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Politics & Policy

The Green New Deal Is Unrealistic? Get Real

It’s an attention-grabbing mission statement at the start of a long and necessary battle.

The Green New Deal Is Unrealistic? Get Real

It’s an attention-grabbing mission statement at the start of a long and necessary battle.

Don’t dismiss it.

Don’t dismiss it.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images North America
Don’t dismiss it.
Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images North America

Opinions on the “Green New Deal” run the gamut from calling it “a bold, ambitious vision” to warning that it represents “the first step down a dark path to socialism.” A fairly common critique, though, is that it is unrealistic in whole or part; and that’s a view that crosses political lines. Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointedly referred to the proposals put forward by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey as “the green dream, or whatever they call it” in an interview with Politico.

Producers of oil, natural gas and coal — those squarely in the GND’s crosshairs — may be tempted to draw comfort from, or mimic, Pelosi’s offhandedness. I think that would be a mistake.

There are two reasons why dismissing the GND as unrealistic would be an error. First, to do so would be to merely state the obvious. A 14-page set of non-binding resolutions encompassing everything from getting the U.S. to net-zero carbon emissions to overhauling the nation’s transportation infrastructure and even implementing a federal job guarantee is plainly not what you would call ready-to-go legislation. And while AOC’s many critics may deride her as inexperienced, surely even they don’t think she’s unable to count how many Republican senators there are right now.

Rather, the GND is a set of sketched-out goals; a flag to rally support around for what its authors surely know will be a multi-year, and grinding, political battle. As ClearView Energy Partners put it in a report on the GND — coming as it does from a master of social media in our increasingly clickable political culture — this is about “counting likes (not votes).” By marrying environmental objectives with issues related to economic insecurity, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey are attempting to recast the doom-laden threat of climate change as an opportunity for economic and national renewal — a stance that mixes FDR liberalism with dashes of America First populism.

Far from thinking the GND’s enormous scope renders it an unrealistic mess, the fossil-fuel industry should consider it an opening gambit. Many of the proposals could be ditched or modified over time and America might still be left with far-reaching federal measures curbing the use of oil, natural gas and coal when the smoke clears. As it stands, polling shows comfortable majorities of Americans already think climate change is happening and is mostly man-made. Perhaps more importantly, roughly four-in-ten discuss the issue “often or occasionally” with family and friends, the highest proportion since the “Climate Change in the American Mind” survey was launched in 2008.

Such shifts in attitudes are why many fossil-fuel producers have also shifted in recent years toward acknowledging the reality of climate change and the role of their products in causing it. Herein lies the second reason why the GND’s lack of “realism” isn’t a promising line of attack over the long term.

As I wrote here, the incumbent energy industry’s change of heart comes after decades of rejecting warnings about climate change and helping to transform it from a question of science to one of political tribalism. Oil majors calling for carbon taxes after spending so many years of denying the need for action now actually find themselves to the left of a lot of senior Republican politicians on that specific issue. When even relatively straightforward measures like pricing carbon have become untouchable for one of the major U.S. parties, yet even producers admit there’s a problem, something has to give.

We find ourselves perhaps less than two decades away from reaching a tipping point beyond which the planet faces possibly catastrophic impacts in terms of things like flooding, drought and wildfires (indeed, California’s getting a bitter taste of this already). It is from this that the urgency of efforts such as the GND spring. Delaying action for decades and then denouncing ambitious proposals to deal with the consequences of that in short order is, let’s be honest, not a good look.

Sarah Ladislaw, a director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who published this smart blog post on the GND’s potential, offers this succinct rebuttal to the “realist” school of criticism:

It’s a hard conversation to calibrate. If the Green New Deal is infeasible, what do you call managing climate-change impacts? Surely that's infeasible.

If the GND’s ambition is a testament to anything, it is that there are no easy solutions here. We have built our standard of living on forms of energy that we now know pose a threat to our very existence. That is a simple summation of a monumental challenge; one where time has eroded our margin for incremental action. No matter what you think of the specifics, or lack of them, this is a conversation that is long overdue — and necessarily begins with a shout, not a whisper.

    This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Liam Denning at ldenning1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net