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The ‘Green New Deal’ isn’t all that new — but maybe this idea’s time has come

photos of representatives introducing green new deal
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
I don’t seek to criticize or marginalize Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the Sunrise Movement or anyone else in the GND movement as lacking in originality. That their agenda seems fresh and unprecedented to a lot of people, whose responses tend to be supportive, strikes this onlooker as still another basis for encouragement.

It is hard to think of a more interesting and encouraging moment in this nation’s recent environmental history than last week’s clumsy rollout of that still-evolving program of environmental/energy/economic policies called the Green New Deal.

Why encouraging? Consider:

  • Despite considerable uncertainty, even disagreement, among its leading advocates about the GND’s current content and what its final shape ought to be, the initiative has strong support among progressive Democrats, including more than 40 members of Congress and a handful of presidential hopefuls. Also among voters, regardless of party.
  • Despite intramural sniping among those Democrats, also among big environmental groups, over such hot-button issues as the acceptability of nuclear power and the necessity of large-scale carbon capture, the main focus seems to be on finding a pathway to consensus — not on the possible futility of going up against Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.
  • Despite a relentless and virtually fact-free mortar barrage from Republicans and climate deniers, public opinion seems to strongly, even instinctively, favor the general notion of new government investment in clean energy and climate protection as a route to jobs growth, improved infrastructure and long-term cost savings.

Why interesting? Chiefly because so little about this Green New Deal is actually new; its clear antecedents stretch back for a few decades, at least.

By noting this I don’t seek to criticize or marginalize Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the Sunrise Movement or anyone else in the GND movement as lacking in originality. That their agenda  seems fresh and unprecedented to a lot of people, whose responses tend to be supportive, strikes this onlooker as still another basis for encouragement:

Perhaps what we have in the newest Green New Deal is the restatement of valuable and venerable ideas whose political plausibility is emerging at last, because they now seem so inherently sensible.

Thomas L. Friedman is generally credited with coining the term “Green New Deal” in a pair of pieces he wrote for The New York Times in January and April of 2007; they later became part of his book “Hot, Flat and Crowded.”

Without disputing his coinage — memorable phrase-making is among Friedman’s greatest gifts — I’ll just note that similar ideas were already in wide circulation by the late 1990s, when I started writing about environmental policy as a Strib editorialist, and probably sooner.

With “Natural Capitalism” (1999), Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins argued for a new industrial revolution that would achieve sustainable economies based on respect for natural systems and stewardship of natural resources, with government support where necessary. Storm Cunningham’s “The Restoration Economy” (2002) outlined new opportunities for economic growth and business success in watershed restoration, brownfield remediation and other regenerative repairs of industrial mayhem.

Both of these, as I recall, placed considerable emphasis on transitional paths to clean and renewable energy, which has become only cheaper and easier — and far more urgent — in the interim.

If those books came out in less traumatized times, they also had the advantage of being heard in an era when political conversation was much more civil, and somewhat less rigidly partisan.

Though I can’t retrieve the name of this particular Republican, I cannot forget the moment early in the George W. Bush administration’s environmental rollbacks when a thoughtful lawmaker (possibly lobbyist) came to the Strib to talk to me about his vision of reshaping the GOP by recapturing environmentally minded progressives from the Democrats.

We need to lose the focus on defending greenhouse gases and dirty smokestack plumes, he said. Stop pitting jobs and economic growth against environmental protection. Instead, remind people that conservation is conservative, that markets deliver efficiency, that infrastructure is an investment rather than a purchase, and that private business — sometimes with prudently limited government help — can make clean energy and environmental stewardship into smart business propositions, while eliminating much of the current regulatory apparatus (and its overhead) as no longer necessary.

Fast forward now to 2008 and Van Jones’ “The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems.” This best-seller, which had the misfortune to emerge as the subprime mortgage collapse was driving economic meltdown, focused more directly on the specifics of job creation and this key advantage of “green-collar” employment:

A large share of workers in an expanding green sector are performing intrinsically local functions — unlike loggers, miners and assemblers — so they can go to sleep each night in confidence their employers won’t decide overnight to export their jobs insulating homes, retrofitting HVAC systems, installing solar panels, maintaining wind turbines, building out grids for distributed power generation….

