New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman

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Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and best-selling author talks about the potential for unifying America around environmental issues.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Thomas Friedman back to this program. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists is, of course, must-read copy on the op-ed pages of “The New York Times.” He’s also a perennial bestselling author whose latest is called “Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America.” Thomas Friedman, good to see you.
Thomas L. Friedman: Great to be back here, Tavis.
Tavis: What brings you to L.A., man?
Friedman: Well, I’m doing actually a few lectures and taking advantage of being out here, be here in person, okay? No more of that big screen stuff.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. We’re glad to have you here.
Friedman: Really great to be here.
Tavis: Let me start with an unorthodox question, perhaps – is it just me, or is everybody writing and talking about the environment, about the green economy, and yet I’m trying to see whether or not it’s having an impact. I’m reading and hearing this more and more, with all due respect to your work, which we’ll get to. Am I right about that?
Friedman: Yeah, I would say, Tavis, there’s a lot more green buzz than there is real –
Tavis: Right. I like that – green buzz.
Friedman: – green economy, and I actually have a chapter on that in the book. I call it 205 easy ways to go green. And what I tell people in all my talks is there isn’t one easy way to go green – really to go green. That if we actually did this as a country and an economy, if we actually got the greening of our economy in a way we could start to mitigate climate change and really launch a green economy, it would be the biggest industrial project we’ve ever done as a country.
This is hard. There’s one word you should never use when you talk about climate change or mitigating climate change or greening the economy, and that’s easy, because it will be anything but easy.
Tavis: So I asked this question of someone a while ago – where this issue is concerned, is it lack of will or lack of skill?
Friedman: It’s a little bit of both. I think it’s more lack of leadership right now, because I feel everywhere I go, people are really ready to be mobilized. And what’s really actually exciting around the country, I’ve been on a book tour, there’s innovation exploding from the ground up here around this issue. Young people, old people – I go around, people say, “I got a duck, it paddles a wheel, blows up a balloon, issues methane, turns the turbine, creates electricity.”
I hear the craziest stuff, and it’s going on from the ground up out there. But we’re not maximizing it. We’re not getting the most out of it, and that’s a little bit of a Washington problem, and it’s a little bit of a leadership problem.
I tell myself, Tavis, think about for eight years we’ve had a president who couldn’t get the word (stammers) conservation out of his mouth, all right, basically – let alone a vice president. Imagine – and both McCain and Obama are pretty good on this issue, so let’s forget who’s going to win. But imagine the next president takes the oath of office and says, “Okay, I’m riding my bicycle to the White House.”
Or maybe McCain’s too old, he says, “I’m only going to ride to the White House in a hybrid vehicle made in the United States.” In other words, we have had so little leadership at the very highest levels, the bully pulpit of the president, imagine what will happen if we have a president who actually takes this issue seriously and leads?
Tavis: I’ve been saying the same thing myself, and I couldn’t agree more that it just requires them doing a few things here and there. I guess the question is whether or not you’re hopeful about that.
Friedman: I am. I actually am, because –
Tavis: Either one?
Friedman: I’m more hopeful about Obama leading it than McCain. I think Obama’s kept it as a central focus throughout his campaign. McCain basically fell off the wagon. He fell off the wagon for me before the last two months, when he called for lifting the gasoline tax in the summer, which only was going to get more people to drive, add more CO2 to the atmosphere. He fell off the wagon when he lapsed into “Drill, baby, drill.”
Now, I’ve got to tell you, Tavis, I’m actually not against offshore drilling, technologically. I think it can be done safely, if you do it in coordination with environmentalists and the states. But we’re on the eve of an ET revolution – an energy technology revolution. We have to be, and I believe we are.
And on the eve of the ET revolution, to have your motto be “Drill, baby, drill” would be as if on the eve of the IT revolution, on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet, someone was out there demanding more IBM Selectric typewriters – “More carbon paper, baby, more carbon paper.”
No, no – we’re on the eve of an ET revolution, and there should be only one, in my view, motto for our country – “Invent, baby, invent.” Because that’s the only way we’re going to get out of this.
Tavis: Tell me why you believe, if you believe, that this green revolution can sweep all of us up in it as opposed to, as is so often the case, the environmental movement being White, well-to-do, here in L.A., west side, etc.
