How to Grow the Green New Deal
February 7, 2019
The Green New Deal (GND) is a powerful idea that is reshaping the conversation in Washington about how to tackle the issue of climate change. How is it doing this? By tying it to a set of concepts and policies that are about alleviating economic insecurity, the most potent political force of our time.
The most recent polls show that public acceptance of climate change and willingness to take action has increased thanks, in some part, to the observable impacts that are becoming more regular and closer to home. And yet, climate change still ranks last on a list of the public’s top concerns while health care and the economy (two elements of economic insecurity) rank first and second.
By likening itself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal that came before it, the GND reminds people of a point in time when the United States needed a reset—a new social compact between government and society that recalibrated expectations, assured people of the government’s ability to lead, and gave confidence to a citizenry that government heard and took seriously its needs. It represents an opportunity to shake up what has become a stale policy environment that has proven itself unable to tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing society today.
As many analysts have pointed out, the GND is ambitious on three dimensions. Its scope is enormous covering a complete overhaul of the nation’s energy system and a new approach to healthcare and employment insurance. The approach, while not fully fleshed out, is aggressive, with government mandates and market intervention taking a bigger role. The pace is unprecedented, with a 10-year mobilization effort to try and achieve a goal of net zero emissions status. This pace is a valid cause for concern because it would be extremely hard to achieve, but it is also, in some ways, more appropriate given all that we know about what is required to deal with climate change. All of these considerations have led many who likely support the goals of the GND to caution against throwing out a more incremental approach in favor of “utopian” visions and moonshots.
The aforementioned concerns have genuine merit, but to squander the energy and vision of a GND out of an abundance of caution is a mistake. It could be a big idea that needs to grow to reach its full potential and avoid several pitfalls that could limit its effectiveness.
The Green New Deal Needs to be a Rallying Cry, Not a Purity Test
Very soon after the GND started attracting attention, a group of environmental organizations submitted a letter outlining the types of energy that would be acceptable under the context of a GND, notably leaving out nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration. They also noted that a carbon tax or cap and trade program should not have a role in the GND policy framework. All of this is unnecessary and counterproductive. For starters, it puts the oil, natural gas, and coal producing communities on the opposing side of this deal from the outset, and if a just transition for those communities is really a priority, it might be worth not alienating them from the start. Moreover, even if supporters of a GND are one hundred percent certain that wind, solar, and hydro are superior low carbon sources of energy, they could be wrong about whether scaling them to 100 percent of the energy system is possible or desirable from a public policy standpoint. Creating this kind of purity text benchmarks on technology or policy solutions will unnecessarily limit the scope of participation and support for the concept. A GND should set outcome related benchmarks about greenhouse gas emissions and other factors but avoid being overly prescriptive about the type of solutions that can get us there. The bill introduced by Senator Markey (D-MA) and Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) leaves room for debate on these issues, and that will be important.
The Green New Deal Needs to Expand its Base of Support and Grow Potential Avenues of Execution
The GND resolution is short on details relative to its scope, and that’s a good thing because a lot of discussion should still take place. Much of that discussion need not take place only in Washington. The most potential policies and regulation affecting the energy sector today happen at the state level. Local and regional discussions about this concept may show areas of agreement or policy approaches that go against the “conventional wisdom” in Washington.
The GND is also, by and large, a platform that speaks in progressive terms. This is fine in principle, but in order to win over non-progressive constituencies, it would be good to articulate its ultimate goals in terms that other political and ideological persuasions can engage. Before concluding that this notion of a transpartisan platform is simply think-tank lunacy and that the GND can only ever be a progressive cause, it is worth exploring whether pillars of the GND can take on centrist and even conservative forms. It is worth noting several recent polls indicate that certain redistributive policies, such as higher marginal taxes on the wealthy, have more support among the general public than previously appreciated. Recognition of the present-day impacts of climate change is also increasing and is likely to only continue to rise in the coming years, and, as a Brookings Institution analysis of Climate Impact Lab data recently pointed out, many of the places hardest hit in the United States are traditionally conservative states. Finally, infrastructure investment is overwhelmingly popular around the country and a huge part of the GND framework. So while there may be disagreements on the policy mechanisms, many of the plan’s pillars already share widespread support. There are many pathways to achieving these goals, and it’s worth exploring them in earnest.
The Green New Deal Should be a Global Deal
Many of the issues raised in the GND look like the sustainable and inclusive growth agenda that has emerged in recent years from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As outlined in a new book by several IMF staff, inclusive growth can occur not at the expense of overall growth, but in support of a more durable kind of economic growth. Many countries around the world could benefit from policies designed to make economies more durable and would pay a negligible or no price for doing so under the right policy design. The GND framework could also spark a much-needed discussion about how to accomplish the goals of decarbonization without harming those who can least afford or would be most impacted by this transition.
Many of the United States’ traditional allies and even our strategic competitors, might appreciate U.S. leadership along these lines. Rather than simply looking out for U.S. interests, a global green new deal can be a way for governments to refresh the international system that has brought benefits to so many but needs to remedy some of the issues that have gone unaddressed and are at the core of the governance difficulties being faced by many countries. It also provides a new lens through which to discuss the tensions over global competitiveness among countries that have arisen during this period of rapid economic, technological, and geopolitical change.
The most appropriate policy outcomes may differ by country (just as they may differ in the United States by state), but the idea of preparing for and making the transition as part of a new and more durable growth path is a decent starting point for discussion that broadly supports but also potentially reanimates the global discussion regarding sustainable development goals. Which raises the point, why would the GND, if it is just a platform for discussion of ideas, be any more effective than previous discussions on this topic? The answer is, it might not. But, as the world enters the post-post-great recession recovery period and thinks about how to prepare for the inevitable economic challenges of the future, address the populist unrest brought about by economic and social anxiety, and take a more ambitious posture vis a vis the global climate crisis, it provides the component pieces of a path forward.
Sarah Ladislaw is senior vice president and director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.