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Green New Deal sets stage for 2020 debate on costs of fighting climate change

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks at a press conference on the Green New Deal on Feb. 7, 2019. (CNN Newsource)

The Green New Deal envisions a radically different America in 10 years: net-zero greenhouse gas emissions; updating or replacing every building in the country; eliminating gasoline-powered vehicles; supplanting air travel with high-speed rail; and universal access to health care, housing, food, and economic security. Also, somehow, less flatulent cows.

A Green New Deal resolution unveiled by congressional Democrats Thursday has already attracted much scorn and ridicule from Republicans for its grandiose goals and sparse details, but some environmental groups and 2020 presidential candidates have embraced it as a catalyst for an important conversation about climate change.

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Championed by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the 14-page non-binding joint House and Senate resolution lays out “a new national social, industrial and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal.” Citing warnings in a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the November 2018 National Climate Assessment, it argues climate change represents “a direct threat to the national security of the United States.”

The resolution sets forth five goals to be achieved by 2030:

  1. A fair and just transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions
  2. Creating millions of high-wage jobs
  3. Investing in infrastructure and industry to meet the challenges of the 21st century
  4. Providing clean air and water, healthy food, and access to nature for all
  5. Promoting justice and equity by addressing the historic oppression of vulnerable communities

So, is the Green New Deal “a bold plan to shift our country to 100% clean and renewable energy,” as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., called it, or, as Tiana Lowe of the Washington Examiner alleged, a Trojan horse to “transform the United States into a Soviet-style hellscape?”

It depends who you ask, but Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.—who, like Harris, is running for president in 2020—dismissed complaints that the resolution is impractical or unaffordable at a campaign event in Iowa Friday.

“When the planet has been in peril in the past, who came forward to save Earth... from the scourge of Nazis and totalitarian regimes?” Booker asked. “We came forward.”

Aliya Haq of the Natural Resources Defense Council called the resolution “a breath of fresh air.”

“We need to protect ourselves today and ensure our kids don’t inherit a climate catastrophe tomorrow. The solution requires an inspiring and daunting economic metamorphosis of historic proportions,” she said in a blog post.

Republicans and industry groups have aggressively attacked the Green New Deal as a “socialist takeover,” mocking its goals, emphasizing its costs, and dismissing its political prospects.

“Democrat socialists made clear today that they want to use climate change as a means to abolish capitalism and implement massive taxation, expropriation and government control,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., in a statement Thursday.

While the resolution has the enthusiastic support of some of the most visible Democrats on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has seemingly kept it at arms-length. At Ocasio-Cortez’s urging, she has formed a select committee on climate change, but she brushed aside the New Deal proposal in an interview with Politico Wednesday.

“It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive. The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” she said.

There is undoubtedly an element of aspiration to the proposal, but some experts say it is merely attempting to address what could soon become an insurmountable challenge before it is too late.

“There’s no way out – if we keep burning fossil fuels, temperatures will continue to rise,” said Doreen Stabinsky, co-author of “Environmental Politics for a Changing World: Power, Perspectives, and Practice” and a professor of global environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic.

“What is getting clearer and clearer with each passing year is that we are very close to dangerous tipping points in the earth’s climate system and the time we have to act is rapidly diminishing,” Stabinsky continued. “To address climate change with any hope of stopping run-away climate change requires large-scale changes now. Not five years from now.”

According to Walter Rosenbaum, author of “Environmental Politics and Policy” and director emeritus of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, goals like transitioning entirely to renewable energy are not feasible in the short term, but setting them forth in this resolution sends an important political message.

“I don’t think it has any chance in its present form of surviving,” he said. “I don’t think it was meant to... One thing is to keep the issues involved in front of the public and in the press, and I also think it’s a way of assuring the liberals in the party that the leadership hears what they’re concerned about.”

However, Robert Hockett, a professor of law and finance at Cornell University who has advised Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, insisted these objectives are meant to be taken very seriously.

“What we’re doing is to set for the goals we have in mind, at the same time recognizing there may be a variety of different ways—all of them we’re willing to try—to get to those goals... The resolution is just to kind of get clear about what the ultimate ambitions and aims are,” Hockett said.

The resolution itself offers few policy specifics and no enforcement mechanisms. It leaves many questions unanswered and detractors say Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s office raised even more with a factsheet intended to address concerns.

“We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast,” the FAQ states while explaining why it does not call for immediately phasing out fossil fuels.

The plan contains no specific cost estimates and no revenue-raising measures to pay for the necessary investments, which skeptics say could run into the tens of trillions of dollars.

“The Federal Reserve can extend credit to power these projects and investments and new public banks can be created to extend credit,” the FAQ explains. “There is also space for the government to take an equity stake in projects to get a return on investment. At the end of the day, this is an investment in our economy that should grow our wealth as a nation, so the question isn’t how will we pay for it, but what will we do with our new shared prosperity.”

Critics warn of economic catastrophe—millions of lost jobs, factories moving overseas, costs of energy and goods skyrocketing—but supporters predict an explosion of jobs and economic activity.

“We’re talking about a multi-trillion-dollar investment,” Hockett acknowledged, but he added, “In our view, going big is cheaper than going small.”

This is partly because the problems the Green New Deal is trying to solve are snowballing and will only get more expensive to fix over time and partly because a large influx of infrastructure, goods, and services is necessary to outpace inflation and limit costs.

“There’s nothing exotic or new about how you pay for a Green New Deal. You pay for it the same way you pay for everything,” Hockett said.

According to Stabinsky, decisions must be made about what needs to be done first, and conversations about how to pay for it can come later.

“When your house is on fire, is your first question to the fire department about how much it will cost for them to bring a fire engine and an ambulance?” she asked.

Ocasio-Cortez has compared the Green New Deal to President Trump’s proposal for a border wall, which he is still struggling to get funding for even a scaled-back version of but he has still gotten most Republican lawmakers and voters to support.

“He was able to take his profile and say, ‘Here’s this hugely impossible thing that seems ridiculous, but I’m going to seriously push for it.’ And for him, that’s his wall,” she told NPR.

Setting aside the economic impact, some have also questioned whether the benchmarks set out in the resolution and accompanying documents are technologically achievable. Supporters of nuclear energy say it is a vital part of any realistic plan to reduce net emissions to zero, but the Green New Deal calls for building no new nuclear plants and transitioning off nuclear power entirely as soon as possible.

Developing the rail system to the point where air travel is no longer necessary also strikes many as a stretch. While successful in Europe and Asia, high-speed rail has struggled to find traction in the U.S. in the past. An ambitious effort in California has spiraled into a costly multi-decade debacle with 800 miles of track shaping up to cost up to $100 billion.

Supporters acknowledge none of this would be easy, but they argue the country has risen to seemingly impossible challenges before.

“When FDR called on America to build 185,000 planes to fight World War 2, every business leader, CEO, and general laughed at him,” Ocasio-Cortez’s FAQ states. “At the time, the U.S. had produced 3,000 planes in the last year. By the end of the war, we produced 300,000 planes. That’s what we are capable of if we have real leadership.”

Trump allies predict Democrats’ embrace of the Green New Deal will give the president more ammunition to tie his opponents to radical socialism, which they hope will be an effective line of attack with Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist, spending so much time in the spotlight.

“I echo @POTUS @realDonaldTrump's statement from the #SOTU Address: 'America will never be a socialist country,’” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., said on Twitter.

However, Stabinsky said dismissing environmental policies as socialist is often a rhetorical dodge.

“When you look at the content, you see projects that are essential not just to address climate change, but repair and upgrade our aging infrastructure, improve the economic health of our rural and urban communities, and create good, high-paying jobs—just like the first New Deal,” she said.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, historian Eric Rauchway argued President Roosevelt’s original New Deal included a strong “social justice” component, but much of that was lost in the execution.

“Franklin Roosevelt pandered expertly and compromised ruthlessly, accomplishing an immense amount in a short time at considerable cost — including his own stated ambitions of a socially just transition to the new era he imagined,” he wrote.

Hockett argued the socio-economic aspects of the Green New Deal are essential because the best way to modernize the nation’s energy infrastructure is to start with the areas that are least modern.

“A lot of the worst environmental degradation and most backward technology and infrastructures are located in economically under-developed and under-privileged parts of the country,” he said.

Rosenbaum sees little political risk for Democrats in endorsing the resolution because it does not commit them to any specific policies and it reminds an important constituency that they are cognizant of a problem that will play an important role in the 2020 election.

“Democrats are simply trying to send signals to their own base... From the point of view of the environmentalists, this is hugely important because it brings the whole climate warming issue back into the headlines where it has been, as far as the Trump administration is concerned, suppressed,” he said.

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