A problem facing advocates of serious action to deter global warming is that the costs of not acting aren’t quantifiable and remain somewhat abstract. In contrast, calling for a phase-out of fossil fuels understandably leads to fears of job losses, especially since capitalism isn’t going to offer new employment for those displaced.
There will be costs with taking measures to do a portion of what needs to be done, never mind all that needs to be done. To deny this, as liberals frequently do, might backfire when it becomes apparent there won’t be a climatic free lunch. There are two counters to these future costs — first, the benefits, including new jobs, from the industries that will grow dramatically from a real effort to switch to renewable energy as part of a comprehensive tackling of global warming and, second, the massive costs that will come due from continuing business as usual. What will be the costs of a sea-level rise of, say, three meters, the disruption to agriculture and the associated mass migrations that would be triggered?
These costs would be catastrophic, totaling much more in the long run than the shorter-term costs of acting with seriousness.
Terminus of Kangerlugssuup Sermerssua glacier in west Greenland (photo by Denis Felikson, via NASA)
With this context in mind, an analysis is in order of the so-called Green New Deal, both the Green Party’s original and the Democratic Party’s later watered-down version. First, this article will highlight some of the key points in both, then look at some of the critiques (including right-wing ones, since these get the lion’s share of coverage in the corporate media) and, finally, determine what conclusions might be drawn. Inevitably, discussion of economics — and the world economic system — can’t be avoided. Can there truly be a “green capitalism” whereby the same system that has brought humanity and the environment to an existential crisis will magically provide the solution? (I suppose the way that last question is framed previews the answer.)
In other words, can reforms within current parameters prove sufficient to be able to reverse the ongoing massive dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; reduce the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxides; and enable a conversion to sustainable agricultural and environmental practices? Or is a new way of organizing the world’s economic activity an unavoidable necessity? To begin to answer these questions, we have to define what needs to be done.
The Green Party’s Green New Deal program
Regardless of our opinions of the Green Party of the United States, the party has produced an ambitious document, one worthy of serious discussion. (Full disclosure: I was once highly active in the party but withdrew because it became too frustrating to continually fight the party majority that had a liberal orientation little different from the Democratic Party; people active in it today tell me that party has since moved in a more socialist direction.) The party’s Green New Deal sets a goal of “a new, sustainable economy that is environmentally sound, economically viable and socially responsible.”
In conjunction with the goal of sustainability is an “Economic Bill of Rights,” defined as the right to single-payer healthcare, a guaranteed job at a living wage, affordable housing and free college education. To achieve its goals, the Green New Deal calls for “a WWII-type mobilization to address the grave threat posed by climate change, transitioning our country to 100% clean energy by 2030.”
Given that humanity is inching closer to the point of no return — the atmosphere is more than halfway to the 2 degree C. global temperature rise from pre-industrial levels that is believed to be the limit before runaway change brings on catastrophic consequences and not far from the 1.5 degree mark that may be the more realistic limit — an accelerated timetable for a full shutdown of fossil-fuel consumption is unavoidably a part of any serious program to stop global warming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 20 percent of greenhouse gases derive from fossil fuels used for transportation and another 28 percent comes from burning fossil fuels to produce electricity. (Apparently the Trump gang has not gotten around to censoring that report.)
“Bottle Buyology” at the Minnesota State Fair (photo by Tony Webster)
The authors of the Green New Deal certainly see massive benefits from their proposed program. For example, the party says it would “Create 20 million jobs by transitioning to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030, and investing in public transit, sustainable (regenerative) agriculture, conservation and restoration of critical infrastructure, including ecosystems.” The party would “Ensure that any worker displaced by the shift away from fossil fuels will receive full income and benefits as they transition to alternative work.” That employment initiative would be conducted in the context of “energy democracy” — there would be “public, community and worker ownership of our energy system” with access to energy treated as a human right.
All fossil fuel production, and nuclear energy, would be phased out, a carbon tax imposed (but not defined) and a “greenhouse gas tax” would be imposed on polluters to compensate society for damage already caused.
The Green Party’s Green New Deal platform asserts that implementing the program would “revive the economy” and necessitate hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to military spending because there would be no longer a need to control foreign oil supplies and transportation. Moreover, “the Green New Deal largely pays for itself in healthcare savings from the prevention of fossil fuel-related diseases, including asthma, heart attacks, strokes and cancer.”
To help bring about these changes, the Green New Deal proposed to provide “grants and low-interest loans to grow green businesses and cooperatives, with an emphasis on small, locally based companies that keep the wealth created by local labor circulating in the community rather than being drained off to enrich absentee investors.” Current subsidies for fossil fuels would be re-directed toward research efforts to further develop wind, solar and geothermal energy and sustainable environmental and agricultural practices. Natural gas, biomass and nuclear power are ruled out as not constituting clean energy.
Surely an ambitious plan. To the question of how realistic this program is we will return later in this article.
The Democratic Party’s Green New Deal program
For a comparison, let’s now turn to the Democratic Party’s version of a Green New Deal, specifically the plan introduced into Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. This plan calls for “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” and the creation of “millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States.” This proposal also seeks to “promote justice and equity … and repair historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”
To achieve these goals, the Democratic Green New Deal calls for “a 10-year national mobilization” that includes investing in community-defined projects to mitigate disasters related to global warming; rebuilding infrastructure; meeting 100 percent of U.S. energy needs through “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources”; removing pollution from manufacturing “as much as is technically feasible”; overhauling agricultural and transportation practices; restoring natural ecosystems to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; and restoring and protecting ecosystems through “locally appropriate and science-based projects.”
Coral reefs damaged by warming seas in the Maldives (photo by Bruno de Giusti)
Rather than existing as a fully formed program with preconceived details, this Green New Deal would be “developed through transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses.” The investment that comes out of this program would be intended to ensure “the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and returns on investment, adequate capital … technical expertise, supporting policies, and other forms of assistance to communities, organizations, Federal, State, and local government agencies, and businesses working on the Green New Deal mobilization.”
The plan calls for “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States”; protecting the right of workers to organize; “strengthening and enforcing labor, workplace health and safety, antidiscrimination, and wage and hour standards across all employers, industries, and sectors” and “ensuring a commercial environment where every businessperson is free from unfair competition and domination by domestic or international monopolies.” The plan also advocates for “high-quality health care,” affordable housing and “healthy and affordable food.”
This plan is laid out in the form of a resolution introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and into the Senate by Sen. Markey. Considering not only the extreme hostility to such ideas in the Republican Party, which continues to control the Senate, but also the Democratic Party leadership, the prospects for congressional adoption would appear to be nil. (In dismissing the Green New Deal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi derisively said, “The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”) Short-term politics aside, the same question as the original Green Party Green New Deal must be asked of the Democratic Party version: How realistic is it?
Koch brothers money helps fund opposition
Before we seriously tackle the contents of these plans, let’s take a quick survey of opposition to them, which naturally is fiercest from the Right and corporate interests with something to lose.
The Institute for Energy Research, for example, slams the Democratic Party’s Green New Deal as “misguided” because the original New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was intended to address the Great Depression, whereas today “we are not currently in the midst of an economic depression.” True enough that we not currently living through another Great Depression, but the economy — for working people — is bad enough. The author of the Institute’s “Flaws With a ‘Green New Deal’ ” diatribe attempts to back up its position by saying “Even textbook Keynesians” oppose running budget deficits at the present time. Evidently, the Institute considers “textbook Keynesians” the outermost fringe of what is imaginable.
The author goes on to claim that FDR’s New Deal actually made the economy worse, despite an accompanying table showing that unemployment fell from an inherited 25 percent to 9.9 percent in 1941. It is true that the New Deal didn’t bring an end to economic depression, but it did make a big difference, and not only for the social programs that were inaugurated. It was the mobilization to fight World War II that truly ended the Depression, but that effort required massive governmental spending and intervention in the economy — in other words, going well beyond the New Deal. The problem with the New Deal was that it didn’t go far enough or spend sufficiently. So the Institute’s right-wing folderol simply doesn’t withstand the most basic scrutiny.
The Institute disingenuously calls itself “impartial and unbiased” on its About web page, but also attributes to “free markets” all manner of progress. SourceWatch reveals that the Institute is founded by the Koch brothers, has a president who was formerly an executive with Enron and is tied to the Koch brothers’ infamous American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that literally writes extreme Right bills for state legislatures.
When you don’t have facts, make up your argument
Next up, we have similar extremist ideology masquerading as “science” from the Heritage Foundation. As with the Institute for Energy Research, this critique is aimed at the Democratic Party version. We get the flavor of the Heritage Foundation’s attack when it leads off with this statement: “[E]ach of these items is so wildly unrealistic that you have to wonder how familiar the authors are with life away from coastal urban centers.” Ah yes, only conservatives in the middle of the country can possibly possess good ideas.
Declaring that “a great deal of costly damage” would result were any of the ideas adopted, Heritage recoils in horror at the thought of more mass transit or electric motor vehicles. To buttress its ideologically driven point of view, Heritage first understates the mileage that can be driven by electric cars, then declares that an electric vehicle charging infrastructure “would necessitate having exponentially more charging stations than the current number of gas stations.”
Heritage claims that electric vehicles can only travel 90 to 125 miles, yet there are at least eight models that can travel at least 200 miles on a charge. Some of these models are very expensive and unaffordable for most people, but as technology improves, charge travel distances will lengthen and more models will become affordable. For those who do drive, how many gas stations do you pass before needing to fill the tank again? Dozens? Hundreds? Moreover, electric-vehicle recharging stations don’t need to have such a level of saturation because they are easily installed at homes and in business and apartment parking lots. Government agencies and public utilities are already executing plans and providing subsidies to encourage home and business-location chargers. So the idea that Heritage insinuates, that we’ll need a charging station on every other corner, doesn’t stand up to rational examination.
The world’s coral reefs are in danger of dying from oceanic absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide (photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Heritage also shrieks that the Green New Deal calls for an end to air travel, but the plan makes no such statement. In fact, as already noted, it is mostly a set of aspirations with little in the way of concrete proposals as to how to achieve its goals.
The Heritage Foundation of course is peddling far Right ideology. No surprise there, as its founders and funders are some of the most extreme billionaires, including Joseph Coors and Richard Mellon Scaife, and notorious operatives such as Paul Weyrich. Heritage strenuously opposes action to combat global warming, little surprise when some of Heritage’s funders, including the Koch brothers, have a vested interest in promoting fossil fuels. The foundation also takes tobacco-company money while opposing any legislation aimed at that industry.
The lack of specifics in the Democratic Green New Deal hasn’t prevented Republicans from issuing preposterous numbers for the supposed cost. Another propaganda mill, this one calling itself the American Action Forum, apparently using a random-number generator, alleged that the Green New Deal would cost between $53 trillion and $91 trillion from 2020 to 2029; Republicans have taken to parroting the uppermost figure as if it was real.
As one example of this legerdemain, the Forum insists that the Green New Deal’s call for high-quality health care to be provided to all United Statesians would cost $36 trillion for the decade of the 2020s. Never mind that lack of health care has a cost — such a concept is simply ignored — and that the U.S. healthcare system is by far the world’s most expensive. (My own calculations estimate that the U.S. spends an extra $1.4 trillion per year on health care than it would if it had universal coverage similar to peer countries.) It is precisely that the privatized U.S. health care system is designed to generate corporate profits rather than health care that it so expensive.
The American Action Forum is legally able to hide the identity of its donors due to tax-law loopholes, but spends millions of dollars to elect hard-line Republicans and is led by prominent Republican politicians and operatives. The Republican politicians citing this dubious source are in effect citing themselves — their mantra is “I say it’s true, so it must be true.”
Under capitalism, we’ll get more business as usual
One is tempted to call the Right-wing attacks comic relief, but unfortunately continuing business as usual, as the above organizations would like, is anything but funny given the seriousness of the challenge. And acknowledging that seriousness compels us to return to the question of feasibility within the current economic system. The Democratic Party version of the Green New Deal is aptly named because it doesn’t go beyond the reformism of the 1930s New Deal. The reforms the Democratic document calls for certainly would be welcome as vast improvements from what we have today. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that such a program could ever come close to being enacted by Democrats — most of the Democratic leadership is opposed to it, and the record of liberals folding as soon as a Republican attacks is too consistent.
A more fundamental problem is that the backers of the Democratic Green New Deal seem to assume that a program challenging corporate interests to such a serious degree can be fully implemented in the current U.S. political and economic system, and that corporate interests will simply sit back and allow such a program not only to be signed into law but to actually be implemented. A massive social movement, bringing together the widest possible array of organizations and resolute in using a multitude of tactics inside and outside the system, could bring about the proposed program, but there is not a word of public involvement in the Democratic program. It is all to be created by congressional action.
If there was a movement so massive and powerful that it forced the implementation of a Green New Deal, shouldn’t it bring about root-and-branch change? Why have such a movement be steered into propping up the capitalist system that brings so much misery to so many people? If it did simply reform capitalism, however welcome such reforms would be, inequality, imperialism, environmental destruction and all the rest of our present-day social ills would be back with us soon enough with the massive social energy that brought the reforms now dissipated.
The biggest problem with the Democratic version is the expectation that an ambitious program significantly expanding social programs, making huge changes to the economy and bringing the fossil fuel industry to heel can be accomplished without any political or economic system change. Other than a passing mention of “the public receiv[ing] appropriate ownership stakes,” there is an implied assumption that the goals will all be accomplished under capitalism and the current system of corporate rule. Capitalism will yet save us! Sorry, no. Not going to happen. Under capitalism, all the incentives are to continue business as usual, no matter the dire future consequences of business as usual.
The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit and competition is relentless, growth and cost cutting is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business. Because of the built-in pressure to maintain profits in the face of relentless competition, corporations continually must reduce costs, employee wages not excepted. Production is moved to low-wage countries with fewer regulations, enabling not only more pollution but driving up energy and carbon-dioxide costs with the need for transportation across greater distances.
Leaving capitalism intact means allowing “markets” to make a wide array of social decisions — and markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. An economy that must expand will do so. Introducing efficiencies can slow down the increase in energy consumption and resource depletion, but an ever expanding economy will ultimately use more energy, more resources. Switching to all renewable energy, although a necessity to reverse global warming, is insufficient by itself. Some forms of renewable energy are not necessarily clean nor without contributions to global warming, and the limits that living on a finite planet with finite resources presents are all the more acute in an economic system that requires endless growth.
Bioenergy requires deforestation, removing carbon sinks, which is counterproductive to the goal of reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases, and can be more polluting than fossil fuels. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste. There is not a hint of any of this in the Democratic Green New Deal.
Business as usual will cost trillions of dollars
The Green Party’s Green New Deal at least acknowledges that system change is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. This platform also doesn’t offer ideas on how it might come to fruition, but at least there is an implicit nod to the need to transcend capitalism by calling for employment for all who are displaced by the phasing out of fossil fuels, by demanding energy production be put in public hands and by advocating for “a new, sustainable economy.” It also doesn’t shy away from the scale of what is needed, and directly connects the present energy policy with U.S. militarism.
What this program doesn’t do, however, is acknowledge the costs of a rapid transition from fossil fuels. In the mirror image of conservatives who see only costs, liberals and Greens see only benefits. Although not comparable to the cartoonishly absurd Right-wing claims of tens of trillions of dollars in costs, the idea of a cost-free transition strains credibility. The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that concludes the annual reduction in “consumption growth” on a global basis would be only 0.06 percent during the course of the 21st century has only encouraged the idea that “green capitalism” will somehow save the day. The Green version of the Green New Deal is considerably more ambitious than that of the newer Democratic version, and thus all the more out of reach within a capitalist framework.
