In 2019, progressive members of the U.S. House of Representatives offered a resolution to frame sweeping legislation to deal with the approaching climate emergency. The resolution called for a “Green New Deal” — a massive effort to invest in renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. To minimize economic dislocation, it called for creating millions of jobs for displaced workers and ensuring that poor and working people would be kept afloat, with the burden of conversion falling on the rich, those most able to afford it and those who had, arguably, benefited the most from our dependence on fossil fuels. Although the resolution didn’t pass Congress, and President Trump warned that the supporters wanted to stop people from flying in airplanes and driving their cars, it got significant support from Democrats in the House and has advanced the discussion.
While Trump has a reputation for lying, his warning had a seed of truth: He knew that it’s going to take more than a massive investment in renewable energy to avert catastrophe. In “The Green New Deal,” author Stan Cox argues persuasively that, while the program definitely is worth supporting, by itself it won’t bring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back to sustainable levels. This is because the program is still premised on growing the economy, which means an increase in energy use that cannot be met solely with renewable energy, at least in the short term.
The Green New Deal resolution assumes that the availability of cheap renewable energy will reduce fossil fuel uses mainly through market forces. Cox argues it’s highly unlikely that increasing the availability of cheap renewable energy will be enough to bring fossil fuel use down close to zero in the next few decades. But that reduction is what it’s going to take to limit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere enough to avert catastrophe. Expanding solar and wind power to satisfy our current demands would require an improbably massive and ecologically unsound increase in infrastructure — including battery storage facilities.
Cox also cites an extensive 2019 study that showed that “the greater the share occupied by renewable sources in a nation’s energy supply, the tighter the link between growth and carbon emissions. ... In the richer nations, most new renewable capacity added to the energy supply; when it did displace another source, it was more often nuclear than fossil-fuel capacity that was taken down.” Another study by the European Economic Bureau “found a few cases here and there in which emissions decreased as GDP rose. ... When emissions were found to have fallen alongside a rising GDP in a single country or region, it always turned out that only the emissions generated within that country’s or region’s borders had been counted; when the analysts also considered emissions produced elsewhere to manufacture goods that the country had imported, all evidence of decoupling [economic growth and carbon emissions] disappeared.”
Partly this is because adding additional cheap energy is itself an incentive for more industrial investment and production; and partly it is because the existing fossil fuel infrastructure will continue to function, even if prices fall.
One thing Cox doesn’t address is a situation in which the economy isn’t growing, which is what’s happening right now. As many advocates point out, this could be an opportunity to use Green New Deal ideas to rebuild. We could ramp up the renewable energy infrastructure and create jobs, while replacing fossil fuel use as quickly as possible. However, restarting growth would also restart demand for fossil fuels. The government could use bailout funds to buy majority control of oil, gas and coal companies, which would then make it possible to phase the industry out in a way that didn’t cost jobs. That, of course, is very unlikely, regardless of who wins the election in November.
The only way to end the use of fossil fuels, Cox argues, is to put increasingly strict regulatory limits on extraction, import and export of natural gas, oil and coal until those are down to zero. Because there are limits to how well wind and solar power can meet current energy needs, there will inevitably be energy shortages during this transition, requiring government intervention. The shortfall would have to be made up by conservation measures and lifestyle changes. The Green New Deal addresses some of the issues of conversion and dislocation. It would be a good start, but without further government intervention in the economy, it will fail.
Cox suggests energy rationing — similar to what took place during World War II — to spread the pain, so lower-income families don’t suffer unduly and so that it’s the upper-income families who take the biggest hits on consumption. Mandatory, funded conservation measures would target industry, favoring those uses that were essential for basic needs and for the conversion to renewable energy.
What Cox doesn’t address is perhaps the most difficult question: How to get the public behind this effort. As Trump understood, voters are worried about the lifestyle changes that are required to really address climate change. This has been an issue in Washington state since at least the 1990s, when politicians got pushback on any non-voluntary measures to increase car-pooling and transit use. Last year, an initiative along the same lines as the national legislation was defeated, despite major efforts by proponents to work with unions and people of color to broaden support for the program. Opponents were able to convince voters that a Green New Deal, despite being cast as a way to bring prosperity and address climate change, would cost jobs.
In World War II, we had an identifiable enemy that threatened our way of life. We were coming out of a depression, which made it easier to redirect production while instituting rationing. This time, although it can be argued that the real enemies are the corporations that are destroying the Earth, the most obvious enemy is our own lifestyles. Until people are convinced not just that there are shared sacrifices to be made but that those sacrifices are necessary, it will be hard to sell even the Green New Deal, for all its limitations.
Read more in the Apr. 29 - May 5, 2020 issue.