The Case for a Green New Deal

In October, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that said if mankind is able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, catastrophic consequences might be averted–might being the key word. 

There will still be major ramifications if warming reaches 1.5 degrees: more extreme weather, harsher droughts, and all the attendant consequences–water and food depletion, ravaged coastline economies, etc.–will be unavoidable. Past the 1.5 marker is when the game changes. That’s when sea levels start rising several feet and there are mass extinctions of plant and wildlife. In other words, our own world will become unrecognizable to us. 

According to the IPCC, we’ve already hit the 1 degree mark and are already living with some of the results: increasingly hotter years, more extreme weather, more extinctions and deaths of ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef. The current era is marked by mass migrations and constant low-grade internal violence and civil war, some of which might be attributable to climate change. If this is a 1 degree world, what does a 1.5 degree or higher world look like?

Just think about refugees alone. It’s not too much an exaggeration to say that American politics has already been radicalized by increased refugee flows–and the perception that America will be the target of a massive migrant onslaught. But imagine what would happen to our society and political system if actual masses of people fleeing climate-related disasters come streaming up to our southern border.

The scale of the solution–preparing for consequences of warming and preventing further warming–must match the scale of the problem. But the solution goes vertiginously to the foundations of our way of life:

Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems. These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.

The report traces out potential pathways–by toggling variables like energy demand, the spread of zero-emission technologies, and others–that might stop warming at 1.5 degrees. All the pathways with “no or limited overshoot” of 1.5 degrees have the following in common:

  • Renewables must supply 70-85 percent of electricity by 2050
  • The use of coal must be reduced to 0-2 percent of electricity by 2050
  • CO2 emissions from industry are projected to be about 65–90% (interquartile range) lower in 2050 relative to 2010.
  • In industry, emissions reductions by energy and process efficiency by themselves are insufficient.
  • The electricity share of energy demand in buildings would be about 55–75% in 2050
  • In the transport sector, the share of low-emission final energy would rise from less than 5% in 2020 to about 35–65% in 2050
  • Millions of square miles of land currently used for pasture will need to be converted to food crops and millions of square miles of land have to be forested.

Whole periods of human existence have been created and destroyed by the discovery of new sources of energy: the mastery of fire, the agricultural revolution (using the sun, soil, and water), the taming and breeding of labor animals, the discovery of wind and water energy (wind and water mills to crush grain, wind to push sail boats to other lands), and, of course, the discovery of fossil fuels, which led to the Industrial Revolution. What the IPCC report says, in so many words, is that the way we live threatens our survival and we must make major changes by our own volition.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt first won the presidency, the country was experiencing its worst economic crisis. In his inaugural address, he said he would “ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis–broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

I recognize that comparing the Great Depression to a war for survival may have been overheated, perhaps demagogic. But the Depression was undoubtedly an emergency and FDR’s extensive use of executive power via the New Deal did much to mitigate and reverse its effects.

Would it now be an exaggeration to treat climate disaster that awaits us with the same alacrity we would combating an invasion by a foreign foe?

Consider John F. Kennedy’s 1962 plea for the moon landing project, said:

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.

I also recognize that likening the goal of landing on the moon to an epochal shift like the Industrial Revolution may have been hyperbolic, perhaps even a cynical manipulation to extend an unnecessary cold war. But the triumph of achieving something thought to be unimaginable expanded our collective imagination; it transformed how we see ourselves, and it brought us new technologies and new visions of our future.

A Green New Deal is the only plausible solution for America. It confronts the climate emergency with the proportionate urgency, scale, and vision it requires. It extracts our most pressing problems from their silos and offers a holistic plan forward. It should be the central plank of any party that deems itself committed to responsible governance.

The Green New Deal would commit the United States to achieving what’s necessary:

  • Zero net emissions by 2050
  • 100 percent clean and renewable electricity by 2035
  • 100 percent zero emission cars and transportation
  • Lead pipe replacement and infrastructure refurbishment
  • Reforest 40 million acres and restore 5 million acres of wetlands by 2040

To achieve those goals, we need a massive workforce for the construction, operations, and administration of projects. Data for Progress, a policy workshop that has taken the lead in developing this proposal, estimates that these projects would create 10 million new jobs over one decade and create sufficient labor demand to create a federal job guarantee. In other words, a Green New Deal would establish  “a legal right that obligates the federal government to provide a job for anyone who asks for one and to pay them a livable wage. The more states and communities that participate in a federal job guarantee, the more public works projects can be completed across the country.”

This has to be the starting point for anyone who refuses to flinch at the terrifying reality we face. Previous generations ended slavery, defeated totalitarianism, and put a man on the moon. Let’s claim our mantle.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.