How the Green New Deal Can Unify Rather than Divide Us

March 25, 2019
Photo: 4kodiak/iStock
Ken Kimmell
Former contributor

The “Green New Deal,” which seemed to spring out of nowhere, has captured the attention of many of us who recognize that the need to prevent 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 a depression. Its main proponents are young people—who better than the up-and-coming generation to demand that the former one leaves behind a world that is habitable? 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. Without putting forth any plan of their own, they caricature the concept to alarm voters with predictions of economic collapse and threats to personal freedom, and put the concept up to a vote on the senate floor, without the benefit of hearings and careful development of content. If this attack persists, what started out as a potentially unifying idea will become another fault line in American politics, occupying the same polarized landscape as health care, immigration, gun control, and many other issues.

Those of us who want the United States to lead on climate change, whether such action is called a Green New Deal, or another inspiring frame (e.g., 100% clean energy by mid-century) must not let this happen. The key is to define the Green New Deal before the caricatures stick, by showing that, while it is ambitious, it is 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. And they offer many proven successes to build upon.

Some 23 states have already adopted binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, 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. These high-ambition states include not only blue coastal states, but also Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, among others.

No fewer than 29 states have already adopted standards that require electric utilities to purchase increasing amounts of renewable energy and invest in energy efficiency. These standards are driving decreases in carbon emissions from the electric sector, saving consumers money on their electric bills, and gainfully employing thousands of Americans.

A number of states have launched mini “Green New Deals” of their own, successfully using public resources to jumpstart clean energy. For instance, fossil-fuel rich Texas led the way by investing approximately $7 billion in transmission lines to connect its windy plains to population centers, making it the sixth largest generator of wind energy in the world. And New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have committed to funding the construction of offshore wind turbines (either directly or through their utilities) on a giant scale.

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. Scaling them up is not only good policy (because we know they work), it is also good politics (because familiarity with them will diminish voters’ concerns about doing them as a federal initiative).

Deploy all effective solutions, not just ones favored by one “tribe” or the other

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 in a Green New Deal. A relatively modest carbon price can shift our electricity-generating mix toward low-carbon sources. On the other hand, those who favor carbon pricing should recognize its limitations. For example, it has not been shown to be effective on its own to address emissions from the transportation sector, now the nation’s largest source of global warming emissions. Other measures will be needed to lower carbon pollution from cars, buses, and trucks, such as extending a tax credit that helps consumers afford electric vehicles, establishing standards that prompt automakers to sell more electric cars, and investing in public transportation and emerging EV charging networks.

Similarly, it would be a mistake to embed in the Green New Deal a target of 100 percent renewable energy—a much better goal is 100 percent carbon-free energy (with renewables getting us a long way towards that goal). The latter leaves room for energy efficiency and non-renewable technologies, such as nuclear energy and fossil-fueled plants that can capture, store, or re-use carbon dioxide.

Being open to these solutions and allowing all carbon-free resources to compete against each other can help broaden support for a Green New Deal and make it more effective.

Focus on areas of agreement

The Green New Deal can also gain wider support by focusing on areas of agreement. For example, there is widespread agreement that storing energy is a lynchpin solution for both clean transportation and clean electricity. Yet the batteries used in electric cars are still too costly to make EVs affordable for many, and the batteries used to store electricity by utilities cannot cost-effectively store energy for extended periods, such as for a week of cloudy or windless weather. The Green New Deal can broaden its appeal by setting its sights on a large-scale public and private mobilization of research, development, and deployment of innovative technology.

The original New Deal wasn’t built in a day

President Roosevelt’s New Deal was not launched 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 in its entirety is unlikely to be established through one comprehensive bill. The Green New Deal 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.

The latest scientific reports are clear: we must act to dramatically cut emissions of heat-trapping gases, now—not later. And yet, last year, US carbon emissions rose by 3.4 percent—the biggest increase in eight years. The Green New Deal offers a fresh frame for the bold, ambitious action we need, but its success depends on defining it to draw us together, rather than set us apart.