We seem to be caught between extremes: dangerous climate denial and Green New Deal fantasyland. Both sides are engaging in potentially perilous self-deception.
The Green New Deal (GND) rightfully addresses the key issue of our era: how are we going to drastically reduce or eliminate most human-caused greenhouse gas emissions? But while the GND presents high sounding general principles, it has almost no detail, and critics point to several significant concerns.
As currently presented, the costs of the GND would be unaffordable and its implementation could lead to unnecessary government coercion, high taxation, and political division. The breadth of its social proposals goes far beyond climate action. Finally, the 10-year time frame is unrealistically short. While the goals may be honorable, its broad scope and lack of detail leaves the GND open to being labeled as “socialism” or “unattainable pie-in-the sky.”
This introduction describes the current GND and examines its shortcomings. It will be followed by a three-part series called How to Energize a Real Green New Deal that offers realistic, market-focused proposals for action affecting all major segments of our economy.
What is the Green New Deal?
The Green New Deal was introduced as a non-binding resolution in Congress in February 2019 with 64 House and nine Senate Democrat co-sponsors. According to the GND fact sheet, the resolution presents “a 10-year plan to mobilize every aspect of American society at a scale not seen since World War II to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and create economic prosperity for all.”
Along with advocating for needed large-scale greenhouse gas reduction projects, it includes many admirable goals that are not related to reducing carbon emissions:
- Create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure the prosperity and economic security for all people in the United States.
- Repair and upgrade the infrastructure and industry of the United States.
- Secure for all people of the United States for generations to come: clean air and water, climate and community resiliency, healthy food, access to nature, and a sustainable environment.
- Promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppressions of indigenous peoples, people of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, unhoused people, people with disabilities, and youth.
- Guarantee a job with a family-sustaining wage, family and medical leave, vacations, and retirement security, including high-quality union jobs and economic security for all.
- Provide resources and training, and high-quality education, including higher education and trade schools for all people.
- Provide healthy food; high-quality health care; safe, affordable, adequate housing for all.
- Create an economic environment free of monopolies.
- Overhaul all transportation systems in the U.S.
- Restore fragile and threatened ecosystems.
- Clean up hazardous waste sites.
Both the ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals and these broad social goals are to be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization with funding from the Federal Reserve creating money or from the federal government taking on massive debt.
In describing why such an ambitious program as the Green New Deal is needed, N.Y. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of its main promoters, said, “The scope of the solution has to match the scope of the problem” – an assessment that is undeniably true. However, the scope of the problem being addressed by the GND goes way beyond the goals targeting climate change and instead veers off into a range of social and economic issues that threaten its political and economic viability. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the practical steps required for a real world solution are not described.
Why the Green New Deal is potentially dangerous
The GND raises many unanswered questions. Not answering them leads to wishful thinking with regard to the possibility that its goals will be actually achieved. Here are some of questions that need practical real world answers:
- Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions is a gigantic goal. How can we actually accomplish this? What is the plan?
- The GND is made even more ambitious by including many desirable diverse non-carbon reduction goals. How can we implement this ambitious set of vague goals without political or economic breakdown? Will achieving the main goal of greenhouse gas reduction be lost in what will likely prove to be a gargantuan political struggle?
- While the GND admirably advocates a “just and fair transition” for all communities and workers, it ignores the fact that there will be winners and losers as many fossil fuel related jobs, industries, and communities will no longer be needed. How will the losers be helped to transition into new projects and jobs that are dignified and productive?
- Providing economic security for all who are unable to work is a current, unfilled goal of society. Converting to zero carbon clean energy will indeed be an engine of job creation, but these sweeping job and social programs, including goals such as healthy food and access to nature for all, are not the primary objective. Does it make sense to commingle these social goals with an attempt to address how to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions?
- Investing in infrastructure and industry to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century is a long-standing goal of U.S. politicians, but there is no detail in this proposal. Will infrastructure investments for highways and bridges lead to more greenhouse gas emissions rather than less? How much and what kind of government involvement will be needed to make these things happen?
- Regarding the 10-year time frame, is it realistic? Any one of the GND goals would be a challenge to accomplish in a single decade. How can we possibly achieve all of them in that time? Even if we focused just on getting to zero net greenhouse gas emissions, including aircraft and farm animal emissions, as well as emissions from all manufacturing, all ground transportation, shipping, building, agriculture, and infrastructure including construction and reconstruction, would ten years come close to being enough time?
- How can we actually afford the GND as outlined? Many of the goals could each cost more than a trillion dollars. For example, getting our infrastructure up to the standards set by the American Society of Civil Engineers could require $4.5 trillion. Jobs and income for all could cost billions. A smart grid could cost close to a trillion, and carbon capture and storage could cost many billions. But there are no cost estimates in the GND. How much will our government be willing and able to invest in getting to zero net greenhouse gas emissions?
- Even if we focus solely on the goal of zero net greenhouse gas emissions, as we should, how will this complex program be implemented and funded? Do we want the Federal Reserve to print more money and put our economy at risk? Do we want even larger federal deficits than our current deficit? Do we want higher taxes? To what degree will any of these investments bring a return? How will these investments really “pay for themselves,” as claimed by its proponents?
- The core challenge will be transitioning away from fossil fuels, which could cost trillions of dollars. And it will involve abandoning expensive fossil fuel assets – including all oil and gas drilling rigs, pipelines, storage facilities, gas stations, fuel transport trucks and ships, gas appliances and gas fueled mechanical systems in homes and businesses, gas or diesel fueled vehicles and ships – reducing their asset value to zero. It will involve rebuilding or replacing everything that runs on fossil fuels – and almost everything in our lives is “powered by, moved by and/or manufactured from fossil fuels.” Most experts agree we cannot possibly make this transition in 10 years. The questions we all need to address are: Can we make it in 30 years? And what is a realistic road map to getting there? How big a role should government have? And how will it be paid for?
This Green New Deal is not the answer
Making the transition from oil, coal, and natural gas, with their existing infrastructure, will be a challenging task. But it can be accomplished before 2050 with effective planning, existing and evolving technologies, realigned incentives, and enhanced market mechanisms.
It can be accomplished without crash programs, without intrusive government controls, and without investing trillions of government dollars.
While climate denial will lead to certain disaster, the GND is not the answer because it will likely divert us from devising and implementing the specific steps needed to take effective actions to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. These actions must align with reality, utilize practical incentives, and harness market forces so that solving this problem can be a win for all. Although it cannot be a social program, it will have many social benefits: for health, the environment, and jobs.
How to Energize a Real Green New Deal, a three-part series, explores how to effectively reduce carbon emissions by setting and incentivizing realistic, affordable, market-based measures that utilize and build on existing technologies. It will explore ways to selectively focus government involvement to guide, stimulate, and support free enterprise at the lowest cost possible. And it will explore how these measures can be implemented in ways that benefit families, small businesses, local governments, the middle class, and lower income citizens.
Joseph Emerson is a co-founder of the Zero Energy Project where this article originally appeared. Emerson writes that this series of blogs on the Green New Deal is inspired by Chris Martinsen’s Deconstructing the Green New Deal.