The Climate in Emergency

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


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Big Deals, Variously Shaded Green

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.

Hmmm.

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.

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The Green New Deal

A few days ago, the phrase “Green New Deal” suddenly splashed itself all over the news and social media. Something to do with climate change. I’d never heard of it before, but it looked promising. I wanted in–just as soon as I found out what it is.

Having done some research, I now want to share what I’ve learned and issue a Call to Action. But first, an important caveat.

What the Green New Deal Is Not

A friend of mine recently posted on social media, questioning whether the Green New Deal is economically doable. We need to be clear that such concerns are premature. The Green New Deal–let’s call it the GND–is not a bill or a policy, or even a plan. Except in a very vague way, it doesn’t have a budget, so we can’t talk yet about whether that budget makes sense. The GND is instead a group of goals.

If I announced an intention to get a PhD, “how are you going to pay for that” would be a reasonable question, but “bad idea, too expensive” would be premature because there are lots of different paths to a PhD, each path involves a different budget, and there are lots of different ways to fund pursuing a degree. Some possibilities might not be options for me, but others could be. I won’t really know until I start working out the specifics, but working out the specifics has to come AFTER forming the intention to get a PhD.

Demanding that an intention can only be entertained if it comes with a finished, workable plan is a good way to stay paralyzed.

First we have to say “averting climate disaster is our goal.” THEN we can start figuring out how to pay for it.

What the Green New Deal Is

The words “Green New Deal” refer to several different but related ideas, some rather vague, others quite specific. In general, these words are a slogan, a rallying cry towards the principle of actually taking climate change seriously–in some contexts, though, the GND is rather more than that.

The History of the Green New Deal

The phrase “Green New Deal” goes back to 2007, when two different people, one American, one British, each made vaguely similar proposals that happened to have the same name.

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist of centrist politics and a self-described “free-market guy,” originally proposed the Green New Deal as a kind of large-scale investment in innovation and development in order to respond to what was then a growing financial crisis and in order to regain American dominance as an economic and scientific powerhouse–a moon shot, in other words, with all the attendant societal benefits that implies, but with the goal being environmental sustainability, not space exploration.

Mr. Friedman has updated his ideas somewhat, but he stands by the original concept. He is a committed environmentalist personally, but believes success depends on getting non-environmentalists on board, and that the best way to do so is to tie achieving sustainability to more broadly-accepted economic goals. The basic plan is to use a combination of regulation and community development (such as building a lot more community colleges) to set certain national goals and then let local government and private enterprise try things and see what works.

At around the same time, Richard Murphy, a British political economy professor, formed a loose organization of newspaper editors, economists, and environmentalists called the Green New Deal Group. Together, they discussed the possibility that a fiscal stimulus program could resolve both the growing financial crisis and the ecological crisis. The group then issued a report offering a series of suggestions. Their approach involved massive government spending (funded through various forms of borrowing) to fund renewable energy, zero-emissions transportation, energy conservation programs, and jobs training.

Both men saw their ideas taken up, in part, by their respective governments, then discarded after the national legislatures of both countries were taken over by unfriendly majorities. The GND dropped out of the public conversation for several years.

The GND returned to public consciousness, at least in the United States, in 2017, during the campaigns for the mid-term elections of 2018. A massive progressive movement had been triggered by the campaigns–and defeats–of the year before, so multiple candidates came out calling for some version of a Green New Deal.

Again, the same term was being used for multiple, sometimes very different proposals, all of which in some way combined economic development with action on environmental issues. The idea, of course, is to draw political inspiration and, to some extent, technical inspiration, from the original New Deal enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It’s a radical idea, in other words, but not unprecedented, and it worked last time we tried it.

The Congressional Resolution

One of those progressive candidates with a Green New Deal proposal was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her election to the US House of Representatives. She has now introduced a “resolution” for consideration by the House, “Recognizing the Duty of the Federal Government to Create a Green New Deal.”

