Visions & Contradictions: Assessing the Green New Deal

By now the Green New Deal (GND) has become a lightning rod for both hopes and fears about America’s future, with detractors on both sides saying the resolution either goes too far or doesn’t go far enough – while many have enthusiastically embraced the resolution. This essay considers whether the GND matches the true severity of our situation and whether any transitions it accomplishes conform to what is needed to resolve climate stabilization issues. And just how attainable is it – how can sweeping climate legislation possibly be passed in this Congress or the next?

Does the Green New Deal Turn Things Around Fast Enough?

We exist in a climate emergency – the crisis is here, now. Americans are finally growing more concerned, as horrific droughts, fires, and floods increasingly pummel our nation and the world. But citizens do not understand that these disasters will soon become even worse – that it is coming at us like a loaded freight train, far faster than anticipated. At 1C, the heat increase above pre-industrial levels is already dangerous, and built-in, “committed” warming means we have already overshot 1.5C. Even at 2C, areas of Earth become uninhabitable, but we are currently on a pathway that will take us to 4C or higher this century. This warming increases the likelihood of triggering tipping points, feedbacks, and runaway warming.

The world has kicked this can miles down the road for almost three decades – 28 years of abject failure – until now we need drastic action. Catastrophic runaway heating is not inevitable – if we act now we can spare ourselves global warming’s worst effects.

Does the resolution provide the right timeline for emissions reductions? It calls for “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” through a ten-year “national mobilization”, without providing start and end points. “Net-zero” refers to an assumption of negative emissions technologies (NETs) to reduce CO2 levels in the air, thus allowing more gradual fossil fuel reductions. But NETs are techno-delusions – unviable and unproven at scale. Notably, climate scientist Kevin Anderson calls for a 75% reduction by 2025 to stay under 2Che does not assume NETS will work. Therefore, the Green New Deal’s ten-year mobilization is not  sufficient, and it mistakenly includes NETs.

Note that the GND is only a non-binding resolution – it is a mere wish, not even a proposal. Any deal that advances to legislation must be judged in the context of the emergency. Without a push from a sufficiently alarmed public, moderate lawmakers and special interests would further weaken the final bill, assuring our self-destruction.

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Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry Mural (detail), 1932-33.

History Lessons

The GND combines two analogies from the 20th century: the broad social reforms of the New Deal in response to the Great Depression, and our national mobilization for World War 2. The WW2 mobilization is an example of the all-out collective engagement at the scale and speed now required to dramatically transform our energy systems, housing, transportation, agriculture, and many other aspects of modern life – to combat climate change.

Upon our entry into WW2, the federal government both demanded and supported a rapid conversion from consumer production to war production – from private automobile manufacturing to a rapid buildup of airplanes, jeeps, and tanks. The nation’s war production shattered all previous records and exceeded the combined production of the Axis powers, leading to Allied victory.

However, the concept of mobilization clashes with today’s dominant neoliberal paradigm: corporatism, anti-government, pro-market, deregulation, privatization, hyper-individual consumerism, tax cuts for the wealthy, and diminishment of the public sphere.

This level of cooperation and collective planning seems unimaginable. How to create a complete mobilization, when the climate crisis has no clear, galvanizing “Pearl Harbor moment” and the dominant worldview consistently opposes what is needed?

As a “new” New Deal, the resolution is a sweeping inclusion of much of the Progressive agenda. Following decades of erosion of America’s national social support system, wages, and equality, the deal is stuffed with goals beyond the environment, such as affordable housing, basic guaranteed income, and healthcare for all. It aims to take care of everyone, in the big, disruptive transition it calls for.

This is in contrast to low public support of government’s role and of anything that remotely whiffs of socialism. Dramatic carbon reductions are already a hard sell; adding other grand proposals only diminish the deal’s chances. The New Deal itself was not one big bill, but comprised of many pieces of legislation enacted over almost a decade – see this timeline.

The momentum to pass the Equal Rights Amendment lost ground to opponents when feminists began including (in 1977) other issues such as abortion and gay rights, leading to ultimate defeat in 1982.

Far-reaching, collective, pro-government approaches would only be possible with a major shift in paradigm. Yet perspectives could change quickly, if people were to perceive the emergency. We must turn from our hyper-individualism and come together cooperatively, if we are to survive.

