What’s the Deal With the Green New Deal?

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Congresswoman Deb Haaland promoting the Green New Deal
Congresswoman Deb Haaland promoting the Green New Deal
Photo: Deb Haaland, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By now, you’ve probably heard of this thing called the Green New Deal. Maybe you’ve heard it involves building railroads across the ocean and making hamburgers illegal. Maybe you’ve heard it’s part of some international conspiracy to make us all communists. Or, maybe you’ve heard it’s an amazing plan that will solve all of our problems and make climate change just magically go away. Could be you’re just now hearing about it for the first time and you have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. Thing is, politics are involved here, and when politics are involved, all kinds of shit gets said, and it can be hard to suss out the truth sometimes. So, I’m gonna try to cut through the bullshit and politics and get at the real beef. The real illegal hamburger beef. See the joke I did there? It’s hilarious, trust me.

Please don’t leave. I’ll do better, I promise. Probably. Maybe.

So, the first thing to understand is that the Green New Deal is not a law, or even a bill. It’s simply a proposal put forward by members of the US House of Representatives. Technically speaking, it is currently a non-binding resolution. Right now, it’s basically just a statement of goals and ideas for some future bill, or set of bills, to be introduced someday, eventually, maybe. A bill that, if it ever gets to that point, would still have to go through the meat-grinder of the US Congress before it could become law. I’m sorry, that was another beef joke, I honestly didn’t intend to do that. I’m not happy with myself. Anyway, all kinds of things could happen to it during that process. Currently, the Green New Deal is a plan to make a plan.

Heading for H. Res. 109, aka the Green New Deal
That’s it, that’s the Green New Deal. The top of the first page, anyway.

Right away, that means that whenever anybody says anything good or bad about what the Green New Deal would or wouldn’t do, you have to take that with as much salt as you can heave around, because nobody really knows what actual legislation might develop from this. People are projecting their hopes and fears on to it, politicians are using it as a bogeyman or as a way to rally their base, but right now it’s none of those things, not really. The Green New Deal is a lump of beef clay, one that may never be touched again by human hands. It could become an amazing work of art. Or the saddest attempt at a vase you’ve ever seen. It’s a collection of ideas, nothing more, but those ideas are powerful ones that are well worth discussing. It’s a plan to make a plan… but what a plan!

Where’s the b… no, no, I refuse, sorry.

So, what’s actually in the Green New Deal? What’s the plan for the plan? I’ll break it down for you, but if you want to see for yourself, here’s the link to the resolution introduced in the House. It’s big, bold, and beefy…. dammit! What is wrong with me? Sorry, I’m sorry. But it is! The name, of course, is a reference to the New Deal, the set of legislation enacted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt between 1933 and 1936. The United States was in the depths of the Great Depression, and FDR’s New Deal policies were big, sweeping efforts to address the tragic unemployment, homelessness, and economic chaos of the times. The New Deal used the muscle of the federal government to invest heavily in workers and infrastructure, while stabilizing banks and reforming industry. Not everything worked, and there’s still debate over how successful some New Deal programs were. However, some programs, such as Social Security, became cemented as part of the framework of modern society in the US. The point is, when the United States was in an extraordinary crisis, it employed extraordinary efforts to counter it.

Proponents of the Green New Deal believe that the current climate crisis is dire enough that extraordinary measures are needed to avoid the worst consequences. And it’s not just politics or personal beliefs guiding that position. The state of climate science currently suggests that if we don’t dramatically cut our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 2050, then we will be royally fucked by the year 2100, if not sooner. Not that dramatic cuts will solve all of our problems. They will just turn a massive catastrophe in to merely a serious problem. The house may not burn down around us, but the basement’s gonna flood and the appliances will break and the roof might cave in and you will never find the time to paint over the patch in the drywall from that time your cousin Jimmy was trying to show you a trick he learned down at the Five Spot but that he can apparently only do when he’s had a couple of drinks in him because when he tried it sober he just fell off the damn chair.

1933 road building project, part of FDR's New Deal infrastructure and employment programs
One of many infrastructure and employment projects under FDR’s New Deal, circa 1933

Anyway. So the top of the wish list for the Green New Deal is for the United States to become carbon neutral, also called having net-zero carbon emissions. Meaning some carbon emissions would be allowed, but only if we were pulling out an equivalent amount of carbon from the air somewhere else, so that overall, we aren’t raising the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This seems pretty obvious. The root cause of climate change is carbon emissions, so stop the emissions and the biggest part of the problem is solved. Obviously it’s much, much, much easier said than done, but that’s the top goal. However, the Green New Deal goes a step further and does something that, honestly, is kind of remarkable. It calls for the reduction in emissions to be done in a way that’s “fair and just” for “all communities and workers”.

