Green New Deal is a viable and necessary option

 

Elements of the Green New Deal are viable and necessary — and we already have certain tangible infrastructure investments in place, like the Rural Electrification Administration and social safety nets, that can play important roles for effective climate and sustainability action. Further, a program like the Civilian Conservation Corps could help to address current environmental issues such as flooding, water shortage and wildfire mitigation.

But in order to create a Green New Deal that meets the necessary climate protections, it must first and foremost identify and eliminate current subsidies for climate incompatible activity. This includes, most obviously, any emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel activity. From there, electrification will be necessary, which will require substantial infrastructure investment at the federal level. This investment will have to include long range, high-voltage electrical transmission, to take care of the intermittency problem of solar and wind power — and the introduction of efficient, high-speed electrified rail travel. And finally — though it is currently a fairly controversial idea in the media — we need to implement a price on carbon: a carbon tax.

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While all of these things would go a long way to decarbonization, they won’t come without their pain points. Though a carbon tax is based on the correct idea that in general, wealthier people use more energy and will thus pay in a higher fee, resulting in a net gain for lower-income people, it is likely that certain groups — for example, low-end workers who have to live far from work and drive a long way — would suffer. The tax would have to come with a mitigation plan to make sure they don’t. To make all of this possible, some form of investment pool has to be developed to help regions heavily dependent on fossil fuels alone diversify their economies. This will be most necessary in areas that are already disadvantaged, such as Appalachia. This is no trivial fix.

The necessary price on carbon will be very high, and the implications will touch all aspects of our economy and society. An example is agriculture: Industrial agriculture today is reliant on fertilizer that comes almost entirely from natural gas — methane­ — which is fossil carbon. Decarbonization thus will transform agriculture and the food system. That, in turn, will have dramatic consequences for rural society across the country.

In order for the Green New Deal to begin to make an impact, however, politicians on both sides of the aisle are going to have to get behind it — which is largely dependent on how these pros and cons are communicated, both to lawmakers and to the general public.

The left tends to think of government spending as investment, but has a tendency to gloss over the actual costs and inefficiencies inherent in spending plans. The right, however, often paints all government expenditure as ‘cost’ without acknowledging the return on investment. Thus, the first communication challenge will be accurately fleshing out the language of spending versus investment and focusing on the tremendous opportunities in the transition of decarbonization. 

Second, environmental policies have for some decades been couched in terms of leveling paying fields and internalizing external costs. To the extent that the solutions can be “setting up the rules” as opposed to “picking winners,” it would seem that more conservative policymakers should be receptive to a Green New Deal. But the cynic will argue that while many conservative lawmakers profess those points of view, they are often in the pocket of vested interests, like the fossil fuel companies, and as such are more in the business of protecting those who are already winning. To the extent that this is true, we are always going to want lots of energy. Policies that let Exxon rapidly morph away from fossil fuels will help, although they have large sunken costs It is hard to imagine that those costs won’t eventually have to be written off. How those write-offs play into the tax laws will be a policy issue worth thinking through.

While the Green New Deal is a viable and necessary option, it’s not the only mechanism for international development and knowledge transfer we need. In addition to the Green New Deal, we need a Green Marshall Plan for investment in international sustainable development to execute an end run around traditional “pollute then mitigate” development policies, and a Green Space Race to spur innovations such as efficient long-range transmission. We have nothing to fear but the end of the world as we know it.

Neil Donahue is a professor of chemical engineering, chemistry and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering.