There's green in going green

Thomas L. Friedman

KAI RYSSDAL: California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's become an unlikely poster child for the environmental movement. He's on the cover of the current issue of Newsweek magazine, under a headline that says "Save the Planet . . . or Else."

Earlier this week in a speech at Georgetown University, he said it's time to change environmentalism's image. Turn it around, make it sexy. In the same way that Schwarzenegger says he helped bodybuilding become sexy back in the 70s.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman thinks green needs a makeover, too, although perhaps not by pumping iron. He'll have an article in the magazine this Sunday. And Mr. Friedman, I gotta tell you, your piece reads more like a manifesto than anything else.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Um, it is meant as a manifesto. And it's really meant to lay out a new political philosophy that basically argues that green is the most strategic capitalistic — and I think progressive — ideology now for rebuilding America's future. By confronting climate change, by taking the lead in doing that, by setting really high standards for our industries and businesses, we are gonna stimulate, we can stimulate an enormous amount of innovation. Innovation that will really strengthen our companies to compete globally in what is clearly going to be the next, great, global industry, Kai. And that is clean technology.

RYSSDAL: But the common wisdom here has been that green requires some kind of sacrifice. We have to cut back if we're going to be able to do anything about global warming.

FRIEDMAN: Well, it's good to require sacrifice if we don't do anything about global warming, because Mother Nature will impose restraints on us. But if we can really be smart about this — set standards early, really stimulate the innovation — I think there's still a very good chance we could maintain our basic way of life without having to cut back, without having to pay that big a price.

RYSSDAL: Give me some examples. How are you gonna sell it to Americans that they can have, in essence, the same with less?

FRIEDMAN: Well, let's look at California, for instance. California posed very high efficiency standards on buildings and appliances, you know, three decades ago. And as a result of that, on a per capita basis, energy used in California has been flat for the last 30 years, while it's grown 50 percent in the rest of the country. Because the government imposed these standards — introduced them, stimulated the innovation — that was the result. We got stronger companies, more efficient buildings, lower energy usage, and I would say more comfortable consumers.

RYSSDAL: All right, well let me extend it a little bit and turn it back on you. Would you agree that nothing's gonna happen in fixing global warming, or climate change, or going green strategically, unless China goes with us. Right?

FRIEDMAN: Absolutely.

RYSSDAL: OK. So we go to China, and we say "Listen: we have a way that you can get clean energy to turn on that light bulb or to do whatever it is. But it's gonna cost you a little bit extra. But you know what, it's really important that we take care of global warming." They're gonna look at us and say, "Why should we pay extra? We're fine burning dirty coal and burning oil and developing our economy at 10 percent a year. And so long as the light's on, what do we care where it comes from?"

FRIEDMAN: That is what they'll say. But here's where it's an advantage for us: I'm gonna give you the example I give in the piece of GE Transportation. GE Transportation is based in Erie, Penn., the American rust belt. What do they sell? They sell choo-choo trains. Big, old-industry things. Guess what? Erie, Pennsylvania today has a trade surplus with China and Mexico. 'Cause GE transportation sells locomotives to China — which is, by the way, a railroad country which makes its own locomotives. Why do the Chinese buy GE locomotives? Because they are so energy efficient — because of some of the standards we've already imposed on our manufacturers — that even though the GE locomotive costs much more than the Chinese locomotive, the total cost of operating it for the railroad is less because it's so energy efficient.

RYSSDAL: So there's a lowest-common-denominator price that we have to meet in the Chinese market before anything's gonna happen.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. Unless we get down to the China price, the price at which clean technology — whether it's clean coal, solar or wind — can scale in China, we really haven't solved anything at all.

RYSSDAL: Let's play a little word game here. You ready?

FRIEDMAN: Ready.

RYSSDAL: Take the word green. Substitute the last letter with a "D." What do you get?

FRIEDMAN: You get greed.

RYSSDAL: Yeah, you do.

FRIEDMAN: Oh . . . I like greed. I like greed, Kai, because unless you get the marketplace working for you, you'll never really develop the scale of green technologies and the innovation you need. It's so important that prices be set at a level that they will stimulate the innovation that we need to really get green as a country and as a world. And the only thing that can do that is government setting high standards and then telling the marketplace, "May the best man or woman win. Go at it."

RYSSDAL: Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times. He's got a piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine this weekend, it's called "The Power of Green." Mr. Friedman, thanks a lot.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you so much, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...