What does that mean? It means that they are recognizing the fact that, often, environmental regulations that have a downside to them have tended to hit poor communities harder, or to affect people of color more. Let’s say we decided to cut auto emissions by raising the price of gasoline, for example, in an effort to discourage driving. That might work. However, what about the people living paycheck to paycheck who have no choice but to drive to work because they don’t have decent public transportation where they live? Someone with a bigger cushion in their budget might not be harmed much by that, but if you’re scraping for every penny, suddenly you could be put in a shitty catch-22 of not being able to afford to go to work. So, the Green New Deal is putting a big condition on everything it does: do it in a way that doesn’t screw over people who are already hurting.

Next up, it calls for investing in sustainable infrastructure and creating millions of good paying jobs. These two goals will likely go hand-in-hand. We will need to massively increase our renewable energy production, upgrade our existing power grid, build out support for electric vehicles, and many other projects that will require skilled workers to design, build, and maintain. Again, this is very interesting. It’s not just calling for the massive projects necessary to meet the primary goal of going carbon neutral. It’s also stating that this will be done with an equally massive job training and hiring program. See, the Green New Deal isn’t just an environmental initiative. It’s a jobs initiative. Historically, environmental issues have been framed as protecting the environment versus protecting jobs. Not now. The Green New Deal aims to do both. And that’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for building support. Not everyone cares about climate change or environmentalism, but everyone likes the idea of creating good jobs. And if helping the workforce, lowering the unemployment rate, and lifting people out of poverty happens to also save the fucking planet, then hey, bonus! Weird that we have to count saving the planet as a side benefit, but that’s the political reality we live in.

As an extra bonus, everyone gets to not live in a dystopian hellscape!

Now, those broad, vague goals by themselves are pretty massive and ambitious. But the kicker is, the Green New Deal aims to achieve those goals by 2030. Astonished face emoji! That’s ten years, folks. How the… what… holy shit. But remember, we’re on the clock. The sooner we can stop spewing CO2 in to the atmosphere, the less bad the results of climate change will be. Literally every minute counts. An aggressive time table is exactly what’s needed. Maybe we don’t hit our targets by 2030. Well, okay, we almost certainly would not. But if we made our goal to have it all done by 2050, you can bet your ass we wouldn’t do shit until 2045. For most folks, 2050 sounds like a long, long way off, nothing to worry about. Those who understand the dire consequences of inaction know that we have to instill a sense of urgency in the public. We may not realistically be expected to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, but the point is to hustle, bust our asses trying to get it done anyway. Because there’s no time to waste, people.

But that’s not all the Green New Deal does. It also lays out slightly less vague ideas for how to achieve these goals. Promoting renewable energy and cutting industrial emissions is, of course, a top priority. But it also calls for upgrading all buildings in the US to be energy efficient. Now… think about that for a moment. All buildings. Not just businesses and government buildings, but homes. All homes. This is, in a way, brilliant. You see, it turns out that middle class families have the lowest carbon footprint in America, on average. Rich people lead extravagant lifestyles that generate way more carbon dioxide. And while low income folks live modestly, they also can’t afford to upgrade their windows or buy the most energy efficient appliances. They can’t afford to improve the insulation in their house. If they rent, then their landlords can’t afford to do it, not without raising rent higher than the tenants could afford. Being poor makes it harder to be green. So, here we go, two birds… no three! With one stone. One big, meaty, beefy stone. Sorry, I just wanted to work beef in there one more time. But we will need to hire and train well paid workers to upgrade the homes of people who can’t afford it otherwise, improving their quality of life and lowering their utility bills. Which, hey, also helps save the fucking planet. Is that four birds? Doesn’t matter. It’s just raining dead birds up in here. Umm. Maybe this isn’t a great metaphor for an environmental initiative. Oh well.

