Catalyst Spring 2019
First Principles

How the Green New Deal’s Vision Can Unify Us

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (center) and Senator Ed Markey ( far right) announced their “Green New Deal” resolution at a press conference outside the Capitol building in Washington, DC, in February.
By Ken Kimmell, president of UCS

The Green New Deal has captured the attention of many of us who recognize that preventing runaway climate change is the greatest challenge of our time. Its inspiring title calls to mind an era when our country worked together to pull out of an economic depression. Its main proponents are young people—who better than the up-and-coming generation to demand that the former one leaves behind a habitable world? And, it calls for action on a scale that aligns with the best available science.

Unfortunately, many who oppose acting on climate change are using the Green New Deal as a political football, putting forth alarmist predictions of economic collapse and threats to personal freedom. What’s needed right now by those of us committed to climate action is to proactively define the Green New Deal before such misguided caricatures stick, by showing that, while the plan is ambitious, it is also realistic and affordable.

We can succeed if we follow these principles:

Identify Tried-and-True Approaches and Scale Them Up

When it comes to climate change, states really are the laboratories of American democracy. Twenty-three have already adopted binding goals for reducing carbon emissions, most of which align well with the latest scientific evidence showing that we need to be at or close to “net zero” emissions by mid-century. Twenty-nine have adopted standards that require electric utilities to purchase increasing amounts of renewable energy and invest in energy efficiency. And a number of states have launched miniature “Green New Deals” of their own, such as Texas, which invested approximately $7 billion in building transmission lines and is now the world’s sixth-largest generator of wind energy.

Of course, the Green New Deal proposes to marshal federal resources to do much more than individual states can do on their own. But proven successes at the state level can form the backbone of the federal effort.

Deploy All Effective Solutions, Not Just Ones Favored by One Group or Another

For example, while some climate activists are skeptical of market-based programs such as a tax or fee on carbon emissions, there should be room for this approach. A relatively modest price on carbon would shift our electricity generating mix toward low-carbon sources, but in other sectors such as transportation, a carbon price alone will not get the job done. We will need other measures such as incentives for electric vehicles and public investment in mass transit and EV charging networks.

Similarly, while renewable energy is vitally important, the Green New Deal would benefit from setting a goal of 100 percent carbon-free energy rather than 100 percent renewable energy. The former can include energy efficiency and fossil-fueled plants that can capture, store, or reuse carbon dioxide, and leaves the door open to temporarily extend licenses of existing nuclear plants that meet stringent safety standards to buy us time as we ramp up renewable resources.

Focus on Areas of Agreement

There is widespread agreement that storing energy is a linchpin solution for both clean transportation and clean electricity, but the batteries we have today are still too expensive and not adequate for all our storage needs. The Green New Deal can broaden its appeal by promoting public and private mobilization of research, development, and deployment of innovative technologies including large-scale energy storage.

The Original New Deal Wasn’t Built in a Day

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was not accomplished with one piece of legislation. It took hold through many different laws and regulations, enacted at different times as the political system allowed. Similarly, the Green New Deal is unlikely to be established through one comprehensive bill. The current resolution focuses primarily on limiting the emissions causing climate change, but it also promotes improvements in health care, housing, and jobs, which are critical to building a more just society. Our history and congressional dynamics suggest multiple bills over time will be needed to address these issues and even to tackle the climate issue alone.

What’s clear is the science that unequivocally tells us we must act to dramatically cut emissions of heat-trapping gases now—not later. The Green New Deal offers a fresh frame for the bold, ambitious action we need. Its success depends on defining it in a way that draws us together, rather than setting us apart.