Friedman: Well, I put it at two levels, both economic and political. So let’s look at the economic. The thing about the ET revolution, energy technology as opposed to IT, look, if you wanted to play in IT you needed a science degree, you needed to know math. The thing about ET is it spans our whole economy. That is, it’s going to involve green-collar jobs installing solar panels on roofs, manufacturing wind turbines, retrofitting homes so they become more energy efficient.
Van Jones as written a book on the green-collar economy and it was in my book, too – has really shown how this can really work for people at all skill levels. So certainly for people in formerly blue-collar jobs, those jobs can’t be outsourced, as Van points out. You can’t get someone in China to retrofit your house here, okay?
So there’s going to be a whole host of jobs down there, and then, of course, at the high end people invent those solar panels or those wind turbines or those smart grids. So it really spans the whole economy, much more than IT.
But there’s another issue, and to me, what my whole thing is about is that green isn’t just for me about electric power, Tavis. It’s about national power. Because I’m basically saying, look, in a world that’s hot, flat, and crowded, the country that has the greenest economy is going to have the most national security, economic security, energy security, innovative companies, healthy economy, healthy environment, global respect.
That country has to be the United States. If it’s not – Jeff Immelt from GE, he has a nice saying I like. He said, “If you want to be big, you got to be big in big things.” There’s a country. Well, that’s going to be the biggest thing. So this is a source of national power, not just electric power, and that’s why, Tavis, what I’m trying to do in the book and in all my work is to rename green.
You alluded to it a second ago. In the old days, green – I’m a big believer, to name something is to own it. If you can name an issue, you can own the issue.
Tavis: Oh, yeah, I agree.
Friedman: So the people actually named green were actually its opponents all these years. They named it liberal, treehugging, sissy, girlie-man, unpatriotic, vaguely European – vaguely European, okay? Well, I’m here to tell you that in a world that’s hot, flat, and crowded, green is geopolitical, geostrategic, geoeconomic, patriotic, economic – green is the new red, white, and blue.
That’s what this is about. And so my book actually – it speaks out of both sides of its mouth. To Rush Limbaugh I say, “Hey, Rush – I got a plan to make America stronger,” and we’re going to take care of everything Al Gore cares about as a by-product.
To Greens, I say, “I have a plan to make America greener,” and we’re going to take care of everything Dick Cheney cares about as a by-product. Because this is about economic power and national power.
Tavis: You’ve said so many things here in the last couple minutes that I want to go back and try to unpack a little bit more.
Friedman: Please.
Tavis: In no particular order, let me start with the Rush Limbaugh reference. How much of our being held back as a country on this green revolution has to do with the fact that there are still a number of persons who have the microphone, who have the power, who are running things in Washington, who make a mockery out of global warming, etc., etc.?
Friedman: There’s no question they play a hugely, I think, corrosive role in this debate. And you know what it’s about so much? The truth is I don’t think these guys have ever actually studied a whit the climate science. What they care about – you know what motivates them, Tavis, is that they know that the solution requires more government.
So because they don’t want the solution, I think they simply deny the problem. I have a friend, Joe Romer, climate scientist, and he says, “There are many good things about improved healthcare, but one of the best is that all these climate deniers are going to live long enough to see how wrong they were. (Laughter)
Tavis: Let me jump in here, though. Here’s what I don’t get, and I’m not politically naïve, but I don’t get this. Back to the point you made earlier and back to the point of Van Jones’ book, if this green revolution is right not just for Friedman’s point that it’s about national security, but also about turning around our economy by putting people to work, if for no other reason, why, whether you’re Republican, would you be opposed to it if it can drive and generate an entire new economy?
Friedman: Well, that’s what I say in the book – if climate change is a hoax, it’s the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the United States of America. Because preparing for a climate change world, a global-warmed world, would be like preparing for the Olympic triathlon. Maybe the Olympics will come, maybe you’ll win, but if you don’t win, you’re stronger, fitter, healthier, more secure.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has a quote that I really like. He says, “You go to the – “
Tavis: It’s not the girlie-man quote.
Friedman: No, it’s not the girlie-man quote. (Laughter)
Tavis: The one you referenced earlier.
Friedman: His quote is that your son is sick, you consult 98 doctors; they tell you one thing, and two doctors tell you another. What are you going to do? You’re going to go with the 98. The climate’s the same thing. Ninety-eight percent of the scientists say one thing; actually about 1 percent say another, and we’re supposed to go with the 1? People call that “conservative?” I call that “crazy Trotskyite radical,” okay, when 99 percent of people tell you one thing and you’re supposed to go with the other. That’s nuts.
