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Dear Tom Friedman: Don’t Want You to Die Off … Just Get Well!

In the New York Times editorial page’s latest excursion into shrill climate alarmism, foreign affairs correspondent Thomas Friedman accuses those opposing the current cap-and-tax bill as wanting a few people, say 2.5 billion to die off.  And us bad guys are just grasping at straws. “. . . you will notice that the drill-baby-drill opponents of this legislation are now making two claims,” he says. “One is that the globe has been cooling lately, not warming, and the other is that America simply can’t afford any kind of cap-and-trade/carbon tax.”

Gosh, Tom, I suppose that the pace of global warming has accelerated in the last decade, and hurricanes are getting more frequent and stronger too. And those emails from the alarmist in-crowd that the climate world (and general public!) are reading about right now–those are the good guys, the real disinterested scholars at work.

So, Tom, you claim that cap and tax opponents are calling forth a mass plague–a modern Black Death–that will wipe out 2.5 billion people sometime between now and 2050. (Well, I guess this simply extrapolates what John Holdren is postulating by 2020–a possible billion deaths!)  In your world that is an inevitable result of modern living using hydrocarbon fuels.

Unlike his imaginative colleague Maureen Dowd, what Tom Friedman writes actually matters.  Many people believe that he is proficient about energy and climate. So I must again call this charlatan to task.

A Gulfstream Malthusian

As we have seen, Friedman’s musings on energy and climate don’t stand up very well to actual events, data, or logic.  Or as the courtroom wag once put it: if you have the facts, argue the facts, if you don’t have the facts argue the law, if you have neither pound the table.   Tom is pounding the table on energy and environment, accusing those who oppose his pet legislation of wishing a dreadful calamity upon mankind.

Unlike Thomas Friedman I actually know people who oppose the cap and tax monstrosity, and there is not a Malthusian among them; and not one wishes a return of the plague.  I challenge you to produce more than one or two kooks who happen to oppose cap and tax and who also wish a plague on the human race (contact me here for the terms of the bet).  As Friedman surely knows, the Malthusians are pretty much confined to their own loony corner of the left.  Oh, and you can always identify the Malthusians at the airport, they are ones headed for the Net Jets terminal (from their 20,000 sq ft homes).

Indeed, unlike the Malthusians, who wish developing countries to stay that way, preferably forever, the “bad people” who oppose cap and tax actually wish to see the Indians, Zambians, Peruvians and whoever else gain as much access to modern technology, including energy, as they can produce, purchase and create.  Not from us is the message that the world cannot afford for developing countries to access modern energy.

Renewables as the New WPA? Or Is There Some Other Point to All This?

Point one of Friedman’s “thesis” is that the globe is getting crowded and we cannot therefore provide energy for all of these people the way we do now.  Let’s stipulate that your assumption about crowding is correct.  So why would we choose, on an increasingly crowded planet, to use land-hog energy technologies – wind, solar and biomass – rather than using compact fuels and prime movers; we know them as oil and gas engines and power plants.  As recent articles on wind have increasingly shown, deployment of wind energy to an extent that can make an actual contribution to supplies, uses (and spoils) vast tracts of our countryside, and does not really reduce emissions much.  But to Friedman, we need this renewable energy because otherwise we will create so much pollution that the next 2.5 billion inhabitants of earth will die (that’s where the plague nonsense comes from).  Well, anyone who was alive in the US in the 1960s remembers what the air and water looked like then.  We invested a lot of money in clean up and the air and water in the US are far better now than they were in 1965 with half the population and less than a quarter the real GDP.  Everywhere you look rich countries are clean countries – air, water food.

Point two has something to do with making sure the US is the leader in renewable energy or otherwise we will be forced to despoil our land with useless renewable energy conversion devices manufactured elsewhere, or something like that.  My colleague, Marlo Lewis, has addressed this particular gem of incoherence.  He rebuts the idea that leadership in renewable energy is essential for the future by noting that:

  1. Renewable energy generally destroys wealth, therefore the more of it you have, the less of anything else you can have (or, as the Eagles put it – you can spend all your time making love, or spend all your love making time);
  2. Wind and solar do not reduce emissions much since they are intermittent and require hydrocarbon backups;
  3. Renewable energy jobs require external cash infusions, and therefore are not actually self-sustaining

Point three is posterity.  According to Friedman our children will not be able to afford to live well since energy will have become so expensive.  That is an almost perfectly self-fulfilling prophecy should we be so foolish as to follow Tom Friedman’s recommendations for our new energy sources.

Sure, energy will become really expensive if (i) you prohibit the production of economical forms of energy, such as domestic oil and gas; (ii) you force us to purchase very expensive and unreliable energy from wind; (iii) you jack up the price of the “legacy” energy output of coal and gas plants with carbon taxes; (iv) you prohibit the deployment of advanced combustion technologies for coal that reduce carbon (and other) emissions by 15-35%; and (v) you have missed a massive revolution in US energy supplies, brought to us by hydraulic fracturing of shale gas reservoirs.

Gas is Energy’s Rodney Dangerfield – No Respect from Friedman

Somehow, the US Congress in its cap and tax extravaganza, the NY Times Foreign Affairs Correspondent, and many others have managed to miss the biggest development in domestic energy supplies in the last 40 or 50 years.  What Tom Friedman does not know is that the US has gone from a gas have not, with just 15 years of reserves, to a gas giant, with more than 100 years of gas supplies, due largely to new technology to exploit shale gas deposits.  Tom, you need to read your own paper.  They have had this issue covered for more than one year.

