Is the Green New Deal justifiably bold or unnecessarily expansive? Do its economic prescriptions go too far or not far enough? Check out Part II of our Political Pen Pals debate to find out. If you missed it, you can get caught up on Part I here.
Joe — Thanks for a great first round. Let’s get into the response. I stated in my opener that we both agreed that climate change had many adverse effects including “threatening the habitability of our planet.” You pointed out that you do not, in fact, agree that our planet’s habitability is under threat.
On this, you are wrong on the science. Climate change does threaten the habitability of our planet—and not only in the long term. David Wallace-Wells explains what will happen if we do not act and the outlook isn’t pretty. In fact, this new line of “climate change is happening but we don’t know when or how much” is the new form of climate denial. It is climate “delay.” But, much like how scientists overwhelmingly agree the climate crisis is happening and anthropogenic, they also agree it will threaten life on Earth as we know it within decades.
I could get into why—and many reasons exist, ranging from changing weather to changing water availability to ecosystem collapse—but I’ll leave those details to the IPCC report published last year.
Okay, back to the Green New Deal. You state that any climate change policy needs to take into account population growth and economic development. With this statement, you’re not hearing what the Green New Deal is proposing. You’re still functioning under the assumption that more food, water, and living resources will correlate with more emissions. While I disagree with your hope that technology alone will save us (which I’ll get to in a minute), I agree that technology can make an impact today in reducing emissions from food, water, and living resources. And that’s a lot of what the GND is pushing. We can produce electricity with renewable sources, we can save tons and tons of food waste, and we can streamline our water resources all with technology available right now. It won’t get us everywhere, but it is pretty good. What we’re lacking is the funding and the political will.
You mentioned various proposals not related to energy in the GND, such as protecting the right to unionize, supporting life-sustaining wages, and providing affordable housing. And you ask me if I would support a climate change policy which didn’t include those things. Of course I would. But I wasn’t arguing in defense of said hypothetical climate policy. I was arguing in favor of this one—which includes those proposals.
You also mention the GND may not do enough to stop climate change by focusing only on the U.S. But wouldn’t you support a policy which begins to address the crisis without completely solving it? Of course you would, too.
You place the most hope in climate mitigation in technology and profess a skepticism of government. I both agree and disagree with you. When I proposed transferring funding from the military to fund GND proposals, you reminded me that the military has created much of our technology. A good point. But why fund the military to create technology instead of funding other sectors to create technology? Isn’t it all … government funding? The military technologies you mentioned (Internet, GPS, voice recognition, virtual reality) weren’t designed for public use. They are a by-product of military innovation. But what if we funded technology to fight climate change directly instead of going through the military? It seems like we’d save a lot of money and avoid a lot of bureaucracy.
I agree with you that we must develop new technologies that can help us reduce emissions, protect ecosystems, and streamline production. But technology cannot be the only solution. Take, for example, one specific technology that isn’t yet ready to fix the climate crisis: carbon capture. The first carbon capture plant opened two years ago. It captures 900 metric tons of CO2 per year. Hefty. But the world emitted about 32 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2018. On that scale, it would take over 35 million of these plants to cancel that year’s emissions. Not to mention, they cost about $400 per ton to run. That means each plant runs for $360,000 per year. Seventeen million of them would cost $6.2 trillion dollars per year. And I don’t even know how much they cost to build. Or, for that matter, what the carbon emissions of building them are.
Will this technology get better? Maybe. Will climate change keep threatening us? Definitely. That’s not a bet I’m willing to take.
You object to the costs of the Green New Deal. And yes, stopping a global crisis on this scale will take some cash. But it is cheap in the long run. If we let climate change run its course, the economic effects will be huge. By the end of the century, the climate crisis could cost the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars per year. And we’d be living in a near-uninhabitable planet. So we can either invest in climate mitigation now and live in a functioning planet in 100 years or we can spend that money later, in our less-than-functional planet.
We need an “all-of-the-above” approach, including investments in technological innovation as well as investments in ecosystem protection and restoration, in infrastructure to reduce emissions, and in protections for the people who will suffer more from the now-inevitable effects of climate change. And you said it: we don’t have unlimited funds to spend. So we better be careful about where we spend that money.
As I mentioned in my opener, the climate crisis is tendrilous and complex. But the Green New Deal was never one policy or one idea. It is an umbrella for creating a fair, ecologically sound future. That doesn’t stop with the United States. Nor should it. The international community should be funding a global Green New Deal. The world’s poorest people and countries will suffer the worst from the climate crisis. And they don’t have the resources to avert this catastrophe like those of us in richer nations.
The Green New Deal won’t change this. But it is a step toward a future where we can. And would I support that? Of course I would.
Ethan — Thank you for your thoughtful rebuttal. I am glad to have a friend like you with whom I can disagree ardently, yet amicably.
Like you, I don’t want to get bogged down in the debate about climate science. I trust scientists. I would like to think that I am a scientist (in so far as studying engineering at university qualifies one as a scientist… although I generally label myself a “recovering engineer”…). However, any scientist worth their salt should point out that there is no such thing as science being settled. Science is a process of questioning, doubt, hypothesis testing, analysis, and iteration. If the science is settled, when did this begin? Certainly not before we understood Keplerian orbit and thought the world was flat. Or when we believed in creationism as opposed to evolution. Sure, those were then and this is now. However, in just the past century, our understanding of classical mechanics, including the law of gravity, is being turned on its head by advancements in quantum physics. If we can be wrong about what we thought was scientific law, then nothing should be beyond questioning.
What you call “climate denial” I call a much needed dose of humility. I do not believe that we can accurately predict the consequences of a non-linear system like climate over a ten or twenty year time horizon, especially when we can’t even predict the weather on Saturday… Even the IPCC report acknowledges only “medium confidence” in many of their predictions including the increase in intensity or frequency of droughts, risks to aggregated economic growth, and losses to agriculture. Those who say the science is settled (who, I will point off before I get off my soap box, are often not scientists themselves) ought to take note. I am not a climate change denier. I believe we must be honest with ourselves and each other about what the problem is so that we can build a solution that addresses that problem.
So, does the Green New Deal accurately and adequately address the issue of climate change? I don’t believe so, for two principal reasons: because of its unrelated economic proposals and because of its government oriented-approach.
I am glad to hear that you would accept the GND without the unapologetic economic proposals attached to it. I maintain that jettisoning these partisan elements will increase the chances of something like the GND becoming law. You need to convince some of your compatriots, however, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s former Chief of Staff who admits that the GND is not about climate.
To address your question regarding whether I would “support a policy which begins to address the crisis without completely solving it,” my response is if it is affordable. And that puts me in the mainstream of America: with most Americans (69%) approving of aggressive action to mitigate climate change unless it costs an increase of $100 in annual taxes (only 34% approve). I agree with you that we don’t have unlimited funds to spend. Considering that the United States currently has a federal debt of $22 trillion and a yearly budget deficit of over $1 trillion, the $20 trillion environmental proposals in the Green New Deal are simply not affordable.
So what is an economically viable solution, then? You will not be surprised by my response: government investment in basic and applied research and development (R&D), which yields estimated returns of 30-100%. We already invest quite significantly, including 17 Department of Energy laboratories ranging from iconic locations such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory (home of the Manhattan Project), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy modeled after DARPA within the Department of Defense. We spent $5.4 billion on cutting-edge research and development within the Department of Energy in 2019 and, considering the ROI, I would support increasing these efforts in response to climate change.
I maintain, as I did in my first rebuttal, that the GND is both too much (given cost, broad scope) and not enough (given international population growth and development). You tell me that I am “not hearing what the Green New Deal is proposing.” But the GND is domestic, not international, policy. It cannot keep pace with increasing emissions from China and India. It cannot force countries in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa to meet its standards or make similar investments. And international law, like the Paris Climate Accord, will not fair any better in our anarchical international order (an international relations debate for another day, perhaps). So, I offer an alternative path forward. One which relies on technological development and free market capitalism, the two forces most responsible for the unprecedented explosion of wealth and human well-being in the 20th and 21st centuries.
In closing, I would offer another fig leaf to you. Despite the costs, I would support a massive boost to national service programs in the United States, including the creation of new programs designed to address climate change. Like technological development, I believe that such programs reap benefits that outweigh their costs. One such benefit is the enlistment of the American youth from diverse geographic and socio-economic statuses, bring together our disparate citizenry to serve with each other, creating a more active, educated, and understanding citizenry. Why not create a “Climate Corps” to assist with flood mitigation and planning, afforestation, recycling, and climate change education? We can enlist thousands of passionate environmentalists to serve for a year before or after college and, despite modest pay, offer them real world experience and impact and perhaps tuition assistance or student loan forgiveness. It is not much, but it is something.
I do not support the Green New Deal and I do not believe that anything like it stands a chance of becoming law anytime soon. But I do hope that Democrats and Republicans can come together to find common ground to start to tackle climate change. In my view, this is the only way forward.
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.