The news that the past five years have been the planet’s five hottest on record should prompt Americans to demand action from their government. If humanity hopes to escape a potentially ruinous increase in temperatures, policies need to be put in place to drastically reduce carbon emissions, and soon. The unveiling of the Green New Deal early this month was thus well-timed. Too bad it wasn’t also well-thought-out.
In succeeding days we thought the Green New Deal would succumb to Republicans’ ridicule and Democrats’ fear that it would mark all of them as climate extremists, eager to dismantle America’s economy.
But no, the Green New Deal won’t go away. Instead it’s spawning an offspring. In announcing his candidacy for the presidency this week, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders suggested he’ll roll out his own GND proposal. As envisioned it would eliminate carbon emissions via a huge public works program that would create tens of millions of jobs.
The original Green New Deal package, a proposed nonbinding resolution, came from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who calls herself a democratic socialist, and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. The environmental goal is ambitious: “meeting 100 percent of the power demands in the United States through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources” — within 10 years. The plan also calls for upgrading every building in America to “achieve maximal energy efficiency” as part of a massive investment in infrastructure. One priority: high-speed rail.
Ambition is one thing, but setting wildly unrealistic goals is an invitation for the public to give up.
The plan would be enormously expensive. The price tag is mysteriously absent from the document. But we can safely assume it would give new force to the term “sticker shock.” Economist Noah Smith, in a Bloomberg commentary, estimates that the retrofit of all buildings, by itself, would burn through $1.7 trillion a year — using up every dime in annual revenue from the federal income tax.
Another problem: the heavily centralized, command-and-control nature of the proposal. Trying to achieve greater energy efficiency through federal dictates is a clumsy and expensive approach. A far superior method is a tax on carbon dioxide output, giving both private and government entities a strong incentive to look for the least expensive ways to cut emissions.
That also would stimulate options that use less fossil fuel (say, rail travel) and penalize those that use more (say, commercial aviation). A carbon tax also would make technologies to capture and sequester carbon considerably more feasible. And it could be made revenue-neutral by rebating the proceeds to the American people.
At least the central thrust of the Green New Deal has a rationale: to protect the planet. Much of the rest amounts to a leftist wish list, disconnected from environmental problems. It promises every American “a job with family-sustaining wages, family and medical leave, vacations and retirement security,” as well as “high-quality health care” and “safe, affordable, adequate housing.” If that weren’t enough, the government would “stop the transfer of jobs overseas,” strengthen labor unions and ensure “the use of democratic and participatory processes that are inclusive of and led by frontline and vulnerable communities and workers.”
Even most Democrats in Congress don’t seem to be sold on this plan. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred to it, with evident skepticism, as “the green dream or whatever” and “one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive.” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., worried that the main result would be “providing an issue to the other side.” And in a TV appearance Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., did his best to make the Green New Deal sound peculiar: “I can’t tell you, to be honest with you. I have read it and I have reread it and I asked Ed Markey … what in the heck is this?”
If a flurry of proposed Green New Deals foster wider recognition of the dangers of global warming, that could be useful. But by demanding so much, the advocates risk undermining their own cause — and enabling those who prefer to do as little as possible. Anyone who wants action to curb climate change would do well to remember the old definition of politics: the art of the possible.