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.)
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.
Regardless, Friedman remained impressed with Beijing:
Of course, China will continue to grow with cheap, dirty coal, to arrest over-eager environmentalists and to strip African forests for wood and minerals. Have no doubt about that. But have no doubt either that, without declaring it, China is embarking on a new, parallel path of clean power deployment and innovation. It is the Sputnik of our day. We ignore it at our peril.
He also wrote:
Being in China right now I am more convinced than ever that when historians look back at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they will say that the most important thing to happen was not the Great Recession, but China’s Green Leap Forward. The Beijing leadership clearly understands that the E.T. — Energy Technology — revolution is both a necessity and an opportunity, and they do not intend to miss it.
We, by contrast, intend to fix Afghanistan. Have a nice day.
Nevertheless, Friedman even goes so far as to imagine Beijing is laughing at the United States:
China is having a good week in America. Yes it is. I’d even suggest that there is some high-fiving going on in Beijing. I mean, wouldn’t you if you saw America’s Democratic and Republican leaders conspiring to ensure that America cedes the next great global industry — E.T., energy technology — to China?
He also drafted a fake “Wiki-leaked” cable from the Chinese embassy:
Most of the Republicans just elected to Congress do not believe what their scientists tell them about man-made climate change. America’s politicians are mostly lawyers — not engineers or scientists like ours — so they’ll just say crazy things about science and nobody calls them on it. It’s good. It means they will not support any bill to spur clean energy innovation, which is central to our next five-year plan. And this ensures that our efforts to dominate the wind, solar, nuclear and electric car industries will not be challenged by America.
Actually, the U.S. is holding its own in the trade of renewable-energy products. In 2010, the same year Friedman fretted about Chinese domination of the green-energy market, the U.S. was a net exporter of solar products to China by more than $240 million.
Friedman seems especially concerned about China’s electric-vehicle production. In 2009 he wrote:
China Inc. just named its dream team of [16-state-owned] enterprises to move China off oil and into the next industrial growth engine: electric cars.
Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan.
A year later, Friedman had a huge projection about Chinese electric vehicles. He wrote:
If we don’t get a serious energy bill out of this Congress, and Republicans retake the House and Senate, we may not have another shot until the next presidential term or until we get a “perfect storm” — a climate or energy crisis that is awful enough to finally end our debate on these issues but not so awful as to end the world. But, hey, by 2012, China should pretty much own the clean-tech industry and we’ll at least be able to get some good deals on electric cars.
Well, 2012 is now past, and I don’t recall seeing many Chinese electric cars during my American road trips. But I do seem to remember this article, in which a Chinese electric taxi malfunctioned and burst into flames, killing three.
As this week’s Airpocalypse showed, there’s even greater reason to doubt Friedman’s claims about China’s greenness. Maybe Friedman was already aware that his take sounded a bit inflated:
Some of my Chinese friends chide me for overidealizing China. I tell them: “Guilty as charged.” But have no illusions. I am not praising China because I want to emulate their system. I am praising it because I am worried about my system. In deliberately spotlighting China’s impressive growth engine, I am hoping to light a spark under America.
Friedman’s peculiar brand of American patriotism may be fervent, but it isn’t sure whether global competition should be a source of delight or despair. Perhaps Friedman’s flawed judgment derives from his love affair with China: Quite simply, smoke gets in your eyes.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.