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Green New Deal Kicks Climate Change Debate into High Gear

Amy Brown headshotWords by Amy Brown
Energy & Environment
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Everyone has an opinion about the controversial Green New Deal introduced last week by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass) to mobilize the nation to embrace a rapid, 10-year transition to net-zero carbon emissions and overhaul the nation’s energy, transportation and agriculture sectors.

Opinions have ranged from the positive (Democratic leaders including each of the party’s Presidential candidates lined up to support it); the bad (“a green raw deal that will deliver only socialism and misery,” and “a radical front for nationalizing our economy”); and the ugly (a Twitter war in which Ocasio-Cortez isn’t afraid to exchange barbs with President Trump).

Among the goals of the Green New Deal are to generate 100 percent of the nation's electric power from renewable sources; build a national, energy-efficient "smart" electric power grid; upgrade every residential and industrial building for energy efficiency; and eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions from the transportation sector, as well as from farms, factories and other industries.

What Ocasio-Cortez and Markey have put forward so far is a draft resolution for the House to create a special committee to work out the specifics, but it has already generated significant discussion among policymakers and business leaders.

While some describe the goals as unrealistic, others say they are far from unachievable. Even if its ambitious scope is eventually shot down, at least the Green New Deal has prompted a national discussion on climate change that has been largely absent under the Trump Administration.

The debate is on

And that may ultimately be its purpose, as in “a political prop designed to raise awareness of the urgent risks and the enormous scale of the challenges before us, and to inspire or cajole action,” suggests Patrick Doherty, founder of Long Haul Capital Group, in Greenbiz. “The real service provided by the release of the Green New Deal is the space it creates to have this debate and to develop desperately needed plans to address the single greatest threat to the U.S. and the world.”

If the New Green Deal sparks innovation and new thinking about how to tackle climate change—and the broad set of social and environmental issues that are intertwined with that quest—that seems to be precisely what Ocasio-Cortez had in mind.

“I think that really what I hope we’re able to do as a party and as a nation is rediscover the power of public imagination,” Ocasio-Cortez told NPR

The nation seems ready, judging from a poll conducted this month by Yale's Program on Climate Communication and George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication, the results of which showed 92 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans backed the plan.

“Unrealistic,” say skeptics

The debate is raging. The nuclear industry went ballistic when a since-retracted fact sheet from AOC’s office said nuclear power, which has zero carbon emissions, had no place in its vision. The Nuclear Energy Institute issued a statement stating that any approach to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions requires “all clean energy technologies, including nuclear, to work together to address that urgent problem.”

American Petroleum Institute president Mike Sommers declared that energy policy “has to be built on reality and not fantasy," and the head of  the Institute for Energy Research, a fossil-fuel-backed conservative think tank, told The Hill, “It would be impossible to achieve.”

Other fossil fuel industry commentators were more sanguine. “The Green New Dealers deserves kudos for attempting to shake up established wisdom and accelerate the process of decarbonization,” wrote Leonard Hyman and William Tilles for Oilprice.com, ”but the ambiguity of purpose makes us wonder.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called it an approach where “government asserts control over most of our economy, passing along the enormous costs and bureaucratic inefficiencies to everyday Americans.

Former Starbucks CEO and prospective U.S. presidential candidate Howard Schulz ripped into the proposal, warning it would be "immoral" to spend trillions of dollars on an "unrealistic" solution.

And unions, despite the Green New Deal’s promise of a “just transition” for current fossil fuel workers through guarantees of health care, jobs and skills training, have voiced their opposition, arguing that the plan could kill jobs rather than create ones.

Embracing radical action

Not so fast, argue others, who say the Green New Deal could help small businesses and the economy by incentivizing “green businesses and cooperatives” and rev up the pace of technological innovation in areas such as electric planes, improved battery technology and more efficient solar cells.

“Opponents of the Green New Deal, many with ties to the fossil fuel industry, cite the initiative as extreme, even radical. Yet when the world’s leading scientific minds assert that dramatic efforts are required to prevent a planetary catastrophe, perhaps ‘extreme’ measures are precisely what we need,” wrote James Ellsmoor, co-founder and director of Solar Head of State, in Forbes.

According to Fast Company, the Green New Deal is also “a wake-up call for the building industry,” as it represents 39 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. Last year, 19 mayors pledged that every new building constructed in their cities will meet net-zero standards by 2030 - and by 2050, all buildings will be retrofitted to meet those same standards.

Since the Green New Deal hasn’t been fleshed out, no comprehensive cost analysis exists. It remains to be seen as to how it will develop in the weeks ahead—if it survives the onslaught of skepticism and criticism.  

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t explicitly thrown her support behind the Green New Deal, and she has described the plan as “one among many” ways to address climate change. In the meantime,  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he’ll soon bring up the New Green Deal for a vote, a move that is expected to put Democrats on the spot on the controversial measure.

Image credit: Senate Democrats/Flickr

Amy Brown headshotAmy Brown

Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.

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