NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Sometime soon, President Obama will make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial project that would carry oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. In his New York Times column over the weekend, Thomas Friedman wrote: I hope the president turns down the Keystone XL pipeline, but I don't think he will. If that's the way it happens, Friedman sees and opportunity for the president and for environmentalists, as well.
If you're an out-of-work welder or an environmental activist, what's the important part about the president's pipeline decision? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on our website, as well. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tom Friedman joins us here in Studio 3A.
Nice to have you back.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Great to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And cue up the protest, you say.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, you know, I come to the whole environmental climate story, I don't come from the rainforest. I come from Beirut. And what I mean by that is I've always understood this is a hockey game, that it's about who has leverage and who doesn't. And so there's a lot of people who've been advising the environmental movement, and Bill McKibben, kind of a tut, tut, tut, you know, you guys really should be focused on more important things, like a carbon tax, or something like that. And I would agree a carbon tax would be wonderful, but you're not going to get it without leverage.
And right now, the green movement has some leverage. There is this pipeline being proposed. It has many people in the oil and gas industry who want it. The president probably has some inclination toward it, because it would create jobs. But to me, it's something that the green movement should use for leverage to get other things, and that if the president's going to approve it, I want him to feel enormously guilty about it. So he will consider doing things that will have a - make a sustainable difference - carbon tax, basically raising the standard - emission standards of existing power plants and all the things of that nature.
CONAN: Well, we'll get on to what might be accomplished in a minute. But the leverage aspect, they also - the environmentalists - have a second-term Democratic president more or less ideologically inclined to their cause. But as you say, he'd also like to make some jobs.
FRIEDMAN: Yeah, and I'd like to make jobs, too. I'd just like to make them sustainable jobs, not just building a pipeline. And I think that's a really important thing to, you know, to keep in mind. I also think we have to remember that President Obama did some really important things on climate during his first year. He got a mileage standard for the auto industry doubled. That is a historic achievement, and I praise him for that. At the same time, though, he basically took his green environmental team - and he really have the A-team, the Steve Chus, the John Holdrens - And he basically put them in witness protection program.
We really didn't hear from them for four years. They're an endangered species, Neal, I saw more often in the last four years than Obama's basically environmental team, and that was because they perceived that climate was a loser political issue. And the problem with that is that those four years have coincided with not only some basic, really big climatic events around the world, but also a debate in which the climate community was really under siege, beginning with the leaked emails of the East Anglia. And there was really no one from the distraction answering them. And that has set us back.
CONAN: So, given the current environment - political environment we're talking about - the president feels some responsibility, as you said, or some inclination to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, as you say, environmentalists, Bill McKibben, say if you tap this vast well of carbon - it's particularly dirty carbon. But the fact is, even if it wasn't, if you burn that carbon, it's game over for climate change.
FRIEDMAN: I think that's Jim Hansen's view, the scientist which Bill McKibben has certainly echoed. You know, I'm not enough of a climatologist, Neal, to say whether this one single pipeline, you know, kind of does it or not.
CONAN: And there are those who point out we're already using...
CONAN: ..some of that oil that's being shipped by a little or smaller pipeline, and by truck and barge.
FRIEDMAN: Right, exactly. But the point is, you know, we're getting to a point with climate, we're approaching 400 PPM, 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. And that is taking us to levels that human beings have simply never lived in on this planet. We have no idea what happens. We don't know whether the danger point to the red line is 380, 390, 400, 410. All we know is we're really approaching some very dangerous levels.
And what John Holdren has always said, the president's science adviser, is that we're driving toward a cliff in a fog. And first rule whenever driving toward a cliff in a fog is, it's good to start tapping on the brakes. And that's what we should be doing.
CONAN: At the same time, many hope and the president did campaign both times on the promise of technological change, accomplishing some of this turnover that the wind power and solar, biofuels, others things would cause a transition and reduce our reliance on fossil fuel.
FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, technology is a funny thing. What was good for the goose is good for the gander. So that same technology that's brought down the cost of, say, solar panels, dramatically, and made solar power much more competitive and in the sun-drenched states, that same technology made huge improvements in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. And that's unlocked quantities of shale gas and shale oil that we thought were basically locked away, and then brought down the price of both. So I think that's a great thing because natural gas emits half the carbon as coal - of coal, and the fact that we're replacing...
CONAN: Fracking causes some problems.