The Green Party’s Green New Deal also rests on some not necessarily realistic assertions. The platform asserts that having no need to control oil means no more overseas military presence, but that is overly simplistic. Certainly securing oil is a driver of U.S. foreign policy, but hardly the only factor. The U.S. government seeks global dominance for its corporations, keeping the entire planet open for corporate plunder and smashing any and all attempts to escape the U.S. orbit or to challenge the domination of Global North corporations. It will take far more than reducing fossil fuel consumption to bring a halt to imperialism and the closing of 800 U.S. overseas military bases.
The platform then switches to a declaration that the savings from not having to treat diseases arising from fossil fuel use will alone pay for it. There are large savings to be had, but that this one item alone will somehow cover all the costs is unrealistic. In the long run, running an economy on the basis of human need rather than private profit and proving quality preventive health care to cut down on medical spending will be more rational and equitable then what now exists. But that such a transition will be without cost is offering platitudes that can’t be fulfilled. Better to be honest that there will be no cost-free utopia.
Again, none of this an argument against the most rapid possible transition to renewable energy nor that the massive economic changes needed shouldn’t be undertaken. Winning World War II required deficit spending well beyond anything previously seen, but what would the cost of a fascist victory been? Similarly, what would the cost of a rise of several meters in sea level, of massive disruption to weather patterns and agriculture, of hundreds of millions of forced migrations, of massive species extinctions?
Global warming already costs trillions of dollars
That the costs of business as usual can’t easily be quantified does not mean there are not attempts to do so. A 2018 paper in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change by four scientists led by climatologist Katharine Ricke of the University of California, San Diego, estimated that the social cost of carbon — the cumulative economic impact of global warming — amounts to a global total of more than $400 per ton. Based on 2017 carbon dioxide emissions, that is more than US$16 trillion!
The impact varies greatly on a country-by-country basis. Canada and Russia, as of last year, were gaining economic benefits of up to $10 per carbon dioxide ton, while India was already paying $86 per ton. (That is all the more unfair as India is estimated to be responsible for only a cumulative three percent of greenhouse-gas emissions since 1850.) This analysis is based on “a set of climate simulations, rather than a single model.” These costs are “ballpark figures” because of the uncertainty surrounding climate physics, emission trajectories and other factors, but there are additional factors, such as the impact of global warming on international trade and migration, that aren’t necessarily captured in this model.
The gross domestic product for the entire Earth was estimated at $80 trillion for 2017. Thus, if the above calculation is accurate, global warming is already costing humanity one-fifth of its productive output. And we’ve only begun to suffer the effects of the climate spiraling out of control. What will be the cost of, say, a three-meter rise in sea level? That would be more than sufficient to permanently place under water parts of many of the world’s biggest cities.
We are already paying high costs. The cost of ambient air pollution has been estimated at more than four millions deaths per year, and that might be a conservative estimate. An attempt by three economists associated with the International Monetary Fund calculated that worldwide subsidies for the fossil fuel industry is more than US$5 trillion per year when not only direct handouts and other visible monetary subsidies are accounted for, but also adding the environmental costs. Putting millions of people to work building renewable-energy infrastructure will boost the economy, as will ending the subsidies and reducing the health costs of fossil fuels. Those are real benefits. But shutting down entire industries and overhauling the world’s economic system will come at serious cost. It’s not realistic to pretend otherwise. Those of us in the advanced capitalist countries will have to consume less, including using less energy. That, too, is inescapable and both Green New Deals fail to address that.
This is a debate that shouldn’t be reduced to a sterile “revolution or reform” opposition. We need all the reform we can achieve, right now. The balance, nonetheless, is clearly on the side of advocates who push for the fastest possible transition to a new economy, one not dependent on fossil fuels. An economy based on meeting human need and in harmony with the environment, not one made for private profit and that externalizes onto society environmental and other costs. The price of business as usual will be catastrophic environmental damage. Socialism or barbarism remain humanity’s future options.