Flowers growing in a clothes washing machine.
This doesn’t exactly have anything to do with the Green New Deal, but I liked it anyway.
Photo by Diego Torres Silvestre from Sao Paulo, Brazil, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

There’s more to the Green New Deal, of course. This thing is ambitious AF. We’ve got investment in public transportation. Zero-emissions transportation for everyone. Sustainable farming. Habitat restoration. Research in to green technologies. Consideration at every step along the way to ensure that nobody is harmed by any of this, that people are only lifted up. And of course, education and training to support all of these things. Are you getting hot yet? Are you getting steamy? Is that because you are intellectually aroused, or just because of climate change? Either way, this is inspiring stuff.

But… okay. How the hell are we gonna do all this shit? How are we gonna pay for it? And what about the hamburgers, didn’t they say the Green New Deal was gonna outlaw cows and force us all to worship Stalin while riding trains across the ocean?

Beefy beefy beef beef beef

Okay, here’s the beef with the beef. (I’m not even apologizing anymore, it’s just a thing now.) As I noted in the previous blog post, raising cattle produces a lot more carbon dioxide and methane than any other food source. A whole lot more. It’s an order of magnitude worse than what is created from growing vegetables. Even compared to other sources of meat, it’s far worse. So, anyone in government, armed with this knowledge, would naturally be thinking about how to wean Americans off of beef if they were working on a sweeping, ambitious climate change plan. And the folks behind the Green New Deal did, in fact, think about this. I don’t know for a fact what they discussed, but I imagine they knew they couldn’t simply ban cattle overnight even if they wanted to. They probably knew that even talking about altering American’s diets would be politically… well challenging, to say the least. So, with no clear path forward on that front, at least for the moment, they left any mention of specific foods out of their proposal. However… they slipped up when they released fact sheets to the press promoting their plan. They included an explanation for why they were calling for net-zero emissions, rather than just straight up zero emissions. Their explanation was that they didn’t think they’d be able to phase out cows and airplanes by 2030.

Insert audio clip of Homer from the Simpsons saying “D’oh!”

So that’s it, that’s the source of the controversy. Aides for politicians accidentally let the media know that they had been thinking about reducing or eliminating cows and air travel when they were brainstorming everything they could possibly do to reduce carbon emissions. And that’s probably what that stemmed from… brainstorming sessions, listing every option whether it was feasible or not. They should have trimmed that from their early press releases since they really had no idea if they were even going to really address that or not. But they didn’t. And it allowed other politicians to grab that statement and use it to paint the entire enterprise as an assault on American traditions and personal freedom. This is also the source of any talk about banning airplanes or building railroads across the ocean… they’re taking these early, ill-advised press releases and making as much political hay out of them as they can. Phasing out airplanes is not in the Green New Deal, and the railroad thing was just something opponents made up once they heard the airplane thing.

A cheeseburger, which will not be banned by the Green New Deal
No, the Green New Deal is not going to ban these.
Photo by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Now, how will we pay for all this shit? Well, that’s also a sort of fascinating aspect of this plan. Partly it’s expected to pay for itself. Energy savings and job creation are expected to stimulate the economy and generate increased tax revenue. But, you can’t really count on that, and nobody is claiming that will pay for all of it anyway. So for the rest of it, the plan is to tax the rich and big corporations. The reason this is interesting is because of the interaction between income inequality and pollution. Remember how I said middle class folks tend to generate less carbon dioxide? Well, income inequality, or the gap between the richest Americans and the poorest, has gotten worse and worse over the past several decades. There’s lots of politics around this and why it happened and whether it’s good or bad or even matters at all, but that’s not the point here. The point is just that it has, in fact, happened. And taxing the rich to pay for climate change initiatives not only helps fund things that cut our CO2 output, bringing people closer to the level of middle class folk means they’re less likely to engage in activities that generate excessive pollution. Such as flying in their private jets to have dinner on the other side of the country. Meanwhile, this money is, in part, being used to educate and employ people, which will benefit the poorest Americans the most and should help lift them out of poverty. Again, the closer they get to being middle class, the smaller their carbon footprint should be.

So, you see, there’s really some great synergy built in to the Green New Deal. Focusing a lot on jobs and income and economics is not only a great way to get people on board who otherwise might not care about climate change. It’s also very practical. By changing people’s economic status, it can indirectly change their energy usage and CO2 production. By involving Americans directly in a shift to a green economy, they become personally invested in the project and are more likely to keep supporting it. And by making a direct connection between fighting climate change and having a strong economy, you bring along people who never gave a shit about climate change, but who care very much about jobs and unemployment. And if along the way we address social issues like poverty, racism, sexism, indigenous rights, etc by lifting up and empowering marginalized groups, then, well… I’m not sure what the science says about that, but it sure seems like the right thing to do to me, even if it weren’t also helping to keep our average temps from becoming unmanageable.

The Green New Deal is already working… by building awareness

And the wild thing about all of this is, even though the Green New Deal is just a plan to have a plan… it’s already had an impact on politics and potentially on actual policy. Before the Green New Deal was announced, climate change was on track to be on the bottom of the list of political priorities in the 2020 election season. Again. And while it didn’t play prominently in public debates, behind the scenes, politicians were talking. Their constituents were asking them about it. Groups like the Sunrise Movement were raising awareness of it and pressuring lawmakers. Politicians talked about it, even if it was just around the lunch table but not out on the campaign trail. And the more people talked about it, in the media, online, and on Capitol Hill, the less crazy it started to sound to them. It became more and more normal to talk about climate change not as some abstract event in the far future, but as a real crisis. And politicians started to see that it might be a winning issue for them, because the more folks heard about the Green New Deal, the more they started to express support for it.

Now, that being said, successful politicians are often cautious, pragmatic. Some are willing to go out on a limb, but most would rather play it safe. So many folks were publicly stating that while they didn’t support the ambitious goals of the Green New Deal, that they did support climate change legislation in general. Fast forward to the 2020 election. Joe Biden became president elect, and while he doesn’t support the Green New Deal, if you look at his climate platform, it sure does sound awful similar. He proposes to invest in modern infrastructure, zero emission vehicles, renewable energy, energy efficient housing, and sustainable agriculture. Sound familiar? He states a goal of having an energy sector that’s carbon neutral by 2035, and for the entire economy to be net-zero by 2050. He wants to create good paying jobs to get it all done. And he states the goal of environmental and economic justice, focusing on the needs of vulnerable communities while engaging in these projects. And it would be paid for by taxing the wealthy and major corporations.

Sunrise Movement members demonstrating at a Green New Deal Rally, Chicago 2019
Photo by Charles Edward Miller from Chicago, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re asking yourself what’s the difference between Biden’s plan and the Green New Deal… yeah. Exactly! Now, when it comes down to details, to the extent of the plan, to the money being asked for, Biden’s plan is more modest. It’s more vague in many details but more specific in others. And much to the frustration of many, he doesn’t want to stop fracking for oil and natural gas right away. But look… a couple of years ago, when Biden was gearing up for his 2020 presidential run, this shit was NOT on his agenda. He was not going to make climate change a big part of his presidential plan. But when the Green New Deal became news, when the Sunrise Movement opposed him in the primaries because he wasn’t strong enough on climate, when he saw that the public might be more ready for big changes than he thought they were, he moved his position. Once he became President-elect, he announced that he was going to make the climate crisis a priority for basically his entire cabinet, across the administration. And, folks, he even used the term “crisis” when talking about it. This is arguably all because of the Green New Deal.

Now, folks, I’m sitting here in January of 2021. Biden isn’t in office yet. I have no fucking idea what’s going to happen with any of this. The hobby of predicting politics died four years ago. But Biden’s party is going to control both chambers of Congress. They are all going to be facing pressure from climate activists to move on this, to strike while the iron is hot. It’s hard to imagine that the Green New Deal is going to fade away, that it won’t help shape the conversation in Washington in the next few years. Will we see legislation that fulfills everything it asks for? I doubt it. Nothing is ever that easy in politics. But I think the designers of the Green New Deal understood that. They knew that in politics, if you want to get off the ground, you have to shoot for the moon. And if you want to land on the moon, you have to reach for the stars. And if you want to travel to the stars, you have to aim for the inky nether-realm between galaxies, where unseeable horrors await, where humans were never meant to go and where they will be driven insane by the incomprehensible music of the mad beings that dwell there, oblivious to our existence until our hubris brings us under their alien gaze.

Something, something, Cthulhu, something.

MORE READING:
The Green New Deal in the United States: What it is and how to pay for it
The Facts on the Green New Deal
Stanford energy and environment experts examine strengths and weaknesses of the Green New Deal
The Trouble With the ‘Green New Deal’
This is an emergency, damn it
The Green New Deal Is a Lousy Deal for Americans

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