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Thomas Friedman on climate change

By November 18, 2010

Enterprise columnist

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The city of Sacramento is assembling a program to label this region (including Davis) the “Emerald Valley” — so we are to sustainability what the Silicon Valley is to high-tech. This is a tough competition; there are similar efforts under way all across the country; or, for that matter, the world.

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Putting this plan together has to date included bringing some high-profile speakers to Sacramento, including Thomas Friedman, the author of “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” a title he uses to describe a world of increasing temperature, consumption and population. Some of what he said is below.

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On responsibility: Friedman recounted a conversation with Warren Buffett, who told him something to the effect of: “95 percent of what I\’ve got is due to being born in this country, at this time, with the institutions and government we have, and our responsibility is to pass this on to future generations.”

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Friedman coins the term the “Re-Generation” in juxtaposition to the “Me Generation” to say it\’s the responsibility of everyone, all ages, to re-energize, renew and revitalize the planet. Friedman\’s solution can be paraphrased as, “Everyone plays a part, and the problem will be solved by entrepreneurs rather than regulators, though government must set price signals and boundaries through both law and regulation.”

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He also uses the term “energy poverty” to describe the 1.6 billion people in the world who “have no on-off switch, no lights, no electricity, no access to the Internet, no fans to keep cool as the planet heats up,” and suggests it\’s up to us to make sure their voices are included in the discussion.

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On values: According to Friedman, it\’s no coincidence that Bear Stearns failed at the same time the polar bear faces extinction and both Citi Bank and snow banks melt down at the same time. The connection is a shift in values. When I say stuff like this I worry that it sounds like an old curmudgeon who thinks everything was better when he was young; Friedman frames it more positively.

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According to him, we, as a country, have gone from what he terms “sustainable values” where, for example, banks only lent money to people who could show they could pay it back, to “situational values” where it doesn\’t matter if they can pay the bank back if there is a healthy fee in it for the person arranging the loan.

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More broadly, policy decisions in general, both economic and environmental, are driven more by short-term calculations than by an over-arching longer view of what is sustainable.

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On nature and biodiversity: In a related vein, Friedman indicates we\’re in an era of extinction equivalent to that which happened when a giant asteroid hit the Yucatan. As he puts it, “Now we are the asteroid.” Friedman includes nature in his description of the problem of “situational values.” In his view, a sustainable economy depends upon a sustainable natural world.

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On urgency: Friedman makes an analogy between the temperature of a human body and the temperature of the planet. Human body temperature is 98.6. If the thermometer indicates a temperature of 100 degrees, it generally means that person does not feel good. Same thing for the planet. Similarly, if a person\’s temperature is six degrees above normal, it\’s time for a trip to the emergency room and we should look at the predicted six-degree rise in global world temperature also as an emergency.

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To emphasize his point about the planet\’s sensitivity to temperature change, he indicates that a six-degree decline in global temperature is the difference between now and an ice age.

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On vocabulary: Friedman doesn\’t much like the term “global warming.” He says it sounds too warm and fuzzy, like a blanket and a cup of cocoa in front of a fire on a cold winter night. He prefers “global weirding,” a term coined by Hunter Lovins that more accurately describes the extreme weather events that are predicted harbingers of adverse effects of climate change.

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On patriotism: Friedman\’s statement that “Green is the new red white and blue” seemed to sum up his message. He spoke before California\’s vote on Proposition 23 and indicated that, if it passed, it would be a signal to the federal government to dismantle climate change programs. He didn\’t say so, but it seems to me that the tea party has given voice to a part of America that is frustrated and angry about several issues. To date, this voice drowns out what might be called the “Green Tea Party,” those who are angry, frustrated and feel that the government is not responding adequately to the seriousness of the predicted consequences of global warming.

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Friedman did say, however, that being serious about moving from a fossil fuel-based economy to one based on abundant, cheap, clean and reliable sources of electrons will not be easy; in any fight there are winners and losers, some people or businesses get hurt, and the fact that Prop. 23 was on the ballot at all indicates that the issue is becoming serious to economic interests that support the status quo over change to a sustainable future.

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— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Thursday of each month. Please send comments to [email protected]

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John Mott-Smith

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