The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Big Deals, Variously Shaded Green

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About that Green New Deal?

In preparation for writing today’s post, I reread my article on the GND, and I got angry. Not angry at what I wrote, I stand by my work, but angry at what I didn’t write and the fact that I need to write it.

Simply put, the GND is a statement of intention that includes a commitment to make the changes scientists say we need to make in order to avert climate catastrophe–why is this a radical assertion? Why are even most self-described environmentalists even considering doing anything else? The proposition that averting catastrophe might be too expensive is–

It’s unforgivable.

There. I said it. Too many of us are too used to ignoring reality, so when somebody says something like this we tend not to really notice. I almost let it slip by myself. But the fact of the matter is that some of the best, and best-informed, minds on the planet tell us that we must make radical changes very quickly OR ELSE. That’s real. That’s the situation. It’s not propaganda, it’s not fear-mongering, it’s not an alternative fact, it’s the reality we live with. It’s unavoidable. And anyone who favors gradual transition (let alone no transition) over rapid, near-term decarbonization is either ignoring that reality or actively choosing their own short-term gain at the expense of the future of everybody and everything else.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal is the only possible solution, or even the best solution. Her approach combines a commitment to rapid decarbonization with a commitment to participatory social justice and a massive government spending program most probably funded, at least initially, by deficit spending. Sounds pretty good to me, but there’s certainly room for people to share the environmental commitment while disagreeing over details, or even disagreeing with the other parts of her vision entirely. I mean, yes, disavowing a commitment to social justice is also unforgivable, but for different reasons. You can be a stinker of a person and still stand ready to do something about climate change.

As for deficit spending, I’m not an economist. I have to bow to other heads on that one, and the other heads have various differing opinions.

But we need a emergency response plan for climate, and we need it now, and it must include the following components:

  1. A commitment to rapid decarbonization within the timeline suggested by current science.
  2. A  plan to cope with the fact that certain powerful people don’t want to decarbonize and will fight climate action tooth and nail.
  3. A method of decarbonization that is a net social good. Climate action needs to be an additional reason to do the right thing, not an excuse to do the wrong thing.

How are we going to get off fossil fuel and quickly as we must? I don’t know, but that doesn’t change the fact that we do need to do it. We simply have to figure it  out–and figure it out damn quickly.

Green New Deals (Plural)

As you may now, the Green New Deal resolution sponsored in the House by Representative Ocasio-Cortez was introduced to the Senate, sponsored by a group of Democrats–none of whom voted for it. They voted “present.” I really don’t understand the strategy there, but be that as it may, several of them offered alternatives immediately afterwards. There are Republican alternatives, too. By way of keeping tabs on an evolving situation, let’s take a look at these options.

The Green Real Deal

The Green Real Deal is a Republican answer to the GND. It was drafted by Representative, Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a Trump supporter hostile to environmental regulation (he introduced a purely symbolic bill to abolish the EPA last year) who nonetheless seems genuinely interested in doing something about climate change. His proposal doesn’t meet my criteria (it contains no timeline for reducing emissions) but is at least a Republican entry to the conversation–overall, a good thing, or at least the beginning of a good thing. I’ve been saying for a long time that it’s bad for the country for the Democrats to be the only ones attempting to address climate change; we need everybody at the table, a real diversity of ideas.

The Real Deal has existed in at least some form since March, but was officially introduced to the House of Representatives in early April. According to a draft copy of the Real Deal, the proposal is substantially a less-ambitious version of the GND–and a less-ambitious resolution might indeed be a good starting place. If we can get everybody to agree on some basic principles now, maybe we can built to meaningful action later? The problem is that the Real Deal includes a call for “free and fair” energy development on Federal land and “eliminating” or “modernizing” various regulations, and “modernizing the implementation of” the National Environmental Policy Act in order to speed the development of various alternative energy options.

Even if we give Mr. Gaetz a pass and assume he is acting in good faith, it doesn’t take much of a leap to conclude that such changes would be promptly taken advantage of by fossil fuel companies.

The Green Real Deal contains no concrete goals and calls for no new limitations on fossil fuel use, only vague or voluntary steps, while calling for further dismantling of current environmental protections.


Carper’s Resolution

Back in February, Democrat Senator Tom Carper, of Delaware, introduced a resolution, since co-sponsored by all Senate Democrats, meant as a less-ambitious starting point and something at least the whole party can agree on.

Here it is:

Climate change is real, human activity during the last century is the dominant cause of the climate crisis; and the United States and Congress should take immediate action to address the challenge of climate change.

You don’t get less ambitious than that, but at least it’s something. I’m curious as to whether Mr. Gaetz will sign on to it, when and if it reaches the House. He really should, given the content of his own proposal.

The New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy

Let’s just leave aside the negative connotations of the term “Manhattan Project” for now. “Moon shot” is a much better analogy, seeing as President Kennedy’s challenge didn’t create a fifth horseman of the apocalypse, but never mind. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) meant to invoke the image of intensive government investment in innovation as a way to solve a pressing problem. And it’s not a bad proposal.

Mr. Alexander lists ten technological challenges, including greener buildings and better batteries, calls for a doubling of Federal funding on research, and sets a goal of meeting all ten challenges within five years. Some of his priorities are debatable, but that’s OK: I’m sure they’ll be debated.

The only real drawback I see is that our current problem is not really technological, but rather political, cultural, and economic–we’re not making anywhere near full use of the technological solutions we have. Mr. Alexander’s proposal does nothing to assure that we’ll use new technological solutions, either. And no matter how much clean energy we produce, there’s no guarantee we’ll use less dirty energy. More likely, our total energy use will simply increase, without definitive leadership to the contrary.

But while the New Manhattan Project won’t solve the climate crisis by itself, it could do substantial good as one piece of a larger solution. Increased funding and leadership in technology for clean energy can only be a public and planetary good, and the effort will spur both economic activity in the clean energy sector and ongoing public discussion of climate-related issues. As long as Mr. Alexander does not use his proposal as a rhetorical device for fighting against other people’s proposals, he could be part of the solution.

A Framework for Climate Action in the US Congress

Representative Paul Tonko has proposed a “framework,” a set of principles which he suggests all proposed legislation should follow. It’s a simple, straight-forward document that differs from the Green New Deal only in being much less detailed and in not being as assertive in its rhetoric–but the first principle is “Adopt science-based targets for Greenhouse Gas Neutrality by Mid-Century,” so it’s really just as ambitious.

The only problem is it’s not a resolution–it doesn’t ask anyone to formally and publicly commit to it. Perhaps Mr. Tonko judges that formal commitment is strategically counterproductive at this time. He may be right, I don’t know. But I’d like to see such a commitment made, and made soon.

Keeping the Pressure Up

I have not attempted to make this list exhaustive, nor have I looked for the most up-to-date news on all proposals. I don’t want this post to get too long. My intention is to explore alternatives and foster conversation. But it’s important to realize that the alternatives to the GND are not being put forward in a vacuum–a critical component is the political reality that American people want at least some climate action.

It’s up to us to keep the pressure up. If we do, the Green New Deal Resolution, or some reasonable alternative to it, will pass, followed by meaningful climate legislation. Unfortunately, I remain unable to find anyone organizing public demonstrations in the United States.

Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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