FRIEDMAN: Fracking - coal-fired power plants with natural gas, but there is a leakage of methane issue. But the danger, Neal, is that we'll get re-addicted to fossil fuels, maybe at that half the level but continue to be re-addicted. So I'd love to see us exploit this natural gas bounty. It's a great thing for jobs and manufacturing, and even for the climate. But it's got to be a bridge to somewhere, and not a dead end.
CONAN: So given that, the president has this decision he faces. We are going to be reliant on petrochemicals for the foreseeable future. There's no way we're going to make that transition in my lifetime or yours. And therefore, he says, well, let's get some of this oil. If we don't take it, it's going to be shipped to Canada or - excuse me - to China somehow anyway. So why not take the short-term benefit?
FRIEDMAN: Sure. Well, first of all, that's not necessarily the case. If that pipeline isn't built from Canada down to the Gulf Coast. It will have to be built across Canada to be taken out through British Columbia. Now, Alberta is Canada's Texas. You know, they're all for this pipeline. They're all for extracting oil from the tar sands, which is the dirtiest possible process. But, guess what? They live next to British Columbia. And British Columbia is like Vermont.
CONAN: OK. So it isn't a given that if the pipeline isn't built down here that the folks in British Columbia will let it cross their pristine territories either. So, you know, I think there's a strong case for not adopting this. But if it is adopted, and it's been my position, let's make sure we get something big for it. The other thing that I really object to is, you hear a lot of people say, well, State Department's done a scientific study. And the study says the pipeline will be environmentally of very, very little impact.
FRIEDMAN: And my response - and you hear this now coming from the oil and energy community - and my answer to that is, a study, really? We're going to quote studies now? Some of these guys are all for quoting studies. There's a mountain of studies about climate change which these guys, basically, have managed to ignore, trash and decry as a hoax for the last four years. So I find a little bit of Kant in that. Suddenly we're going to rely on studies, when the ITCC or the U.N.'s massive study on climate change is something these guys have managed to ignore now for years.
CONAN: We got a caller around the conversation. What's the most important part of the president's decision on the Keystone XL pipeline? And we'll start with Wanda. And Wanda's with us from Binghamton, New York.
WANDA: Yes. The money - do I have to go in to this - from us should go to renewables. You're putting money - they're talking about all the money problems that we have. That money can't go both ways, they're saying, basically. Then any money that we put towards fossil fuels now is a total waste. You can't just put money in fossil fuels and expect to do the massive amount of work in renewables that we need to do to catch up. Solar is only .5 percent of our electricity now.
And every time you hear it on TV, they talk about how much 50 percent rise in solar this year, that's like throwing people off on purpose. The money needs to go to renewables, wind and solar. And, at the same time, teach people a different way of living to be able to use renewable energy in their daily life. We're going to have...
CONAN: All right. What - I think I hear you. But Tom Friedman would - one of the big things President Obama might be able to get from the decision where he says to, essentially, the Republicans and the oil people in the oil states, all right, I made your decision. Here is your pipeline. I need something big in response. Let's have a rule. Let's have a zoning rule. Every new house that built, every apartment building, every shopping center has to put solar panels on the roof.
FRIEDMAN: It could be that. You know, the president in the State of the Union, Neal, referred to his desire to have, basically, a national building efficiency standard, something that California already has. The average building wastes about 30 percent of its energy. And if every new building in the country were built to California standards, it would have a very, very big effect.
CONAN: Oh, let's see who we go next to. This is Peter, Peter with us from Oakland.
PETER: Yeah, hi, thanks. And thanks for your column, Tom, and that of the editorial page yesterday both opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. The tar sands is the largest carbon bomb on the face of the Earth, and we simply must leave it in the ground, just like we want the Amazon forest to be left in the ground. We need to stay away from it.
CONAN: And, Peter, have you been active in this?
PETER: Yes. I was one of the 1,253 people arrested at the White House last year for the first time in my life. I'm a physician and I've retired to spend all my time working on this issue because I think it's the biggest planetary emergency I can imagine.
CONAN: And Tom Friedman, you say in your piece, people like Peter can provide a lot of leverage, not just for their own movement, but for the president as well.
FRIEDMAN: You know, I think it's so important that these people have come out to put this issue on the agenda, and they represent, in vast majority, are Obama's base. And the White House, I know for a fact, they're worried about that. And I want them to be worried. I want them to feel enormously guilty. I wanted them to feel under great pressure to come up with something if they do approve this. And I hope they don't. But if they do, to come with something that would be really definitive in putting us on a different energy course.
