Is the Green New Deal justifiably bold or unnecessarily expansive? Do its economic prescriptions go too far or not far enough? Check out our most recent Political Pen Pals debate to find out. And read Part II of our debate here.
I’d like to start this debate by recognizing where we agree: that climate change is real, that humans are the main cause, and that it threatens the habitability of our planet. I, for one, am not interested in wasting time debating any of these facts. It’s time to figure out what to do regarding climate change.
We know the impacts of climate change: dangerous storms, increased droughts, loss of freshwater, flooding of coastal cities, etc. Let’s focus on how we’ll prevent these threats from coming to fruition. Let’s talk about the most expansive and hopeful plan to fight climate change in history: the Green New Deal.
In the most recent form, the Green New Deal is a resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) that offers a set of policy directions to respond to the climate crisis and its intersection with other issues, like the economy.
The Green New Deal is a resolution, with the purpose of letting members of Congress state their intent. No one designed this resolution to be policy. If passed, it wouldn’t become law. It is not binding. It’s a powerful step towards addressing the massive, complicated and tendrilous crisis of climate change.
I recommend reading the resolution, if you haven’t. It’s surprisingly short. Or even a skim. Go ahead, I’ll leave it right here. The Vox explainer article on the Green New Deal is also good but a longer read. It divides the resolution into three categories. These three build on each other, so I’ll tackle them one by one.
1. Decarbonization of the economy
The Green New Deal (GND) calls for the removal and replacement of carbon-based fuels with non-carbon-based fuels. This is important because the first step in stemming the damage of climate change is slowing, and eventually halting, the spewing of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Without such action, anything else is negligible.
The Green New Deal proposes many ways to decarbonize our infrastructure, including retrofitting, reducing (not eliminating) air travel, increasing food efficiency and transitioning to clean energy. Radical stuff, I know.
Critics say that decarbonization is impossible. But why must our economy run on carbon? The Industrial Revolution ran on coal, oil, gas and charcoal because those were the energy sources available at the time. Now, we know how to capture electricity from the sun and turn it into heat. We know how to take energy from the oceans and turn it into light.
Carbon-based fuels are not the basis of a modern energy system. Carbon is only the energy system we have now. But our carbon-based energy system is causing planetary destruction to the point where our economy won’t be able to function. So… maintaining an economy based on carbon will destroy our economy. (More on this later.)
Decarbonizing our economy is a noble goal, but not sufficient. That’s why the Green New Deal doesn’t stop there.
2. Federal jobs guarantee and public investment
The second category of the GND resolution is a federal jobs guarantee and public investment. Yes, the boogeyman of the Right: government spending. Some people have, in the past few decades, attempted to hijack this debate by demonizing government spending. But we need the government to spend money, especially when we confront crises. Recall that President Roosevelt’s New Deal and massive wartime spending during World War II got the United States out of the Great Depression. Governments need to spend to mollify risks to the public or to reduce the severity of those risks.
But here’s the big question you‘ve all been waiting for: “How will we pay for it?”
Well, for one, government spending stimulates the economy and thus spending can often create growth that results in sufficient tax revenue for the spending to pay for itself. If one wishes to offset these costs, we could increase taxes on the wealthy—recall that after WWII we taxed the rich at over 80% and our economy did quite well—or cut billions of dollars in unnecessary military spending.
Now that we have our cash, I’ll give you two hypothetical situations.
Number one: Climate change grows out of control, coastal cities flood and people are forced to evacuate, the cost of natural disasters skyrockets, increased heat and pollution along with disappearing fresh water stifles agriculture, healthcare costs go up as a result and the economy goes into a tailspin, leading to a Great Depression-like crisis that requires massive government spending to overcome. Sounds far-fetched? One of the biggest drivers of the sustained severity of the Great Depression was the Dust Bowl, one of the great American environmental disasters. Environmental disasters ruin the economy and climate change is one hell of an environmental disaster.
