Green New Deal fits perfectly on a bumper sticker.
But the proposal isn’t a simple fix for what ails the US. It would equal taking American society back to the drawing board and rebuilding it from the safety net up.
As written, it is more a list of ideas and ideals than an actual proposal, although the new climate change regulations it suggests could run to $1 trillion.
What was entered as official legislative language on Capitol Hill declares the government should take a stronger position on everything from cutting carbon emissions to giving every American a job to working with family farmers to retrofitting every building in the country.
Here’s a look at some passages that stuck out in the 14-page resolution, and what they might mean for the country:
“meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources”
This would be a wholesale turnaround in US energy. Renewables – including hydroelectric, wind, biomass, solar and geothermal – currently account for about 20% of US energy production, about on par with nuclear energy as outlined by the US Energy Information Agency. Natural gas accounts for the largest share – about 32% – and coal isn’t far behind, at 30%. The current projection is for renewable energy to account for about 31% of US energy generation by 2050, with steep drops for nuclear and coal.
“building or upgrading to energy-efficient, distributed, and ‘smart’ power grids, and working to ensure affordable access to electricity”
Improving the nation’s patchwork electrical system is an enormous undertaking that Congress has been grappling with for more than a decade. It provided funds toward a smart grid – a reimagined electrical grid that makes use of technology to improve reliability and efficiency – as part of the 2009 economic stimulus, but not explicitly since then. The Department of Energy has provided some funds since then, according to the Congressional Research Service, putting $3.6 billion each year toward the smart grid – not nearly enough to implement it nationwide by 2030. It’ll cost hundreds of billions of dollars over 20 years, according to estimates, but greatly improve the country’s electrical infrastructure.
“upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification”
Without having to Google, we know there are a LOT of buildings in the US. Upgrading all of them would certainly make the green building industry explode. Would it be done through tax credits? Grants? Large-scale building upgrades have been tried before, including in the 2009 stimulus, which put $4.5 billion toward retrofitting federal buildings and $3 billion toward retrofitting public housing projects. Here’s a HUD report on the public housing effort, which argues that savings on electricity and water costs were achieved. However, to repeat, there are a LOT of buildings in the US, and no one knows what it would cost to make them all “green.”
“overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and (iii) high-speed rail”
There are models to encourage low-emission vehicles that the current government is abandoning. Some federal tax incentives for people buying electric vehicles are running out (Tesla!) and haven’t been renewed. Others, like increased emissions standards, have been jeopardized by the Trump administration. Relatively cheap gas in recent years also hasn’t helped Americans move toward better fuel efficiency.
But encouraging people with a tax incentive is different from overhauling transportation systems. And that’s hard: Just days after the Green New Deal was introduced, California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat and progressive, nixed his state’s planned high speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco to instead focus on three smaller Central Valley communities. One reason Newsom said he didn’t end the program altogether was because he didn’t want the state to have to return a $3.5 billion federal loan.
“removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing pollution, including by restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such as preservation and afforestation”
This could cover a lot of things, one of which, essentially, would be planting trees to combat climate change. It’s a thing. It’s been tried in Israel and Europe and there are efforts to reforest in Brazil. It is the cutting of rainforests there, however, that plays a biggger role in climate change. Carbon Brief has a handy world map. The US Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service have a complicated cost estimate for afforestation in every county in the US. Another might be the protection and rehabilitation of wetlands to guard against the effects of climate change.
Cows and climate change
“working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible”
This element has already been boiled down to cow farts, according to the President and that prematurely published set of FAQs. Cow and livestock emissions are something that deserves attention. This is not about your your purebred heritage cow, but rather about industrial agriculture.
Beef is responsible for 41% of livestock greenhouse gas emissions, and that livestock accounts for 14.5% of total global emissions, according to a CNN special report this year, which also pointed to the UN Panel on Climate Change Report, which suggested changing diets worldwide could contribute 20% of the effort needed to keep down global temperatures. The USDA projects the average American will eat about 222.4 pounds of meat and poultry in 2019, 53.4 pounds of which will be beef.
Guaranteed job, leave, vacation and retirement
“guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States”
Here we veer from the climate change portion of the document to goals that seem even more difficult to achieve. Would a family-sustaining wage mean different pay for people with different numbers of children? Would it require that both adults in a given household work? The living wage in Springfield, Illinois – chosen randomly – in MIT’s Living Wage calculator is $11.41 per hour for one adult and $18.44 for two adults and two children. If one of the adults is working part-time, the baseline hourly wage rises to $26.39.
