Last month, to great fanfare and some derision, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York unveiled their ambitious plans for their “Green New Deal.” Let’s examine this proposal for what it is — aspirational only — not for what it is not — implementable.
First, there is no question that the ideas are all well-meaning: Save the planet by transferring power from fossil fuels to renewable sources; building industries to support that goal, including transportation, building conversions, and infrastructure; creating jobs for all Americans to ensure they have the financial means to support themselves and their families; and on and on.
Second, and realistically, Congress has become so dormant over the past 10 years that I would bet the farm, if I had one, that Congress will never pass it. Republicans have attacked it as the road to socialism (read, the road to slavery), where big government becomes even bigger and undermines the soul of American capitalism. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has announced that he wants the Senate to vote on it as soon as possible: not to gauge its worthiness, but to embarrass the Democrats for having to choose whether to support it.
Third, beyond the petty politics is whether there is anything in the proposal worth reviewing, even passing into law. The main criticism, coming largely from Republicans, is that the costs of such heavy government involvement would run into the trillions of dollars. This comes at a moment when the nation’s debt is already at $22 trillion.
Just this fiscal year, the deficit added almost $1 trillion to the debt when the 2017 tax cuts failed to produce the revenue the Trump administration had projected. A more important question is whether we want the federal government to be so involved with our lives: not only renewable energy but, as the proposal puts it, “guaranteeing universal health care … a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security” for all Americans.
The idea is not new. Back in 2007, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman proposed a variation without the overreach of the federal government. He wrote,
“A redefined, broader, and more muscular green ideology is not meant to trump the traditional Republican and Democratic agendas but rather to bridge them when it comes to addressing the three major issues facing every American today: jobs, temperature, and terrorism … We need a Green New Deal — one in which government’s role is not funding projects, as in the original New Deal, but seeding basic research, providing loan guarantees where needed, and setting standards, taxes, and incentives that will spawn 1,000 G.E. Transportations for all kinds of clean power.”
Friedman’s proposition, like that of Markey and Ocasio-Cortez, was ambitious. But its emphasis was very different. It placed far greater responsibility on citizen engagement and civic-mindedness, which we sorely need in American society.
We must start with the environment because climate change, in my judgment, is the most critical problem facing us today. Congress and the citizenry must examine Markey and Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal, part by part, in detail.
A clear majority of climate scientists agree that greenhouse gases emanating from fossil fuels are responsible for climate change and global warming. A federal report on climate released last November by the U.S. Global Change Research Program should weigh heavily on our minds. It concluded that climate change not only negatively affected the natural environment, but also agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, and human health and welfare across the U.S. and its territories. It means that we can expect colder winters, hotter summers, more flooding, fires, and a decline in health and the quality of life. The Trump administration downplayed the report, releasing it the Friday after Thanksgiving, hoping it would be buried and forgotten. Its planned withdrawal next year from the Paris Climate Agreement adds to the problem: Climate does not respect national borders, it is a global phenomenon.
Last December at the global climate conference in Poland, White House advisor Wells Griffith heralded the virtues of coal, one of the underlying causes of the climate crisis we now face, along with other dirty fuels. He was mocked with laughter by the delegates from the nations that take climate change seriously. The U.S. now stands alone in ignoring these problems.
The recent confirmation of Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency will allow him, along with the president, to decommission the EPA with the huge decreases in environmental regulations. The budget proposal released this month by the administration shows a cut of one-third of EPA spending.
All this brings us back to the Green New Deal. As I indicated at the beginning, it is seriously aspirational. Yes, it lacks detail, but it sets out several invaluable and essential proposals that all of us have got to be discussing and debating. And soon.
Jack Fruchtman, an Aquinnah seasonal resident, teaches constitutional law and politics at Maryland’s Towson University.