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Whatever the merits of the “Green New Deal” that two U.S. Democrats unveiled earlier this month, it surely has raised the temperature of the debate on climate change, along with that of jobs, income inequality, health care, housing and more. In a broad sweep at progressive initiatives, the resolution introduced by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey calls most prominently for the U.S. to move off of fossil fuels and become carbon-neutral in a decade.
While supporters have hailed the move as long overdue, critics have dubbed it as sloganeering or at best, unrealistic in its goals. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will bring the bill up for vote, but Democrats are dismissing that move as a political ploy rather than a serious debate on the merits of the plan.
In any event, the discussion on the Green New Deal makes room for “messaging” the urgency to combat climate change and the potential for it to change electoral results, said experts at Wharton, Syracuse University and the University of Texas at Austin. The specifics of implementing the plan are in a gray area, such as creating high-wage green sector jobs, and dealing with the displacement of jobs in the fossil fuel industry. However, many elements of the plan are workable, given enough government funding and political will, the experts said.
The plan seeks to not only achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years; it also wants to create “millions of good, high-wage jobs,” boost infrastructure investments, provide clean air and water, healthy food and access to nature, and prevent the oppression of marginalized communities, among other goals.
The Green New Deal is “not a detailed plan that gives some specific outcomes, [but] a framework proposal … and is a good idea,” according to Eric Orts, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics. Orts is also director of Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. He noted that it is a “non-binding resolution,” which essentially means that it doesn’t intend to secure votes in Congress on its proposals but aims to air opinions and create public and political discourse.
David Spence, professor of business, government and society at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business and a chair in law at the university’s law school, termed the Green New Deal is not “a plan [but] a statement of goals.” He said that even as it “aims at a rapid transition to a cleaner energy mix,” it is “big and broad” and “very ambitious.”
Spence said there would be obstacles for the Green New Deal in both securing political support and implementing specific proposals, such as seamlessly replacing fossil-fuel jobs with high-wage “green” jobs in construction and renewable energy. “There are a lot of questions about how you get from A to Z in each of these questions, and there’s a lot of strategic political questions about whether you can garner majorities for something this big and broad,” he said.
But many climate-change policies elsewhere in the world are ambitious and have multiple goals, according to David M. Driesen, professor at Syracuse University’s College of Law, who focuses on environmental law, law and economics, and constitutional law. “I see its primary potential as being a … populist political proposal that might not pass now, but if it’s done right and messaged right, might have the capacity to help change electoral results,” he said “And that’s what’s needed. We’re going nowhere unless there are bold proposals put forward on messaging the shifts where the polity is at on these things.”
Orts, Spence and Driesen shared their thoughts on what the Green New Deal could achieve on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Sirius XM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
According to Orts, the central takeaway from the Green New Deal is its emphasis on moving away from fossil fuels to renewables in order to combat climate change. “There really does need to be a major investment and shifting in where we’re sourcing our energy,” he said. “You need to move to a more electrified economy, and you need to move away from fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil.” He said the proposals drive home the point that “you need a major effort that can only be directed by a national government policy.”
“If it’s done right and messaged right, it might have the capacity to help change electoral results.”–David M. Driesen
Incentives in the right places would be needed to implement specific proposals, said Orts. “You have to give co-benefits to everybody else,” he explained. “You can’t just put a charge on carbon and everybody will say, ‘OK, let’s do it that way.’ The problem is there’s no political sell-ability for that. People see it as job-killing or business-killing.” That issue can be addressed if “significant government investment” is combined with a commitment that it would bring “really good jobs — not just temporary jobs.”
Spence pointed also to “tradeoffs in trying to accomplish two things at the same time,” referring to the climate-change policies and green sector jobs the proposals seek. He acknowledged that renewable energy sectors such as solar promise more jobs, especially with a boom in construction of solar rooftop panels, than what could come from the coal industry.
However, the Green New Deal talks about permanent union jobs, Spence pointed out. “There are more permanent union jobs in a coal plant or a nuclear power plant at the operational stage than there are in a wind or a solar or even a hydro station, modern versions of which are typically operated remotely from the control room with nobody on site. So, we have to think through these various tradeoffs. Some really hard decisions have to be made when we translate these goals that are in the current resolution into actual policy.”
“There are a lot of questions about how you get from A to Z in each of these questions, and there’s a lot of strategic political questions about whether you can garner majorities for something this big and broad.”–David Spence
For instance, Spence noted that shifting the production of solar panels from China to the U.S., for example, would mean “more expensive solar panels.” While he did not rule out the possibility of those tradeoffs being resolved, he said they are “papered over right now in this resolution.”
Driesen agreed that those tradeoffs are real challenges. “They have to figure out how to take care of workers in certain regions that produce oil or mine coal,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re going to be vociferous opponents, no matter what good things happen in the rest of the economy.”
In addition to promising permanent, new jobs, the “messaging” around the proposals could point to the “indirect job benefits” that could result from a shift away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, said Driesen.
Where Are the New Green Jobs?
