mitigate the risks of that reality than denying it.
What gripes me most is where does Mr. Friedman’s dichotomy place me? I’ve been in favor of a carbon tax for thirty years but I think that cap and trade is ill-conceived, worse than doing nothing because the deadweight loss is likely to exceed the prospective gains. But Mr. Friedman doesn’t have the background or, apparently, the inclination to understand that and his informants are either in the same boat or have conflicts of interest which, shall we say, cloud their judgment.
Why are we hearing the assertion that bad, ineffective policies are worth putting in place because they’re a good start so much these days? If you’re driving from New York to Los Angeles a stop-off in Boston might be a start but it’s going in the wrong direction.