Does the Green New Deal Offer the Right Approach to Spur Big Impact?

By what mechanisms do we achieve such a dramatic transformation of our system? Does the GND offer the right approach?

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Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada, © Garth Lentz. Courtesy www.populationspeakout.org.

First, consider that individual footprint reduction matters naught without systemic change. The system’s voracious appetite for energy and resources dwarfs individual consumption. But we are all part of this system, and we must recognize our own complicity. We absolutely need federal-, state-, and industry-level intervention and transformation of our system.

Next, forget about a carbon tax (a market approach) to get us there. Americans want climate action, but they are unwilling to pay for it.  Even a measly carbon tax initiative in Washington State ($15 per ton of CO2, rising $2 per year) was defeated in November 2018. We would need a very stiff carbon price, but that would still not suffice. Neither a tax on carbon nor regulations will trigger the revolution to comprehensively remake infrastructure, agriculture, and industry.

Rather, the resolution offers a very different economic vision to curb our planet-roasting: government direct spending to spur industrial action. This is how big things have been done in the US. Historical examples include the transcontinental railroad, Erie Canal, interstate highway system, and R&D that led to the tech boom. The resolution squarely calls for a resurrection of federal industrial policy, not in an attempt to control the private sector, but in a bid to collaborate with it and provide upfront investment. “You don’t pick the winners; you pick the willing,” as economist Marianna Mazzucato puts it. She argues that the private sector cannot innovate unless the public sector provides purpose, direction, and a challenge. Hardly socialism, this is government collaborating with capitalist enterprise.

But, does this go far enough? While the approach catalyzes a big push, it still leaves intact the profit motive, perpetual growth, and other systemic, world-destroying failures attendant to capitalism. Again, we cannot accomplish everything in one or two bills.

How do we pay for this massive transforming of our systems to decarbonize human enterprise? The right question is: “How can we afford not to pay for it?” The costs from climate inaction – disasters, refugees, violence, wars, famine, and public health – will overwhelm civilization. David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, writes that at 4C, damages “could reach $600 trillion — about double all the wealth that exists in the world today.” As Steve Bhaerman says, “If we destroy the planet, there goes the GDP.”

Although many people support the GND, they disapprove of federal spending to accomplish it. The big-government-spending idea will only gain traction if people understand that we are in a climate emergency. Largely, the funding is a matter of perception and changing priorities. As with the Great Depression and WW2, when people perceived that we were in an emergency, the means were found to address it. An emergency demands new priorities; triage means prioritizing what is most urgent.

We currently fund a legion of perverse, future-destroying ends that we must jettison. The US spends over $20 billion per year on fossil fuel subsidies. An array of subsidies prop up the otherwise questionable corn ethanol industry. The 2018 Republican tax cut vastly benefits corporations and the wealthy. In myriad ways, we allow billionaires to accumulate billions more. We seem to manage hundreds of billions of dollars for fighter planes, even though global warming is our biggest national security threat. And so on, ad nauseum.

Green Contradictions

At the heart of the Green New Deal lies an enormous contradiction that says you can have your cake and eat it, too. The resolution implies there will be much more for everyone, but that will not be possible. What is not understood or discussed is the sacrifice and simplification that will be required of citizens in the decarbonization process – for a number of reasons.

First, wind turbines and high-speed trains do not appear by magic. Ironically, it will take massive inputs of fossil fuels and other resources to create a low-carbon electricity infrastructure, to transform transportation, and to retrofit buildings. This will cause a large greenhouse gas “burp” and trigger demands for oil and other resources that far exceed current capacity (while we are simultaneously hitting resource constraints).

Moreover, emerging evidence from Germany’s failed energy transformation and elsewhere reveal that intermittency, lack of sufficient viable storage, among other issues with wind and solar power may be unresolvable (also see here and here). So, we may never have more than a small percentage of intermittent renewables on the grid. Further, the low net energy from renewables cannot power our current industrial production-consumption system.

On top of all this, wealthy nations consume far more than their equitable share of resources, while billions of people live in abject poverty – so industrialized nations must reduce sooner and faster than poor nations.

