Reservations About the Green New Deal Resolution

The Green New Deal puts climate change at the head of the agenda where it belongs. The resolution introduced in the House by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is on the mark when it asserts that climate change is a crisis that demands an urgent response on the scale of a national mobilization not seen since the New Deal and World War II. Half-measures are not enough. Full measures may not be enough. Arguments that the response should be left to the private sector and miraculous workings of the marketplace are disingenuous, fantastical, naïve, or maybe some combination of all of these. The scope of the problem is enormous. If it is not time to panic, that time is not far from us.

Yet I have reservations. I put them out with trepidation because so much criticism from the usual suspects is laced with misrepresentation, half-truth, and outright falsehood.* Even David Brooks, who is generally considered to be a voice of responsible conservatism, has made claims that are just not true.**

My misgivings include but go beyond the arguable charge that a boatload of Green New Deal proposals amount to a left-wing wish list unrelated to climate change. Naomi Klein lays out a counter-argument that the issue of climate change is "inextricably linked" with the overlapping economic and social crises that the Green New Deal also proposes to address:

...most of us have been trained to avoid a systemic and historical analysis of capitalism and to divide pretty much every crisis our system produces — from economic inequality to violence against women to white supremacy to unending wars to ecological unraveling — in walled-off silos. From within that rigid mindset, it’s easy to dismiss a sweeping and intersectional vision like the Green New Deal as a green-tinted “laundry list” of everything the left has ever wanted.
Now that the resolution is out there, however, the onus is on all of us who support it to help make the case for how our overlapping crises are indeed inextricably linked — and can only be overcome with a holistic vision for social and economic transformation. (The Battle Lines Have Been Drawn on the Green New Deal)

There is something to this in principle. The nuts-and-bolts practicality of implementing it all is another matter. It is not disingenuous, fantastical, or naïve for conservatives and some of us who are not conservatives to question whether government is capable of pulling it off. Nor is it fantastical to envision the whole thing getting bogged down in ideological, partisan bickering and grinding to a halt that we can ill afford.

Alex Trembath is deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, which brands itself a global research center that identifies and promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges. He puts it this way:

...the energy and climate stuff hasn’t been fleshed out, but it’s full speed ahead on a jobs guarantee...I mean, the politics of this is already really hard. I’d be cautious about attaching free college to it, because that’s going to make it harder. (quoted by Grunwald in The Trouble With the 'Green New Deal' )

The resolution calls for "transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses," and it stipulates that frontline and vulnerable communities*** will not be adversely affected. Free, prior, and informed consent are to be obtained from all indigenous peoples for all decisions that affect them and their traditional territories, honoring all treaties and agreements, and protecting and enforcing their sovereignty and land rights.

This too is fine in principle. These provisions are grounded in the old radical faith that "the people" en masse are with the Ocasio-Cortez faction of the progressive movement against the elites, corporate interests, the one percent, and their lackeys who pose the only obstacle to making the world anew. How likely is it though that all of these interests will fall seamlessly into line behind the programs and projects that the best scientific thinking can put forward to address the crisis when a call for sacrifice goes with it? Too much of the Green New Deal presents a win-win scenario that promises everything to everyone. There is no sense that sacrifice will almost certainty be needed, no sense that our ways of life may have to change in ways we do not wish. Groups and factions are likely, indeed almost certain, to clash and to resist what they view as demand for sacrifice that will not be shared by others.

Matthew Yglesias illustrates this kind of problem in an analysis of California's high-speed rail project (California high-speed rail and the American infrastructure tragedy, explained). Yglesias believes, as do I, that while modern high-speed rail is "not viable as a substitute for all air travel...we have seen it can displace most air travel [between cities an appropriate distance apart] and some car traffic, giving people a superior transportation option that is also cleaner." We do not have high-speed rail and have not made any progress toward building it "including in the regions of the country where political support for the idea is high, largely because the entire political model behind undertaking large transportation projects is completely broken."

San Francisco and Los Angeles are the two largest cities in California, travel demand between them is massive, and they are an appropriate distance apart for a fast train to achieve a large share of the market. A reasonable concept would be to pick a train route between the two cities that’s the most cost-effective in terms of dollars spent per rider. Spend money, in other words, but only do so when extra money is likely to generate extra ridership — primarily by making the key connection as fast as possible.