Of the limited opinion polling that has been done on the current iteration of a Green New Deal, the most impressive by my lights comes from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. In December, registered voters were given this description of the proposal:

Some members of Congress are proposing a “Green New Deal” for the U.S. They say that a Green New Deal will produce jobs and strengthen America’s economy by accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. The Deal would generate 100% of the nation’s electricity from clean, renewable sources within the next 10 years; upgrade the nation’s energy grid, buildings, and transportation infrastructure; increase energy efficiency; invest in green technology research and development; and provide training for jobs in the new green economy.

Asked to state their support on a four-point scale — strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, strongly oppose — 81 percent of respondents favored the plan, with half strongly supportive.

Despite their party’s negative messaging about moving off fossil fuels and shifting to renewables,  64 percent of Republicans also favored the plan, and of these about three-fourths were strong supporters. Among independents, 88 percent said they were supporters.

The most interesting thing about these results, at least to me, is the striking degree to which the respondents were essentially uninformed about the Green New Deal: 14 percent had heard “a little,” 3 percent “a lot,” and 82 percent “nothing at all.”

One way of looking at these results is to consider that support may fade as the GND becomes more specific, and as people hear more about its details, its sponsorship, its potential costs — not to mention opponents’ challenges to its vision. Another way is to consider that this level of support now appears to be essentially reflexive, sort of a no-brainer.

If that’s so, it suggests that while the Green New Deal’s predecessor proposals might not have registered sizable gains in the policy-making arena, they may have had a profound impact on the way Americans think about what’s worthy, what’s right and what’s possible in a world where job growth, decent living standards and environmental betterment are no longer in competition — indeed, may not even be separable anymore.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 02/15/2019 - 09:22 am.

    If it is about empowering working people and restoring rural communities and local economics, people will support it.

    If it is austerity for working people and every advantage for the wealthy few, probably most people will say no to the lifestyle changes.

    There is of course so much work to be done. Dignified, meaningful, fun work. If we prioritize and make that well-compensated work, and reinvigorate a sense of optimism, we can transform America.

    But surely that will also have to include debt relief like jubilee for working people, and a draw-down in our imperialist eternal warmongering.

  2. Submitted by Henry Johnson on 02/15/2019 - 12:08 pm.

    I guess I have mixed feelings about this proposal, or more accurately, on the timing of it being proposed now.

    It seems to me that virtually NONE of this Green deal is going to be enacted while Republicans hold the Senate and the presidency.

    So especially since it’s so ambitious I’m concerned that in reality it’s main effect, introduced at this time that is, is that it will provide fodder for Republicans candidates to campaign against.

    It gives republican candidates a demon to rally against, and takes the focus off their spineless support and enabling of a dictator-wanna-be, which is bad for their reelection chances, as we saw in the mid-terms.

    In terms of providing good fodder for republicans to campaign using, consider this example campaign pitch –

    “My democratic opponent doesn’t want you driving a car, and if you own an SUV, forget it, that will be made illegal. Folks, this is nothing but outrageous, liberal ‘big government’ intruding into your life and dictating what you can and can’t do! So unless your okay with taking the bus to work no matter how many hours that takes, please vote for me to put a stop to this government overreach!”.

    We know from the Obamacare debate that many Republicans will flat out lie about the actual content of what’s in any actual bill.

    For example, when they falsely claimed that the affordable care act bill wanted to kill grandma, or other nonsense – flat-out lies is unfortunately considered an acceptable campaign tactic by many Republican candidates, and this is encouraged by a president who lies and distorts on pretty much a daily basis.

    And unfortunately, many voters on all sides of the political spectrum often don’t take the time to look into whether they are being lied to or not, so those lies might work.

    So my point is, even if the ‘Green new deal’ is toned down to be less ambitious, more extreme, more reasonable, I’m concerned that it is just going to provide ammunition to republican candidates, and thus hurt the chances of democrats to take the senate and the white house.

