The Green New Deal Isn’t Ripe
So yesterday we got the long-awaited “Green New Deal” from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. You can read through the resolution here as well as a FAQ. They’re short — a little more than twenty pages combined. Mind the typos. Most of the major presidential candidates have voiced support. Nancy Pelosi, by contrast, has kept her distance.
This isn’t really a proposal as such. There are no actual laws proposed, no discussion of tradeoffs, no legislative roadmap. The GND, such as it is, is mainly a collection of progressive goals, not all of which are related to the climate. Included within it are such things as creating jobs, investing in infrastructure, guaranteeing food and “access to nature”, addressing racial inequality, improving education, bolstering unions, etc. To achieve these goals, it proposes bold policy initiatives that lack any kind of detail or consideration.
Among the things it proposes doing in the next decade alone: building a high speed rail system that will make air travel obsolete, replacing all power generation with alternative energy, overhauling every building in the United States to comply with new environmental regulations (some of which don’t exist yet), creating millions of union jobs, creating Medicare For All, etc., etc. In a rather amusing side note, they admit that they might not be able to slaughter all the cows within ten years to reduce agricultural methane emissions. And no, I’m not making that up. And all of this will be paid for by … well, just spending really. They wave off the costs by citing Modern Monetary Theory, which claims that you can just print money to pay for things, no problem.
So … that’s the GND. So what do I think of it? To be honest, I’d expect more out of a freshman year term paper. A high school freshman year term paper.
The thing about the GND is that any single part of it would be incredibly difficult to accomplish. Let’s just look at one little aspect of their proposal: they propose a massive expansion of high speed rail, so much so that people stop traveling by air. It sounds so simple but it’s not. California, one of our bluest states, has been working on a high-speed rail system for over 20 years. It was approved in 2009 and given $9 billion in development funds. They might get a small section operational by 2027 with the full system coming around … maybe … in 2033. The cost has ballooned to nearly $70 billion. And there are still land-use issues to work out.
That’s just for California, using one of the most well-traveled corridors in the country. A national rail system would run into even bigger issues in infrastructure, costs and land use. And it is not really suitable to this country. It works well in high-density places like Japan or Europe. And it might make sense on the East Coast (Amtrak’s Acela Express is their most profitable line by far). But nationwide? Jon Setyon:
Truly replacing air travel with high-speed rail lines would require connecting all the countless cities in the U.S. that, while they wouldn’t be classified as major, still have airports. Feigenbaum pointed to Casper, Wyoming, and Provo, Utah. Both have populations under 500,000. “Are we really going to build high-speed rail to places like [these]?” wonders Feigenbaum.
In fact, there are more than 5,000 public airports in the U.S. It’s hard to imagine the planning and money that would go into connecting even half of them with high-speed rail lines, or serving the hundreds of millions of people who fly in the U.S. each year.
The vastness and sprawl of the United States is simply not suitable to a national high-speed rail network, certainly not one that makes a significant dent in air travel. Not unless you force people to use it. Are people going to fly from LA to New York in four hours or take high speed rail for 12-24? Are we going to build enough cars to carry the 1.7 million people who fly in this country every day?
Warren Meyer has addressed this issue a number of times, pointing out that we have a great rail system in the United States — for freight.
Most of the intellectual elites and nearly all the global warming alarmists deride the US for not having the supposedly superior rail system that France and Germany have. They are blinded by the vision of admittedly beautiful high speed trains, and have frittered away billions of dollars trying to pursue various high speed rail visions in the US.
Now you have to take me on faith on one statement — it is really hard, in fact close to impossible, to optimize a rail system for both passengers and freight. In the extreme of high speed rail, passenger trains required separate dedicated tracks. Most rail systems, even when they serve both sorts of traffic, generally prioritize one or the other. So, if you wanted to save energy and had to pick, which would you choose — focusing on freight or focusing on passengers? Oh and by the way, if you want to make it more personal, throw in a consideration of which you would rather have next to you on crowded roads, another car or another freight truck?
This is why the supposedly-green folks’ denigrating of US rail is so crazy to me. The US rails system makes at least as much sense as the European system, even before you consider that it was mostly privately funded and runs without the subsidies that are necessary to keep European rail running. Yes, as an American tourist travelling in Europe, the European rails system is great. Agreed. I use it every time I go there. I have to assume that this elite tourist experience must be part of why folks ignore the basic science here.
That’s just one aspect of their proposal. I could go on all day. Just to list a handful of additional issues:
- The GND proposes going to 100% renewable with no expansion or even elimination of nuclear. Our own Kristin Devine had a post earlier this week on the problems of renewable energy in cold environments that had more thought and insight than the entire GND combined. As Michael Shellenberger notes, eliminating nuclear is a recipe for disaster. Vermont eliminated nuclear, promising to go full renewable. As a result, their emissions … rose by 16%. Alternative energy is simply not reliable enough to completely replace nuclear or fossil. And if you eliminate nuclear, you’re using fossils.
- That’s not to mention the estimated $7-13 trillion cost of building renewables or the ongoing expense of maintaining them or the land use issues connected with such a vast quantity of solar panels and windmills.
- The GND proposes retrofitting every building in America to higher environmental standards. As McArdle points out, renovating even one house is a massive expensive endeavor. And it’s not clear that federal standards are even that great. I have a little experience in this: we will be soon replacing the windows in our house. And the “green” ones are vastly more expensive, far less durable and significantly less efficient than the standard ones.
- The GND proposes replacing every car in America with an electric one. Apart from the cost, it’s not clear that issues with rare earth metals or battery disposal can be addressed.
- I’ll lay off most of the economic aspects of this (although I will note that guaranteeing income security for those “unwilling to work” is unlikely to be popular). With one exception: The GNDers are proclaiming that they will not need to raise taxes to pay for all this. Instead, it will be paid for by Modern Monetary Theory — the idea that government can just print money and spend it without any problems. This theory is regarded a extreme even in liberal circles. And it reminds me eerily of the Phillips Curve nonsense. At one time, economists claimed we could keep unemployment low by keeping inflation high. That theory crashed and burned in the 70s, producing stagflation. MMT crosses me as another economic theory that can only be tested out by risking a complete economic meltdown. But I guess if everyone is out of work and starving to death, the economists will be able to figure out that they forgot to carry the two.
Look, I think global warming a serious issue and we do need a bold plan to deal with it. That’s exactly why I am so disappointed in this … thing. Getting things done in Washington is hard. Even getting the most basic laws passed to address global warming will be a massive uphill fight. When you tie it a gigantic overhaul of the entire economy? It’s crazy.
But … this may not be intended as a serious proposal. Chait makes the case the the Green New Deal isn’t really about the Green New Deal; it’s about uniting the progressive wing of the Democratic Party:
How to explain this curious lack of ambition? Simple: All these things divide progressive activists. Some of the most committed environmentalists got involved in the movement in the 1970s, before climate change was a major issue but when the left identified nuclear power with the Cold War and Three Mile Island. This mind-set shaped the thinking of enough environmentalists that their allies in the movement feel compelled to respect them despite overwhelming evidence that nuclear power, which does not emit greenhouse gasses, needs to fill some of the void left by phasing out fossil fuels. Likewise, many leftists regard relaxed restrictions on development and carbon caps, as unacceptably market-based. So those policies are out.
The operating principle behind the Green New Deal is a no-enemies-to-the-left spirit of fostering unity among every faction of the progressive movement. Thus, at the same time, the plan avoids taking stances that are absolutely vital to reduce carbon emissions, it embraces policies that have nothing to do with climate change whatsoever.
Sean McElwee, a socialist organizer with a penchant for colorfully threatening to destroy his enemies, designed the Green New Deal as a framework to encompass every maximal demand of the left. “The Green New Deal is what it means to be progressive. Clean air, clean water, decarbonizing, green jobs, a just transition, and environmental justice are what it means to a progressive,” he tells Vox. “By definition that means politicians who don’t support those goals aren’t progressive. We need to hold that line. Get on the GND train or choo-choo, motherfucker, we’re going to go right past you.”
Well, Choo-choo back. You’re going to drive the current political moment right into a wall with this insistence to ideological purity to an ideology that only a tiny fraction of Americans believe in. David French:
Nobody has to be a progressive to be concerned about the environment. Nobody has to be a progressive to respond to climate change. Any proposal that conditions response to climate change on the adoption of the full progressive platform is not only doomed to fail, but raises the question of whether the declared climate emergency is more pretext than crisis. There’s a need for a serious discussion about our climate. The Green New Deal is not serious.
Precisely. By tying global warming to every Left Wing pet issue; by making bold claims that have nothing to do with political or technological reality; by compelling every presidential candidate to embrace a policy that reads like a high school term paper slapped together the night before it was due, the progressives are hurting the cause. They are driving people away. They’re not “moving the Overton window” (assuming that dubious concept is even real). They’re closing every political window in sight.
(One invective conservatives used to hurl at environmentalists was calling them “watermelons”: green on the outside; red on the inside. The idea was that environmental causes were mostly of interest to the Left as a vehicle with which to advance their economic agenda. It was not helped by the embrace of such environmental luminaries as Fidel Castro or the blatant repackaging of liberal policy goals into environmental causes. The pejorative has died down in recent years but the GND is already breathing new life into it.)
Look, I’ve said many times that global warming is real and we need to address it. We need a serious proposal to decarbonize — one that uses nuclear, one that harnesses rather than fights market forces, one that prioritizes getting agreements from China and India, one that invests in bold technological initiatives (e.g., nuclear fusion) and one that has a realistic time scale.
This … isn’t it. This isn’t even close. If anything, it’s a huge step backward.