California made decisions about routes based on political considerations to get buy-in from various constituencies. "The key thing...was that the route adjustments increased the number of elected officials who could get 'a win' from the project, at the expense of serving the project’s core function." It would be simplistic to conclude that the lesson is to get politicians out of the process. The challenge is that interest groups and constituencies, whether political entities such as cities, counties, and states or groups enumerated in the Green New Deal resolution, will tend to view collaboration and partnership through the lens of what advances their more immediate interests as opposed to the core mission.

From high-level choices about which cities to prioritizes [sic] to mid-scale decisions about routes to tiny-scale decisions about how to build stations and all the rest, if the country wants a modern transportation system it has to prioritize building useful transportation — rather than its current practice of trying to avoid any tough choices until the point where nothing gets built at all.

It could be argued that this is not the time to take up such concerns. Remember, I tell myself, at this stage the Green New Deal is a nonbinding resolution expressing the sense of the House of Representatives (Senator Ed Markey has introduced a companion resolution in the Senate), more mission statement than blueprint, aspirational, not programmatic. It is not legislation. This is the perspective of David Roberts when he takes on Green New Deal critics in an impassioned piece posted today at Vox. I am with him when he says this is an emergency, US politics is a dumpster fire, there is no center. Incrementalism will not stave off disaster.

But the circumstances we find ourselves in are extraordinary and desperate. Above all, they call upon all of us to put aside our egos and our personal brands and strive for solidarity, to build the biggest and most powerful social force possible behind the only kind of rapid transition that can hope to inspire other countries and forestall the worst of climate change.
If there is to be swift, large-scale change in the US, a country with a political system practically built to prevent such things, it probably won’t look exactly like any of us want. In fact, the odds are against it happening at all. So this doesn’t seem like a time to be cavalier about the opportunities that do come along. (This is an emergency, damn it: Green New Deal Critics are missing the bigger picture)

Roberts comes at it much as Naomi Klein does. Much of what they say is right, but.... Always there is that but. I part ways with Roberts when he claims that reservations such as mine "seem oblivious to the historical moment, like thespians acting out an old, familiar play even as the theater goes up in flames around them." Critics coming at it from my perspective are not out to bring down the Green New Deal. To the contrary, we believe the environmental component of the Green New Deal is too important to fail. Practical challenges and pragmatic considerations that go unmentioned in the resolution will rear their heads sooner or later. Our cause is not served well by kicking that can down the road. Straight talk now matters. There is nothing cavalier about it.

We need straight talk about the likelihood that sacrifice will be required and the obligation to make that sacrifice shared as equitably as we humans can manage. I am all for increasing tax rates for the those among us who have done exceedingly well for themselves. Ocasio-Cortez's proposal for a new marginal tax rate of 70 percent on income over $10 million is a good starting point for that debate. But sacrifice by the wealthy alone will not be enough any more than incremental approaches, reliance on the market-based solutions, &c., will be enough.

Whether we move on climate change full bore through the framework of the Green New Deal or in some other fashion, there will be times when someone will have to make a damn decision involving tough choices that will not please everyone. Otherwise, the project will go off the rails. I would feel a lot better if Ocasio-Cortez, Justice Democrats, and the like gave some indication they recognize this. I have not seen it.


*Jessica McDonald at debunks numerous false claims made by opponents of the Green New Deal. She also documents errors, snafus, false claims, &c., made by Green New Deal supporters in FAQ sheets and unfinished documents published to websites by mistake, and she calls out erroneous claims about "doctored" versions of Green New Deal documents. (The Facts on the 'Green New Deal' )

**"When the Green New Deal...says, we're going to take over the energy sector, and we're going to make sure you — we won't even need planes anymore, because we will all be traveling by rail..." (David Brooks, PBS NewsHour, February 22, 2019).

"Under the Green New Deal, the government would provide a job to any person who wanted one. The government would oversee the renovation of every building in America. The government would put sector after sector under partial or complete federal control: the energy sector, the transportation system, the farm economy, capital markets, the health care system." (Brooks, How the Left Embraced Elitism: The progressives Green New Deal centralizes power, New York Times, February 11, 2019). See McDonald, noted above, re: dubious and falase claims that have been blathered by any number of right-wing critics of the Green New Deal.

***HR 109 defines "frontline and vulnerable communities" as "indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth."


David Matthews

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