Stanford Hosts its Second Annual Roundtable


On October 13, the Stanford community gathered in a packed Maples Pavilion for the culminating event of Homecoming Weekend: the second annual Stanford Roundtable, titled “Courting Disaster: The Fight for Oil, Water and a Healthy Planet.”

The scene inside the stadium was no different than one would expect before a basketball game except for the large circular stage set at half court, the sizeable number of alumni, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and the expectation of hearing Thomas Friedman speak rather than witnessing Brook Lopez slam-dunk.

While Stanford alumni caught up with each other, the event moderator, former CNN political analyst Carlos Watson, introduced the distinguished panelists, consisting of Edison International CEO John E. Bryson ’65, School of Earth Sciences Dean Pamela Matson, Stanford President John L. Hennessy, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer ’59, and US Army General John Abizaid.

Watson started the event by raising the issue of global warming and climate change, to which President Hennessy said, “Climate change is the problem of our time.” Hennessy continued by explaining that the increase in population of the developing world will further increase the use of fossil fuels, which will contribute to global warming.

Friedman agreed with Hennessy and added that the United States needs to set an example for the rest of the world. “Our responsibility is to create a model of hyper energy productivity that others will want to emulate,” he said.

On the issue of pollution caused by China and other developing countries, Friedman humored the audience with the story of his visit to China, where he told car manufacturers that they could pollute as much as they wanted for as long as they wanted. However, he also mentioned that the US would invent the green technology these countries will need to reverse the effects of pollution within five years.

Addressing concerns over the profitability of green technology, Bryson said, “The industry has a striking vision of doing well by doing good. Alternative energy is indeed making money and incentive programs have also helped. California has incentives for utilities to make extra money by finding yet more creative ways to convey energy efficiency programs to all state utility customers.” He further added that these programs have been effective because California’s per capita electricity consumption has not increased since 1990.

On the issue of the Judiciary’s role in monitoring environmental issues, Justice Breyer responded, “For regulators, the issue is totally important, but for the Courts, not important. The place for change is not the Courts, but Congress.”

Watson then followed up by referring to the case Massachusetts v. EPA, where the Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants and that the EPA may regulate their emissions. Breyer replied that the ruling was made not because the Court wished to make a point about environmental issues, but because Congress intended for the EPA to regulate carbon emissions.

The discussion soon shifted to Iraq, at which point Gen. Abizaid (ret.) was asked whether the war was about oil. “Of course, it’s about oil and we can’t deny that. We also have to understand that a lot of what is going on in the Middle East is due to globalization. It’s a battle between the integrators and the disintegrators,” Abizaid said.

Abizaid also identified four problems that the US will have to deal with: the rise of dangerous ideological movements, the rise of Shiite extremism in Iran, the corrosive effects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the global economy’s dependency on oil. He further added that these problems cannot be dealt with militarily: “We must adopt, as a matter of national security policy, a way to reduce dependency on Middle Eastern oil. We have to have an economic, diplomatic and political component to the solutions that must not only be driven by the United States, but also accepted by the international community in a way that allows us to move forward in a positive way.”

Further elaborating on the Iraq War, and defending his early support for it, Friedman said, “For the last 50 years, as long as the Arab countries kept oil prices low and were nice to Israel, we let them do whatever they wanted out back. We let them subjugate women, print conspiracy theories against the West, deny their young people civil liberties, and preach hateful ideology against other faiths. I believed that going into Iraq could change that and create a new context because I believe the context in which people live is important and [that is] why Iraq was important.”

Offering an example for the context he wished Iraq had, Friedman said, “India is the second largest Muslim country, but interestingly there are no Indian Muslims in Guantanomo Bay. Could it be because the richest man in India is a Muslim who founded a software company? Could it be because the head of the Supreme Court is a woman? In India, there is a context where people can think and say anything and realize their full aspirations. And people who have that context tend not to wrap themselves in dynamite and blow themselves up.”

On the issue of reducing oil dependency, Watson then asked Dean Matson about the most promising alternate resources. She replied, “First and foremost, we have to strive for energy efficiency, which is quite easy. Simply buying an automobile that gets a few more miles per gallon can make a difference. Hybrids and plug-in hybrids are most promising in the automobile industry. Certainly alternatives like biofuel will be part of the solution, but not being careful about this can be bad. Like growing corn for ethanol can actually [cause environment problems].”

Agreeing with Watson, Hennessy added, “We need breakthroughs in solar technology and efficiency of solar energy, which will take fundamental physics and venture capitalists: a cooperation between Silicon and Green Valley. We need the breakthroughs because corn-based ethanol is not the solution.”

Further elaborating on implementing green technology, Friedman said, “In the IT revolution, a context was created: change or die. You create that context through real regulation and real pricing. Until we price excess carbon, we don’t have a context for change.”

Focusing on Stanford’s role in the world, Hennessy said, “It is important for Stanford to go out and touch the rest of the world. Both the scientific community and university have to educate people about global issues, particularly global warming, and make this part of their public mission.”

Appropriately ending the discussion, Friedman concluded, “We have to be the best country we can be. We are also necessary. Not a lot of good things happen without a fully engaged America. But we can’t do it alone without the rest of the world.”

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