Risks of Higher Emissions, Community Impacts Add Complexity to Green New Deal
Opinion & Analysis
With Congressional Democrats planning to “go on offence” on climate change in hopes of mobilizing younger voters, the Green New Deal unveiled last month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is coming in for some thoughtful criticism from analysts who support its direction but worry about its unintended consequences.
Last week, the University of Manchester’s Matthew Paterson cautioned that a plan that calls for a massive buildout of new public infrastructure could ultimately drive up greenhouse gas emissions—just like the original 1930s New Deal after which it is named. And on CleanTechnica, reporter Carolyn Fortuna points to the peril for vulnerable communities if the Green New Deal doesn’t include a realistic transition for communities that depend on fossil fuels.
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“The Green New Deal borrows its name and ethos from the New Deal—introduced in the 1930s by then-U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt to kickstart an economy crippled by the Great Depression,” Paterson notes. “But are strategies which echo the needs of the 1930s and 1940s—ending the Depression and defeating Nazism—suitable for the rapid transition from fossil fuels that defines our needs in the early 21st century? Can any strategy which relies on historical analogies be adapted to the current climate emergency?”
On the contrary, while “the Green New Deal’s proposed investment in public infrastructure and focus on inequality mirrors the original aims of the New Deal,” he contends, “economic transformation will look very different under a Green New Deal. Whereas Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed to grow the economy, its modern equivalent entails shrinking many economic activities currently central to the economy’s operations.”
Much as Roosevelt’s efforts are venerated by many Americans, “the original New Deal spurred a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” Paterson adds. “By generating huge public investment in roads and power stations, as well as redistributing wealth through the emerging welfare state, it set the stage for what some call the ‘great acceleration’ in greenhouse gas emissions” during and after the Second World War. While the earlier stage of that activity was driven by the U.S. military buildup, “it was sustained by the expansion of consumption after the war—most directly by the shift to mass car ownership and urban sprawl that ‘locked in’ high fossil energy use, not only in transport but in housing.”
That history illustrates the way the GND “contains a basic contradiction that anyone pursuing it will have to wrestle with as it develops,” he writes. “Many of the measures proposed—such as investing in infrastructure and spreading wealth more evenly—will intrinsically work in tension with efforts to decarbonize the economy.”
To meet the targets in the IPCC’s landmark report on 1.5°C pathways, economies will have to decarbonize at an annual rate of at least 3%—a feat that is already unparalleled in human history. But if a plan like the GND delivers economic growth of, say, 2% per year, that same economy will have to decarbonize by 5% annually to hit the IPCC target.
That’s a tension that Green New Deal proponents will have to manage, Paterson stresses.
“If one imperative is to build new infrastructure to get the U.S. economy going, how much of this will really do more than pay lip service to the energy system transformation in practice?” he asks. “The ‘Green’ in Green New Deal demands that all new infrastructure built is effectively carbon neutral. Even new transit infrastructure, for example, would have to be entirely electric, at the same time as that electricity system is supposed to rapidly abandon coal and then natural gas. It’s easy to imagine which will win when that tension works its way through the political process.”
Meanwhile, Fortuna’s post for CleanTechnica puts forward the equal and opposite challenge, warning that the GND’s “noble intentions” to deliver a just transition for fossil workers and communities might be easier said than done.
“The climate change mitigation goals of the GND, which include achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, necessarily displace the fossil fuel industry work force,” Fortuna notes, citing a recent Harvard Business Review article by Indiana University associate professors Sanya Carley and David Konisky. “The cost to transition to the goals within the Green New Deal must take into account their effects on vulnerable communities, including those whose economies and public finances rely on the extraction and use of fossil fuels,” she writes.
The risks include coal communities in Appalachia and elsewhere that will see “additional job losses, tax revenue erosion, and otherwise weakened socioeconomic conditions” in the post-carbon transition, financial burdens for households that might end up spending more of their
limited incomes on energy, and communities that may be left out of the clean energy job boom due to mismatched skills and limited training opportunities.
But Carley and Konisky “say these vulnerabilities are implicit to the goals of the GND, and that the GND can go so far as to ensure that traditionally marginalized communities reap the benefits from the shift to clean energy,” Fortuna notes.
“Taking advantage of these early opportunities will not only help transform and protect vulnerable communities. It will also allow companies to secure new modes of revenue,” the two HBR authors write. “Economic development opportunities targeted to these areas, as well as those that are likely to be affected in the years to come, can help revive stagnating local economies and insulate them from the downsides of the transition.”
CleanTechnica cites emerging opportunities for mining communities to adopt onsite renewables, for communities to transform abandoned coal facilities into sustainable economic development sites, and for utilities and other companies to adopt inclusive business models that help people and organizations “overcome the challenge of making large up-front investments in efficient technologies”.
While those discussions play out, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) says his caucus is looking for climate legislation it can run on in the 2020 general election and introduce early in 2021 if a Democrat wins the White House. “This is the first time Democrats have decided to go on offence on climate change,” he told the New York Times. Asked about a bill, though, he conceded that “it’s going to take us a little while to come up with a consensus that works.”
Climate Reality Project founder and former U.S. vice president Al Gore said climate legislation could be a “heavy lift politically” for his party.
“Democrats see fighting climate change as a winning issue on the campaign trail—a way to mobilize not only young voters but also progressives, who are increasingly talking about the environment in terms of economic and social justice, given the outsize effect pollution has on minority communities,” the Times reports. “But the rise of climate change as a rallying cry has come with huge downsides for Democrats. The ambitions of its youthful advocates have clashed with the caution of Democratic veterans, memorably caught in a viral video of middle and high schoolers confronting Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.”
Which may help explain why Schumer appears to be looking for a climate strategy that is not the Green New Deal. “It’s hard to spot the actual ‘offence’ in his strategy,” Grist writes. “This is by design. The unspoken goal of Schumer’s plan is to provide his more moderate colleagues cover—not from the right, which wants to ignore the realities of human-made climate change, but from the activist left, which is demanding urgent action.”
Meanwhile, the other reflexive response to the Green New Deal—that it’s too expensive to implement—is colliding with the massive financial losses the United States is already facing due to its failure to confront the climate crisis, In a biennial report issued last week, the U.S. Government Accountability office “details waste, mismanagement, abuse, and fraud in government agencies and programs, and found that federal inaction regarding climate change is costing U.S. taxpayers tens of billions of dollars annually,” Common Dreams reports.
“According to the GAO, taxpayer funds spent on disaster relief could be saved if more effort and spending went into mitigating the climate crisis that is intensifying the frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters,” the e-publication notes.
“We found that federal investments in resilience could be more effective if post-disaster hazard mitigation efforts were balanced with resources for pre-disaster hazard mitigation,” the federal report stated. It found the U.S. had spent $500 billion on disaster relief since 2005, “most recently for catastrophic hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and other losses in 2017 and 2018.” Those disasters are expected to cost more each year “as extreme weather events become more frequent and intense due to climate change,” and Trump administration practices have made the picture worse.
Continuing in the wrong direction “will not only impose mounting costs on taxpayers, but could also jeopardize the health, safety, and livelihoods of people around the country,” said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate and Energy Program.