Thomas Friedman keynoted at the 2011 Greenbuild Conference and Expo in Toronto, Ontario. He was joined by USGBC chairman Rick Fedrizzi, CaGBC president Thomas Mueller, Kohler CEO David Kohler, journalist/author Cokie Roberts, and Diesel Canada CEO Joie Adler. Friedman’s message to the audience included a specific course of action to halt damaging geopolitical trends and to put the world on a more sustainable path.

Written October 06, 2011
Thousands of Greenbuild attendeesfilled the Air Canada Centre in Toronto for the opening plenary of the United States Green Building Council’s annual convention last night. After a half hour of opening remarks, headliner Tom Friedman took the stage.
Thomas Friedman Greenbuild speech photo at Energy Priorities Magazine
Tom Friedman advised the Greenbuild conference attendees that there are two intertwined loops that are exacerbating the problems of global warming and economic recession.

“I’ve been working on this whole question of America for the last couple of years,” Friedman began. “We need to change course quickly. The stakes could not be bigger.”Friedman commenced to frame the political, geopolitical, economic, and values contexts that he believes are shaping the world in which green builders are doing business. The problem, he says, is that the western world is consuming natural and financial resources faster than they can be replenished.

He marked the similarities between how we have been behaving in the natural world and the financial realm. The world is practicing faulty accounting in both, he says, by massively under-pricing risks, privatizing gains, and socializing losses.

Friedman posits that many of today’s environment and climate challenges can be traced back to the 1979 film, “The China Syndrome.” Twelve days after the film first screened, America experienced the worst nuclear accident in its history.

The events of that March would have a fundamental effect on the country’s energy future. In the subsequent 30 years, without bringing on new nuclear plants, the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels climbed to new highs.

Geopolitical events in Iran and Saudi Arabia in that year put both countries on a more fundamentalist path, creating a global competition that raised oil prices. And the issuance of the first business license in China started that country’s shift from communism to capitalism, which has increased both the demand for energy and the resulting carbon emissions.

In the same year, the National Academy of Science first sounded the alarm about global warming. Thirty years later, the cost of 1979 became clear, Friedman says.

Friedman, author of “Hot, Flat and Crowded” and other best-selling books, offered a clear course of action to those involved in the green building movement.

“2008 was the year when the market and Mother Nature got together and gave us a warning: ‘You are growing in an unsustainable way, environmentally and economically. Turn back now, this is your warning heart attack.'”America continued metaphorically eating and smoking, actively ignoring the warning. Skeptics and deniers frantically sought any excuse to dismiss climate science. The fabricated e-mail conspiracy perpetrated upon the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit did severe damage and delayed legislative action that could avert global warming. Friedman faults the Obama administraion for failing to speak up in support of the science.

“Doubt is the product of the climate skeptic community and it’s selling very, very well, I am sorry to report,” Friedman says.

Following the United States mid-term elections, hopes for any kind of carbon legislation died in 2009 and “there will be no clean energy legislation until, at the earliest, 2013.”

“Those of us hoping for a green revolution in this administration are going to be disappointed,” Friedman counseled. “You’ll know the revolution is here when three things happen: companies have to change or die; you get to change the name of your movement so the word “green” disappears and it’s just the Building Council; and there is a price signal.”

The price signal would drive consumer pull and overcome one weakness of the green revolution: Without a price signal, “at the end of the day, clean energy costs more, but you end up with the same heat and light, and it doesn’t give you a new function” like mobile phones have done.

“Without a price signal, we do not get long-term fixed durable consumer demand. We go on needing government push. Government push is effective, but it’s not sustainable.”

With a price signal, fossil energy will cost more than renewable energy. “The more demand you create for a technology, the more the price goes down. Until energy consumers pay the fully burdened cost of light and comfort, alternatives like renewable energy will lack consumer pull.”

Two current trends will shape our energy future, Friedman explains, and they form two intertwined loops:

First, the rise in food prices lead to greater Mideast instability, which leads to higher oil prices. That leads to higher fertilizer prices, which are reflected in higher food prices.

Second, a massive increase in population, and the global desire to live an American lifestyle — a component of Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded” socioeconomic theory — drive more global warming, which affects agriculture, again raising food prices.

Friedman implores the current generation to be the “regeneration” that creates a virtuous cycle to disrupt these two loops. He recommends a single course of action: Higher energy efficiency standards, enforced by a price signal, to drive more innovation and adoption.

“We need to be realistic. This political economic environment is not going to change overnight,” Friedman allows. He urged the audience to acknowledge the grim outlook, but ignore it. “Everyone here needs to think about how we can bring more imagination to everything we do around this industry to work within these constraints.”

“Here’s why I remain an optimist: What I’ve found when traveling around the country is that there’s an amazing amount of green innovation going on in Canada and America from the ground up.”

“It’s on us, they’re not going to solve it for us. Keep on going.”