You know, one thing to keep in mind, Neal. It's - both callers alluded to it - energy is a scale problem. It's not a small thing. It is a scale problem. If you don't have a scale solution, you have a hobby. I like hobbies. I used to build model airplanes. But I wouldn't try to change the climate as a hobby.
So what - the kind of solutions we need are things like a national renewable portfolio standard, the different energy-efficient standard. The kind of thing President Obama put in place - God bless him again - for new coal plants that are wanted to be built, which now won't be built, in fact, because of the standard he put in place. That's how you get scale.
CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with The New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman, about the politics of the Keystone XL pipeline. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And you mentioned one decision on coal-fired power plants. These are our new ones. There's another decision coming...
CONAN: ...on existing plants, and that could be even bigger.
FRIEDMAN: That will be huge. And again, the way to do it, the president did the car thing in a very smart way. He said, basically, we're going to double mileage in this country, average fleet mileage from 27 to what, 54 miles per gallon between now and 2025. But then you worked with the car companies on a way to do that was sustainable for them. And it's actually been approved by the car companies now, and it's gone though. Now you know how important that is, Neal? Every car company is going to have improve its efficiency by 3 to 5 percent every single year. That's going to drive innovation in materials, in energy and in software. It's a great thing.
Now what a lot of people are proposing is let's do the same with existing power plants, say, we want you to get your emissions down by, say, 25 percent. We're going to do it in different part of the (technical difficulties). Some parts of our country have less sun, some have less hydro. So their options are different. You negotiate with them. You give them a pathway. It'll drive massive amounts of innovation and scale in a lot more, also, natural gas.
CONAN: Yet, as you pointed out, there are - none of these that come free; the natural gas, the fracking, oil - air pollution problems and again, the methane release of that. It's worse for the environment than carbon. You talk about the hydro, well, people are, at this point, knocking dams down to let the rivers run free. There are problems with that as well. Certainly, coal has its problem. It's still a third of the industry.
FRIEDMAN: There is no silver bullet. You're dealing - every one of these issues, whether it's wind turbines that kill birds or, you know, solar panels that, you know, use certain materials. There is no perfect solution, but the idea is to get the least bad one at scale.
You know, we talked a few years back. I did a book, "Hot, Flat and Crowded," you know. And so whenever I talk to people about that book, you know, I hold it up and I'll say, OK, "Hot Flat and Crowded." Well, you don't believe in hot. You don't believe in climate change. Look, anybody got an eraser? Let's erase hot. OK. You don't believe in climate change? That's between you and your beach house.
But here's something you better believe in: flat and crowded. That is we're going from a planet that has 7 billion to 9 billion and more of them can see how we live in a flat world and want to live like we live an American-sized homes, drive American-sized cars, eat American-sized Big Macs. In a world of 9 billion, where more and more of them who want to live like us, if there's only one great industry that is staring us in the face - clean energy, clean power, clean water, food security - we have got to down that path. And the sooner we do that - the sooner, by the way, our companies will own those industries and recreating the job, and I think the sustainable lifestyles that will be exportable all over the world.
CONAN: We just have a minute left, but I wanted to ask you about the role of passion in this. You applaud the people who chain themselves to the gates of the White House and urge them to do it again if the president makes the decision you think he's going to do because it's politically useful. Yet people on all sides of this resort to, you know, exaggerations and wild claims. They speak to their passion but not to the rigor.
FRIEDMAN: You know, I, you know, as someone who reports on this issue and is not trained as a climatologist, I try to go to the best and multiple sources I can. That's one thing to do. And the other is like I tried to travel the world and actually look at things. I'm a big believer that if you don't go, you don't know. So I've travelled the world with Conservation International to see this projects as best as I can. And then apply common sense. But passion is important because on the other side of this, Neal, aren't just passions. There are hard, powerful, huge, economic forces. And they play rough. This is a hockey game and the greens, I'm afraid, have got to play hockey as well.
CONAN: New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, joins us here studio 3A, his latest book with Michael Mandelbaum, "That Used to Be Us," now on paperback. We've posted a link to hi XL column. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tom Friedman, thanks very much for coming in.
FRIEDMAN: Great to be here.
CONAN: It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.