Tavis: I did not hear – this is, for me at least, true of Obama and McCain, regrettably – I didn’t hear either one of them in this campaign, I’ve not heard either one of them really break down how this green revolution would work to everyday people – how you can be included in this process.
One could argue that Obama didn’t have to do that; he’s got 98 percent of Black folk anyway, whether he says it or not. But I think that neither one of them, quite frankly, met the challenge of saying to us in all of these debates, in all of these press events, here’s how this – if Obama or McCain, to their credit, would do as you have done in layman’s terms and explain to people here’s how this works and here’s how you include it – Van Jones, to your point, is the best at it.
Friedman: Absolutely.
Tavis: Both of these guys should have taken a page out of Van’s book. Bobby Kennedy, for that matter – here’s how you talk to people about the economy, about the green economy, and how you are a part of it. And that’s the kind of leadership that I’ve been looking for on the campaign trail from both of them.
Friedman: And that’s why I include Van in the book and wrote about him even before the book, because he’s making a very important point. One point is right-left, okay? To me, we’ve got to have the right and the left if we want to (inaudible) scale. But the other point is Black-White, Hispanic-Anglo.
If you don’t have everyone behind this – I go back to where I started, Tavis. This thing is so big and so hard, if you think you can get America, have the real greening of America, and we’re going to exclude, basically, a whole segment of the population, it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen. You need everybody in on this.
And what’s disappointing me, and I’ll pick up your point, Obama’s, to me, head and shoulders above McCain on this, but for me, the thing that I miss in Obama on this is that for him this is a spoke. There’s healthcare, there’s green, there immigration, there’s Social Security. For me, it’s the hub.
For McCain, I think it was an important issue and he decided to throw it overboard for the base, which I think was a huge mistake. So I’m not hearing – what I’m hoping for, basically, is if Obama wins, I think he will make this a central issue. I think he gets it. I truly think he gets it, but I think they’re a little afraid of it in the campaign.
If McCain wins, I only hope people say, “Well, what do you think McCain will do?” And I say, “You just tell me which McCain – the McCain pre-Palin or post-Palin? Just tell me which one, and I’ll tell you what I think he’s going to do.”
Tavis: Let me go back to where I could have started this conversation and I chose not to, for obvious reasons, deliberately. But when you say hot, flat, and crowded – we’ve referenced that a few times now – break down each of those, what you mean by them.
Friedman: Right. So, “hot” means global warming; the fact that global average temperatures have risen almost a degree centigrade, almost a couple degrees Fahrenheit, or heading for a couple degrees Fahrenheit. And I know that doesn’t sound like much to people. They say, “Jeez, you mean all this Al Gore stuff is about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1750?”
And I always tell people yeah, because the global climate system, Tavis, is a lot like your body. If your body temperature goes from 98.5 to 100.6, you don’t feel so good. If it goes from 100.6 to 102.6, you go to the hospital. So does Mother Nature. So that’s the “hot” part, that we’re getting – the Earth is warming, and that’s changing our climate.
The “flat” is the rise – “flat” is my metaphor for the rise of middle classes all over the world. From India to China, from Russia to Brazil.
Tavis: You like that word, “flat.”
Friedman: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: You’ve used it once or twice before.
Friedman: What can I say; I’ve tossed it out there. But what it really is a metaphor – in this book, it’s all these people who can now live like Americans. Drive cars like Americans, live in American-style houses, eat American-sized Big Macs, and therefore, that has huge energy and natural resource implications.
“Crowded” is the fact that when I was born in 1953, there were 2.681 billion people on the planet. Now there’s 6.2 billion, and if I go to the U.N. chart, it tells me there’ll be 9.2 billion in 2053, if, God willing, I keep working out, eating yoghurt, and live to be 100.
So it means in my lifetime, Tavis, the population of the planet is going to more than triple, and more people will be born between now and when I die than were here when I arrived.
So the world’s getting hot, flat, and crowded, and the argument here is that these three trends, basically, have come together to drive five huge global problems: Energy and natural resource supply and demand, petrodictatorships – the Putins, the Irans – climate change, biodiversity loss – the fact that we’re losing all these plant and animal species – and energy poverty, which is about the 1.6 billion people on the planet who have no on/off switch in their live.