With enough natural gas reserves to maintain current levels of gas use for another hundred years we have lots of time to figure out what comes next, and to figure out how some of the wealth created thereby can be reinvested in new energy sources that actually produce net wealth for our country.  Natural gas plants are compact (hits that crowded thing, Tom), fuel is domestically sourced (so much for the people who hate us supplying our energy), the fuel is clean (no plague there), and they are reliable – can you say that for wind and solar?

Of course, you might try to sabotage the gas bonanza to make renewable more attractive, the Governor of New York has already tried.  Apparently someone explained the facts of (re)electoral life to him.  For you, elementary economic common sense should suffice.  And common courtesy, too.


1 Jon Boone { 11.21.09 at 9:07 pm }

Thanks for this thoughtful piece, leavened by Marlo Lewis’ accurate observations. Friedman’s views on virtually every front, but particularly on energy and the environment, are virtually indistinguishable from fantasy, uncontaminated as they are by reality.

His arguments are bad. His persona has become grotesque; he is now a buffoonish caricature, the Foghorn Leghorn of energy punditry. “I say, I say I say, boy, is that a chicken hawk I see over yonder…?”

2 peter dublin { 11.23.09 at 12:37 pm }

I guess you’ve heard the latest from the Senate on the Kerry-Boxer bill that some of them are coming round to looking at simplification which just sets power station emission limits etc

Cap and Trade is of course pointless ,
the “No Goldilocks Solution”,
as we have seen in the EU where the problem with carbon prices is they are either too low and so cheap and meaningless as in recession times,
or too high to lead to any reduction at other times, when evasive
action for example involves paying off third world emitters (who according to a recent Economist article can simply be set up to rake in cash ie would not be emittiong otherwise), or tree planting exercises of dubious effect, which may in any case be fast growing non-native trees which changes local ecosystems.
An artificial market will always be an artificial market.

Emission Trading (Cap and Trade)
Basic Idea
Offsets — Tree Planting — Manufacture Shift — Fair Trade — Surreal Market — Allowances: Auctions + Hand-Outs — Allowance Trading — Companies: Business Stability + Cost
In Conclusion

3 Donald Hertzmark { 11.23.09 at 5:14 pm }

Jon, Peter,
Thanks for your comments. It is often said that smart people learn from the mistakes of others, and the rest of us have to make our own mistakes. After watching the ineffective EU cap and trade program, one would have to conclude that there are better ways to reduce carbon emissions. The analogy to the mostly successful sulphur reduction program in the US is inapt because that program involved about 600 stacks and an element (S) that was not essential to the product. Carbon, of course, is essential to the use of hydrocarbons and the number of stacks is almost beyond imagination.

If one really thinks that carbon is a problem then it needs a price, not a son of Enron approach that will accomplish little on the main purpose while doing a great deal of damage to the economy (and landscape).

4 Jon Boone { 11.24.09 at 9:34 pm }

You’re welcome, Donald.

Cap and trade has worked to limit clearly measurable levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and mercury in coal plants because (a) those chemicals are relatively easy to quantify and (b) they can be reasonably inexpensively mitigated. The problem with CO2 is its ubiquity. It is therefore difficult to quantify and virtually impossible to truthfully avoid, given the limited means of accomplishing this.

If nuclear capacity does not increase and hydro remains limited (each year the percentage of its use gets smaller), what else do we have except fossil fuels to produce electricity reliably and affordably? Certainly not wind and solar. Nor is carbon “sequestration” likely to work, although I’m sure billions will be squandered down this rathole.

Consequently, cap and trade will devolve into a shell game in the United States, as it has in Europe, where the same people responsible for the C&T system would do the “accounting.” As a number of “financial investment” firms over the last decade have shown, one can do virtually anything with numbers if one can control the accounting method. Eventually, however, the truth about the fudged books will out.

5 Rod Adams { 11.29.09 at 6:33 am }

As a proponent of nuclear energy, I am sometimes amused by the way that gas and oil supporters point to the energy density of their fuel. I once served on a submarine whose fuel source was installed in 1981. That 9,000 ton submarine then operated until 1995 without ever getting any new fuel.

The total active component mass in that fuel source weighed just a bit more than what I do and the entire assembly could comfortably fit under my office desk, not including necessary shielding. Even with shielding it could fit inside my spare bedroom office, a room that is not large enough for a queen sized bed and furniture.

I am also amused by the amount of money that the natural gas industry is currently spending on marketing to convince people that a 100 year supply – at current consumption rates – is something to get excited about.

I have a great deal of optimism about the Earth’s ability to support its current and projected human population in abundance, but only because I understand just how much uranium and thorium there is in the accessible portions of the Earth’s crust. Thousands of years of all of the energy that 10 billion people need is far more impressive to me than 100 years of less than 20% of the current US energy consumption.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

6 Jon Boone { 12.02.09 at 4:32 pm }

If the strategy is a realistic decrease of CO2 emissions as the result of human activity over the next twenty years, then nuclear is the main tactic to be deployed. Doubling nuclear capacity for electricity baseload would reduce the need for coal capacity rather substantially.

In this way, battery-operated vehicles could plug into “cleaner,” even “greener” grid, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions somewhat in the transportation sector. And if the percentage of electricity use for heating continues to climb–as it has rather drastically for the last 20 years, even more carbon emissions reductions could be achieved.

But, as you suggest, it all must start with a concerted promotion of the nuclear industry, although clearly you have a dog in this fight.

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