Roundtable addresses global security and the challenges of climate change

L.A. Cicero roundtable

Moderated by Carlos Watson (facing the panelists), the Roundtable at Stanford featured, from left, John Abizaid, Stephen Breyer, John Hennessy, Pamela Matson, Thomas Friedman and John E. Bryson.

L.A. Cicero Friedman and Bryson

The panel included, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and John Bryson, president of Edison International.

L.A. Cicero Abizaid and Breyer

The panel included retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

L.A. Cicero Matson

The panel included Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences.

A day after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded for efforts to publicize and fight global warming, panelists speaking at the annual Roundtable at Stanford pointed to the university's and the nation's responsibility to combat what President John Hennessy called "the problem of our time."

"We can play an important role here in educating the public," Hennessy said during a lively discussion Saturday, Oct. 13, titled "Courting Disaster: The Fight for Oil, Water and a Healthy Planet."

"Why is there lingering public uncertainty?" Hennessy asked, rhetorically, about the issue of climate change. "Because the scientific community hasn't done what it needs to do to help the American public understand this very complex problem. The university has to embrace it as an important part of its public mission."

Groundbreaking research at universities like Stanford can help find practical solutions, the president continued. "This is going to be the silicon and green valley," he said. "This is the head of the new revolution in green technology."

Held during Reunion Homecoming Weekend, the Roundtable attracted about 5,500 Stanford graduates and members of the public to Maples Pavilion. They listened to a wide-ranging 90-minute discussion on America's role in the world, the war in Iraq and unrest in the Middle East, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, the upcoming presidential election and climate change. In addition to Hennessy, speakers included Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences; Supreme Court Justice and Stanford alumnus Stephen Breyer; New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman; alumnus John Bryson, chairman of Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison; and retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, former commander of the U.S. Central Command and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Carlos Watson, a former CNN political analyst and Stanford Law School graduate, moderated the discussion.

As large, developing countries such as China, India and Brazil move out of poverty, Matson said, increasing energy demands will place greater strains on fossil-fuel supplies, which remain the principle source of power worldwide. Coal is in abundant supply, but burning it can increase global warming. There also is growing demand for conventional oil sources, which are in limited supply. "The bottom line is that there is a scramble growing around the world for this resource," Matson said. "So there is a security issue related to it as well as a climate-change issue."

Despite ongoing obstacles, progress in combating global warming during the past five years has given Matson some optimism, she said. "We have made a lot of progress, but we have to push really hard, we have to get really serious as a nation and as a world," she said. "We have to change the way we do diplomacy to recognize that the world is facing climate change. Our nation's role here in our diplomacy is to reduce a sense of vulnerability of people here and abroad to the challenges ahead."

Ordinary citizens can do their part to become more energy efficient by using energy-saving light bulbs and switching to hybrid vehicles, Matson said. "There are huge opportunities out there, and we just have to invest in them and go for it," she said, noting that complex problems demand a range of solutions rather than the Bush administration's singular focus on promoting biofuels, such as ethanol, over other "green" technologies.

Hennessy was blunt about the need to combat global warming in multiple ways. "Corn-based ethanol is not the solution," he said.

"We need to find a new biotechnology that's going to work on cellulose conversion that finds an alternative to corn-based ethanol," he added. "We're going to find it, but it's going to take fundamental research." One challenge the scientific community should embrace is working to boost the efficiency of solar cells to make them competitive to traditional fossil fuels, he said.

Times columnist Friedman stressed that developing environmentally friendly technologies should be viewed as an economic opportunity, not a burden. At a recent car exposition in Tianjin, China, Chinese automakers told him that the United States had 150 years to "grow dirty" by relying on cheap fossil fuels, and that now it was their turn. Rather than berate people with such attitudes, Friedman said, it is more effective to tell them "take your time"; he noted that U.S. innovators will spend the next five years inventing clean, green technologies that China will have to buy if the nation doesn't want to "choke to death" in its own fossil fuel-emitting pollution. "You'll get a lot bigger mileage out of that than lecturing about Kyoto limits," he said about the international protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.

Concerning the Middle East, Friedman blamed the United States for treating the region as a collection of cheap "gas stations" for the last 50 years. In exchange for low oil prices and a hands-off policy toward Israel, he said, the United States turned a blind eye to the entrenchment of ideological, authoritarian regimes. "It is my opinion that Osama bin Laden and 9/11 represented the distilled essence of everything that was going on out 'back there,'" he said, referring to Western acquiescence to policies that preached intolerance and rejected equal opportunity for all citizens.

Abizaid said the dynamics in the Middle East, particularly the war in Iraq, are closely tied to oil. "We can't really deny that," he said. Furthermore, the rise of Sunni and Shiite extremists, the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict and global dependence on Middle Eastern oil have created problems with global implications.

"It is this dependency that can't just be dealt with by military means," Abizaid said. "We must adapt, as a matter of national security, a way to reduce our dependency on Middle Eastern oil." Following enthusiastic applause from the audience, he said these problems are further complicated by the question of whether Pakistan can maintain control of its nuclear weapons and by the expansion of the terrorist group al-Qaida into a global phenomenon. "The problem for us is that we can't deal with just military" solutions, he said. "We need to have economic, diplomatic and political components in a solution. The military is only 20 percent of the solution in the Middle East."

Despite the high cost of the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Abizaid said, American troops must stay until the countries are stabilized enough for their citizens to help themselves. He also called for expanded diplomacy to empower people. "We must commit ourselves as a nation, not just commit our military, to deal with these tough tasks," he said. "The world is too small for us to turn our back on it. … We can't walk away from the role of leadership that has been thrust upon us. To retreat from a world that needs us would be the greatest crime of all."

On the subject of the upcoming presidential race, which for the first time in 50 years does not involve a sitting president or vice president, Watson asked Friedman which of the main candidates are speaking persuasively about the intersection of energy and security. "None," Friedman replied. "Al Gore. Not running," he said, referring to the former vice president and co-recipient of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Despite this, Friedman said, a groundswell of public support exists to combat global warming. "My hope is that so much is being driven from below now, seeing it as an economic opportunity, that whoever is the next president will inherit a different context," he said. "The president has the greatest bully pulpit in the world. Whoever is elected always matters. But who wins—this time it really matters."