One-fourth of this planet – actually, more than one-forth – have no on/off switch. They are not connected to an electric grid. And so what I’m basically arguing is hot, flat, and crowded’s driving those five problems; those are the big problems of the 21st century. The country that comes up with the clean answer to those problems is going to own ET.
Tavis: I promise I’ll come back to the solution in just a second – in a few minutes, I should say. Couple other questions first, though, and I want to circle back again here. Beyond oil prices going up, which translates to everyday Americans with gasoline prices going up – thankfully, they’ve been down a little bit lately – beyond the gasoline issue, do you think that the average American gets this conversation? Honestly, for all the talk about it, do you think the average American gets this conversation?
Friedman: Not yet, it’s still an elite issue. It’s still an elite issue and a campus issue. But I’ll tell you what’s changing. I write about in the book “the green hawks at the Pentagon.” A whole group of guys in the Army now who have really gotten onto this issue. How did they get onto it? It started with a Marine general in Iraq who called back to the Pentagon one day and says, “I need solar power.”
And they said, “Hey, General, you’re getting a little green out there in the Iraqi sun?” He said, “No, you morons, I’m supplying 10 bases on the Syrian border, bunch of bases out here. I’m trucking fuel from Kuwait to the Syrian border, all across Iraq, at $20 a gallon.” If I had solar power – my words, not his – I could out-green al Qaeda. I could take these trucks off the road – no convoys, no IEDs.
So what I’m finding is that this green issue now is influencing, infecting, in the best sense of the world, a whole group of constituencies. And you meet people in Iraq – and look, it was the desegregation of the Army, okay, which was critical to the whole civil rights movement in this country.
You get the Army start to go green, you have no idea the impact that can have. Because people see things in the Army, they come back to their community and say, “Hey, we had this on the Army base – we had this in Iraq. You’re telling me we can’t have it here?”
So I’m optimistic that it’s changing. It’s changing because young kids are coming home and greening their parents. I see that more and more. But it’s still an elite issue, and the key thing for me, Tavis, is the president. That if we have a president who really makes this an issue, who says, “Get rid of my armor-plated Lincoln Town car; I’m driving an American-made Ford Escape hybrid, or I’m biking – ” do you know how many people bought Sarah Palin glasses after she spoke in St. Paul? (Laughter)
So imagine how many people would go out and buy bikes or green cars if we had a president who every day made this an issue?
Tavis: To your point of the president, in a moment I want to ask – just to give you a heads up here, not that you need it in your brilliance – I want to ask, with regard to the campaign, a very broad question – what you have been underwhelmed by in this campaign, and what you have been surprised by in this campaign.
One in each – what underwhelms you and what surprised you about this campaign for the (unintelligible) over the last couple of years. We’ll come back to that in a second. First, though, to your point, you mentioned Iran a couple of times. I think your piece this week was called “Sleepless in Tehran.”
For those who didn’t see the piece, there’s a connection, obviously, to what you’re writing about in the book. Tell the audience who didn’t see it what the piece was about and the connection to the text.
Friedman: Well, I’m basically saying that people have been reporting that Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, has been suffering from exhaustion, and I was opining and wondering allowed whether he was exhausted because he just saw oil go from $147 a barrel to $57 a barrel.
And Iran is one of these petrol estates that is almost totally dependent on oil for its GDP. The rest is carpets and pistachios – (laughter) it doesn’t amount to much.
Tavis: I like pistachios.
Friedman: It’s really about oil for them. And basically it’s been my view, Tavis, from the very beginning, with all due respect to Ronald Reagan, people say Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union. I’ll tell you what brought down the Soviet Union: $10 a barrel oil brought down the Soviet Union.
People forget that oil cratered in the early 1990s and that is what brought down the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union basically, when oil prices were high, expanded into all these areas of the economy – invaded Afghanistan. We’re powerful, okay? Eighty dollar a barrel oil back then. And then when oil went from 80 to 10, they had to pull out from all these areas and the state basically cratered.
Iran is very vulnerable to the same thing. Iran is 11 percent unemployment, 30 percent inflation at $100 a barrel oil. Imagine what happens when it starts to roll back into the mid-60s?
Tavis: And that impacts us in what way?
Friedman: Well, I think it gives an opportunity for diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran, and –
Tavis: But Obama gets in trouble when he says, “I’ll meet with these people without preconditions.”
Friedman: And I think he’s been on the right track all along. My only criticism of that strategy is you’ve got to have leverage. In the Middle East, I always say – I grew up in Minnesota, Tavis. At the Minnesota state fair they had a guy who could guess your weight.
