The Green New Deal – Why it Matters

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve heard about the “Green New Deal” being championed by some Congressional Democrats, most visibly freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

According to the increasingly agitated talking heads in the conservative punditry, the Green New Deal is an attempt to steal all our cows and airplanes and impose Communism and/or Sharia law, whichever one is scarier. If you’re reading this, odds are that you know better than that. And, I think it’s still worth spending some time looking at what the Green New Deal actually is, and why it is what it is, and why that matters.

To put my cards on the table: I am a convert to the GND. I don’t know if it will be possible to pass it (I may post more on that later), and if it is passed I don’t know if it will work. But I believe that it is pointed in the right direction, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment; and I believe that only something of the magnitude the GND proposes has even a chance of working.

“Working” in this context means… well, you’ve seen the Mad Max movies? Working means “not that.”

Before we get started, and for future reference, here is the actual text of the GND resolution currently submitted to the House.

As you can see, the GND is, at this stage, not much more than a vision statement; a commitment to a series of goals. That is, of course, intentional; if the GND passes, then there will be a great deal of follow-on legislation and other work to implement those goals.

And the goals are ambitious. Simply the commitment to the Paris Agreement goals is far-reaching. The latest IPCC report calls for achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 in order to keep warming under 1.5°C by the end of the century; net-zero by 2070 will keep warming under 2°C. Either of these will take huge, world-wide effort.

The 1.5°C warming scenario is not a good future. It is, however, the least bad future on offer. 2°C of warming is a significantly worse future. And if we do nothing whatsoever, then we’re on track for 3-4°C of warming, and that future is catastrophic. That’s the Thunderdome and Fury Road future.

That is the first principle underlying the GND: that climate change is an existential threat to human civilization, and the time remaining in which we can do anything is very, very short.

As I write these words, the state of Nebraska is basically underwater. Puerto Rico is still devastated by a hurricane that happened a year and a half ago. The civil war in Syria is heading into its eighth year, having cost somewhere in the vicinity of half a million lives and created millions of refugees; one of its causes was a years-long, extremely severe drought. These are just some of the effects of climate change that we are already feeling, and it’s only getting started.

The scale of effort required to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by any date is massive; it requires fundamental reworking of our entire energy economy. We won’t get there by just convincing people to drive hybrid cars and turn down their A/C in the summer. We will have to move our industrial base off of fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources to the largest extent possible.

That’s why the GND calls for a national mobilization, similar to the ones we undertook for WWII and the original New Deal. It will take the concerted effort of the entire nation to make this work.

And here is where we get into the other underlying principal of the GND. The GND, as part of this national mobilization, calls for guaranteed jobs, education, and healthcare for everyone, with particular emphasis on historically vulnerable and under-represented communities.

It would be possible to read this as a secondary goal; something along the lines of, “Well, if we’re going to need the labor of everyone in the country to combat this existential threat, we might as well two-birds this thing and call out jobs for everyone as a goal too.” I think that would be a mistake.

The GND is aware of intersectionality. In part this means that it recognizes that the impacts of climate change will inevitably fall heaviest on the least-advantaged people. Farmers in tropical countries will be forced off their land long before financiers on Wall Street start having to think about whether they should build themselves a climate bunker. Therefore the GND emphasizes directing the primary benefits of the necessary mobilization towards those who need it most because they will be the hardest hit.

But the other part of it is that it is unfettered capitalism that has brought us here, and that same unfettered capitalism that is fighting hard against even acknowledging the threat of climate change, much less doing anything about it; and therefore capitalism needs to be fettered.

Not “done away with.” The GND is not advocating a state-controlled economy. But history has taught us that capitalist countries have done best – in the sense of providing the greatest benefits for the largest percentage of their population – when the free market is surrounded by safety nets on the bottom end, high taxes on the top end funding programs for the public good, and well-enforced regulations throughout. The U.S. has been systematically dismantling all those things since the Reagan years, and that has been great news for the rich and terrible news for everyone else.

The thinking that says, “If I cut healthcare benefits for my workforce, my quarterly profits will increase and my stock options will go up; the long term effects of a less healthy labor pool sound like somebody else’s problem” is the same thinking that says, “Investing in increased energy efficiency now would hurt my short-term profits; the effects of climate change sound like somebody else’s problem.”

The GND proposes reversing the trend of deregulation, tax cuts, and safety-net destruction not just because it is necessary in order to mobilize the entire available workforce in order to save civilization; it proposes it because it is an attempt to fix the underlying disease at the same time as alleviating the symptoms.

And that, gentlepersons, is why I support the Green New Deal.

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