Green New Deal Brings Climate Transition to the Mainstream, Omits Key Issue of Urban Sprawl
With supporters hailing U.S. Democrats’ Green New Deal resolution as a breakthrough and some of its predictable opponents declaring it wildly unrealistic, a handful of analysts are pointing to an important omission in the plan unveiled last week by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).
“The proposal encapsulates the liberal delusion on climate change: that technology and spending can spare us the hard work of reform,” contends Cleveland-based writer and Strong Towns member Alex Baca. Her post on Slate points to land use and sprawl as a crucial issue that leaves the Green New Deal with “a big blind spot: It doesn’t address the places Americans live. And our physical geography—where we sleep, work, shop, worship, and send our kids to play, and how we move between those places—is more foundational to a green, fair future than just about anything else.”
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That’s because “America is a nation of sprawl,” Baca writes. “More Americans live in suburbs than in cities,” and “the places in which we live are generally dispersed, inefficient, and impossible to navigate without a car.”
Sprawl, in turn, is enabled by highways that cost the country more than $1 trillion per year in reduced business activity, environmental damage, consumer expenses, and other costs, according to a 2015 analysis by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. “Leaving aside the emissions from the 1.1 billion trips Americans take per day (87% of which are taken in personal vehicles), spreading everything out has eaten up an enormous amount of natural land.”
That kind of thinking makes transportation an elephant in the room for U.S. environmentalists, Baca says, and shifting to electric vehicles won’t be enough on its own to solve the problem if Americans don’t bring down their per capita vehicle miles travelled. “Sprawl requires us to spend more time and more money to reach the places we need to go,” she notes, and the distance from home to work is a particular problem for the communities of interest the Green New Deal sets out to empower and support.
“Sprawl costs us all, but it disproportionately racks up costs for poor people, non-white people, and women,” Baca writes. “All that is a result of a federal stimulus for a disconnected pattern of development that imposes an enormous burden on our finances, our environment, and our pursuit of equity.”
On Vox, veteran climate analyst David Roberts digs into the details and potential stumbling blocks in the Green New Deal resolution. “There are a few items down in the requirements that might raise red flags,” he writes, “but given the long road ahead, there will be plenty of time to sort them out. Overall, this is about as strong an opening bid as anyone could have asked for.”
The plan moves beyond the climate movement’s more traditional and limited focus on technologies and markets, with its emphasis on environmental justice and community resilience and its support for “old-fashioned public investment” that has been “something of a taboo” in neoliberal circles. “Public investment with the returns going back to the public—it’s not a GND without that,” he writes.
Roberts also credits the drafters of the resolution for sidestepping some of the arguments that will come up in the course of the coming debate on the Green New Deal—like how to pay for the program, whether “clean” energy includes technologies like nuclear and carbon sequestration, carbon pricing, and supply-side policy. Strategies to limit fossil fuel supplies, rather than just ramping down demand, “are “the leading edge of the climate fight, out ahead of where labour and most moderates are. Including it in the GND probably would have sparked some defections,” he notes. So “the GND resolution doesn’t touch the subject, other than calling for transition assistance for communities losing fossil fuel jobs.”
On the whole, he writes, those four omissions—or fights postponed—“signal, to me, a movement that is capable of reining in its more vigorous ideological impulses in the name of building the broadest possible left coalition behind an ambitious climate solution. That bodes well.”
But he also points to two gaps: An early draft of the resolution left out any reference to the rapid electrification that will be needed to decarbonize the U.S. economy. And the final version makes only passing, incomplete reference to urban density and public space.
“Creating dense urban areas with ample public spaces and multimodal transportation options—deprioritizing private automobiles and reducing overall automobile traffic—serves multiple progressive goals,” Roberts notes. It deals with cars as the next big climate challenge, reduces urban air pollution and noise, tackles urban heat islands, increases physical activity and social contact, and addresses a looming affordable housing crisis across the U.S. “And, if you will forgive some dreamy speculation, a little more public space might just generate a sense of community and social solidarity to counteract the segregation, atomization, isolation, and mutual distrust that cars and suburbs have exacerbated.”
Baca says the process of changing out the built environment can begin right away, and “the good news is that if we do account for land use, we will get much closer to a safe, sustainable, and resilient future.” With a national deficit of 7.2 million affordable, available rental units for U.S. families most in need, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the critical question is whether those units will be built near transit, or in inaccessible suburbs.
“The Green New Deal is ostensibly a jobs program, an environmental program, and a redistributive program,” Baca concludes. “If it’s a jobs program, it must wrangle with spatial mismatch. If it’s an environmental program, it must tackle the fact that an all-electric fleet of cars is functionally, at this time, a pipe dream. And if it’s a redistributive program, it must grapple with how roads paved into suburban and exurban greenfield developments deepen, expand, and exacerbate segregation.”
Which means a plan that already recognizes the need for building retrofits and upgrades should also look at where they’re located. And “reallocating what we spend on building new roads to paying for public transit instead would go a long way toward limiting sprawl.”
While that discussion unfolds, Roberts points to the distinct possibility that the Green New Deal will become a process of dreaming big and negotiating down.
“It is all to the good that a muscular progressive movement is rallying behind a program shaped by the problem at hand rather than speculation about what is politically possible,” he writes. “It is good to start from a position of strength.” But “given the two-year time window to get legislation ready and the 10-year time window to kick-start multiple decarbonization revolutions, the chances of pulling off a full-scale political revolution beforehand seem remote,” particularly given some of the broader social goals incorporated in the resolution.
“But take a step back and appreciate: The progressive movement has, in rather short order, thrust into mainstream U.S. politics a program to address climate change that is wildly more ambitious than anything the Democratic Party was talking about even two years ago. One hundred percent clean energy, investment in new jobs, and a just transition have gone from activist dreams to the core of the Democratic agenda in the blink of a political eye. There’s a long way to go, but the GND train has come farther, faster than anyone could have predicted.”
Which ultimately means that “the map has been drawn, the path laid out. Now it’s on.”