I was, as a kid, I was fascinated by how does he do that? How does he guess your weight? In the Middle East, people can guess your power from 50 paces, okay? They know whether you’ve got leverage or not. And I think for the first time, we haven’t had a lot of leverage vis-à-vis (unintelligible) trapped in Iraq, oil prices have been high, they’ve been rich.
Oil prices go down, suddenly a President Obama, if that’s what is, I think will have some real leverage to say, “Fellas, how about you and I have a talk about that nuclear plant?” Because once we have those oil prices rolling back, the sanctions we’ve been putting on Iran, they will really start to bite.
Tavis: To that question now that I posed a moment ago, in this campaign, which seems endless – we’re just a few days away now, thankfully, from the end here –
Friedman: I have to tell you just one thing. I was talking to one of your colleagues and we were talking about – your producer, and he was saying, “This campaign, it feels – it’s become part of my life.” (Laughter) That’s really what I feel. You mean like it’s over? It’s more than – it’s become part of my life.
Tavis: Which raises a question – I asked what you’ve been underwhelmed by and surprised by; let me just tweak that. Is this campaign – has it gone on too long? Do we need to change the way we do our electoral process? Maybe like Europe, six weeks? What do you make?
Friedman: It sure feels like it’s – it’s felt like diminishing returns. Think how stupid the McCain campaign has gotten; that Obama’s a socialist, he’s a Marxist, that people are un-American. It has not gotten smarter, it’s actually gotten dumber as it went along. It was actually much smarter when it started, that’s the first thing I’d say.
On underwhelmed, I guess what struck me – I was at the last debate, actually, at Hofstra, and what struck me about the debates was the fact that our economy is melting down, Tavis, in very frightening ways, and it felt like the two candidates had been on some game show where they were offstage in a soundproof booth, and then they brought them out. And they never fully engaged to me either the anxiety – the real – not that folks are hurting, I mean the true anxiety of systemic risk and truly spoke to I think this is the way we’ve got to approach it. So I would say that’s what I’ve been most underwhelmed by.
Tavis: They never really connected.
Friedman: They never connected.
Tavis: That’s my sense of it, yeah.
Friedman: They never connected with my anxiety, and with a sense of here’s my team, here’s how we’re going to approach it. And overwhelmed, you can’t – I’ll tell you what overwhelms me. The number of my Republican friends, okay, who tell me, “My kids are voting Obama.” (Laughter) All right? That’s what overwhelms me.
Tavis: I think it’s a brilliant point. I think there are a lot of people on Election Day, a lot of chronologically gifted Americans, who are going to vote for Obama because their kids have pulled them in.
Friedman: Yes, I don’t know what the opposite of the Bradley effect is, but I think there’s a lot of guys at the country club – and I’m a golfer – who at the country club are going to say, “Oh, I’m with McCain.” And they’re going to go in that booth, and I don’t know what percentage, and for their kids, and because they sense that the country is in trouble, and they’re going to pull the lever for Obama.
Now maybe it’s only going to nullify one-tenth, but it’s going to be there. I’ve got to think of a name for it, but there’s a counter-effect.
Tavis: I’m sure in your column you will, and everybody will be quoting what you’ve called it.
Friedman: I appreciate it.
Tavis: I got 45 seconds to go. Let me ask an impossible question in 45 seconds. You mentioned Minnesota and I really want to spend more time on this, so when you come back we’ll talk about it. I’m always curious as to what makes people tick. What about growing up in Minnesota most put you on the track to being the kind of truth-teller that you are now?
Friedman: I grew up in a community, first of all, that worked, and I grew up under politicians called Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, who were clean and actually believed that politics was a great calling and that you could actually through politics make your community and your state better. And it bred in me a real sense of optimism about politics.
Tavis: And now Al Franken can be your senator from your home state.
Friedman: Al Franken and I grew up in the same suburbs. (Laughter) So let’s hope so.
Tavis: I love it. I love it, and I love this guy. Thomas Friedman, must-read copy, as you know, on the pages of “The New York Times.” His new book, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America.” Anything he writes with the word “flat” in it is destined to be a “New York Times” bestseller. Anything he writes, period, is a bestseller. Glad to have you on.
Friedman: Thanks, pal. I appreciate it, Tavis. Thanks.

Tavis: Thanks for coming to see us, Tom.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm