Coronavirus calls for an aggressive Green New Deal
Between the novel Coronavirus, the biggest stock market crash since 2008 and the Trump administration’s mismanagement of it all, the nation feels precariously close to disaster. Going into the 2020 election, Democrats need a clear progressive response. This response should be a visionary Green New Deal.
This need not be the one already outlined in Congress; rather, it should be fashioned to respond to the long-term fallout from our current set of interconnected crises and move the nation forward on stronger footing for the next set of crises to come, some of which will surely stem from climate change.
The relief package approved by the Senate and signed by Trump, and a reported $1 trillion stimulus in the works, are much needed short-term solutions. But more will need to be done. To prevent the next set of crises, the federal government must tie its response to deep decarbonization.
Today’s problems are harbingers. A warmer earth means better conditions for mosquitos, ticks, and the diseases they carry, like dengue, malaria, Zika, and Lyme. Meanwhile, oil prices just saw their biggest drop since 1991, foreshadowing the eventual bursting of the carbon bubble, which will cost trillions. Wall Street has started to see the writing on the wall, as money managers like BlackRock divest from fossil fuels.
If we don’t want 2020 to be repeated again and again, worse and worse, we need to act in a forward-looking way. A “green” stimulus could, for example, retrain workers from the oil and gas industry to lay pipelines for carbon capture and sequestration. Research from the Rand Corporation suggests that, with minor exceptions, the skills and industrial base needed for building and maintaining oil and gas pipelines are the same as those that would be needed to build and maintain pipelines for moving and sequestering CO2.
Similar plans could be made across carbon-intensive industries. A bailout for the airline industry — which is hurting so much now that some carriers have been flying empty planes to keep their airport slots — could be tied to investments in low-carbon R&D. Taxi companies could receive help tied to incentives to purchase electric vehicles.
A little-known feature of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — is that it made massively successful investments in clean energy. Its $90 billion was repaid — and fostered today’s rapidly expanding wind and solar industries. The day the stimulus was passed, for example, Abengoa Solar announced $6 billion of investments in the USA.
The stimulus wasn’t big enough, though, and so — for all the good it did — all anyone remembers is TARP and the Solyndra debacle.
For the foreseeable future, the Federal Government will be able to borrow money for essentially nothing, so there’s no excuse not to go bigger this time. Now is also the moment, because each wasted year makes the task tremendously harder. Had we begun cutting emissions in 2010, the required reductions (to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement) would have been 2 percent per year. Now they are 7 percent per year.
This is an opportunity for Joe Biden in particular. Assuming he wins the Democratic nomination, the safe return-to-normalcy “lane” will be locked up for him. Because the election will be decided at the margins, Biden needs to win over as many progressives as possible. Getting behind a big green stimulus is the way to do it.
Biden would not be the first middle of the road president pushed to action by circumstance. The pragmatic politics of FDR became the New Deal under the crisis of the Great Depression; the cautious compromises arranged by Senate Majority leader Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s transformed into the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; the ruthless Richard Nixon found a soft spot for meaningful environmental policy after oil spread across the beaches of Santa Barbara and voters became concerned about the despoiling of the natural world.
Our immediate emergency and the climate crisis are both results of failures of our political institutions. Responding to pandemics with a patchwork healthcare system is unrealistic. It is no surprise that countries with free point-of-service nationalized health systems — such as South Korea and Israel — have done a much better job than the United States at managing the Coronavirus outbreak. For many American workers, staying home, no matter how sick, is not an option.
The crucial task for Democrats will be making it clearer how a functioning government can help take us to a future that we want to live in.
Even the harshest of Trump’s critics can see the appeal of “Make America Great Again.” We built the largest factory in the world in the 1940s in less than a year, which went on to produce a B-24 bomber every hour. We electrified America’s farms and built the federal highways, each in a decade. Yes, America was never great for a lot of people, but I still long to feel pride in my country. Maybe patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, but as Jefferson Cowie writes, “it is too powerful and too important to leave to the scoundrels.”
Ultimately, a visionary Green New Deal is a way to rekindle American pride, to present a vision of who we want to be. Not only could we could build the batteries, solar panels, and transmissions lines needed to electrify the world, and provide health care to people so they don’t have to go to work when they’re sick, but we could tell our grandkids how we finally pulled together and saved the country before it was too late.
Michael Brownstein is an ACLS Burkhardt Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and associate professor of philosophy at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.