Blair Horner: The Green New Deal Debate

Feb 25, 2019

Elected officials across the nation are advancing a “Green New Deal” to respond to the terrifying threat posed by global warming.  The plan has tremendous national visibility since it was raised by new Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey. The Congressional version calls for sweeping changes in American society to drive the nation to net zero fossil fuel emissions by 2030.

Governor Cuomo has embraced the term to describe his plan for eliminating fossil fuels as a power source for the state’s electricity grid by the year 2040.  State legislators have embraced the term and introduced bills along those lines as well.

The idea of a “Green New Deal” is not new, its origins go back a decade or so and have been advanced in various forms by the Green Party in both national and New York State elections.  Its moniker harks back to the New Deal plans advanced by President Roosevelt in the 1930s as an organizing principle to attack the Great Depression.  Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was not a single proposal, but a set of plans that attacked the nation’s economic situation.  The idea was to keep advancing plans to use the power of the national government to stimulate the economy and put people back to work.  It was a response to a national emergency, one that the nation could see and was experiencing.

The “Green New Deal” offers a similar mindset:  The world is facing an environmental catastrophe and the United States must reorganize itself to rely on non-fossil fuel-generated power.

However, the devastation generated by the planet heating up is sometimes hard to see in the moment.  The planet heats up slowly and the impacts – more severe weather, droughts in one area and unprecedented rainfalls in others – are less obvious.  Coupled with the deliberate falsehoods uttered by the Trump administration and its ideological and economic allies to sow doubt over the science, Americans are not as prepared to take on the threat as they were in the 1930s.

Yet, the threat is real.  According to the world’s experts, the lack of meaningful action to date has accelerated the changes to the world’s climate and is heating the planet to its “boiling point.”  A report issued last Fall by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), found that the world is perhaps a decade away from the possibilities of runaway global warming – a tipping point when it would be almost impossible to stop the worst consequences.  Keeping the increase in the planet’s average temperature to no more than 1.5°C (or 2.7°F) than it was 150 years ago, is viewed by scientists as the maximum amount the earth can sustain before the impacts move from severe to devastating.

The report, (which included over 6,000 scientific references, and was prepared by 91 authors from 40 countries) was written to give the world "the authoritative, scientific guide for governments" to deal with climate change.”  Its key finding was that meeting a 1.5°C (2.7°F) target is possible but would require "deep emissions reductions" and "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society."  Furthermore, the report finds  that "limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared with 2°C (3.6°F) would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being" and that a 2°C temperature increase would expedite and intensify extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, coral bleaching, and loss of ecosystems, among other impacts.  The report also found that "Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching 'net zero' around 2050."

The United States has generated more of the world’s greenhouse gases – which cause global warming – than any other nation.  Our nation has a moral responsibility to lead the world on how to attack this problem.  In order for the world to hit the new zero fossil fuel goal by mid-Century, the United States would have to meet it far sooner.  And in order for the United States to lead, given that national policy is stonewalled, states like New York must be even more aggressive in taking on the challenge to point the country in the right direction.

Hence the calls for a “Green New Deal.”

Despite the science and the compelling need for action, the phrase has become a political weapon used by opponents to attack environmentalists, and by incrementalists to defend milder, less controversial positions.  Opponents run the gamut from those who flat out deny the science, to those who cite technological challenges, costs, economic impacts and political resistance to urge a gradual approach.

Opposition dooms billions to lives of misery over the rest of the 21st Century and denies young people their owed inheritance of a habitable planet.  Most fundamentally, incrementalism fails the test for the actions needed to solve the climate crisis.  The inexorable climate devastation that modern society set in motion are not subject to negotiation and compromise.

New York State must lead the way with ambitious goals, ones that: dramatically improve the energy efficiency of the state, eliminate the use of fossil fuels in generating electricity by the year 2030, prohibit the sale of fossil fuel-powered new cars and invest in electric vehicles and charging stations to meet that demand, and invest in mass transit systems.  The technology is available, the urgency is clear.  What is missing is the political will.

Whatever one wants to call it, a “Green New Deal” is needed.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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