Columnist Friedman closes research symposium

Author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called for technological innovation and government regulations that support global clean energy while lamenting “a values breakdown in both the market and in Mother Nature” over the last decade. He spoke on Wednesday at the second and final day of the Stanford Global Climate and Energy Project’s (GCEP) research symposium.

“Our country is still exploding with innovative promise…but somehow we’re not getting the most out of it,” Friedman said.

More than 500 individuals in academia, venture capital and industry registered for the conference. Organizers invited Friedman because of his expertise in the global clean energy field, said Sally Benson, director of GCEP.

“He’s an interesting guy and has interesting perspectives on international issues that are central to solving energy problems,” Benson said.

During the talk, Friedman decried past and present practices that value profit over sustainability.

“We have treated both the market and Mother Nature with same principle: I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone,” Friedman said. “Plow up the Amazon to sell soybeans.”

Friedman warned of a difficult future if the world economy does not adopt more “green” practices.

“If we don’t bring sustainable values to [the market and nature], then we are going to be more unfree than if the greatest generation had not won the Cold War,” Friedman said.

Friedman also drew ties between the price of oil and political oppression.

“‘Petrolist’ states are totally dependent on oil for their GDP,” he said. “As the price of oil goes down, freedom goes up.”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman spoke at the Global Climate and Energy Project research symposium on Wednesday. (ZACK HOBERG/The Stanford Daily)

The best solution to these problems is a sustainable energy system or, as Friedman phrased it, “abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons–the next great global industry.”

Though popular sentiment holds governments responsible for regulating clean energy, “this is a problem that will be solved by innovators and engineers, not regulators,” Friedman said.

Coming closer to this goal of widespread, sustainable energy was the motivation behind the symposium, Benson said.

“A sustainable energy system is affordable, accessible, secure and protective of the environment,” she said, adding that a goal of the symposium is to “bring forward these ideas and develop new approaches to make energy more sustainable.”

Friedman compared global-scale development of clean energy with the tech revolution in the 1990s, during which the developed world rapidly integrated the Internet into its everyday life.

When the “green revolution” runs its course, instead of living in drastically different ways, “when we win, we’re still going to have the same light, heating and cooling and mobility” with a better planet and environment, he predicted.

Following Friedman’s speech, the GCEP symposium focused on the carbon cycle and how it informs people about carbon dioxide emissions. Throughout the symposium, speakers and panel discussions complemented posters and presentations from graduate and postdoctoral students.

“From a societal perspective, we really need to provide access to everyone,” Benson said. “From an economic perspective, energy needs to be affordable to everyone.”

Friedman concluded by telling students in the audience who wanted to make a difference in the development of clean energy to “get out of Facebook and into somebody’s face.”

“I’m kind of an old fart, but…politics in this country is still analog,” he added. “We need to be the regeneration.”

Contact Tyler Brown at tbbrown@stanford.edu.