Green New Deal: Isolationist in scope and blind to geopolitical reality

 

The issue of climate change is now being compared to one of the most sobering, consequential eras in U.S. history — the challenges, sacrifices and accomplishments of America’s Greatest Generation. California Gov. Jerry Brown compared the climate battle to fighting Nazis, others have suggested a Marshall Plan for climate change, and now there’s a resolution  “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal” (GND).

Any modern-day comparison to that generation of Americans should be done with reverence, if at all. However, it’s worth extending the analogy as an object lesson on the shortcomings of the Green New Deal resolution, which is insufficient in scope to meet the global challenge of climate change and blind to geopolitical realities of the 21st century.

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America’s WWII efforts were global, and they were aligned with overall objectives to subdue authoritarian regimes intent on spreading oppressive ideologies throughout the world. To that end, Americans were trained and machinery was manufactured in the U.S. and strategically deployed overseas to regions where threats were greatest.

For climate change, the greatest CO2 threat is the Asia-Pacific where economies have developed on fossil fuels for the past 20 years and coal plants remain in their forward planning. From 2000 to 2017, global CO2 emissions increased 9,821 mmtons with 8,643 mmtons (88 percent of world total) derived from Asia-Pacific countries, led by China and India. During this same period, U.S. CO2 emissions decreased 639 mmtons.

The issue is global climate, yet, the Green New Deal scope is limited to the U.S. This isn’t an issue of right versus wrong or which country is to be blamed — it’s a pragmatic matter of policy focus.

The Green New Deal’s isolationist approach to the existential threat of global climate treats the U.S. as if it is a climate island. However, America can’t insulate itself from the impacts of climate change any more than it could have insulated itself from fascism had it maintained an isolationist posture in the 1940s. Global existential threats, if not confronted where they originate, eventually come ashore as a direct domestic reality.

The greatest impact the U.S. can have on climate change is via deployment of U.S. expertise and low-carbon technologies as tactical elements of a broader strategy. And this deployment must include nuclear power — the only zero-carbon technology that can directly substitute for coal at the global scale.

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Perhaps the greater concern with the Green New Deal is the national security threat it would create with respect to America’s global stature in nuclear science, engineering and technology.

Diplomats and strategists of the WWII era were realists who comprehended the geopolitics of their time. While devastating and costly battles were being waged, the USSR was drawing up its own post-WWII geopolitical map. Though not evident to the general public, this geopolitical undercurrent figured into America’s overall strategy as the U.S. had to shape a post-war world order that would promote principles and ideals of liberal democracy rather than authoritarianism. 

Similarly, as the climate change battle is waged today, America’s energy and climate policies must account for the broader geopolitical realities and undercurrents of the 21st century world as it is. A world where two authoritarian governments not only compete for hegemony in civilian nuclear power, they leverage nuclear power as an extension of the state to gain geopolitical influence throughout the world — those nations being China and Russia.

This represents an existential threat to U.S. national security. And while nuclear isn’t explicitly precluded from the Green New Deal, the absence of nuclear power as the core technology around which to construct a globally comprehensive climate policy constitutes a geopolitical miscalculation.

If 21st century America insists on comparing its modern-day energy and climate challenges to those of America’s Greatest Generation, then at a minimum its response should follow that generation’s example by developing a global strategy that is focused on regions in the world where the issue is most acute and that is aligned with 21st century geopolitical realities of civilian nuclear power competition.

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The Green New Deal does neither of these.

Instead, "the heart of the GND is about social justice". Thus, it is fundamentally a populist resolution proffered as global climate policy, yet, with no global reach as to climate or nuclear national security. Rather than motivate serious deliberations, the Green New Deal is likely to further polarize policymakers, sow confusion into the public discourse and distract America from the serious efforts needed for developing comprehensive and strategic policy.

Following WWII, America realized it could no longer conduct its affairs as a geopolitical island. The isolationism that once subsumed U.S. sentiment following WWI yielded to the realism that a global threat could become a U.S. threat, and if America chose to turn inward, the threat may reach U.S. shores. Similarly, America cannot battle global climate change nor compete with China and Russia for global leadership in civilian nuclear power under isolationist policies such as the Green New Deal. In fact, it defies all tactical and strategic logic for the U.S. to marginalize, or retreat from, nuclear power — the only technology with the proven capacity to stand up to the challenge of global climate change while strengthening U.S. national security.

America needs sober, strategic energy and climate policy. And that sober strategic policy should center on U.S. nuclear power, not the Green New Deal.

David Gattie is an associate professor of engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, and a resident fellow in the University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade and Security. Gattie is an unpaid member of the advocacy council for energy coalition Nuclear Matters. Prior to UGA, he worked 14 years in private industry as an energy services engineer and an environmental engineer. The opinion expressed here is his own.

This piece has been updated.