A new UN report “Global Resources Outlook 2019,” states that the world economy extracts 27,000 pounds per person of materials, fuels, and food from our Earth annually – the weight of nine small vehicles. And that extraction is accelerating. Industrial nations’ economies take 13 times more extracted resources than do poorer nations. Moreover, most all of this extraction ends up as waste, pollution, and poison. Almost none is recycled. The extraction and processing of metals, minerals, and fossil fuels is responsible for 36% of CO2 emissions.

Economic growth on a finite planet cannot continue. “Green growth” is a delusion – we have yet to truly decouple emissions from the economy. The GND only fosters more consumption and pollution because it has no mechanism to constrain the economic stimulation triggered by the jobs programs and infrastructure development.

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1944 USA wartime poster: courtesy of Northwestern University

All of this is to say: America needs an emergency, cooperative, fair Energy Descent Plan as part of our transition. Rich and poor alike had to ration during World War 2, when per capita consumption levels were far lower. Notably, individual restraint will only make sense if done collectively. Obviously, jobs that come with the transition are beneficial, but people will need to redefine what it means to “enjoy the fruits of one’s labor” – because nothing like this consumer system can continue. The US excels in GDP and material abundance, yet our antidepressants, opioids, obesity, shootings, and inequality give lie to the notion that consumption makes us happy.

Galvanizing the Public Is Key

Clearly, the Green New Deal resolution has nudged fresh debate about how we respond to the carbon crisis. But without the understanding that we exist in a climate / fossil fuel emergency, all that discussion is not relevant.

Our emergency situation now screams for massive systemic change on all levels, so moderates who defend the status quo are actually the radicals. Continuing on our present path is insane. Much can be said about the coming political battles, and about Republicans and incrementalist Democrats standing in the way. Assuming a 2020 Democratic takeover, the bottom line is that we can only achieve a political victory and broad mobilization through informing and activating the public about the climate emergency.

Moreover, we can only achieve buy-in, cooperation, and involvement if the public understands the urgency and severity of the crisis. The climate movement has not told the dire truth because it didn’t want to scare people and have then freeze, but alarm is now certainly warranted. Examples abound where fear campaigns led to effective action: DDT, smoking, nuclear arms proliferation, and WW2.

An extensive campaign that sounds the Emergency Alarm will be necessary to inform, engage, and activate millions of Americans who push for system transformation. Key in this campaign could be an interactive, national Climate/Ecology Broadcast Center to provide information, field questions, and share best practices. Similarly, civic gatherings can facilitate discussion, planning, and making common cause. Who besides philanthropy could possibly make this happen?

Beyond informing citizens, engaging them in action is required. The massive failure of the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act is an instructive warning. Backroom dealings that included polluting industries led to a compromised climate bill that failed.  The entire process had little public support or involvement.

In order to forge any effective legislation to tackle the crises before us, informed public participation is essential on a plethora of issues: What mix of clean energy technologies make sense, given that wind and solar have unresolvable issues? How do we reduce demand side consumption – do we use a carbon tax, or is rationing a better answer? How much do we tax the rich? How do we simplify in a fair, cooperative manner that minimizes suffering? What economic system do we need? What replaces the perpetual growth model? How do we constrain the fossil fuel companies – do we nationalize them? How do we quit using plastic? Does a basic universal income make sense, given all the expected job displacements?

Conclusion

Because so much needs to change, we need a “new American Revolution” that engages an incubator-conversation process similar to that which brought independence and forged the United States. As anger spread throughout the colonies, people gathered to discuss, debate, and plan what needed to be done.

Then, just as now, people had to devise governmental, moral, economic, and social operating systems comprehensively different from the systems they experienced under Great Britain; they had to invent and construct a completely different kind of nation-state. Similarly, we must create different operating systems to free ourselves from the self-destructive and suicidal industrial-consumer-fossil-fuel-dependent system that dominates us.

Now, like then, extensive conversations across the nation – like the conversations that happened in taverns, town-squares, family and community gatherings – must happen in civic auditoriums, churches, and community gatherings. 

Rather than a Declaration of Independence, we need a State of Emergency declaration for global warming. This is a real, legitimate use of the State of Emergency.

Yes, we need to think big, to envision bold responses, and then act with courage. The GND is just an opening “thought-experiment”. We might take off from that, but we must not fly blind. We have to understand just what we are dealing with. When survival is on the line, things happen – but let’s make the right things happen.


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