It is hard to say whether the “Green New Deal” announced last week is the Democratic Party’s suicide note for the 2020 election cycle, or an epic troll that will trap Republicans into a climate policy “compromise” that they don’t really want and won’t really work. Let’s look it over from five different angles.
(1) It’s tempting to dismiss the Green New Deal by suggesting that it would probably work no better than the original New Deal. (The conventional wisdom is that the New Deal ended the Great Depression, but some revisionist economic historians suggest that it probably prolonged it.) But that misses the point that the New Deal remains an iconic, almost magical, symbol in American politics. Most Americans still have the impression that the New Deal was one of the great initiatives in American history, and aren’t much impressed with revisionist econometric analysis about its mediocre (and often negative) economic effects. Score one for good labeling.
(2) The unseriousness of the Green New Deal stems not just from its economic illiteracy but also because of its environmental illiteracy. Never mind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s spectacular belly-flops about eliminating cow farts and airplanes: To achieve its stated goal of eliminating the use of fossil fuels in a decade (or by any future date) will require electrifying everything, including all home heating and transportation that are currently supplied by fossil fuels.
This would require probably tripling our electricity production, assuming that we can even get practical electric-powered cars, trucks, and trains at scale (never mind electric airplanes). This simply isn’t possible with wind and solar power.
And even if you could generate the power that way (and again: you can’t) battery storage is another tremendous challenge. Get back to me when you’ve worked out the materials requirements for an at least thousand-fold increase in the mining, production, and disposal of lithium-ion batteries or their successors.
And even if you could get the raw materials of lithium, cobalt, copper, platinum, and other metals necessary for the of windmills, solar panels, and batteries you would need, the environmental impact of this supply-chain—not to mention its carbon footprint—could be larger than the impact of oil, gas, and coal production today.
And then, just for fun, consider the requirements in the raw materials—and skilled workforce—that would be necessary for retrofitting every building in America, as AOC’s talking points propose.
Very few environmentalists ever factor these costs into their fantasy calculations of a fossil-free future. And AOC isn’t one of them.
(3) AOC’s Green New Deal wants to reduce carbon emissions while phasing out the largest source of non-carbon energy we currently have—nuclear power. The level of whimsy here is matched only by the aspects of the plan that add universal healthcare, a job guarantee, and ending racism as essential parts of its environmentalist vision.
Why not add world peace and education reform while we’re at it?
The narrowness of the anti-nuclear attitude of the Green New Deal appears to be either willful or ignorant. One of the quiet revolutions taking place inside much of the environmental movement today is a reckoning with its opposition to nuclear power a generation ago. Many prominent environmentalists such as James Hansen now argue that nuclear power is essential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is no coincidence that the advanced nations with the lowest greenhouse gas emission rates are those with high amounts of nuclear energy, such as France and Sweden. (Kudos to those environmentalists who have publicly broken with the rigid orthodoxy of the past.)
There are, however, two ways in which it is possible to take the Green New Deal a little more seriously, though in ways that could backfire for it.
First, if you believe in the catastrophic climate change scenario if we don’t cap atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations below 450 parts per million (we’re currently a little above 400 ppm, but the level is growing about 1.5 ppm per year), climate policy orthodoxy says we need to do exactly what the Green New Deal proposes—the virtual elimination of all fossil fuels on a very short timeline. And if you take this scenario seriously, it would mean elimination of fossil fuels is necessary for the entire world—not just the United States.
How would that work?
Never mind that the Green New Deal proposes no specific and measurable technologies to achieve this global goal. The point is that none of the previous climate policy initiatives, whether the Kyoto Protocol of 1998, the Paris Climate Accord of 2015, or President Obama’s Clean Power Plan came anywhere close to this emission reduction target. This is one reason James Hansen departs from the façade of most environmentalists in declaring the Paris Climate Accord to be a “fraud.” The Green New Deal, by setting out ending fossil fuel use as its explicit goal, is calling the bluff of the current pantomime policy.
(There’s also the economic fact that if the United States were to eliminate its reliance on fossil fuels, this would drive the price of oil down, thereby allowing developing countries to use more of it in their drive to modernize.)
(4) In addition to the economically ruinous cost of attempting the Green New Deal, it might force a consideration of the environmental calculus that is deliberately avoided today: Are the tradeoffs from our civilization’s use of fossil fuels overwhelmingly positive, even with the potential damages from climate change in the future? The answer is at least a qualified “yes.” But currently, this is not something you are allowed to say in polite society.
However, the massive dislocations (not to mention exorbitant costs) of the Green New Deal may give people room to say, publicly, “thanks, but no thanks.” It’s one thing to be for “the environment” when the cost is a carbon tax. It’s another thing entirely when you’re talking about a wholesale reorganization of society and the economy.
And the more people take the Green New Deal seriously, the more favorable our current fossil fuel regime will look. As will cheaper (and probably more effective) measures such as more nuclear power, carbon-capture technologies, and solar-radiation management—three serious options deliberately excluded from the Green New Deal because they conflict with the fundamentalist orthodoxy of the climate change fanatics.
(5) But there is still a hazard for Republicans. It is fine to hoot about the extravagance of the Green New Deal, but given that it is not acceptable in polite society to contest the doomsday scenario of climate change (this is a subject for another day), the Green New Dealers will be able to say, “Fine—what have you got? We’ve at least proposed something of grand ambition that meets the ‘crisis.’”
A number of Republicans in the House and Senate have been stumbling around for a while looking for a way to weigh in sensibly on climate change policy, and it is not hard to imagine the crafty Speaker Pelosi offering a “compromise” on some climate measures—a carbon tax or some far-reaching energy performance standards perhaps—that would be the thin end of a large wedge of climate policy takeover of the nation’s energy sector. This is right out of the Trump playbook: Ask for something outrageous, and get some of what you really want.
In other words, like the original New Deal, the Green New Deal might not work as advertised, but it might work for Democrats.