By William S. Becker
The scuttlebutt from Washington, D.C., is that supporters of the Green New Deal (GND) will embark on a Plan B now that the Senate has voted down their aspirational resolution for an aggressive federal response to global climate change. Plan B is to back away from the ambitious goals of the GND in favor of smaller and more specific bills.
In other words, the “B” in Plan B stands for Boring instead of Bold. Now that climate change is back on the congressional agenda, the momentum should be sustained to make the 2020 elections the first that focus heavily on global warming. The momentum would be lost if the GND is fragmented into something less than a comprehensive mobilization of federal assets to fulfill America’s responsibilities in the international effort to stop carbon pollution.
In the wake of President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris accord, hundreds of states, localities and businesses stepped up and promised to meet America’s obligations as the second-largest source of carbon pollution. That would be a very good thing, but it is highly unlikely the United States can achieve a net-zero carbon economy in the next 30 years with the federal government sitting on the bench.
A little shaming & a Big Bill
The Senate’s rejection of the GND should not have been a surprise. It would be disappointing if the advocates for climate action in Congress did not have a Plan B that pushes forward rather than falling back. That plan should have two parts. First, it should shame the lawmakers who responded to the GND not with constructive alternatives, but with childish stunts. Second, it should shift the momentum to a Green New Bill with concrete proposals for federal action.
The promising news in the Senate’s show trial for the GND was that several members who have been in the denial camp acknowledged that global warming is real. But their typical talking point was that new technologies and good old American innovation are the answer.
What they did not acknowledge is that the federal government plays an indispensable role in spawning new technologies, including several that have created massive industries and jobs. The government has provided the basic research and risk capital that the private sector is reluctant to provide. For example, we have an entrepreneurial federal government to thank for GPS technology, smart phones, the touch screens in Apple products, the flame-resistant clothing worn by firefighters, baby formula, the flu vaccine and many other medicines, nuclear power, nuclear medicine, lasers, the algorithm that makes Google work, bar-code scanners, Doppler radar, solar cells, Siri and even duct tape. At last count, national laboratories averaged about 1,500 inventions each year.
However, while advances in technology are part of the solution, there must also be changes in the fiscal policies and government programs created by and for last century’s carbon economy. In addition, it is the federal government that has the authority to enter into bilateral and multilateral agreements to ensure that other countries also make progress toward zero carbon.
Elements of a Green New Bill
A Green New Bill would be a broad and ambitious but achievable proposal that turns the aspirations of the GND resolution into meaningful forward motion.
The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis could start with a series of public hearings to gather insights and ideas from stakeholders. It would invite testimony from state and local officials, business leaders and the several conservative and right-of-center groups working on clean energy and climate action. It would ask leaders of the America’s Pledge and We Are Still In campaigns what the federal government could do to support them.
The Select Committee should hear from business leaders who have pledged to achieve 100% renewable and/or zero-carbon energy. Many of them say that cost-effective technologies already are available to achieve 80% of that goal, but research is needed to accomplish the last 20%. The Green New Bill could create a task force of progressive business leaders and federal researchers to set priorities for the Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories and other federal R&D assets.
The Select Committee could invite testimony from citizens and communities most disrupted by the national transition to zero-carbon energy, as well as those who are least able to cope with climate change. The Committee would ask what the federal government should do to make sure that the energy transition is economically and socially just.
Repairing Trump’s damage
Meanwhile, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce could investigate how much damage the Trump Administration has done to the government’s science capabilities and whether budgets and staffing are sufficient for federal agencies to fulfill their traditional roles of doing the basic research and providing the risk capital the private sector does not provide.
The Committee could ask tough questions about redirecting federal assets to support the clean energy transition. For example, do the mature and profitable oil and natural gas industries still need tens of billions of dollars in annual taxpayer subsidies? After 22 years, more than $5 billion of federal support and enough failures to make the Solyndra loss look like chump change, isn’t it time to turn the development of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) over to the coal, natural gas, concrete and steel industries that hope to benefit from it?
A Green New Bill could require that Congress and the Administration include the social cost of carbon (SCC) in benefit-cost analyses for new legislation, regulations and federal programs. The SCC would not be the ridiculously low value set by the Trump Administration, but rather the value established at the National Academies of Sciences — about $40 a metric ton of carbon. The bill could adopt the National Academies’ recommendation to update the SCC every five years to incorporate new knowledge about quantifying the economic, environmental and social costs of carbon emissions.
The Bill could codify the sustainability requirements President Obama issued in 2015 for federal agencies. Among other things, he directed government agencies to reduce the energy intensity of federal buildings and data centers, obtain 25% of building energy and 30% of building electricity from renewable resources, reduce potable water consumption 36%, and cut emissions from federal vehicles at least 30%, all by 2025. He ordered that all new federal buildings be designed to achieve net-zero energy, water and waste by 2030. President Trump rescinded these requirements.
Power of the purse
Goals like these conserve natural resources and save money. They use federal procurement to break trail on cutting-edge designs and products. Moreover, they use the government’s purchasing power as the nation’s largest energy consumer ($16 billion a year) to help shape private markets, achieve economies of scale, and lower prices for green technologies and designs.
The Green New Bill could also establish national energy efficiency and renewable energy standards, while giving states discretion to exceed them. The standards could be structured to improve national energy efficiency 30% and to cut economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions significantly by 2030 on the way to a net-zero energy economy by mid-century.
A Green New Bill could improve America’s capacity for innovation by investing more in science and engineering education, creating the conditions to recruit the world’s best scientists for our national laboratories, fostering an atmosphere of innovation, lowering interest rates for college loans, and increasing the number of foreign-born workers in the United States who have STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) training.
In short, a Green New Bill would show how the feds can confront climate change by empowering other levels of government and the private sector; fixing some market imperfections; creating public-private research collaborations; strengthening the federal role as an incubator of new technologies; giving America an early-adopter advantage in emerging international markets; and putting the U.S. back into a leadership role to make sure that all nations participate in the world’s shift to advanced energy.
The bill would not pass in this Congress, but it would define a path forward and give presidential and congressional candidates a lot to talk about in the 2020 election cycle. Equally important, it would keep Congress from squandering the momentum that the GND created.