Thomas Friedman ’75, H’88: Role of climate change overlooked in Middle East turmoil

Photo/Mike Lovett

Thomas Friedman '75, H'88, talks with Professor Sabine von Mering during a a question and answer sesssion following his talk.

New York Times foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman ’75, H’88, in a conversation with students and faculty at his alma mater on Monday, said the role of climate change in the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East has been overlooked and the “-ism” that will determine the region’s future will be environmentalism, not radicalism or extremism.

Speaking at the concluding event of the week-long Years of Living Dangerously climate-change education program at Brandeis, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner said countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen face continued instability as long as their leaders ignore environmental concerns.

“Mother Nature will kill them all before they kill themselves,” Friedman told about 125 people at Rapaporte Treasure Hall. “Every day they ignore the environment, Mother Nature is howling in laughter. It’s just a matter of chemistry, biology and physics.”

Professor Sabine von Mering, who directs Brandeis’ Center for German and European Studies, coordinated the discussion and a Q&A session.

Friedman said the little-understood reason for the civil war in Syria was the 2006-10 drought that forced 1 million people to abandon their unproductive farms and move to already overcrowded cities. Resentment grew over the government’s failure to respond to the situation.

“In Syria, I was told the (civil war) was a revolution of freedom and a revolution of the hungry,” Friedman said. “Climate change causes social destruction and political instability.”

Friedman called the Middle East “a volatile part of the world that is getting hotter and drier. It will affect us all in the future.”

The climate-change program was organized by Brandeis’ Faculty Against the Climate Threat (FACT), and centered around the award-winning TV series “Years of Living Dangerously.” The program was co-sponsored by the Film, Television and Interactive Media Program; the Center for German and European Studies; the Environmental Studies Program; the Department of Sociology; the Social Justice and Social Policy Program; the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Program; and the Brandeis Alumni Association. Student organizations that took part were Brandeis Climate Justice and the Student Senate Sustainability Committee.

Friedman has been an active alumnus through the years. He served on the Board of Trustees for 20 years (1994-2014) and has frequently visited campus to speak to students and faculty. He delivered the keynote address at Commencement in 2007.

Asked about the movement to divest university endowments from fossil fuels, Friedman said he supports it, but encourages students and faculty to also focus their attention on re-investment, pointing out that there is much individuals can do to save energy and benefit the environment that does not involve persuading reluctant boards to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Apart from massive innovation in green technology, a carbon and gasoline taxes would be needed to really address climate change: “What bothers me, and what I do not understand, is why there is not a single Democrat in Congress standing up and saying, ‘We need a carbon tax,' " Friedman said.

On other issues, Friedman said:

— President Barack Obama deserves credit for all but ensuring that no more coal-fired power plants will be built in the United States and for insisting that car companies double their mileage standards by 2025.

— America can continue to be a dominant nation by investing in the next big global industry: developing technologies to bring clean energy, clean power and clean water to the world.

— China and India will face internal political turmoil unless the two developing nations become more environmentally aware.

“Every time I go to China,” he said, “people speak with greater ease and breathe with greater difficulty. That’s political dynamite.”

On Sunday, Friedman spoke at a brunch event on campus organized by bVIEW (Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World), a student-founded group working toward a more constructive conversation regarding Israel on U.S. campuses. More than 150 students attended.

During a discussion led by Chen Arad ’15 and Rivka Cohen ’17, Friedman addressed a wide range of issues, including Israeli politics, U.S.-Israel relations, the Middle East and journalism.

“I’m a huge believer in the two-state solution,” Friedman told attendees. “Israel as a modern state had three goals: to be a Jewish state, (to be) in the ancient homeland of the Jews and to be democratic. The issue is that you can only have two out of three.”

Categories: Alumni, Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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