    And without all three branches of congress, not a damn thing in the Green new deal is likely to be enacted into law.

    So my advice to the party would be focus on winning big in 2020, not on proposing legislation that has zero chance of passing, but that makes it harder to win in 2020.

    I would find constructive, but fairly uncontroversial issues and propose legislation regarding those. If they have bipartisan support, the country benefits from the new legislation, and ammunition is not provided to defeat the democrats in 2020.

    And the focus stays on the worst president IMO the country has ever had, which will help democrats to get elected in 2020.

    If Democrats don’t win big in 2020, absolutely nothing ‘green’ is going to happen, since the Republicans are still claiming climate change is a big liberal hoax, and completely dis-proven because there’s been a cold streak lately!

    p.s. – Global warming studies says AVERAGE worldwide temperatures are going up (which THEY ARE, and this is proven by unpolitical thermometers worldwide) it does not say there will never be cold weather anywhere in the world ever again!

    But many republicans keep throwing out snowballs every winter, as if this was clever ‘proof’ that global warming is a hoax. In reality, they are showing either how stupid they are, or how dishonest they are in pretending to not know that it is the AVERAGE worldwide temperature that represents global warming, NOT this week’s weather where that person happens to be located. The arctic weather system that goes south and makes the USA cold means warm air from europe is pulled up into the arctic, so it’s unseasonably warm in the arctic when the US is cold. Again, it’s average temperature that is what scientists are watching, and which drives more violent hurricanes, and which melts icebergs until they fall into the ocean and raises worldwide sea levels.

  3. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/15/2019 - 01:46 pm.

    Seems like this is issue #2 here that we can’t disagree with. The costs of what they want in the GND is beyond our ability to pay….in the neighborhood of 7 trillion a year.

    • Submitted by Tom Karas on 02/15/2019 - 04:59 pm.

      First, thanks for the history refresher Ron. When dealing with the economics of costs of new programs you need to balance it against the cost of staying the course, of no action. Consider- in 2017 the cost of the 16 separate Billion $ weather events in the US had an impact of $308 billion. If only 20% of that were attributed to climate change inducement its a paltry $60 billion. Ten years ago a wave of new coal plant estimates pegged new delivered coal energy per killo Watt energy cost at 15 – 20 cents. (not including CCS). Xcel received many responses to their recent RFPs for wind and solar energy with storage in the neighborhood of 3 – 5 cents. How much will it cost to relocate coastal infrastructure to higher ground? Trillions? A quick Google will show who is responsible for that kind of number, and by the way I have Wall that needs to be built right away.

      • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 02/16/2019 - 01:25 pm.

        So is there actually ‘storage’ technologies that work? On a large scale? Today (Saturday) in the Twin Cities is a perfect example of why wind/solar doesn’t seem as if it would work very well here. My local wind turbine is not generating anything because its not on and its a very cloudy day. We’d have to be using a LOT of storage today if it was available. Or we have to use backup. So if we have to have ‘backup’ that needs to be available 100% of the time for 100% of the generation then we have to build two complete systems. And I have one important question. If Minnesota or even the US for that matter were to go to 100% renewables then what impact would that have on the expected global temperature. Especially if we can’t do anything with China, India, Brazil, etc. who are all expected to increase emissions. It seems likes its just feel good initiatives that won’t actually help solve the problem. So shouldn’t we be moving to an adaptation model rather than trying to change things that won’t really change if other big emitters aren’t going to also cut emissions? So can you see why there’s a skepticism about spending so much on what will accomplish so little.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 02/18/2019 - 07:16 pm.

    How can anyone take this”New Green Deal” seriously? Besides the fact that the country doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle wind/solar, not capable of retrofitting all the buildings in America, not willing to pay a living wage to folks unwilling to work. As those Dems who voted for it are saying now they have to defend it, “it’s a nice aspirational concept”. Pretty much sums up NGD.

  5. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 02/20/2019 - 07:34 am.

    None of it will matter without a decline in human population.

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