Big opportunities exist to create those green jobs, Spence said. “We have more than 10 gigawatts of solar in the queue waiting for permission to get built [in Texas].” However, it would call for “a heavy-handed effort and top-down leadership,” he said. “Building the kind of grid that would connect all the windy and sunny areas to the places where the electricity is needed will require a lot of transmission lines. [But] it’s hard to build transmission lines because of political and local opposition and because of some impediments that are built into the way we site transmission lines legally — changing all of that is not popular. We would have to essentially ram it down the throats of states and local governments in order to get that done in the timeframe we’re talking about.”
Driesen said policy makers could try to stimulate renewable energy production in Texas, which has the Permian Basin, the top oil producing region in the country. But that challenge could prove huge. At last count, Texas employed 352,371 people in the oil and gas industry, accounting for 40% of all U.S. oil and gas jobs, according to the 2019 State of Energy Report by the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, released a week ago.
Driesen found flaws also in the Green New Deal’s proposal to retrofit all buildings in the country to make them energy efficient and create new jobs. “[Even] in countries or states with ambitious energy efficiency policies for buildings, they are usually focused on new construction,” he said. “They barely touch even big renovations, but it almost never gets [implemented] on existing buildings.” However, even as the proposal is “super ambitious,” serious-minded policy makers could find the financing for it and implement it, and it would bring “a ton of skilled employment,” he added.
Spence was “skeptical” about whether the shift to renewable energy sources could be achieved in the 10-year timeframe set out in the proposals. The decarbonization process will have to proceed sector by sector, he said. While the route to achieving that in the electricity generation industry is “fairly clearly” visible, “we are on the learning curve” in other sectors such as transportation, manufacturing and agriculture, he added. He pointed out, for example, that “electric vehicles are a minuscule percentage of our transportation fleet, and the oil sector is [currently] serving that market.”
It’s a case of no pain, no gain, as Orts saw the implications of moving away from fossil fuels. “If you’re going to do some serious change that really moves the needle on climate change, you need to have these big changes,” he said. “That is going to be disruptive to the [oil and gas sector] jobs in Texas [and elsewhere]. It is going to be a job hit.”
Too Little Time, but Worth the Effort
The 10-year timeframe proposed in the Green New Deal to go carbon-neutral is also worrisome, according to Orts. He noted that climate scientists have set an aggressive target of 12 years to achieve that. A United Nations report last October had said global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach “net zero” around 2050. “This goal is achievable, but it will require enormous commitment by governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations to mobilize support,” Orts told K@W in October.
Realistically, “it’s not going to happen within a 10-year frame,” Orts said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to get behind this program.” He noted that the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 were greeted with skepticism, but “you have had progress in the decades since.” Much could be achieved in tackling climate change if it were to be treated like a national emergency, he said, but he clarified that he wasn’t exactly advocating that. “You need to try to move the ball forward, even though there’s going to be a lot of difficulty in doing that [with the latest proposals].”
“One of the tensions we’re not facing is there are a lot of people who think that 100% renewable is impossible, period,” said Driesen. “The people who think it’s possible are relying on technological advances and battery storage that haven’t happened yet. It seems to me that if you need a shorter timeframe, that strengthens the case for nuclear [power]. And then there is the price tag,” or challenges in financing those shifts.
The resolution has 68 co-sponsors in the House and 11 co-sponsors in the Senate. It’s support base includes 2020 presidential candidates such as Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, even as some sounded caution, like Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic senator from Minnesota who is another presidential hopeful.
“You can’t just put a charge on carbon and everybody will say, ‘OK, let’s do it that way.’ The problem is there’s no political sell-ability for that. People see it as job-killing or business-killing.”–Eric Orts
Republicans have jeered and mocked the New Green Deal. President tweeted that it would “permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military, even if no other country would do the same.” Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, who is also chairman of the Senate’s environment committee, called it “a socialist manifesto that lays out a laundry list of government giveaways, including guaranteed food, housing, college, and economic security even for those who refuse to work.”
Despite the plan’s weak spots, Orts described McConnell’s eagerness to put the proposals to vote as “a miscalculation” — that it would end up being “embarrassing” for the Republicans. “I would suggest to the Democrats to call their bluff and vote this in,” he said.
In trying to address climate change, the broad sweep of the proposals could end up being counterproductive, according to Spence. “When you add additional dimensions to a piece of legislation, it might help build a broader coalition or it might cause people to peel off.”
Driesen predicted little or no chance for a majority in Congress to vote in the Green New Deal, but reiterated that its biggest virtue lies in the ability to spread the word on the urgency for serious action on climate change. “The Republicans in the Senate [where they have the majority] will not permit it,” he said. “So, the goal of this has to be to have a messaging strategy or a coalition or both that will change the electoral dynamic and therefore the breadth of this.”
According to Orts, Republicans ought to apply a larger lens to the Green New Deal rather than viewing it as an opportunity to score political brownie points. “It’s not enough to just come in and say, ‘Let’s embarrass the Democrats’ by bringing this to the floor and calling it socialism or something like that,” he said. “There has to be something that [the Republicans are] bringing.”
Orts also decried the tendency to simply label the proposals as socialist or neo-liberal. Instead, he wanted the conversation to address questions such as: “How do we have a smart grid? How do we make a transition? What are the policies that we can put in place? What makes sense economically, what makes sense for business, and what makes sense for people? Is this going to hurt jobs?”