Is the Green New Deal’s Ambition Smart Policy?

Some Lessons from Environmental History

At the the heart of the Green New Deal — which demands slashing U.S. carbon emissions by 2030 by shifting to 100 percent clean energy  — is a major conundrum.  Even the most enthusiastic proponents of ambitious climate policy don’t believe the goals are achievable, technologically let alone politically.  Stanford Professor Marc Z. Jacobsen, for example, among the most ardent advocates for decarbonizing the electricity grid completely, believes that we can achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, three decades after the Green New Deal’s target date.  Ernie Monitz, the former Secretary of Energy under President Obama, laments that he “cannot see how we could possibly go to zero carbon in a 10-year time frame.”  A number of columnists have noted that the Green New Deal will never become law because of its expense, its political impracticability and its technological infeasibility. And yet, the Green New Deal has attracted huge public support, the endorsement of all of the 2020 Democratic candidates for President, and a large number of Senators and members of Congress.  It promises to mobilize a generation of young activists to work to solve the existential crisis of their lives.

Though I remain conflicted about a proposal that seems untethered to what is actually achievable, it’s worth remembering that the Green New Deal is not the first environmental program to contain wildly ambitious and infeasible goals.  The 1970 Clean Air Act set broad-based national air standards and required auto companies to cut pollution from the tailpipes of cars by 90 percent in just five years.   Senator Edmund Muskie’s words about the Clean Air Act could be used to support the ambitions of the Green New Deal:

The first responsibility of Congress is not the making of technological or economic judgments or even to be limited by what is or appears to be technologically or economically feasible. Our responsibility is to establish what the public interest requires to protect the health of persons. This may mean that people and industries will be asked to do what seems to be impossible at the present time.

Since the Clean Air Act was adopted, the six major pollutants it covers have dropped by 73 percent  even as the population and the economy have grown dramatically. Lead, once commonplace in the air, in gasoline, and in the blood of children, has been almost completely eliminated as an air pollutant.  No state in the country violates standards for carbon monoxide (Los Angeles used to violate it more than 100 times a year).   The tailpipe standards pushed auto manufacturers and other innovative companies to develop and install catalytic converters on all new automobiles, considered one of the greatest environmental inventions of all time.  Cars today are 99 percent cleaner than they were in 1970.

The Clean Water Act contained similarly ambitious goals.  It declared that all pollution discharges would be banned by 1985. It set as a target that all U.S. water bodies be fishable and swimmable by 1983.  And it backed up these goals with an ambitious new program that required every factory  and industrial facility to get a permit to regulate pollution and allocated billions of dollars to clean up the nation’s sewage.  The result, as my colleague Jim Salzman has written, is that the dumping of raw sewage is largely a thing of the past and we have doubled the number of water bodies that meet water quality standards.

Neither the Clean Air Act nor the Clean Water Act has been a complete success.  The tailpipe standards weren’t actually implemented until 1981 and many air districts around the country are not meeting today’s tight air pollution standards for ozone and particulate pollution.  Hot spot pollution remains a huge problem, especially for low income communities and communities of color.  Many water bodies remain out of compliance with water quality standards, mainly because of what is known as non-point source pollution.  The Trump Administration’s agenda to roll back environmental progress promises to make our environmental problems worse.

And yet, our air and our water are far cleaner today because policy makers in the 1970s set wildly unrealistic, ambitious, expensive goals.   They did so because the public demanded action and those public demands led to widespread bipartisan support for  an “environmental moon shot.”  And so, despite my skepticism that the Green New Deal is feasible, or politically possible, or technologically sound, I am cheering Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey on, at the top of my lungs, hoping that their wild ambition can change hearts and minds about the biggest environmental problem we have ever faced.







, ,

Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Is the Green New Deal’s Ambition Smart Policy?”

  1. Dear Ann,
    The Green New Deal has already become a stark public failure. Our fear is gone and this “new deal” is nothing at all and will soon will be forgotten. Pity dear Meredith Hankins who has been waiting her whole life for a Green New Deal and now its over before it ever got started. AOC cannot save us from climate change but she is cute and we understand why some folks like her.

    1. The above comment is just sleazy and misogynistic piffle. It also breaks the commenting rules by being posted anonymously.

  2. I wish the GND proponents well, too, although I worry about a couple of things.

    First, the comparison with other environmental programs, while inspiring, is a little inappropriate. There has never been a problem of this scale, and not one whose amplification is so thoroughly integrated in with the daily comforts of affluent humans. Fossil fuels do have high energy densities, and that can be convenient.

    Also, related to this, benefits do not accrue if we simply cease emitting. We have a timetable, and Nature will not scrub the harmful materials on any reasonable human timetable, and conditions at the moment we succeed at achieving zero emissions will persist for centuries. The alternative, artificial removal of atmospheric CO2, is both horrifically expensive (multiples of 2014 Gross World Product size at present prices) and pursuit of the technology has been explicitly rejected by GND proponents. (They’ve ruled out advanced nuclear technologies, too.)

    Second, without policy which is “tethered to what is actually achievable”, GND suggests the bar is lower than it actually is and could, in itself, both present a moral hazard and make people think climate change is not being mitigated purely for reasons of politics and greed. (This is in bounds because the rejection of negative emissions technology is done because it, too, could be a kind of moral hazard.) Sure, those are involved, but it is also true people don’t like the things that a GND-style solution, or a Professor Mark Z Jacobson solution entail. In my opinion, their choice is silly, but people are people.

    Third, aspirational, engineering-free solutions to big, big problems are likely to founder, because they won’t assess and contain their own complications, particularly if they are rushed. Uncoordinated rollout of zero Carbon energy won’t only trash pieces of the grid which will have repercussions for the less well off and people of color, but could also exacerbate climate conditions and regional weather. Large scale plantings, for example, of Jatropha curcas, thought to be a way of doing rapid CO2 drawdown and projecting biodiesel oils, could change albedo in the wrong direction for the arid regions it loves, and, indeed, could do itself in if the same regions transform into tropics. Uncoordinated rollouts of wind farms will affect weather system energies. That’s no reason not to do it, but it needs to be studied and thought through.

    Fourth, there is (still) a substantial education component needed, one done in a manner that evades the impression climate change-fixing proponents are pulling their punches. For if byproducts of climate change are severe enough to move people into action, and gets them to accept sacrifices needed to do so, then they probably will expect to see improvements once these changes are made. The science says that expectation is unreasonable, because of the inertia of the climate system and because the human emissions impact is a perturbation on a geological scale in a geological moment. The political ramifications of this realization are both difficult to assess but could be damaging to the long term health of the collective project.

  3. We waited too long. Concepts like feasibility and expense no longer apply to human-caused climate change. It’s do or die time now.

Comments are closed.

About Ann

Ann Carlson is currently on leave from UCLA School of Law. She is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law and was the founding Faculty Director of the Emmett I…

READ more

About Ann

Ann Carlson is currently on leave from UCLA School of Law. She is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law and was the founding Faculty Director of the Emmett I…

READ more