But here’s the second scenario: We enact bold policies such as a Green New Deal, mobilizing millions of Americans into professions that reverse the crisis, we end up with a new economy that operates without pollution or fossil fuels, our ecosystems are stronger which leads to better regulation against natural disasters and increased benefits from ecosystem services like fresh water and clean air, the population grows and so does the economy. Government spending may be high but it averts many of the looming disasters, creating a better system than what we have now.
Which option would you choose?
A possible retort to my scenarios entails some form of: “Why the two opposites? Can’t it be somewhere in the middle?” Yes, it can. It depends on how much destruction we want to avoid and how we choose to do it. But we need to head in the direction of action. And that’s what the Green New Deal calls for. It’s a statement of intention to mobilize our government, citizenry, and resources to avert climate change.
So how do we make sure that happens?
3. Just (fair) economic transition
Here’s where the federal jobs guarantee comes into play. And, I know, I can already hear Fox and Friends coming up with some far-fetched nonsense about this. But it’s not such a radical idea at all: everyone who wants to work will have a job. Isn’t that a basic assumption of capitalism? That if you want to work, you can find a job? Top-down communist authoritarianism mandates a job to everyone, whether they want it or not. A jobs guarantee just gives everyone the option. Seems almost… meritocratic.
And that’s where the third part of the Green New Deal comes together: a just transition. The Green New Deal is one of the most robust worker protections put forward in the past few decades. Our economy needs a massive shift in a new direction to avoid cataclysmic planetary catastrophe. But we need to make sure that we don’t leave people behind. No one is shutting coal factories and saying “Good luck out there!” Instead, the plan calls for retraining and reorganizing.
Things are going to get worse before they get better. So to curb the suffering—actual, human suffering—the Green New Deal proposes a series of goals related to health care and living wages. It proposes directing resources to communities affected most by environmental devastation. Critics call it a laundry list of progressive ideas. But that’s where they miss the point: climate change is going to affect every part of our lives. Fighting climate change requires protecting aspects of our society that don’t immediately seem connected.
Before I close out, I’ll get to the last big argument we’ve heard: “It’s not technologically feasible.” I would note that the resolution often caveats proposals by saying “as much as technologically feasible.” But to the broader point, a recent New Yorker article points out that the GND might only be off by five years or so, with most of its proposals possible by 2035, not 2030. Five years? Not bad.
Different researchers will have different estimates of what actually is technologically feasible. But that is the point. We have so many specific policy points to argue. We have so many ideas to workshop and rework. We have a lot of physical labor to do. We have so much to learn and so much to teach.
That’s the best part of the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal calls for that moment. It calls for a time of collaboration, innovation, knowledge-sharing and capacity-building. It calls us to get out into our communities and interact with people we haven’t interacted with, to be critical and to ideate. It’s broad and sweeping and waiting for us to fill in the details.
It will be so much fun.
Ethan — Thank you for your opener. Although I disagree with you on this particular debate, I very much respect your passion for the environment and the issue of climate change.
It was pointed out to me recently that we should not be afraid to identify the points of departure in our political debates. As such, I must point out that while you mention our agreement that climate change is happening and that humans are the principal cause, that I have some objections to your claims that climate change “threatens the habitability of our planet.” As you mention, this is not meant to be a first-order debate on climate change, but I think that the differences in our projections may impact our prescriptions.
In general, I do not believe there is a specific date or a specific temperature rise that will be “catastrophic,” nor am I confident in our ability to predict that date or temperature, given the complexity (in the non-linear sense) of the problem of climate change. Additionally, many such predictions assume continuation or exacerbation of current trends, whereas a reversal of such trends (through carbon capture, for example) is quite possible. Regardless, I agree that the threat of climate change and the risk of inaction is unacceptably high. So the question has to be, what do we do about it?
In your opener, you discuss your support for the Green New Deal (GND). I will respond to your arguments momentarily, but I first wanted to explain my skepticism for any government-oriented climate action such as the GND. Any government-oriented climate proposal must compete with (i.e. offset) increases in emissions over the next few decades from two sources: population growth and economic development. Most plans, including the GND, do not pass this test.
