Fans hound 'rock star' NY Times columnist Friedman with ideas for new energy economy

By Katherine Warren
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Award-winning New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who has been described as the rock star of foreign affairs, is unlike other celebrities who sell out the University of Colorado’s Macky Auditorium in Boulder.

Instead of room keys, he gets business cards.

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman

Friedman says since he began touring to promote his most recent book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America, people have been filling his pockets with business cards on which they’ve scrawled their ideas for alternative sources of energy.

The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner says that, despite the book’s title, it’s about much more than climate change.

“It masquerades as a book about energy and environment,” he told a crowd of more than 2,000 at the beginning of his Feb. 16 talk. “For the last decade or so, America has lost its groove. And this book is my argument for how we get our groove back.”

Friedman blames the nation’s confusion partly on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which, he says, changed the United States to the “United States of Fighting Terrorism.”

He also points to our loss of a rival when the Soviet Union dissolved, which, he says, shifted the federal government into what he called a “dumb as we want to be” frame of mind.

“Washington, even in a crisis, cannot seem to get together to solve any multigenerational problem,” he said.

Friedman compared America’s energy to the energy that powers a space shuttle launch — the energy pushing the rocket forward is innovation, which also is exemplified by the scrawls on all those business cards.

“But in our case, the booster rocket, Washington, D.C., is cracked, and the pilots in the cockpit are still fighting over the flight plan,” he said. “And, as a result, our space shuttle, the USA, can’t achieve the escape velocity to get into the next orbit.”

He says he believes the next orbit will be the next big industrial revolution that is needed in a hot, flat and crowded world.

Friedman argues that America can get its get its groove back through energy technology — ET, in Friedmanspeak.

“The next great global industry is going to be the search for energy technology that is abundant, cheap and clean,” he said. “And the countries that own ET and come up with the innovation, efficiency and conservation will have the most national security and economic security.”

The idea of a new energy technology economy certainly resonates in Colorado, with Gov. Bill Ritter’s emphasis on “a new energy economy” and President Barack Obama’s visit to Denver to sign the Economic Recovery Act, which is designed to create jobs in the clean energy field.

Friedman said he believes a major shift toward a new energy economy will occur only when the prices of products created through energy innovation drop significantly, because clean-energy alternatives seem too expensive in tough economic times.

“Without a carbon emissions tax or high gas tax, we will never stimulate innovation at the scale that we need it,” Friedman said. “One of the cool things about the green revolution is the more demand you create for oil and coal, the price goes up. But the more demand you create for wind and solar energy, the price goes down,”

Will Olney, a PhD candidate in CU’s economics department who attended the talk, agreed with Friedman.

“I thought his points were well-grounded in economic theory,” Olney said. He also agreed with Friedman’s argument that taxing carbon dioxide emissions is the only real way to change the way people habitually use energy that emits carbon dioxide.

Friedman wrapped up his speech with somber optimism.

“We need to get back to work on our country and on our planet,” he said. “The work couldn’t be harder, and the hour couldn’t be greater.

“But we have exactly enough time … starting now.”

Friedman’s visit was sponsored by CU-Boulder’s student-run Distinguished Speakers Board, which, in the past, has brought such speakers as Kofi Annan, Rudy Giuliani and Madeleine Albright to Boulder’s campus.

The chair of the board, Tim Swales, a senior at CU, said they booked Friedman because his message seemed very relevant right now.

“For Boulder, in these economic times, we thought it would be a great event to get people interested and connected on the issue,” Swales said.

Kathrine@coloradostatesman.com