This is a resolution, not a law. If passed, it will only mean that the House (and then, hopefully, the Senate) agrees on a certain group of goals. Figuring out how to enact those goals will come later. And yet, Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s Resolution is not a vague leaning or a generic slogan. Her language specifies several important ideas, not all of which are part of every Green New Deal proposal out there:

  • Taking the problem seriously Climatologists tell us that we must radically cut our emissions in the next few years if we are to avoid catastrophe, so Ms. Ocasio-Cortez calls for making those recommended cuts–in contrast to many political leaders who, even if pro-climate, call for only gradual change that will not avert catastrophe.
  • An alliance with labor, rather than management Economic development and prosperity can be defined in any number of ways, including the size and vigor of the economy as a whole or the profit margins of the super-wealthy, but Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is very clear that her sympathies lie first with the economic interests of the masses. Her version of the GBD includes a massive government jobs program aimed at making sure everybody who wants to work can do so at a living wage. The original New Deal also included a massive jobs program, one that was, arguably, wildly successful.
  • A focus on justice Ms. Ocasio-Cortez calls for “transparent and inclusive consultation. collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities,” among others, presumably referring to racial and ethnic minorities and low-income people, all of whom are especially vulnerable to climate change. Here, they are supposed to be among the architects of the solution, not merely its hopeful beneficiaries. The language of the proposal also includes specific social justice protections, including for indigenous peoples.
  • The inclusion of government spending Not all versions of the GND involve much government spending. Mr. Friedman’s version, remember, was (and remains) largely organized around incentivizing free-market solutions. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, in contrast, is proposing an unabashed massive spending program–the language of the Resolution does not specify where the money is supposed to come from, but an associated website asserts that new taxes will not be necessary. It’s worth noting, though, that taxes on the wealthy were once much higher than they are now, and the country did not seem to suffer–and there is a good argument to be made that running up a deficit as part of such an organized plan would help the country, and did help the country in the original New Deal.

I don’t know whether Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s approach will work, but I don’t know that it won’t, and it parallels an approach taken before that did work. And hers is currently the only approach being taken by anyone at the Federal level that even attempts to avert unthinkable disaster.

You can read the full text of the Resolution here.

Consider the Alternative

Whether the GND Resolution is technically or economically feasible remains to be seen. Personally, I think it can work, but as noted earlier, it’s too soon to tell. Whether it is politically feasible…?

A year ago, six months ago, I would have thought not. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s approach is unabashedly leftist, and the United States has been swinging to the right for a generation, now. That anyone would even propose a massive government spending program as a solution for anything seems bizarre, if only because public discourse has been dominated for so long by the assumption that small government and balanced budgets are the way to go.

But there is no real proof that a small government and a balanced budget are capable of delivering on anything promised of them. The modern era has not seen a genuine attempt at either, only a shift of government attention and spending away from regulation, research, and social safety nets and towards the military, law enforcement, and corporate welfare. So maybe “fiscal responsibility” as often defined is a good thing, but maybe it isn’t. We don’t really know.

In contrast, the original New Deal worked.

It’s also worth remembering that those who think life is expensive should consider the alternative. Climate change is expensive and getting more so all the time–and spending on disaster recovery and so forth is not an investment, it’s just a cost. There will be no return, no upside, not in the long haul.

The question we must answer–and must answer now–is what we want for the world 30 years from now? Do we want to be facing existential threats to the country from escalating infrastructure losses, public health problems, and mounting national security threats, or do we want to buy ourselves hope at any cost?

I don’t think the Green New Deal is going to trash the national economy–I think the country will be dramatically enriched, in both metaphoric and literal ways. But so what if it isn’t?

If I could guarantee my little nephew a 40th birthday only by bankrupting myself personally, I’d do it. Frankly, I don’t see why the country as a whole should not stand ready to do the equivalent.

Steps to Take

The Green New Deal as proposed by Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is the first really serious attempt I’ve seen to address climate change by the United States. Given the lateness of the hour, it may also be the last. There is time and room to adjust the concept going forward, but we have to go forward now.

This is it.

The most immediate step is to contact your congresspeople and ask them to co-sponsor the Green New Deal Resolution (or to thank them, if they have done so already).

The Green New Deal is being championed by an organization called the Sunrise Movement, a generally non-partizan, “neither right nor left but forward” group with what looks like a comprehensive, multi-year plan that should result in legislation on the desk of a climate-friendly president in just a few years.

I highly recommend offering them whatever help you can. It’s go-time.