One of Thomas Friedman’s messages in his latest book, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” is that the green economy is not having a real impact yet on the huge problems like climate change that we face. In his chapter “205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth” he says that there is no green revolution yet on the scale needed to solve things, but more of a “green party”, with consumers looking for quick and easy solutions. Friedman is an astute observer, and I agree with most of what he writes. I’d like to make a distinction here though that I think might be important.
“We are trying to change the climate system – to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable!” Friedman writes, expressing the scale of the problem and his frustration with the lack of coordinated global action. It is true that we have yet to take significant action at the national level on climate change or replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. Despite state and regional efforts like the RGGI, there is still no national price on carbon in the US, and we are a long way from success in the next international climate agreement, one which needs to include the US, China, and India. These are big steps, and necessary ones to get where we need to go. So far the CO2 levels in the atmosphere just keep on rising, with no evidence of any slowing.
Government action on a scale this large is not likely to be easy. Friedman is right about this also I think. There are entrenched interests who are not excited about putting a price on carbon to fight climate change. They will fight it using every weapon in their arsenal, including lobbyists, money and media.
The good news is that many businesses are realizing the need for action on climate change and pressing for change. Still, Friedman argues that we will not see the US Government put a price on carbon until people demand it, marching on Washington and making the alternative, continuing with the status quo, politically untenable. He views the green economy as a distraction that distracts us from this larger goal.
Here’s where I’m not so sure if Friedman has really nailed it. I don’t know if we will soon see people marching on Washington demanding a gas tax or a carbon tax. People seldom march in favor of taxes or complicated policy initiatives such as a national renewable energy portfolio standard. But there are growing signs of the green movement in actions both large and small and there are many ways that people can get involved. Whether or not people march on Washington, politicians are hearing from them in many ways. The growth of the green economy is one of these signs of movement in the right direction.
Friedman is overall pretty cynical about the “green revolution” happening among consumers and businesses, suggesting that it’s all a party that makes us feel good without changing anything meaningful. I don’t think most people buying green goods do so under the belief that the easy steps are the only steps. I think most people know it’s only a start, that we have a long way to go, and that some steps won’t be easy. But you can’t blame people for realizing that green products that sell are those that compete at a good price, for a great product, and one that also happens to be green.
The growth of the green consumer economy is a sign that people are putting their money where their mouth is. They are laying the foundation for greater things to come. It’s not the end, and it’s not the only step, but it is a step in the right direction. The small steps are leading up to the big ones, as longs as we keep going in the right direction.