Things change when you factor in benefits. An interesting 2018 report from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities with some back-of-the envelope calculations on the cost for a federal jobs guarantee suggested the government could provide 9.7 million jobs to the under- or unemployed at a mean wage of $32,500 to account for different levels of experience, etc. Adding in taxes and benefits makes the annual cost of each job about $56,000. So the total cost to the government each year would be about $543 billion.
That’s less than the nearly $674 billion the government spends on the Pentagon’s budget. It is much less than the government spends on safety net programs Medicare and Social Security each year.
“strengthening and enforcing labor, workplace health and safety, anti-discrimination, and wage and hour standards across all employers, industries, and sectors”
There’s a patchwork of wage laws across industries. Tipped workers, like restaurant employees, have a lower minimum wage. Some states have enacted much higher minimum wages for their workers. Creating new laws on this front would require a national debate. Discrimination is already illegal. But it also has very little to do with climate change.
“providing and leveraging, in a way that ensures that the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and returns on investment, adequate capital (including through community grants, public banks, and other public financing), technical expertise, supporting policies, and other forms of assistance to communities, organizations, Federal, State, and local government agencies, and businesses working on the Green New Deal mobilization”
The public is going to pay for all of this change, so the public should get a return, is one way to look at this passage. The public as an owner is likely enough to strike fear in many Republicans. And it’d be a sure trigger for them to bring up Venezuela, which has squandered the riches of its state-run oil company.
On the other hand, California is again dealing with the bankruptcy of a privately owned public utliity, PG&E, and debating whether it should be turned into a public utility. How governments should own things is an important question without a clear answer.
Providing higher education
“providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States, with a focus on frontline and vulnerable communities, so those communities may be full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization”
There’s a lot in this portion, but let’s focus on the part about higher education for all people. That sounds a lot like the free-college proposals of recent years. It might not be something any Democrats are going to oppose, exactly. But it’s also not something they’ve found a way to accomplish yet. One free-college proposal, which was not included in Green New Deal but offers a guideline, came from from Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent. He would provide states with $47 billion per year to cover two-thirds of the cost of tuition for students at public colleges and universities. Sanders proposed a new tax on Wall Street trades to finance the program.
“strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment”
Unions have been in a long-term decline in the US. While 20% of US wage and salary workers were in unions in 1983 – about 17.7 million people, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics – that was down to 10.5% of wage and salary workers and 14.7 million union workers by 2018. There are many reasons for this decline, not the least of which is the changing nature of US manufacturing.
Unions remain strongest in the public sector and among government workers ranging from law enforcement to teachers. An additional 1.6 million workers are in jobs covered by union contracts but are not members of the unions.
“enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental protections”
In this case Green New Dealers might align with Trump against trade deals, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren has. She, like Trump, opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He said it was poorly negotiated. She said it didn’t do enough for international worker rights. But the Green New Deal crowd goes further, and opposes even the deals Trump supports, like the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which Warren called NAFTA 2.0 – though she ultimately wound up supporting it.
“obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous people for all decisions that affect indigenous people and their traditional territories, honoring all treaties and agreements with indigenous people, and protecting and enforcing the sovereignty and landrights of indigenous people”
You could see this playing a role in particular in terms of oil drilling, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or in terms of standoffs like the one at Standing Rock in North Dakota in 2016. This would certainly be a policy shift for the US government, which has at times seemed to give deference to oil companies.
There could be lost development opportunities, but many Democrats would certainly trade that for the twin objectives of slowing oil dependence and honoring indigenous peoples.
Health care, housing, security, clean air and water, healthy food and nature
“providing all people of the United States with — (i) high-quality health care; (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature”
This is lumping a lot of things in together. The quibble here between progressives and conservatives will be whether the US government should be providing access to health care. Many Green New Deal supporters all support “Medicare-for-all,” which is both a general idea that many Democrats are behind and also a specific policy proposal that has fewer supporters.
One question is whether the government would have to essentially end the private health care industry in order to create a public one. That kind of drastic change has the potential to really frighten voters, who punished Democrats for creating the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and then published Republicans for trying to take it away in 2018.
The government already does quite a lot, although some say not nearly enough, on the food, water, air and nature fronts with the Food and Drug Administration, the USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service, so it’s hard to so say what would change under a Green New Deal without more specifics.
This story was originally published on February 14, 2019. It has been updated to reflect the passage of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.