What's Missing from the Green New Deal

Posted on Sun 10 February 2019 in opinion

If you've been following the news this week, you probably heard about the proposed Green New Deal:

First and foremost, AOC and colleagues deserve enormous credit for making a bold case to the public that dramatic action is needed now to mitigate climate change. To paraphrase NASA GISS scientist Gavin Schmidt, the best time to deal with climate change was 15 years ago; the next best time is now. AOC and her colleagues deserve massive credit for explaining, in terms everyone can understand, how climate is linked to most social, political, and economic ills in the United States and around the world. So while the rest of this post is going to take a critical tone, I'm incredibly thankful for the way in which AOC and colleagues have gotten the country talking about climate change; shifting the debate is, in and of itself, a huge accomplishment.

What's in the GND?

The official version of the Green New Deal was released as a nonbinding resolution by AOC and Ed Markey. As such, it doesn't offer a ton of strict policy proposals; rather,it calls for "10-year national mobilizations" towards a series of goals that the bill lays out. Per Danielle Kurtzleben of NPR Politics, key proposals include:

  • meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources;
  • transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy;
  • upgrading all existing buildings" in the country for energy efficiency;
  • working with farmers "to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions ... as much as is technologically feasible" (while * supporting family farms and promoting "universal access to healthy food");
  • "Overhauling transportation systems" to reduce emissions — including expanding electric car manufacturing, building "charging stations everywhere," and expanding high-speed rail to "a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary";
  • A guaranteed job "with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security" for every American;
  • "High-quality health care" for all Americans.

In other words, this legislation isn't just about the climate. Jordan Weissmann of Slate gave a good description in a recent article:

Green New Dealers don’t merely want to avert climate catastrophe but also intend to use the crisis as a chance to rebuild the foundations of the U.S. economy, much the way FDR did during the Great Depression.

Since the Green New Deal is a nonbinding resolution, we should interpret it as a vision statement rather than a policy proposal. I'm all for improved health care and access to jobs, but I don't know much about economic or health policy so I'm not going to bring them up. Instead, I'm going to focus on three key limitations of the climate policy contained in this Green New Deal proposal:

  1. The Green New Deal pays insufficient attention to tackling sprawl, mobility, and transit, which are key both for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and for adapting to the climate change we've already locked in.
  2. Many of the dominant drivers of climate change have resulted from government policy and incentives, but the Green New Deal mostly rejects changing these incentives through mechanisms like a carbon tax.
  3. Whether we like it or not, we need to expand nuclear power, not curtail it, if we're going to go carbon-free in the near future.

To make these points I'll borrow heavily from other peoples' Twitter posts.

Insufficient focus on cities and transport

The first and biggest problem with the GND is that it places insufficient focus on where we live, which is a crucial driver of emissions related to transit, home heating, logistics, and much more. Alex Baca of Slate wrote a fantastic piece titled The Green New Deal's Huge Flaw which is excellent; rather than garbling her message, I'm going to summarize a few key points and strongly encourage you to read it.

Starting in the mid 20th century, the federal government embarked on a massive social engineering project: the Interstate Highway System. The project's massive price was justified by classifying it under national defense, rather than transportation, but the construction of the interstate highways radically and rapidly re-shaped the country by prioritizing cars and sprawl over alternative transit and urbanization. Most travel on this inter-state highway system isn't actually between states; instead, people used it to get into and out of dense cities.

All this spending amounted to a huge subsidy for cars and sprawl, which, particularly when combined with new tax subsidies for home ownership, pulled wealthy and middle class people out of the cities and into the suburbs. By the 1960s and 70s, cities across the country were gutted: only those who couldn't afford a car, or minorities who were kept out of the suburbs by incredibly effective segregation, were left in city centers (watch Taxi Driver by De Niro and Scorsese if you want a visual of cities during this period). During this period the federal government also subsidized construction of new water, wastewater, and electrical systems in the new suburbs, and, to make a long story shorter, focused national spending on the mid-century American Dream: a single-family home in the suburbs with a yard, white picket fence, and a car or two.

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that after nearly a century of car-focused development, most people need cars to get around. Our solution to traffic in cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Boston has been to widen highways; our solution to population growth has been to expand the footprints of our cities. This has been a feedback loop: as we build more highways and subsidize more new developments, more people move farther from their jobs and cities, requiring them to drive more, and increasing traffic. In this world, cars are a necessity, not a luxury. Consequently, shifting the cars on the road from gas to electricity (or hydrogen fuel cells) can help us manage the emissions from all this driving.

Still, we could and should do more. As Baca puts it, even if all cars in the world switched to electricity,

half of the world’s consumption of oil would remain untouched... sprawl requires us to spend more time and more money to reach the places we need to go.

