A Conversation With A Conservative American About The Green New Deal

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The Green New Deal (GND) has been getting a lot of attention recently, as all the leading Democratic candidates for the Presidential nomination are basing their plans on it, more or less. And the straw man attacks even from the most reasonable members of US conservatives, ones who actually accept climate change, if not the severity and urgency of the issue, do not stop.

Case in point. Over on Quora I recently answered a question on why climate activists were being hacked, harassed, and doxed for speaking up about climate change. As I often do, I referred back to my 2016 CleanTechnica article, Climate Change Deniers Are Getting Angrier, & Here’s Why. This is, of course, in context of the overwhelming attacks on Greta Thunberg that are being spewed constantly by triggered climate change deniers.

Continuum of denialist to accepting positions
Graphic by author

The thesis of that article was that climate change deniers had been forced off of position after position, continually having to abandon positions further left for positions further right on the continuum. Usually, they pretended that they had never had any previous position, but still, they knew. And the cognitive dissonance along with the humiliation rankled, so they lashed out.

A conservative on Quora who I won’t name but who was civil and relatively reasonable commented.

I’m probably around the left side of the blue portion on your graph, personally. However I generally find myself feeling opposed to political environmentalism (and I’ve often found this to be the case amongst deniers/skeptics I’ve encountered) because of all the other stuff that comes with it I find unreasonable. I’m mostly talking about (as a representative example) things like the Green New Deal – which in my estimation envisions a completely unrealistic engineering goal of being carbon-free in a short time frame, and then the strategies of large-scale economic nationalization to achieve it. Not to mention other social policies (not really related to climate change).”

This is becoming a more common refrain. The evidence is overwhelming, so the former ‘skeptics’ who are at all intellectually honest have to grudgingly admit that the low end of the 2014 scenarios — which are now superseded by further studies which have nudged the bottom scenarios into more perilous territory —  are likely accurate.

But then they pretend that the solutions are horrific and unworkable, far worse than the thing that they intend to solve. Unlike many, this commenter was polite and seemed relatively humble, so I asked a few questions to determine if they had actually read the GND text — most haven’t — and what they actually objected to in it. They then cited four different points which aren’t actually in the text. When I pointed this out, they agreed, and said that they were basing these points on what unnamed Democratic representatives were saying the GND meant. They then brought forward specific things that they disagreed with that were explicitly in the text and their concerns with them and things that once again unnamed Democratic representatives were saying they meant. Progress was being made, of a sorts.

I haven’t published a textual exegesis of the Green New Deal before now, although I did publish a piece on the Leap Manifesto which influenced it in CleanTechnica a few years ago, Canada’s Leap Manifesto Is Leaping Backwards. For clarity, many of the same criticisms that I made of the Leap Manifesto could be applied to the Green New Deal, however, the political and historical context is completely different.

The Leap Manifesto has no antecedent in Canada. The Green New Deal is specifically modeled after the Roosevelt New Deal(s) that the US rightly reveres as being fundamental to its economic success and global dominance. The New Deals changed the shape of the US for the better. Most of the elements in the Leap Manifesto which were out of place make sense in the context of a US political document specifically modeled after the New Deal.

What follows is a lightly edited version of my response, drawing out the specific points in the GND that were in the New Deal and making clear what the leading Democratic candidates were saying about those specific points, not junior representatives who don’t reflect the party’s position, but are merely a voice in a big tent. It’s easy, after all, to find extreme or easily mocked things from a large and diverse group, but the published plans of the leading candidates reflect the emerging consensus and major debate points with Democratic discourse.

In each case, I start with the section that the conservative took issues with.

(O) providing all people of the United States with — (i) high-quality health care;

The issues the conservative had were that it appeared to be trending to single-payer health care per talking points by Democratic representatives and had nothing to do with climate change.

Health care, specifically health insurance, was a component of the First New Deal. Medical bills continue to be a leading cause of personal bankruptcies in the US and are rising with the current administrations nibbling around the edges of ACA. Two-thirds of personal bankruptcies are due to medical expenses. Virtually every western democracy except the US has single-payer health care systems, better overall health outcomes, and lower health costs as a percentage of GDP.

I’m a Canadian living under a single-payer system who has worked fairly extensively in the Canadian health care sector and co-authored a blockchain medical payments system white paper intended to reduce some issues with the US system.  All western democracies except the US have single-payer systems and know that the current US system has the worst outcomes for the highest cost as a percentage of GDP, and is mostly a means for profiteering at the expense of others.

Climate change is already having health impacts in the US, and a more resilient and less expensive health care system will deal much more effectively with the greater impacts that are coming, so once again a clear linkage to climate change.

I had no sympathy with any points of view regarding the GND inclusion of health care being an issue, as it has strong historical precedence from the New Deal, clear linkages to adaptation to climate change, and health care in the US is deeply broken.

(O) providing all people of the United States with — (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing;

The conservative indicated that he had heard Democratic representatives arguing for a federal housing guarantee, something unrelated to climate change and something that they considered a dubious proposition.

Again, housing was covered in the New Deal with agencies created related to mortgages and building standards. Adaptation to climate change requires adaptation of these elements to get people out of flood plains and to ensure things like the standards upgrades in Florida after Hurricane Andrew are adopted wherever required, a clear link to climate. One of Canada’s key climate initiatives is building materials, specifically permitting up to 12 stories of engineered wood frame construction to displace concrete, which produces 5%-8% of global emissions. Once again, inclusion makes sense and the how becomes an interesting question. 