The world population is predicted to increase by about two billion (to a total of approximately 10 billion) people by 2050. That is a 25 percent increase in world population in just 30 years. These two billion people will drastically increase demand, and thus emissions, in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation. In addition to increases in the number of people, emissions per person will also increase in the coming years due to international economic development. As the people in the third-world develop economically and start to live healthier, safer, more comfortable, and longer lives—goals that are not only desirable, but necessary and humane—they will produce more emissions per person, as developed countries tend to do.
In sum: Increasing emissions across 10 billion humans on planet Earth. How can any policy proposal reckon with this? The Green New Deal proposes net zero emissions by 2050, but most of its policies can only impact the United States which, although a disproportionate producer, still only accounts for 15 percent of world emissions.
Okay. Now on to the Green New Deal itself. Greg Ip highlights my major objection to the resolution (not legislation, as you aptly point out). Essentially, the Green New Deal is two deals wrapped into one. It aims to combat global warming and also to create millions of well-paid jobs for targeted groups. In Ip’s assessment, with which I agree, it is “more likely to set back than advance” the climate cause because of this conflation. I would like to highlight some sections to illustrate this point. The GND proposes:
- “Repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities”
- “Guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security”
- “Strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain”
- “Providing all people of the United States with (i) high-quality health care; (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing”
We can debate whether or not these are worthwhile policies (and I suspect we may disagree), but I hope that I can convince you that, for the sake of fighting climate change, these demands must be dropped from the Green New Deal. These radical economic proposals are not even accepted in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, let alone among Independents and Republicans. If there is to be any substantial action on climate change, we cannot conflate it with the wish list of the far Left. You claim that “fighting climate change requires protecting aspects of our society that don’t seem connected to climate change.” Is this true? If you could pass policies that would reduce emissions, without the progressive economic proposals listed above, wouldn’t you? Since you view this issue as one that threatens the habitability of the planet, I hope your answer is yes.
For me, the question about “how do we pay for it” still very much exists. I find your economic analysis to be quite cavalier. Raising taxes on the wealthy and reducing defense spending are not decisions without consequences (such as capital flight, economic stagnation, and potential reductions in national security). Additionally, we are talking about a hefty price tag here. Ignoring the social programs in the GND (i.e. Jobs and Medicare for All, which some estimates project to cost more than $50+ trillion), the proposals directly related to climate in the deal would cost tens of trillions of dollars according to most estimates. The Federal Government spent $4 trillion in 2018 (with Medicare, Social Security, debt payments, and discretionary spending accounting for approximately one quarter each), so tens of trillions is no chump change.
What is my proposal, then, you might be wondering? Though I am often a governmental cynic, I am a techno-optimist. I believe in the power of technology to build a better world and I recognize the important role that government plays in the early stages of technological development. (You disparage the amount of money that we spend on the military, but did you know that the Department of Defense is responsible for the invention of the Internet, GPS, voice recognition, virtual reality, and many other breakthrough technologies, many of which are being used in the fight against climate change?) The United States of America has an unprecedented prowess in technological research, development, and commercialization. What we need is to harness this power towards the challenges that climate change present, along with market-driven incentives and policies, to build cost-effective technologies that are competitive economically while reducing and removing emissions. Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to Bill Gates’ thoughts on the topic.
In order to start to solve the climate change problem, as with all big problems facing our country, we cannot steamroll the opposite party and force our legislation down their throats. The GND would require Democrats—and progressive Democrats at that, given the four “No” votes in the Senate by Democrats on the GND—to control the White House, the House of Representatives, and sixty seats in the Senate. This seems quite unlikely and, as you mention, we don’t have time to waste. We need to come together and identify bold, bipartisan steps that can be taken. We need to pass legislation that can withstand administrations. I am afraid that the Green New Deal fails this test. In my view, we need to go back to the drawing board.
Ethan Freedman is a conservation storyteller trained in wildlife biology, having done conservation biology research on multiple continents and written about everything from climate change to phytoplankton. He graduated from Tufts University and lives in Washington D.C.