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governance

The Void Between Today’s America and the Green New Deal

It's been two months since the odd couple, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and 72-year-old Edward Markey, changed the weather in Congress with their Green New Deal resolution. We thought we'd wait until the tornado passed and the dishes stopped rattling before assessing the fallout.

It's an extraordinary document. Their brash attempt — it came just days after Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was sworn in as a Congresswoman — follows the orderly paragraph numbering and lettering traditional to legislation, but at one point veers off on



tangents that have the earmarks of a college all-nighter when someone fired up a doobie. The premise is: Here's what must be done by 2030 to defeat climate change, but midway through the "whereas" clauses outlining the climate threat, the authors decided, while at it, why not go for broke (literally); why not call for all society's injustices to be remedied: the basic needs of clean air and water, healthy food, healthcare, housing; income distribution disparity, four decades of wage stagnation, gender inequities, the reduced bargaining power of workers, and so forth. Hence, their proclamation became a Roosevelt-style New Deal wrapped in Green.

It's easy to poke fun, but for all that, it is an uplifting call to action, beaming with can-do confidence. It lays out wildly ambitious goals against a preposterous timetable but it shakes America by the shoulders to say look how adrift we are, there's a lot of work to be done, yet instead we have a government that has spent two years tearing apart progress the previous administration had set in motion, most notably in health care and emissions abatement, which has made for a lost decade. We'd better get going.

Nevertheless, the wonder is why this duo made certain that nothing would come of their call to battle by going so far overboard. It calls for a 10-year "national mobilization" to supply "100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources" by 2030. Right now, renewables make up only 18% of the country's total power generation. Even if it were possible to provide the other 82% from wind and solar (it's not clear if the plan hopes to phase out the 20% supplied by nuclear), Clearview Energy, a research firm quoted in the Journal, calculates the cost of the transformation at $2.9 trillion, and that doesn't include new transmission lines or compensation to the utilities industry for writing off the remaining useful life of hundreds of natural gas and coal plants.

To cut greenhouse gas emissions the resolution delivers an ambitious list of steps, often contradicted by chimerical stipulations, such as:

  "building or upgrading to energy-efficient, distributed, and ‘‘smart’’ power grids, and ensuring affordable access to electricity".
The first part of that goal will be formidably costly and there is no way for the second part not to be more costly. Further needs are:
  "upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification". Once again we see "affordability". Everybody has to pay. "It's the planet, stupid", should be the mantra.
 "massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States and removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and industry"
 "working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector
 "overhauling transportation systems in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector" which calls for zero-emission vehicles and hi-speed rail.

Exaggerations poured in. Meat would be banned; we'd be back to ocean liners for travel. Except the resolution does not end air travel or meat eating. "Overhauling transportation systems.." and "working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers…", as listed above, both say "as much as is technologically feasible". There is no green fuel technologically feasible for ending air travel.

But Ms Ocasio-Cortez, often referred to by her initials, AOC, didn't help her cause when she revealed her true goals in a blog post, writing,

"We set a goal to get to net zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren't sure that we'll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast".

(The cow reference is to methane release, a greenhouse gas about 30 times more problematic than CO2).

the resolutions plan for "upgrading all existing buildings in the United States" earned ridicule for AOC/Markey's divorce from reality.

"Upgrading all existing buildings in the United States" earned the most opprobrium as divorced from reality. President Obama began a $5 billion weatherization program in 2009 partly to create recession jobs. In what may be a cherry-picked choice of a colder than average state, a Journal article reported only on Michigan, where the average cost was $4,585 per home. Extending that, a study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics calculates over $400 billion today to retrofit all 95 million homes in the U.S.

A different take came from Columbia University law professor [1] Jedediah Britton-Purdy:

For every human being, there are over 1,000 tons of built environment: roads, office buildings, power plants, cars and trains and long-haul trucks. It is a technological exoskeleton for the species. Everything most of us do, we do through it… Just being human in this artificial world implies a definite carbon footprint — and for that matter, a trail of footprints in water use, soil compaction, habitat degradation and pesticide use. You cannot change the climate impact of Americans without changing the built American landscape.

For him, the need to retrofit buildings, the heating and cooling of which contributes to climate calamity, is tackling the problem at one of its roots.

There is no mention of a carbon tax, what so many in economics and business think is the strongest incentive for industry to cut back greenhouse gas emissions. The resolution's authors may think that too slow and too likely to replace more direct actions.

The media claimed that an original draft included phasing out nuclear power, which showed a willingness to bow to environmentalists at penalty of increasing emissions. From 1970 to 1990, Sweden's deployment of nuclear doubled the country's energy output while cutting carbon emissions 50%. Over the next half century, the world will need about 38 terawatts (a thousand billion) of energy, a demand that wind, solar, and hydro cannot begin to meet. Those who believe there is any possibility of avoiding a temperature rise of 2° Celsius in this century say nuclear power is an essential zero-carbon energy source. The document now speaks only of "clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources", without specifying which.

Removal of carbon from the atmosphere and its sequestration deep underground, as in depleted oil wells, is not mentioned. It's a technology that has not yet happened at any scale, but which should be on any "all of the above" list for mitigating the climate problem. It was apparently left out of the resolution because some think oil and gas interests would hold it up as an offset justifying continued use of fossil fuels. The resolution is timid for not confronting that head-on.

Prerequisites for the Green New Deal go much further than mitigating climate change. Further goals are:

  "guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States."
 "providing all people of the United States with high-quality health care."
  "providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education."

A federally guaranteed job is controversial enough (what would everyone do?), but the implication of the full cornucopia of benefits suggests permanent, rather than stop-gap, jobs.

