Second of two parts.
By William S. Becker
Now that we have seen the outline of a Green New Deal for America – the House resolution unveiled by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Markey last week – the predictable reactions are a) its goals are unrealistic and unachievable; b) it looks like socialism; and c) it would cost too much. Let’s break it down.
It’s unachievable: We can’t know that until we have tried. And what would failure look like? What if we only cut greenhouse gas pollution by 60% or 70% instead of 100%? What if we produced a lot of green jobs but not as many as we hoped? What if the economy was more equitable but not to the degree we wanted? Failure would still be progress.
It looks like socialism: We will hear this word a lot in the 2020 election cycle. President Trump used it in his State of the Union speech. It is meant to conjure up the image of a Godzilla government that squashes our freedoms and our lives. Nevertheless, recent polls show a growing interest in socialism among the among the young, as well as support for a more active federal response to climate change.
The discussion we should hear right now is not about the evils of socialism, especially the softer kind represented by people like Bernie Sanders. We should talk about how to fix capitalism. The shortcomings of our current system is inspiring interest in alternatives.
Capitalism should not be an economy unfettered by environmental protections and other reasonable government interventions. That invites the brand of heartless Darwinian capitalism that is incompatible with many of the values on which America prides itself, or should: equal opportunity, fairness, and compassion for those whose bootstrapping is rewarded only with poverty.
Since 1965, CEOs of our big corporations were paid 20 times more than their average workers. Today, they make 344 times more. For every $100 of wealth owned by white families in the United States, black families hold just $5.04. Between 1983 and 2013, the wealth of the median black households dropped 75% and the wealth of the median Latino household dropped 50%, while the wealth in the median white household rose 14%.
These patterns are too extreme to be explained by a lack of ambition among minority groups. Instead, wealth begets power, which is used to shape public policies that give the wealthy advantage in the economy and make them wealthier. A meritocracy is one thing; a plutocracy is another.
In addition, unfettered capitalism can produce an economy of locusts that consume without thought of what they leave behind. It leads to the tragedy of the commons. It is nearsighted. It does not lift all boats. One small step would be to measure progress in America as the quality of our lives, not just GDP.
We should challenge the next round of congressional and presidential candidates to tell us how they would make capitalism compatible with a democratic and moral society.
It costs too much: If we reallocated resources from the things that hurt us to the things that make us better, we would find that we have more than enough capital to invest in a Green New Deal. At the federal level, we can start by recapturing the “deferred revenues” of tax subsidies for oil, gas and coal, and spending them instead on R&D and incentives for clean energy.
If our goal is an economy in which prosperity does not require that we degrade the environmental systems that are essential to quality of life and even life itself – like the atmosphere, for example – the ideal would be a giant leap forward rather than baby steps. In Congress, it would be an omnibus bill designed to produce a Green New Deal all at once.
Short of that, however, Congress can begin taking baby steps with discreet, sensible and politically palatable measures. Here are some examples:
The Green New Deal resolution says the plan to achieve it should be developed in a society-wide, transparent, inclusive “consultation” with the American people.
Action: Federal law already requires each president to send Congress a 10-year “national energy policy plan” every two years. These plans must be created with “active participation by states, localities and all segments of the economy”, a process not unlike that envisioned by the New Dealers. The House could use its appropriations leverage – the leverage Speaker Pelosi has used against the Trump wall — to require that the Administration develop a plan that reflects the climate warnings issued by federal scientists and the Pentagon, as well as what opinion research shows are the priorities of the American people. They coincide in the Green New Deal.
The resolution calls for investments in land-use practices that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
The response: This refers to healthy soils, grasslands, wetlands and forests that are natural “carbon sinks” because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it for a time. A more complete explanation of how to employ these sinks can be found in the Obama Administration’s “United States Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization”. Among other things, it recommends expanding a program launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015 to help farmers, ranchers, landowners and rural communities increase the health of these natural sinks.
Combined with more renewable energy use and efforts to cut emissions in rural areas, carbon sinks could reduce net greenhouse gas pollution by more than 120 million tons a year by 2025, the Mid-Century Strategy estimates. The House should make sure that USDA’s program is well funded and implemented.
The resolution envisions “removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and industry as much as technologically feasible.”
Action: In the next appropriations bill, Congress should provide direction and resources for the Department of Energy to reinvigorate a program it conducted in the past, called “Industries of the Future”. DOE collaborated with the trade associations of the nation’s most energy-intensive industries to develop pollution-free visions for 20 years in the future. The visions helped identify research priorities for DOE’s impressive national laboratories. A revived program would focus on America’s most carbon-intensive industries so that DOE’s labs could push the envelope on what’s “technologically feasible”.
The resolution calls for a variety of financing and capital investments through community banks, local lending programs, government grants and other sources.
Action: Congress could remove roadblocks to “on-bill” financing of energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements in homes and businesses – an arrangement where utilities or municipalities loan funds to households and homeowners repay them with an extra charge on their property tax or utility bills. Congress could make sure that local banks can receive credit under the Community Reinvestment Act for financing energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in low-income neighborhoods. In addition, Congress could push the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans’ Administration and the Small Business Administration to more aggressively promote their energy efficiency and renewable energy loans and loan guarantees.
The resolution calls for the U.S. to participate in international exchanges of clean technology and expertise.
Action: The Paris climate accord is only one of several bilateral and multilateral agreements the United States has negotiated in recent years for international collaboration on clean energy technologies. The House can hold hearings to determine whether the Trump Administration is honoring them. They include the North American Climate, Clean Energy, and Environmental Partnership Action Plan of 2016; the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer; the ICAO Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA); and the US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change of 2014. If necessary, the House could assert its appropriations authority here, too, for the Trump Administration to comply fully with these agreements.
The resolution calls for making sure that “frontline and vulnerable communities shall not be adversely affected” by the Deal.
Action: There are several precedents here. The government has assisted workers affected by new tobacco laws, the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, and international trade policies. Economist Robert Pollin at the University of Massachusetts estimated in 2013 that wage subsidies, health insurance, retraining, counseling and job-search support for displaced fossil fuel workers would cost about $800 million annually, a fraction of the money the federal government spends to subsidize fossil energy.
The resolution calls for the preservation of public lands, oceans, waterways and other environmental assets against abuses of eminent domain.
Action: Congress should establish in law that the atmosphere is a public trust asset and that public officials have a fiduciary duty to protect it for current and future generations. Courts have ruled that this is a state responsibility, but the stability of the atmosphere cannot be guaranteed state by state.
Congress has touched on this before, but should do it in a more enforceable way. In the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, Congress recognized that the government must “fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.” Also, the United States is still a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was blessed by the Senate and ratified by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. It commits the U.S. and other signatory nations to “protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind.”
The message here is that Congress can begin immediately to put pieces of the Green New Deal in place. But there is a bigger message, too. We need more leaders in Congress who actually lead rather than waiting for parades they can jump in front of. The American people are waking up to the danger of global warming. With a little bit of leadership, they could also wake up to the fact that our response can be more than defensive. Visionary responses like the Green New Deal could produce a reborn nation.