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Friedman: Government must stimulate green revolution

Mar 11, 2009 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Brandon Loomis The Salt Lake Tribune

America urgently needs a "green revolution," and it won't be painless, columnist and author Thomas Friedman told a sold-out crowd at Salt Lake City's Abravanel Hall on Tuesday night.

It needs to pioneer affordable clean energy not just to save the environment, the New York Times commentator said, but also to keep its competitive edge and to promote freedom around the world.

His prescription, in two words, to jump-start such a revolution: carbon tax.

"Price matters," Friedman told about 3,000 people at his keynote address in the Utah Museum of Natural History's 2009 "Nature of Things" lecture series. Last summer Toyota hybrids were in short supply, but now that gasoline prices have fallen, it's hard to sell one. The way to spur energy innovation by entrepreneurs in "10,000 garages," Friedman said, is to make fossil fuels cost more.

If that means oil companies or American automakers as currently configured suffer, he said, then that's what must happen. Right now, those companies simply talk about being green, he said.

"Have you ever been to a revolution where nobody got hurt? Oh, that's the green revolution we're having," Friedman said. "That's not a revolution, friends, that's a party."

Addressing the theme of his new best-seller, Hot, Flat, and Crowded , the author said clean energy is in all the world's interest but will most reward the country that pioneers it. The booming global population will need energy to avoid poverty and, without a green revolution, that energy will foul the Earth on a calamitous scale.

Tackling the problem matters not just to the climate or to the rapid extinction of Earth's species, he said, but to freedom around the world. Friedman charted oil prices in recent decades and matched it against the rise and fall of freedom in petroleum-funded nations, or "petrodictatorships," as measured by social scientists. The result is heightened freedom when oil is cheap, he said. For instance, Iranians elected a reformer at $16 a barrel and then a Holocaust denier at $75 a barrel.

If America does pay the real costs of carbon -- with a tax that considers everything from pollution to soldiers in Iraq -- it can scale up new energy technologies to the point at which they will be cheap enough to feed the population boom's energy hunger, Friedman said. He likened the process to the premium that Americans paid for the first cell phones, which in turn helped increase production until the prices fell.

His message resonated with the crowd, and many lined up for book signings afterward. Park City resident Jolene Aubel said she grew up in a Midwestern family with General Motors Corp. workers, but now wants a Toyota hybrid and would accept a carbon tax on her gas.

"It's something that's really important for people to hear right now," Aubel said. The fact that 3,000 Utahns bought tickets to hear it shows Americans are starting to take note.

FRIEDMAN ON OTHER TOPICS: What Thomas Friedman told Utah reporters or Utah Museum of Natural History benefactors after a Tuesday luncheon:

On climate-change skeptics are science deniers -- "That's not conservative. That's crazy radical."

On Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s plan to boost natural-gas vehicles -- It's good for a short-term reduction of carbon emissions, until even cleaner fuels are widespread. "It's a very important bridge."

On the stimulus package -- It offers encouraging investments in renewable energy, but it won't tip the balance unless there's a carbon tax and a higher gas tax. "If you don't have a price on carbon, none of this is going to happen."

On President Obama's biggest early challenge -- He has to save the banking system on which the rest of the economy depends. "Great presidents are born in great crises, and Barack Obama is going to get his chance."