Economic reasons for a Green New Deal

Economic reasons for a Green New Deal
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“Step Up or Step Aside.”

The sign was one of hundreds from last month’s demonstrations in Washington, D.C., calling for a Green New Deal by the Sunrise Movement, a group of young people working to stop climate change and create green jobs. They’re fed up with inaction and worried about climate’s costs. As chairman of the Global Carbon Project, a non-partisan group of hundreds of scientists documenting greenhouse gas emissions, I agree.

Hearing talk of a Green New Deal, I feel excitement and, perhaps surprisingly, dread. Done well, a Green New Deal will repair the climate, make our businesses more competitive, and put far more people to work in green jobs, including wind and solar, than we’re losing in brown jobs, like coal mining.

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My dread comes as a fiscal conservative. Our national debt in the U.S. is  about $20 trillion, with last year’s tally a whopping $800 billion. We’ll spend an estimated $360 billion this year servicing our debt. If we ran our homes and businesses the way politicians run our country, we’d be bankrupt or in jail.

Let’s start with economic reasons for a Green New Deal. The global economy is creating half a million new jobs yearly in renewable energy and employs more than ten million people. In the U.S. we’ve created a hundred thousand new solar and wind jobs annually, 12 times faster than in the rest of the economy. Green energy is putting people to work.

Green power is also increasingly cheaper. Here at Stanford, we just signed a long-term contract to buy solar power for less than 2.5 cents a kilowatt-hour. That’s extremely low. Remarkable things are happening in wind power, too. 

Other countries are transforming even faster. A third of the cars consumers bought in Norway last year were electric, up 40 percent from the year before. The transition lets them couple zero-pollution vehicles with clean hydropower. China’s investing $360 billion in renewable power in their current five-year plan, creating 13 million new jobs. Their Green New Deal is here.

A Green New Deal also makes sense because we’re paying the costs of climate change today. We suffered $306 billion in damages from hurricanes, fires and other U.S. disasters in 2017, the last year data are fully available, a hundred billion more than ever before.

The insurance industry was among the first to acknowledge the costs of climate change. In Swiss Re’s last annual report, Chairman Walter Kielholz discusses hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria: “The high storm activity clearly illustrated the potential consequences of climate change. “ A few months ago, Jacki Johnson, senior executive in the Insurance Australia Group, said, “You cannot continue to have the carbon emissions and think that the world will be insurable."

Climate is biting back. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), California’s biggest utility, is about to declare bankruptcy. Just a few days ago a judge concluded — tentatively — that power lines may have caused November’s deadly Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and caused about $17 billion in damages. Cal Fire  determined PG&E equipment sparked more than a dozen fires in 2017 that cost $15 billion more.

What PG&E couldn’t control was extreme weather. The summer of 2017 was California’s hottest ever. It followed the second wettest winter on record, leaving a carpet of plants tinder dry. Then 2018 rolled in with a new record for hottest month. Our largest and deadliest fires followed.

Students watching the North Pole melt and the Great Barrier Reef die are demanding a Green New Deal for jobs and climate. Generation Z is informed, impatient and angry at what they see as intransigence on the right.

I support them, but in class I also remind them that Republican presidents signed, even designed, many of our signature environmental laws. Nixon created the EPA and signed the Clean Water Act. Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol to limit ozone-destroying gases. George H.W. Bush supported the Clean Air Act and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Even George W. Bush, who missed his father’s memo on the environment, created the world’s largest marine reserve. President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE, what will your signature environmental legacy be?

And now, briefly, for the dread. When we spend money quickly, we usually spend it badly. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $800 billion to jump-start the economy. We repaired bridges and subsidized rural broadband connections. We supported new research, including grants of my own. What we didn’t do was spend the money as wisely as we could have. President Obama admitted as much. When the Green New Deal finally comes, I pray it’s designed slowly, thoughtfully and carefully.

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If you’re a climate change advocate, support the green economy because the planet’s in danger. If you’re a health advocate, support it because air pollution from cars and coal still kills tens of thousands Americans a year. If a business advocate, support it because we created more solar and wind jobs in the last few years than all the jobs in the country’s coal industry combined. If you’re a security hawk, support it because we still import 3 million barrels of oil a day from OPEC, adding $75 billion yearly to our trade deficit.

I’ve spent two decades documenting the evidence and effects of climate change. Despite my generation’s best efforts, we have failed to convey what’s at stake.

It’s time for others to lead. Fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg recently started a global student movement — class walk-outs to demand federal action on climate. School Strike 4 Climate and Fridays for Future are harbingers of things to come.

Greta, over to you.

Rob Jackson is chairman of the Global Carbon Project and Stanford's Earth System Science Department. He is also a senior fellow in Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment and Precourt Institute for Energy.