It is uncertain how far "providing" takes health care and education. AOC/Markey do not quite come forth with Bernie Sanders' "free".

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey want to remedy the "system injustices" that affect...

"indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth".

That's quite a list. These diverse elements are swept into their term "frontline and vulnerable communities", a congregation of people that is tacked six times onto their proposed programs in a double-spaced document that fills little more than 13 pages. The reader begins to wonder if the authors think of climate change and the work of arresting it as primarily a means to rescue these disparate groups from their disadvantages.

The Right certainly thinks so. The Green New Deal resolution was met with howls of "Socialism!". It isn't, but Americans are indoctrinated to shudder in panic at the mention of the word without knowing what it means. "The socialist Democrats are off to a great start with the roll out of their ridiculous Green New Deal today!" said a spokesman for House Republicans. The Green New Deal "is likely the most ridiculous and un-American plan that's ever been presented by an elected official to voters", said The Federalist. It would be a "massive festival of crony capitalism, a raft of corporate welfare loaded with handouts" with "billions and billions" going to "corporate giants who hire the right lobbyists", said a Washington Examiner editor, and that's a conservative publication. That says way more about how corrupt this country has become than any fault in the AOC/Markey prospectus.

An ad from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a Washington business lobby unaffiliated with the government, called the proposal "a parody of the progressive agenda". Its president, Thomas Donahue, wrote, "Good luck to the 3.4 million Americans who would lose their jobs" and "a program like this would be the death knell of innovation". That's an oft-repeated right-wing trope that skirts the truth that rebuilding America's energy sector would create far more jobs that the number that run the system already built. And it would generate a burst of innovation akin to the space program of the 1960s-70s that would dwarf any need for innovation by maintenance of the status quo. "There is another path — a better path — the path of free enterprise", the ad says. Isn't that the path that got us here, a path that has done little to control climate change.

Times conservative columnist David Brooks expressed his nightmare scenario:

[I]t would definitely represent the greatest centralization of power in the hands of the Washington elite in our history…The government would put sector after sector under partial or complete federal control: the energy sector, the transportation system, the farm economy, capital markets, the health care system".

There's much truth to that but the equal truth is that these changes cannot happen without government. For decades we've been made conscious to do our part by less driving and and more recycling, but as said in "Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air", David MacKay's 2009 book, "if everyone does a little, we'll achieve only a little" and that's where we are today. The grass of grass roots doesn't grow fast enough.

Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that Democrats had confirmed "every Republican suspicion of what global-warming is really all about", using climate change as an excuse to take over the economy and impose full socialism. That's up there with the "alarmist" label conservatives apply to climate worriers.

Socialism calls for transfer of ownership of the means of production to the people, i.e., government. Ocasio-Cortez fired back with:

"There's all this fear-mongering that government is going to take over every corporation or … business or every form of production. We should be scared right now because corporations have taken over our government."

Democrats — especially presidential candidates — faced a dilemma. Those more moderate had to show their progressive chops by signing onto the resolution. They hit upon calling it "aspirational" as a way to back away from a full embrace. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to put the resolution on the Senate floor for a vote soonest, to brand those who vote "aye" as socialist with the 2020 election coming.

The resolution speaks repeatedly of funding but makes no mention of where that funding would come from. Its cost in trillions of dollars is greatly aggravated by the social programs that have been folded in, which would require steep tax increases for all. Polls show that Americans are enthusiastic about tackling climate change, and over 70% are all for raising taxes on the wealthy, but immediately balk when told it would cost themselves money. In November, voters in Washington, a blue state, rejected by a 12 point margin a carbon fee that families would have to pay, persuaded by a $31 million campaign against it that was mostly funded by the oil and gas industry.

Foreseeing no possibility of American willingness to foot the bill for a green new deal in any form, Bret Stephens, conservative columnist at the Times, tilts toward those who say climate change is manageable. Better is the chance for "large scale investments in climate resilience", which essentially means letting the climate change and instead building "coastal defenses".

Someone aligned with the authors' hopes would have the urge to wield an editor's red pencil to pare back their wish list to something realistic, getting rid of Utopianism such as...

"A Green New Deal must be developed through transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses".

Goodness! Imagine trying to get all these constituencies to collaborate and agree on every step. This is a race against the clock that would fare much better with a benevolent autocrat (if there is such a thing) ramming it through at forced march pace.

It's unfortunate that Ocasio-Cortez and Markey went off the rails, producing a wish list outside any realm of possibility of its coming true. How much more focused the plan would have been had the they not tried to tackle every problem all at once, speaking of the betterment of the ‘‘frontline and vulnerable communities’’ as a possible side effect rather than a central mission. How much more persuasive and conceivable it would have been had the two stuck to climate change and saved the rest for another day. The Times' Stephens said about the resolution, "Its virtue is its undoing". But that belies its aftershock. With that manifesto out there, effectively spelling out where America has failed, Democrats can never return to Hillary Clinton's status quo ante.

1 Comment for “The Void Between Today’s America and the Green New Deal”

  1. Al Rodbell

    This article managed to be written with the right mix of detail and broad concepts to allow this involved citizen to really think about “The Green New Deal. Kudos

    Anyone who skimmed, go back read it carefully and go to the links that expand on why GND (one more acronym to handle) is inherently complex, utopian yet, important for we who will escape the problems that the GND tackles by opting out, otherwise known as dying- (ideally after a full long life) Politics inherently, even when tacitly, overlaps ideology- IE Marxism and current term “liberal.”

    Those of us born before TV (a useful benchmark) are living in a world that was unimagined in our childhood. This is from the technological (every person on earth has a supercomputer in their pocket) to the cultural (a child has the right and ability to decide his gender) Those political leaders of the pre TV age, no matter how brilliant or benevolent, could never have…(Read more)

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