(O) providing all people of the United States with — (iii) economic security;

The conservative’s concern was that this was related to comments about a federal jobs guarantee, not the actual text.

Once again, economic security for individuals was covered in the New Deal. Virtually all of the climate plans include jobs sections, and when I’ve poked at the US statistics on this I find high employment anxiety, understandable forecasts of job losses due to shifts in the economy away from fossil fuels, and further job losses due to automation. Yang addresses this in a different way, with his Freedom Dividend, a good branding of universal basic income variant. He’s introduced this subject into the Democratic policy debate and it’s a worthwhile alternative perspective. I didn’t see any jobs guarantees in any of the climate plans, so it’s unclear what conservatives think is happening or who is talking about it. 

Sec 4C providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States

The concern apparently here is that some people are talking about making higher education free, as it is in Finland for example.

Education is covered in multiple places in the original New Deal. An educated work force was a prerequisite for economic growth and jobs, and lots of federal aid was put in place. Today the US has a post-secondary educational cost structure that leaves people paying off their education for decades, because outside of a thin wedge of jobs the debt is absurd. Over a quarter of personal bankruptcies in the US are caused by student loans, per statistics. The US has a couple of orders of magnitude more personal bankruptcies per million people than other countries. Shifting from a fossil fuel powered economy to a renewable electricity powered economy to defeat climate change is going to require retraining a lot of skilled workers into adjacent or not so adjacent fields. Once again, there’s a clear link to climate change, a clear link to the historical precedent of the New Deal and a clear need for systemic change.

Sec 2 with subsection 2C – a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era is a historic opportunity to (C) meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources

The concern with this section is the implication of a national mobilization to move to 100% renewable energy.

It’s unclear what exactly is wrong with this, but presumably in some conservatives’ minds this equates to a climate conscription plan for laborers, which exactly no one is talking about, or nationalization of industry which actually has a point, but not a major one. Once again, in the New Deal, under the Public Works efforts, investment in necessary infrastructure for the future had significant long term benefits of multiple types. Infrastructure investment is a key economic driver of long term wealth, and shifting from a fossil fuel infrastructure to an electricity infrastructure is a big job.

The closest to what some people fear of a national mobilization is undoubtedly Sanders’ plan, presaged in the commenters point about ‘nationalization’. I’m not a fan of Sanders’ plan. He would declare a climate emergency (reasonable and something well over 1000 jurisdictions globally have declared so far, including the city I’m sitting in) but that comes with greatly expanded Presidential authority which he would use in two ways, neither of which I’m ecstatic about. The first would use the DOE departments that built some of the major dams as part of the New Deal, and build a bunch of mostly wind and solar on federal lands and waters while turfing the oil and gas sector off of them. Once again, strong tiebacks to New Deal, building on federally owned land, but effectively nationalizing all electrical generation, which seems extreme to me. Also, persecuting the oil and gas sector.

But Sanders is running third, and the other plans are nowhere near as authoritarian and don’t nationalize electrical generation. Warrens’ and Harris’ plan, the other two frontrunners with aggressive plans, use levers and programs within the existing powers of the President and Congress to achieve these goals, including federal funding and existing draft legislation. Biden’s plan is the weakest on this point, so between him and Warren, this is a red herring. These are not extreme or scary plans and any worries about conscription for green energy, which seems to be the fear, don’t exist in any of the plans. So, strong ties to the New Deal, no army of enslaved Americans marching off to build wind turbines, so … what exactly is the concern?

Sec 4 (A) global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human sources of 40 to 60 percent from 2010 levels by 2030; and (B) net-zero global emissions by 2050;

Apparently the problem here is that some Democratic people are saying that a 40–60% reduction in emissions by 2030 and net-zero by 2050 is required.

As that’s exactly what the science tells us is necessary per the UN IPCC 1.5 Degree reports, 55% reduction of global emissions by 2030 and 100% by 2050, I was left scratching my head. And to be clear, Sanders’ plans do the heavy lifting for electricity with his approach by 2030 and leave it to the private sector to finish the job by 2050. Even the scary socialist isn’t that scary frankly.

The specific concerns of the person I was interacting with were shown to be strongly tied to the antecedents of the New Deal, obviously linked to climate mitigation or adaptation, address specific and very well documented problems in the US where it’s a serious outlier among western democracies, and almost all of the real plans being put forward are pretty sensible.

Among the top 5 frontrunners, only Harris calls for 100% carbon neutral electricity by 2030, and that’s because she knows that’s a mostly achievable wedge. Building wind, solar, pumped hydro, and HVDC lines isn’t rocket science. It’s proven technology that will do the job. And Harris is not going to get the nomination and none of the other candidates mirror her target here. Personally, I’d go for 2035, which is still very doable. After all, providing sufficient electrical power to replace all forms of energy in the US is only about a $3 trillion job. All of the plans except Biden’s are spending more than that in one way or another.

I was left with the strong impression that the conservatives complaining about the Green New Deal, even the calmest among them, can’t seem to make the obvious connections to the historical New Deal, climate action and issues facing the US. It’s almost like they refuse to understand.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 722 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard