Got Science? Podcast | Episode 55 What’s the Deal With the Green New Deal?

March 26, 2019

Dr. Rachel Cleetus, an economist and climate expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, puts the ambitious Congressional resolution under the microscope.

In this episode Rachel talks about:

  • Discusses what the Green New Deal means from a science perspective
  • The importance of equitable and climate conscious infrastructure
  • The shrinking window we have to work with to address climate change

Timing and cues:

  • Opener (0:00-0:55)
  • Intro (0:55-3:09)
  • Interview Part 1 (3:09-12:40)
  • Break (12:40-13:07)
  • Interview Part 2 (13:07-23:29)
  • Sidelining Science throw (23:29-23:46)
  • Sidelining Science (23:46-27:50)
  • Outro (27:50-29:00)

Related content:

Full Transcript

With climate scientists in agreement that we humans only have about ten years to stop carbon emissions before it’s too late to prevent some of the worst damages from climate change… it’s clear that governing bodies around the world—especially my own in the US—need to take bold and far-reaching action.

I mean, they needed to do that like 30 or 40 years ago. But today would be nice, too.

Climate change won’t stop itself. And if we don’t address it, we’ll all suffer… but the people who have contributed the least to climate change are some of the people who will suffer the most. And that’s just not fair. We have the technology to start making huge positive changes right now. But we don’t have enough members of Congress on board, to say nothing of our executive branch—to carry out those changes.

And their failure to move or even think beyond the status quo won’t give us what’s needed to protect our children, our families, our communities – indeed our future -- from the most harmful impacts of climate change. What’s needed is an ambitious suite of ideas, policies, and investments. Something like… FDR’s New Deal. But for climate change.

If you’re in the US, you’ve probably heard something about a Green New Deal – a conceptual proposal from some members of Congress that addresses climate change, and aims to minimize the damages of climate change fairly and equitably. It’s an ambitious resolution in a time that calls for ambitious action. And yet opponents of climate action want to turn this important conversation starter into a political theater in hopes of creating division and shutting it all down. They would do all of us a favor if they listened to today’s podcast with my guest. Rachel Cleetus is a senior economist with our climate & energy program, and she stopped by the studio to give her scientifically-grounded take on the Green New Deal.

We talked about what the Green New Deal is – and what it isn’t -- and how it can address issues of racial inequities and environmental injustice… and how we both believe there’s hope for the future.


Colleen: Rachel, thanks for coming over to join me today on the podcast.

Rachel: Thank you so much for having me, Colleen.

Colleen: So, we're gonna talk about the Green New Deal today. But before we dive into that, let's refresh our ninth-grade history. Can you tell us what the original new deal was, and and the connection to the Green New Deal?

Rachel: Sure. So, this takes us back to the time of the Great Depression, when President Roosevelt was elected. And, we were in a tough moment as a country and the whole world actually.

Many people were out of jobs. It was hard to put food on the table. And the president very quickly came up with a range of government programs that would help put people back to work, would also help create a social safety net that would allow people who are unemployed to at least have some sustenance to keep going.

But, one very important thing to recognize is that the original New Deal that President Roosevelt instituted was actually a series of programs that happened over some phases.

It wasn't just fully big from the beginning, one fine day, all these wonderful things. And we've continued to refine them over time. In their original configuration, there's been a clear understanding that they left some people behind.

They didn't address some of the inequities, the racial discrimination that was part of our nation's history at the time. And so we can do better going forward. And so, that history is very useful to anchor us, and there's an opportunity to use it to go further.

Colleen: So, tell me about the Green New Deal.

Rachel: The Green New Deal is an idea that's been around for over a decade now. In many different incarnations.

And depending on who you ask, it has different characteristics. But some common themes are that people recognize, to solve big challenges like climate change, economic disparities, unemployment, we need big ideas. You need a big commitment from a policy perspective. But you need partnerships between the government and the private sector.

And at its heart, the Green New Deal is about a major investment in our economy that will help solve multiple problems. It will help transition us to a low carbon, more climate resilient economy but it'll also address some of the equity issues we have around employment, who has access to jobs, whose well-being are we talking about?

So that's the kernel of the idea of the Green New Deal.

Of course, to build it out requires a lot of thought about all the different policies that it'll require. And, that's the moment we're in right now, trying to build out what that policy platform might look like.

Colleen: So, it seems like the Green New Deal, there's a lot of energy from the younger generation.

Rachel: Yeah, so in its current generation, what's really striking and wonderful and exciting about this iteration of the Green New Deal is the energy from youth that's behind it, the momentum.

And we've really seen it explode just after the elections last November, where there was simultaneously a change in the house here in the United States but also globally, a youth movement that was taking fire where young people around the world were asking leaders to step up and take action to address climate change because their futures are at stake, these young people whose future is really at risk from climate change. And, what we're seeing is a confluence of all of these forces coming together to really try to change not just the policies but the politics of what's possible now, and to raise the level of ambition because of the urgency around climate change and some of these other social economic challenges.

Colleen: In the coming months the Green New Deal will become more developed, will get some flesh on the bones. Can you tell me about the resolution that representatives Ocasio Cortez and Markey introduced. And what's involved in the very broad framework?

Rachel: So, what the resolution does is straight off the bat, right from the beginning, frames it within the science. The IPCC 1.5 C report at the National Climate Assessment, both of which were released last year, pointing out why we're doing this.

Here's the reason, it's climate change. And the fact that we're running out of time to address this issue. But some very other important pieces are that the resolution also acknowledges early on the socio-economic context in which we're trying to make these changes, recognizing the history of racial discrimination, of the fact that we have inequities and we need to be addressing this.

Some communities have born a disproportionate burden of the impacts of pollution. As we make a transition to a clean energy economy, we've got to address the fact that there are currently folks who draw their livelihood from the fossil fuel industry.

Folks, for example, like coal miners. And we've got to be thinking about a just transition for folks like that so that they're not left behind.

The other really important thing the resolution does is acknowledged the US's role on the global stage in terms of taking leadership on dealing with this challenge. Because we are a nation that has, relatively speaking, more resources, we also have more responsibility for the problem because of our contribution to emissions. All of this is acknowledged in the resolution.

Fundamentally, though the resolution is not yet a set of policies, it's creating a space to have that dialogue and invite stakeholders in, a whole range of diverse stakeholders, in to help flesh out what those policies will look like.

And we at UCS are excited and want to help contribute to developing those policies because in many cases, they are...there's a great deal of overlap with issues we've already been working on like deploying more renewable energy resources.

Colleen: Right. A lot of the work that is happening in the states, we would be building on that.

Rachel: Absolutely. UCS has done a lot of work both at the federal and at the state level to promote renewable energy resources, clean vehicles, help reduce pollution from fossil fuels. We are also thinking a lot about what the next generation of technologies might look like. Things like battery storage, electric vehicles.

And within the Green New Deal's ambit, you see the opportunity for an aggressive, accelerated clean energy momentum to help get us to net zero emissions by mid-century or before, as the IPCC report calls for.

Colleen: So, if you were on the team starting to really dig into this and lay things out, what are the top priorities that you think need to be in a Green New Deal?

Rachel: So I think the most important thing about a Green New Deal is actually the process. It's about who's at the table when we're making these decisions.

And, it's really important that we not leave communities that are being directly impacted by climate change or who are directly and disproportionately affected by pollution from being at the table.

And I think, we at UCS are excited to be part of that type of a coalition that's diverse, that's broad, that's thinking about this problem from many different angles. And us contributing our expertise on specific issues as well.

So, the key elements from my perspective, are that we are not just trying to solve climate change, but solve it in an equitable way. We're trying to, of course, accelerate our momentum towards a zero carbon economy.

But as we do that, we're creating opportunities and we want everyone to benefit from those opportunities. We wanna design policies that ensure from the get-go, that the benefits flow in an equitable way.

So one thing that's really been the zeitgeist lately is an infrastructure bill. There's been a lot of bipartisan interest in investing in America's aging infrastructure, and building infrastructure for the next century and beyond.

As we do that, there's a real opportunity to be thinking about infrastructure that's low carbon, infrastructure that's climate resilient, infrastructure that's being built in neighborhoods that have not had those kinds of investments before.

When you build great mass transit options that are low carbon, for example, it can create employment opportunities. It can help people get to work more easily. It can help people's pocketbooks, frankly. It can reduce the costs of things like transportation.

And so, we have an opportunity here as we talk about infrastructure, to be really thinking about it in the frame of the Green New Deal, which at its heart is about a massive investment program in a new type of infrastructure that will have broad social and economic benefits.

Another way to think about this is, we know that there are many places that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change right now. And some smaller communities just don't have the wherewithal on their own to be making the kinds of investments that would make them more resilient to these climate impacts, like sea level rise.

So, as we have a huge investment from the federal government to help build resilience, we can make sure that these communities aren't left behind, that they also have a path forward in a climate-altered future.

Colleen: What would you wanna see in a Green New Deal from a science perspective?

Rachel: I think the most important thing is that we recognize where we are in terms of the climate challenge. Which is that our window to limit warming to 1.5 CO2 °C is rapidly closing. We have just over a decade left to take some really serious actions to make sure that happens.

And the Green New Deal is acknowledging not just the scale of the challenge, but also their timeframes, the urgency in some of these time frames.

[Break]

Colleen: So, what are some of the concrete energy transition elements in the resolution?

Rachel: What the resolution recognizes is that we have to get to a net zero economy as soon as possible. And to do that, we have to make a real transformation in our power sector by moving to low carbon generation resources.

And it's not just about generation, we have to build out the kind of transmission, the storage, the other pieces of the electric system that will help us transition to this low carbon power system.

We have to at the same time, electrify as many end uses as possible including transportation and industrial uses of energy, so that they too are coming from low carbon sources. We have to build the infrastructure to do that.

We have to also make sure that we are preserving the ability of our forests and lands to absorb carbon and store it, and maybe enhance the quality of our soil so that it is storing more carbon and more productive in agricultural uses. So, really taking a broad view of the different ways across the economy that we can reduce emissions.

And, what's critical, though is that the resolution recognizes this at a high level. But the policies to help make this happen obviously have to be fleshed out. We can see glimmers of it already in what states are doing.

So, for example, many states have renewable electricity standards that are geared towards making sure that more renewables come online. And we've seen a number of states in the last year take very promising action towards raising their renewable electricity standards. States like California, and Massachusetts, and New Jersey, Nevada.

We also have a real opportunity to be thinking about how to ramp up specific technologies like solar rooftop or microgrids, battery storage. And so the resolution is at a high level, and now we have an opportunity to sort of use the experiences we've had at the state and federal level to think about how do you accelerate that clean energy transition very quickly.

And that means getting more ambitious, both at the state and federal level and in terms of the existing policies and implementing new bold policies.

Colleen: So, as states are doing a lot of this work individually, something like infrastructure...can that be done on a state by state sort of patchwork quilt level or does that need a broader vision to make that happen?

Rachel: Well, I think there's a pretty bipartisan understanding out there right now that the U.S. has for a long time neglected investing in its infrastructure. And as a result, we have a lot of our roads, and bridges, and rail and other types of infrastructure in a state of disrepair, frankly.

So, now, as we're thinking about the next tranche of infrastructure investments, let's be thinking about not just building back to business as usual, but really investing in the kind of infrastructure that's gonna to take us forward in this low carbon climate resilient fashion.

That means building our roads, and bridges, and highways in ways that are climate resilient, but also making sure that we're not doubling down on the kind of infrastructure that comes with emissions attached to it. Pipelines and other fossil fuel dependent types of infrastructure that will just have us continuing to increase our emissions.

So, can we re-orient some of that infrastructure investment towards the kind of infrastructure that would bring online greater and greater amounts of renewables? The opportunities are huge and, we really need to double down and take advantage of those.

Colleen: So tell me, you mentioned a minute ago, microgrids. Many of our listeners may not know what microgrids are. I think they probably know they're tiny grids. But can you Tell me what the point of the microgrid is?

Rachel: Well, so as we transition our electricity sector towards being a low carbon electricity sector, the many components to how this needs to happen, we need to be thinking about the generation resources.

Of course, we want more wind, solar, geothermal, low carbon resources, essentially, but we also need to be connecting those to population centers. So we need grid transmission that will, for example, bring wind from areas say in the Midwest that may not be very populated to population centers in other places.

So, high voltage lines, long distance transmission lines that will bring that energy to places where people are. And then, one component of this is also microgrids, where we can build a grid that has...that's essentially a twofer.

You have a smaller scale connection within a particular geographic area where you're connecting a renewable resource, usually with battery storage connected to it that can serve a small population center, and that during a time of an extreme weather events such as the storm, if major transmission lines go down, this area could still continue to have energy come back online because it is able to decouple from the broader grid.

