Why Can’t Tom Friedman Find Cleantech?

Thomas Friedman, one of my favorite authors, had an editorial this week entitled, “America must lead in energy technology“. As with most of his recent writings and speeches, it’s targeted around the thesis of his Hot, Flat and Crowded book, which basically argues that a combination of climate change, globalization, and population growth are creating a crisis point in energy and resource use that must be dealt with by utilizing a shift of technologies to cleaner and more sustainable economic practices (some of us call that cleantech). Not a new idea, but as usual Tom Friedman articulates it well.

So for those of us who work in the trenches of cleantech, I found the language he used quite delightfully flighty.

Number one, when it comes to actually doing something about climate change, Friedman can’t seem to get beyond the idealists idea of a carbon tax.

In his article he mentions

cap-and-trade/carbon tax
tax on carbon
long term price on carbon

But not one mention of carbon trading or Kyoto, or CDM, ETS or any of the carbon trading work ($125 Billion in 2008) that makes up the vast majority of the current global response to climate change in process now.

The basic idea here is that the theoretically most efficient way to “put a price on carbon” is to tax carbon. Of course this ignores the reality on the ground that we are really, really bad at making efficient taxes, and the best real world that we absolutely have to have involved to succeed (read India and China) is even worse. So carbon tax basically means carbon trade war if you’re not careful. In the real world, a global response of cap and trade ends up being more efficient as it allows the melding of international trade schemes better, lets industry find the least cost path to comply, and also actually means compliance can be assured. And carbon tax ignores that fact that any economist worth their salt knows full well that a tax ensures some level of revenues to the taxing goverment, but does not necessarily mean you hit your abatement targets (some people just pay the tax). And didn’t we say it’s all about hitting the abatement targets? In the real world we’d actually like to do that with as LOW a carbon price as possible, as long as we hit the critical abatement levels. Unless you don’t like your current standard of living, in which case the fastest way to fight climate change is just take it out of GDP.

We as a globe entered into cap and trade and carbon trading as the best alternative that would 1) ensure we actually reduced GHG emissions enough (a tax doesn’t even pretend to do that) and 2) do it in the least cost path with the least economic collateral damage.

I heard him speak, so I’m pretty sure he knows how this works. But Friedman seems blissfully uninterested in diving down into the details on “how”, prefering to stay only in the “why” realm. Maybe because the how is actually hard. Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change action, the devil is ALL in the details of the how.

Number two, Friedman must really, really hate the term cleantech. He uses everything else he can think of.

clean power 2 mentions
clean-energy hawk 1 mention
green hawk 1 mention
E.T. 3 mentions
energy technology 3 mentions
green-tech 1 mention
clean energy 3 mention

but not a single mention of the word cleantech or clean tech. Now do a google search and see how those terms compare. It’s not like cleantech is one of the top segments of the venture capital world. And it’s not like cleantech investment isn’t anchoring billions upon billions of market and policy dollars. Oh wait, yes it is.

I guess my only request is this, Tom, please come back to the real world, and give the guys in the cleantech and carbon trading trenches their due. They’ve been working hard for years on the topics you are just now discovering. And yes, I have a vested interest. That’s because I’m actually working in the trenches.

Neal Dikeman is the founder of Cleantech Blog, and the Chairman of Cleantech.org, and Carbonflow, and a partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC.

2 replies
  1. Greg Neichin
    Greg Neichin says:

    Neal – Great points and as someone similarly in the cleantech trenches, they are all points that resonate with me.My only defense of Friedman is that he's preaching to a different audience than we do in the trenches. His "why" message is a plea to average Americans to pay attention, to learn enough to vote for the right politicians, and in turn to help enact the right policies. The average American is not going to respond to detailed talk of "how", they like things neatly packaged and digestable.If he succeeds in convincing people of the "why" then that, in and of itself, will help pave the way for us in the trenches execute on the "how".

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I guess i agree with Friedman – "cleantech" is not really a good term or a term average people would connect with "green" or "energy efficient." Those terms carry more weight and are much better understood. I would not use the word "cleantech" – unless you are using it to refer to a floor cleaning machine you are trying to sell them.

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