The Green New Deal Is Only the Beginning of the Search for National Consensus
Given all the green talk—positive and negative—that has gone on since Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) Green New Deal hit the headlines it’s not surprising that others have begun to step forward with proposed alternatives. The climate debate’s current driver is the run for elective office. What will sustain it long past the 2020 elections is the increasing incidence, costs, and consequences of climate-related weather disasters.
Compared to the Democrats making climate change a principal platform of their 2020 election strategy is the protestation of Donald Trump that there’s no problem to solve and the willingness of many Republican conservatives to follow wherever he leads. The heat of the partisan debate will rise faster and burn hotter than Earth’s temperatures between now and when ballots are cast next November.
Climate calamities don’t distinguish between red and blue states. Voters in ever larger numbers are admitting to having been touched by the consequences of global warming and are recognizing the causal connection between human activity and the release of harmful greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon and methane. These personal experiences reflect global reality.
Climate-related weather disasters each costing one billion dollars, or more, are no longer one-off surprises. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) counted 14 such disasters in 2018: two tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two winter storms, drought, and wildfires. The past three years (2016-2018) have recorded an historic number of billion-dollar disasters--more than double the long-term average.
Partisan politics has now permeated disaster recovery assistance. Although calamity doesn’t distinguish between red and blue states, it appears that the Trump White House and enough Congressional Republicans do. They have stalled the appropriation and release of funds to pay the price of 2017 and 2018 disasters—including the damage done to Puerto Rico. Whatever the outcome, the fight will likely add heat to the climate debate leading up to the 2020 elections.
Whereas mainstream climate science reflects the reality of what’s happening, the same may not be said of the politics. Although the Green New Deal (GND) offers a convenient short-hand rallying cry for climate defenders and deniers alike, it is misleading to speak of the Green New Deal (GND) as a discreet legislative proposal.
The GND, as described in H. Res 109/S. 59, casts the causes and consequences of climate change based on the preponderance of peer-reviewed evidence collected by global scientists over decades of field and laboratory work. The resolution(s) offers aspirational goals reflecting the magnitude and types of actions needed to effectuate the cultural change required to transition the nation to a sustainable environment and just society. In this regard, it is no different than what we—as citizens of the nation—commit to when pledging it our allegiance.
Justice and liberty for all are our goals—not the means for achieving them. They are accomplished only when the executive and legislative branches of government work together to put in place a linked set of policies, laws, and regulations capable of moving the nation towards the desired outcome. Laws and policies of that must often be tested and confirmed by the judiciary in a government of and by the people.
Achieving the collective's desired outcome is an evolutionary process—based on experimen-tation, tradition, the known and unknown laws of nature, and the practical exigencies of a democratic political system. A system that rarely works smoothly or perfectly. It is much the way we develop as individuals—steps at a time.
The process is a continuum that doesn’t finish for more than a moment. For if it does, it risks currency and effectiveness because of time’s inevitable march, i.e., through advancing scientific understanding, technological innovations and existential events.
The climate change dialogue did not start with Ocasio-Cortez—AOC as she is popularly known—or the recent rise of youth organizations like the Sunrise Movement and the Extinction Rebellion. Today’s youth advocates are not the first to recognize the connections between human actions and nature’s destruction or the need to transition away from a fossil-fueled economy using clean and renewable alternatives.
The new generation of climate activists are only repeating the claim they’re reaping the whirlwinds of previous generations failing to act wisely and forcefully in the face of facts. It is also true, however, that because of the activism of earlier generations, today’s environmental defenders have economically proven clean and renewable energy technologies with which to continue fighting the revolution.
Earlier attempts to convince the deniers of days gone by to disengage from unprotected and unsustainable environmental practices were met with many of the same arguments as those still put forth by self-serving industrial, personal, and political interests as today. Somethings have not changed. Other things have.
The number of absolute denialists is dwindling. As markets have begun to move towards sustainability, some utilities have begun to set goals of 100 percent renewables over the next several decades; auto companies are planning to abandon the internal combustion engine for electric power generated by clean technologies and stored in technologically advanced battery packs that can power homes as well as transports.
Is it enough? Certainly not. It’s a latent beginning at best. Had it started a quarter century ago, the environment would be a more habitable place and the current situation much less dire.
This new generation of climate defenders is right. The middle ground between deniers and defenders is not even part of the answer. The nation cannot afford just to put back what Trumplicans have ripped away of Obama era climate policies and programs—often against the rule of law.