Microgrids are being used, in many contexts. Right now, the military is thinking a lot about it because it's often working in conditions where access to reliable power is sort of mission-critical. It's also something that small island nations are thinking a lot about because ...

Colleen: I heard, I thought Puerto Rico was thinking or planning to do some microgrids.

Rachel: Absolutely. Because as we've seen around the nation, when we have these extreme hurricanes and storms, sometimes the power can go down for days on end. And that has real implications, not just for businesses, but people's lives, frankly. Hospitals losing power and that type of thing.

And relying on technologies like diesel generators is frankly just not gonna be enough for where we wanna go from a climate perspective. It also comes with a whole lot of associated challenges including the cost of diesel, getting into the right places at the right time, and the pollution associated with it.

So, microgrids are a chance to generate that power in a resilient fashion in the face of these extreme events, but do it in a clean way. And so, it could be solar coupled with storage. It could even be a small scale wind site coupled with storage.

And as battery storage improves dramatically, as this technology takes off, really the sky's the limit.

Colleen: So, we have 10 years. How quickly can a resolution get through the system and have something that we can really work with and get going ASAP?

Rachel: So what's clear is that in the U.S. at least politically, we are in many ways, gearing up for what is the next administration going to look like because clearly this administration has lied about the science, tried to rollback climate policies. It's absolutely abdicating leadership completely on this issue.

So, over the next year and a half or so, there will be more details that come out, policy details around the Green New Deal.

And really, it is about changing the politics of what's possible because we have been caught in this terrible cycle of partisan polarization around this issue of climate change, which has left the U.S. almost isolated on the world stage in terms of acknowledging and taking action on this important issue.

So, we and many, many others who care about climate change are looking to absolutely break through the cycle and come out on the other side with really bold, ambitious policy ideas and not just policy ideas that are centered in Washington D.C. and those politics, but really have grassroots support around the country.

And I think once you start to get a broad-based support for something like this, because it has so many opportunities for people in terms of economic opportunities, etc. that's when you start to see change sort of really the tipping point of change that we've been waiting for from a climate action perspective.

So, I'm very hopeful that the Green New Deal and ideas like it, the energy behind it, the youth-led energy behind it is really gonna push us into this tipping point where we'll be unstoppable.

Colleen: So, as we're recording this podcast, it's a few weeks before we air, and we already know a lot of activities that are coming up. For example, the Sunrise Movement will be traveling around the country to talk about the Green New Deal.

So how do you see things playing out in the coming months leading up to the election?

Rachel: So, yes, the Sunrise Movement is in the process of gearing up around the country we hear. and that's really exciting. But there are many things happening as you mentioned.

We're seeing in Congress, interest in renewable electricity, standard bills, clean energy standard bills, tax credits for renewable energy, infrastructure bills. And then we have our yearly appropriations process where Congress decides how it's going to spend money.

And there's some real opportunities there to invest in things like ARPA-E, which is a Department of Energy program that helps advance really cutting edge technologies. There are opportunities to invest in climate resilience through the congressional appropriations process.

So, we shouldn't be waiting for one singular moment where one magic policy solves all our problems. We absolutely have to take every bite of the apple that we get.

We're not waiting just for the next administration. We're gonna use the next year and a half to push on as many fronts as possible.

Colleen: That's great to hear. I was a little worried, As we were talking, that we have this resolution on the table and what's gonna happen? Will it get stalled? And if we're just waiting for that, with 10 years to go, that just doesn't seem like the best idea. But, I'm glad to hear we have many opportunities.

Rachel: Yes, and, I think we don't have any time to waste. And we've got to take every opportunity we can get and continue the momentum essentially. Let it build, let that build on itself.

You know, around the country we've seen some terrible extreme events in the last couple of years. So, people know that it's here and now. It's not just about some distant future. And what we have to do is connect the solutions to the things people care about.

We can solve climate change and clean up our air at the same time. We can solve climate change and create jobs at the same time. That's the real opportunity here.

Colleen: Great. Well, Rachel, thanks so much for coming over to chat with me.

Rachel: Thank you so much, Colleen. It was great to talk to you.

Colleen: I'm leaving with a sense of hope, which is great.

Rachel: Absolutely. This is about our kids' futures. And, you know, they're showing up to say, with loud voices, they want us to do better.

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Credits: 

Sidelining Science: Shreya Durvasula
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald