To Dream the Impossible Dream

What are the pros and cons of yesterday’s proposal for a Green New Deal?

The Green New Deal proposal introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey is a call for drastic action to address climate change. Specifically, section 1(A) says that “it is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal . . . to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.”  Section 2(C) says this and other goals should be “accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization . . . that will require . . .meeting 100 percent of the power demand through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.”

The ten-year timetable is implausible on many levels.  You’ll notice that the proposal is labeled a resolution, not a bill.  No one has even thought through how to write such a bill.  We don’t know the level of funding, the types of regulation, or how the programs would be administered.  Beyond that, there are bigger questions.  We don’t know whether, even with unlimited spending, the goal is achievable in this timeframe.  Even the most ambitious state governments don’t think they can achieve zero emissions in such a short amount of time.  Just to scale up their programs to the national level would take enormous effort.  There is also the question of how such a huge program would be financed and how that would impact the economy. Not to mention political feasibility.  The Democratic Congress was unable to pass even the far more limited Waxman-Markey bill in 2010.  It would take a political revolution to make this version of the Green New Deal achievable today.

Ocasio-Cortez is very new on the political scene, and she may or may not yet be aware of the barriers.  Senator Markey surely is.  Perhaps it is better to think of the resolution as a rallying cry rather than a serious policy proposal.

Rallying cries have their pros and cons.  On the one hand, as the term indicates, they are really effective for rallying the troops.  It’s hard to generate a lot of public excitement over more pragmatic measures.  I have yet to hear a crowd changing:  “What do we want? A CARBON TAX. When do we want it? NOW!” And many of the actions we need to take to address climate change are harder to grasp and far less glamorous than a carbon tax.  In contrast, the Green New Deal may succeed in generating the kind of public support and enthusiasm we need to overcome  ideology and vested interests.  And we really do need to rally the troops.  The trouble with being reasonable and speaking in a well-modulated voice is that no one can hear you in a crowded, noisy room.  Without idealists taking more dramatic stands, progress may never happen.

But while rallying cries are important, it is dangerous to confuse them with Implementable policies.  “Repeal and Replace” sounded like a great slogan for Republicans until it came time to come up with actual legislation. In the end they achieved nothing. There is also the risk that aiming too high could splinter support for climate programs, again leading to no results. The unattainable perfect can be the enemy of the attainable good.

“To Dream the Impossible Dream” is a song from a Broadway musical about Don Quixote. It’s a stirring song. But the title also captures the line between being idealistic and being deluded: Like the singer, you actually have to know what’s an impossible dream and what isn’t. Without impossible dreams, progress may not happen, but confusing a dream with a plan is a shortcut to failure.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “To Dream the Impossible Dream”

  1. If you’ve never heard a crowd chanting in favor of a carbon tax then maybe you have never been to a Citizens’ Climate Lobby event. CCL has over 100,000 supporters who are passionate about carbon taxes and are making their voices heard. There is bipartisan legislation in Congress right now:

    Join us in DC this June if you want a Carbon Tax now!

    And here’s a video from 2014 with a crowd in DC cheering for carbon taxes:

  2. A thoughtful assessment, Dan. An additional barrier is the constraints posed by environmental laws. In short, the New Green Deal will need to deal with the Old Green Laws or invent New Green Laws. More on that here:

  3. One issue on this is that activists need to listen to engineers and scientists. There are many developments in energy, in energy efficiency, in carbon sequestration, and in other related areas that most people have no idea about that may suddenly change the world.

    I have great hope for surprising developments in addressing global warming. Exponential developments in technology can happen over night and are very rarely anticipated by most people (I once met Steve Jobs at an early Computer Faire. I commented that I would love to have a computer like that, but I really didn’t think most people would have any use for one.) One important point is that technology is synergistic and new developments come from combining other new developments, so technology is literally exponential.

    For example, most activists don’t know that there is a possibility that there could be a sudden break through in fusion energy (or maybe not); there are several “exotic” fusion reactions being worked on in addition to the NIF getting closer and closer to break even and the various big Tokamaks and other “conventional” confinement strategies. This could turn the whole energy problem upside down. These breakthroughs are mainly coming about through high power computer models of plasma stability. However, there are also many developments in catalyst science (also powered by computer modeling) that could be nearly as important.

    Engineers will also have to implement a lot of the hardware that goes to a green new deal, so they are familiar with the little details that turn out to be critical (this is sometimes called “the Unobtainium Bolt Problem”).

    Law and activism is critical to developing the framework (and funding) required to implement hardware, but it is also important to fully understand the opportunities and limits of actual systems to be able to understand the choices available.

    Finally, remember that many engineer’s first response to a problem is that something is “technically possible, but too expensive”. The correct response is “OK, I will go talk to *** instead, they are good at difficult problems”. This will immediately make the “technically possible but too expensive” engineer spring to work and develop a cost-effective solution.

  4. Dan, great focus statement “To Dream the Impossible Dream,” along with your conclusion “Without impossible dreams, progress may not happen, but confusing a dream with a plan is a shortcut to failure.”

    One more thought, our 2006 CALIFORNIA magazine special “Global Warning” issue should have produced more creativity but here we are in 2019, still failing to achieve the impossible dream, even though one focus statement in the “Can We Adapt in Time” feature we also keep failing to admit and overcome was:

    Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard evolutionary biologist, once said that far-off catastrophes, engineered by our own species, are simply out of the range of human capacity for planning and action. “It doesn’t matter that that evolutionary process may be leading an entire species to the precipice,” he said. “There is nothing in the species to foresee what will be happening ten generations down the line, only what is happening at the moment.” Human beings, he added, “have a hard time reasoning why they should care what might come about 100 years hence.”

    Wilson also wrote a book “The Origins of Creativity” where he emphasized that creativity is:

    “an innate quest for originality,” driven by the enduring human passion for novelty, “the discovery of new entities and processes, the solving of old challenges and disclosure of new ones, the aesthetic surprise of unanticipated facts and theories, the pleasure of new faces, the thrill of new worlds.”

    But here are today, with our greatest impossible dream for survival of the human race being that we must have more scientists with creativity, in addition to intelligence, to overcome the destructive acts of global warming we have produced that are increasingly out of our control because we are still not adapting in time.

    I dream that more intellectuals shall try harder to be creative as well as intelligent before time runs out.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more