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The realism of the Green New Deal

Amid the debate, one thing is clear: the proposal is grounded in a realistic assessment of the societal mobilization required to meet the climate challenge.

Eric Kemp-Benedict / Published on 13 February 2019

Last week, US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey introduced a nonbinding resolution for a “Green New Deal”, sketching out a program that would move the US towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The resolution has sparked a lot of commentary. Many, both critics and supporters, have questioned whether the ten-year time frame is realistic. It is certainly more likely than not that any eventual legislation will fall well short of the resolution’s ambitious goals.

But if that happens, it will be a pity. Because where it matters, the resolution is solidly realistic in terms of the science, the scope of needed action, and the need for fairness and security if such a massive program is to succeed.

The science

The preamble of the resolution offers a concise – and accurate – summary of the potential impacts of climate change for the United States and for the world, as well as the need for action. Namely: to minimize the potential for serious climate change impacts, we should keep global average temperature within 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average. We’ve already crossed a line where there is some chance of this happening, but to keep chances relatively low would require global greenhouse gas emissions to fall to about half their 2010 levels by 2030 and to (nearly) zero by 2050.

Moreover, the US should act even faster; it has not only a historical responsibility for emissions, but the resources and capability to act. The US is also a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), meaning it has accepted that it should join other high-income countries and take the lead on climate action.

The 10-year window of the resolution is consistent with the science, and thus realistic in terms of what is actually needed. If we don’t meet these goals, then we are almost certainly committing today’s younger generation and the ones that follow to increasingly severe impacts from climate change.

The scope of needed action

Meeting the climate challenge requires action across a wide front. Most greenhouse gases are emitted when fossil fuels are consumed, so the resolution focuses on transforming electricity supply. That will require an enormous effort, but can be made easier if energy demand is brought down at the same time through building retrofits, investments in clean manufacturing, and expanding efficient and zero carbon transportation. Those are all part of the resolution’s program.

The resolution acknowledges that reductions in some sectors, particularly transportation and agriculture, are going to offer particular challenges. It therefore calls for reductions “as much as technologically feasible” in those sectors, rather than proposing that emissions go all the way to zero after the ten years.

As in the original New Deal and in the mobilization for World War II, this will require a massive expansion of investment in public infrastructure and private industry. But, also like the New Deal and war mobilization, it will also mean a lot of good and well-paying blue-collar jobs. That is a central message — and indeed the central purpose — of the resolution.

The need for fairness and security

Although we know a lot about how to reduce emissions in general, we don’t know which specific technologies or approaches will succeed. Some will work and some won’t.

What to do in the face of great effort and high uncertainty? The resolution embeds two promising strategies. The first is to make decisions and allocate responsibilities in a way that seems fair. The second is to provide a safety net so that people feel secure. Most of the resolution is about implementing these strategies. It is an important innovation in US climate policy.

The resolution addresses fairness with its proposal that the financial benefits of green investment flow to the public and their local and regional economies. To support private industry, the resolution calls for a fair and competitive commercial environment. It also calls for transparent and inclusive consultation, democratic and participatory processes, and the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples for all decisions that affect them. The goal, as stated in the resolution, is that all will be “full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization”.

This is crucial because a major mobilization requires trust. As we work together towards common goals, we have to put our trust in strangers and public institutions to act on our behalf. It is easier to give that trust when people feel they are being treated fairly. They are also more willing to give their trust – and take risky actions on their own behalf – if they feel there is a safety net.

The resolution provides for such a safety net. Given the expected expansion of blue-collar jobs, much of this would be met through a guarantee of high-quality union jobs with decent wages and good benefits. But it also follows other high-income countries with guarantees of high-quality health care, affordable housing, economic security, and a healthy environment.

A challenge grounded in realism

The Green New Deal resolution is not a detailed policy proposal. It is an outline for a national mobilization. It sets a stake in the ground in anticipation of upcoming political debates on how to meet the climate challenge.

The resolution calls for sweeping changes to US infrastructure, energy supply, manufacturing, and transportation. This is a daunting task. Any final legislation will almost certainly be less ambitious.

But whatever political and economic difficulties may arise, one point should never be lost: the resolution is grounded in a solidly realistic assessment of the societal mobilization required to meet the climate challenge.

It starts with what we know: we know what needs to be done, we know it’s a big job, and we know that we need to do it together.

But it acknowledges that there are even more unknowns. When people are asked to step into the unknown, they want to know that their concerns will be taken into account and that they won’t be left by the wayside. They want fairness and security. The Green New Deal proposal tries to address this grand challenge – and that is a big step forward.

Written by

Eric Kemp-Benedict
Eric Kemp-Benedict

SEI Affiliated Researcher


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