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Friedman’s Fables
The New York Times reporter views China’s dismal environmental record through green-colored glasses.

Smog clouds the air at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

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New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is easy to razz, despite the impressive amount of toil that goes into his reporting. While I, like most libertarian-slash-conservatives, disagree with him on many things, I do appreciate the legwork he puts into his columns. He travels frequently to the countries he opines about, and it shows. For example, his column on how China’s damaged civil society hurts its economy was dead-on; take a cab in Kunming, and you’ll notice how the lack of trust between the vendor and the customer strains the business relationship. Friedman is sometimes quite observant.

But not always. His extensive travels in China raise one big question: How can he possibly have gotten such a wrong impression about China’s environmental progress? In one column, he unironically dubs it the “Green Leap Forward.” (A reminder: In the late 1950s, Beijing had epic projections about how the Great Leap Forward would pan out, and we all know how that story ended.)

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It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that China has environmental issues, and that they’re getting worse, not better. When I took the sleeper train from Hong Kong to Beijing last February, I was glued to my window, ready to see the Chinese countryside on a day forecast as sunny. Instead, I witnessed 1,300 miles of haze. The smog settled in Beijing last August, and my contact lenses were gritty after a few days’ wear. If I exercised outside, I paid for it the next day with a wheeze (a very good excuse to catch up on Sherlock instead). I’m generally critical of how the U.S. conducts its environmental policy to the detriment of industry, but when I couldn’t see the end of the short, narrow street I was walking down, I gained a new appreciation for the balance between greenness and development.

What I experienced was mild Chinese smog. The hard stuff hit last weekend, and I pulled some of the more mind-blowing anecdotes together in this column — meanwhile marveling at how far I could see down the New York City avenues.

Thomas Friedman has traveled to China and breathed the same filthy air. Like me, he works in New York now and can see the difference if he looks. But in 2010, he wrote:

While American Republicans were turning climate change into a wedge issue, the Chinese Communists were turning it into a work issue. . . . And because runaway pollution in China means wasted lives, air, water, ecosystems and money — and wasted money means fewer jobs and more political instability — China’s leaders would never go a year (like we will) without energy legislation mandating new ways to do more with less. It’s a three-for-one shot for them. By becoming more energy efficient per unit of G.D.P., China saves money, takes the lead in the next great global industry and earns credit with the world for mitigating climate change.

True, China has passed lots of environmental laws. But that doesn’t matter much unless those laws are properly enforced — and in China, that’s almost never the case. The government needs strong economic growth to shore up its legitimacy, and it won’t let something as minor as air quality get in the way of its grip on power. A week after Friedman lauded the initiative of the People’s Congress, Peking University environmental-law professor Wan Jin published an excellent essay detailing how China’s green-energy legislation is largely ignored in practice. If Friedman thinks the passage of laws alone is sufficient to effect change in China, he’s naïve about more than the environmental situation.

Here’s another of Friedman’s optimistic projections for China, this one from 2009:

[China] no longer believes it can pollute its way to prosperity because it would choke to death. That is the most important shift in the world in the last 18 months. China has decided that clean-tech is going to be the next great global industry and is now creating a massive domestic market for solar and wind, which will give it a great export platform.

Less than a year after that column, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest energy consumer. But, as Goldman Sachs reported in August, China’s “rise in energy demand has primarily been met by ‘dirty’ sources, particularly coal, which accounted for roughly 70 percent of the country’s energy use in 2011.” In contrast, coal accounted for only 20 percent of the United States’ energy usage that same year. Here, nuclear power and other green energy sources accounted for 17 percent; and natural gas, which produces smaller amounts of nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide than coal or oil, has been an ever-increasing source of energy for the U.S.



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