Yes, the climate was important to the Obama—just not important enough to have gotten around to it until late in the administration, when it was felt politically safe to attempt it. “Politically safe” don’t save the planet, however—not now and not before. It’s another thing about which the current generation of environmental advocates is right.
All of this is not to say adopting kitsch phrases like--We are going to change the fate of humanity, whether you like it or not. I take the “you” in the phrase as meaning anyone that is not “them.” To my way of thinking, this is where their climate train begins to run off the tracks.
It is one thing to demand action. It is another to dictate what must be done under threat of…of what? A kind of zombie army of doctrinaire believers that Trump dreams of one day leading? If I were now speaking directly to a new generation activist or group of climate defenders, this is where I would say “that is not you.”
The funny thing about saving humanity is that it can’t be done without its cooperation. I’ve both learned and failed to learn many things over the course of what is not yet my lifetime—but this, I know. Americans, as a group, have never responded well to being dictated to or at, for that matter.
The more strident the dictation, the more we the people you are trying to save will come not to believe you, no matter what facts you put before them. Why? Because they won’t trust the messenger—just on principle.
Therein lies the other thing I’ve come to learn in a career of climate politics—at least about this nation. It runs on trust—certainly in God or the gods—but mostly in each other.
None of this is to say that a bit of yelling isn’t good for the soul and useful for getting the attention of others. Even the Science Guy has to let loose once in a while. Perhaps all climate defenders need to get up out of their chairs, open the window, stick their heads out, and yell: "The Earth is on “f***ing fire!”
Let me offer one final piece of uncharged for advice before moving on to the moral of my story. Given today’s sensibilities, it’s wise to say what’s meant and not rely on someone understanding your unique brand of humor. I’ve laughed myself right out of some very good positions lately, so this is experience speaking.
Parenthetically, I was relieved by AOC’s recent tweet to know that I didn’t have the social intelligence of a sea sponge because I didn’t believe the world ending in 12 years’ thing.Which brings me to the reason I started to write this piece in the first place.
I want to propose that we the people agree to change the meaning of the GND acronym to Green New Directions and start to consider seriously the crop of ideas—some old, many new—now being presented by Democratic presidential candidates and Republican and Democratic members of Congress as a starting point to reach a national consensus.
For purposes of these discussions, let’s all try to put politics aside and judge these proposals by their content and not their proposer’s party.
I’ll be following this lead article with discussions of the proposals being put forth by various researchers, politicians, climate activist organizations, and others. I am particularly taken at the moment with the recent rollout by House and Senate Democrats of a legislative proposal that would set a national clean energy standard to bring the nation's carbon emissions from the electric sector to nearly net zero by 2050.
The bills’, S. 1359 and HR 2597, primary sponsors Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) and House Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) would take a technology-neutral approach to clean energy, enabling power sources from renewables, advanced nuclear, battery storage and carbon capture. The mandate laid out by the bill would reduce carbon output from electric generation by 80 percent by 2035 and hit nearly net zero by 2050 compared with 2005 levels.
The second plan of attack I will be reviewing is Governor Jay Inslee’s (D-WA) proposal to achieve 100% clean electricity, 100% zero-emission new vehicles, and 100% zero-carbon new buildings. Inslee is serving his second terms as Washington’s governor and the only candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who’s basing his entire campaign on addressing climate change. He has the most executive experience of any of the candidates when it comes to climate matters and knows what it is like to have to deal across party lines.
Although still mostly bones to be fleshed out, Inslee’s framework comes closest in its breadth of targeted actions to the aspirational goals of the Green New Deal. According to the candidate’s website, the plan will empower America to make the entire electrical grid and every new car and building climate pollution-free, at the speed [that] science and public health demand.
Throughout the series, I intend to keep reminding readers that notwithstanding the various individual means to a transition to a net zero economy the nation has yet to come to any consensus on the specific integrating terns and objectives of a national climate defense policy. The nation’s voters and policymakers need to answer such questions as are listed below. There are others.
The US has never had an integrated national energy and environment policy. An ad hoc piecemeal approach is inefficient. Moreover, detached wanderings can make the transition much less just.
As a final note, I dare say today’s generational accusers will one day find themselves the accused. I hope when that day comes their accusers will be able to look back and say truly that all generations of climate defenders who went before made the job of crossing the final frontier easier.
Lead image: https://unsplash.com/@tchompalov
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.