This sprawl is a key reason why per capita emissions in the United States are nearly 2.5 those of the European Union What can we do about this? I'll wrap this section up with Baca's take

Unsprawling America isn’t as hard as it sounds, because America is suffering from a critical, once-in-a-lifetime housing shortage. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported last year that the U.S. has a national deficit of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes for families most in need. Of course, if we build those homes in transit-accessible places, we can save their occupants time and money. But the scale of housing demand at this moment is such that we could build them in car-centric suburbs, too, and provide a human density that would not just support transit but also reduce the need to travel as shops, jobs, and schools crop up within walking distance.

Future iterations of the Green New Deal should make this unsprawling a central priority; for further reading, read Baca's Slate article and a longer report in Curbed by Alissa Walker.

I want to make one last point about sprawl: it's bad for managing the extreme weather that we have already locked in through climate change. My research focuses on designing infrastructure systems with climate change mitigation in mind, so this is a special passion of mine. To summarize:

  • Sprawl involves transforming (especially paving over) very land areas, including wetlands. This means that when rainfall occurs less of it is absorbed by the environment and more becomes runoff. For an illustration see this Washington Post article on how Houston's development contributed to recent floods.
  • Sprawl is harder to protect. For example, both Manhattan and Miami are threatened by sea level rise; it would be much easier to protect Manhattan's dense structure with a wall and pumps than it would be to protect an equivalent amount of property in Miami.

Incentives work, so why no carbon tax?

The second key flaw of the Green New Deal is a reluctance to use carbon prices and other incentives to change the economy. I'm not qualified to write about the politics, but there is a strong sentiment that the government needs to design, build, and pay for new systems (such as electric cars) rather than letting private companies get rich doing it themselves. But maybe this isn't required:

This is a tweet, not a policy proposal, and so we'd need to think hard about the time horizon of the tax and what to do with the revenue (use it to fund public transit, or cut all taxpayers a check to make the policy help, rather than hurt, the poor). But it illustrates the debate at the heart of this issue: what's the role of the private sector in decarbonizing the economy? I (and virtually all economists I've spoken with) agree that some government action is needed, but that a first step needs to be fixing incentives for the private sector. Essentially, by allowing people to emit carbon without paying for the damage it causes to others (called "externalities"; see this definition), we're effectively subsidizing it.

To give an example of how well subsidies work, consider McDonald's. My fiancee worked until recently as a nutrition and diabetes educator in a health center serving low-income communities in New Haven. We've spent many hours discussing how difficult it is to find cheaper meals than McD's offers, particularly since her patients often lacked time and access to kitchens. Eating unhealthy fast food is the cheapest option. Why? We're all paying for it. First through agriculture: the (conservative) Cato institute wrote a good article on how federal farm subsidies push down the price of commodity crops like corn -- at taxpayer expense. Second, McDonald's doesn't pay for environmental damage caused by the beef industry (see this article by Scientific American). This includes 155 million acres owned by the Bureau of Land Management which ranchers can use for grazing at below-market rates. Finally, welfare programs help McDonald's keep wages low -- again at taxpayer expense. My aim here is not to pick on McDonald's (I have no reason to think they're better or worse than their competitors) but to point out that the system we have today is a direct result of the subsidies and policies that we put in place.

If we want the infrastructure, energy, transportation, construction, manufacturing, and technology sectors to better manage their carbon emissions, we should start by requiring that they pay the costs that their emissions impose on everyone else (note: this is a position that conservative organizations have often endorsed). Taxing carbon definitely isn't going to solve climate change on its own, but it should be a key component of any realistic plan. Call it a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.

Be real about nuclear

My last point is brief. As Brad Plumer of the New York Times reports, environmentalists and nuclear power have a complicated history. The Fukushima disaster in Japan highlighted what can happen when extreme events hit imperfectly-designed nuclear reactors. Storing nuclear waste is dangerous and complex, not to mention politically complex. Design of nuclear systems has gotten better in recent decades, but nothing is perfect.

Still, we shouldn't pretend that we can rapidly decarbonize the economy without nuclear. As some of the country's best-known climate scientists Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emmanuel, James Hansen, and Tom Wigley wrote in 2013, there simply isn't a way to replace fossil fuel-generated electricity without using nuclear power:

While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power

The cost of solar and wind energy have continued to plummet since the article was written, but they continue to contribute only 10% of electric power in the United States. The need for nuclear is especially pressing since decarbonization requires electrifying home heating, vehicles, and industry at the scale currently needed. We should be cautious of nuclear, but we also need to be honest and scale up nuclear electricity production; the Green New Deal's drivers should politely ignore anyone who pretends otherwise.

Conclusions

I love the concept of a Green New Deal and am grateful to AOC and others who have centered it in the national dialogue. We need bold and dramatic action, now, to mitigate the catastrophic impacts of climate change. This will dramatically change the economy, and so we should seize the opportunity to make the economy more fair and more efficient while we're at it.

There's still a long way for this concept to go before it becomes policy. However, the current draft has me a bit concerned. I especially hope that future iterations of this policy focus more on incentivizing sustainable behavior, building denser and human-centered communities. There's a lot I haven't discussed in this post, so please share your thoughts in the comments section or tweet me at @jdossgollin.