I noticed another climate change column from Thomas L. Friedman in my e-mail in-box this morning. On the whole, it was a lot more encouraging than this earlier piece, in which he lamented that the current generation of American college students isn’t making enough noise about the issue of climate change, among other things. (I wonder if the massive convergence during Power Shift 2007 did anything to change his perception on that one).
Now he’s back on a happier note, breathlessly recounting the ways that “our country is increasingly alive on this challenge.” These include:
- Google’s “RE < C” renewable energy research initiative (to make renewable energy cost less than coal),
- The M.I.T. Energy Club, an energy research group
- Also at M.I.T., some students who helped launch the Vehicle Design Summit, which is building “[t]he Linux of cars!”
It’s good that Friedman has begun to realize that young people are not, in fact, addressing the issue of climate change solely through their Facebook profiles. That’s one lesson learned. But this quote, about the Vehicle Design Summit, is typical of what he likes about the initiatives listed above:
They’re not waiting for G.M. Their goal, they explain on their Web site — vds.mit.edu — is “to identify the key characteristics of events like the race to the moon and then transpose this energy, passion, focus and urgency” on catalyzing a global team to build a clean car.
That’s great. We’ll need all the efficiency gains we can get in the coming decades, and the M.I.T. projects Friedman mentions here will help with that. And Google’s project to make renewable energy cheaper is laudable. But what Friedman does not acknowledge is that lack of technology is simply not the problem. Plug-in hybrids are already viable, but automakers refuse to mass-produce them and are fighting tougher emissions standards in the courts. Massive gains in efficiency are already possible with today’s technology. And we could make “RE” less than “C” tomorrow by passing a law forcing coal companies to pay for the true environmental cost of their activity. In other words, even if all of these great efforts make great progress, they won’t avert climate disaster on their own. Nor, in fact, are they actually necessary to get us started.
Friedman and the geek set he’s loving up in this week’s column would prefer that the climate issue were an Apollo-like challenge that demands a technological solution. The fact is that it’s a political challenge. The only way to change course quickly enough to prevent the worst effects of global warming is to intervene on corporate behavior. Google and M.I.T. can lead corporations to water, but it’s up to governments and groups like RAN to make them drink—and deeply.