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Column: Green New Deal raises vital questions

  • Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., addresses The Road to the Green New Deal Tour final event at Howard University in Washington, Monday, May 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)



For the Valley News
Saturday, June 01, 2019

In February, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N,Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced a climate change resolution in Congress dubbed the Green New Deal. Their proposal raises important questions.

First, what exactly is the Green New Deal? It’s best described as a call to action and a broad platform on which to erect specific legislation. It’s a response to November’s latest, most dire, warning from the blue-ribbon Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said continuing business as usual by deriving our energy mainly from burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — will pile disasters upon disasters around the Earth. The IPCC’s imperative: Switch mainly to non-polluting solar and wind by 2030 to hold global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, or leave our grandchildren a planet increasingly uninhabitable by humankind.

Why did this Green New Deal proposal draw such strong objections? The president called it “a socialist nightmare.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called for a vote on it without hearings or debate, to show his party’s unanimous opposition. It was called “a recipe for economic disaster that would hurt every American,” and merely “the cry of Chicken Little environmental alarmists.” Even fellow Democrats called Ocasio-Cortez a “loser,” dismissing her proposal as “pie in the sky.”

Such strong opposition suggests not so much reasoned objections, but rather fears that the critics’ economic or political self-interests, or their ideological comfort zones, are being threatened.

Is the Green New Deal a new idea? No. The plea to take climate change seriously was heard three decades ago in Congress. A young, female member of the House — a Republican — led the effort in 1988, warning of the “very high risk of irreversible and catastrophic impact looming on the horizon,” and lamenting the huge handouts to the fossil fuel corporations. “We have the facts,” declared Rep. Claudine Schneider, R-R.I. “The time to move from rhetoric into action is here.” So, as we say under Robert’s Rules of Order, Ocasio-Cortez is simply “bringing up old business” in our national meeting.

Why, then, has Congress taken so long to consider something like the Green New Deal? Much of the explanation lies in the deliberate deception and political manipulation by self-interested fossil fuel corporations. For a detailed account of this, one can read Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by two authoritative science historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

Why the label “New Deal”? It’s a political strategy to remind us that our country once pulled together to overcome a very serious national challenge, the Great Depression of the 1930s, under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Is this example from the 1930s big enough in scale, given the challenge facing us now? Doubters will argue that it’s not. According to their viewpoint (mine, too), we must accept that we will need a transformation closer in magnitude to that of the Industrial Revolution. Yes, FDR’s transformation was radical to the politicians and business leaders of his time. He championed using government deficit spending to create jobs in public works and soup kitchens; he restrained free-market capitalism in banking and labor relations; he created Social Security for the elderly and disabled. But the challenge of climate change will require a more profound transformation than creating the American welfare state — hence the alternative comparison to the Industrial Revolution.

In its early years, the Industrial Revolution saw the shift from hand tools to machine tools, from the spinning wheel and hand weaving to the great water-powered textile mills of Lawrence and Lowell in Massachusetts, for example. In farming, the grain scythe gave way to the horse-drawn reaper, and the hand thresher gave way to steam threshers. Scientists and engineers transformed steel-making and transportation. Manufacturing and lighting were transformed by their invention of the electric dynamo.

But what most radically transformed production and distribution was the widespread availability and use, in the later 19th and early 20th century, of coal, oil products and natural gas. It is that legacy that rules our lives today. Now, 80% of the power that generates our electricity and fuels the internal combustion engines in our transportation and agricultural sectors comes from carbon-emitting fossil fuels. And that is what must change, radically and rapidly.

The imperative we face is to shift to renewable energy — solar and wind and, to a lesser extent, new forms of water power, such as tidal. (It’s true that new generation nuclear power reactors are increasingly touted as an important source of safe, non-polluting power. But, apart from the problems of waste disposal and security, it’s doubtful that such reactors can be brought on line fast enough to meet the 10-12 year deadline that has been set for us.)

Is there any prospect that Congress will break this decades-long energy legislation logjam? Yes, but there’s a long way to go — including a big election.

On May 2, the U.S. House passed, 231-190, a bill that would deny funding for the president’s planned withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement of 2015, and require an account of his plans for fulfilling the U.S. promises at Paris. More important, building on the Green New Deal platform, a number of detailed proposals for pricing carbon in one way or another are now under active committee scrutiny in the House.

The reader looking for credible visionaries who grasp the reality of the climate change crisis could turn to Middlebury College’s Bill McKibben. His latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? has been called “a love letter, a plea, a eulogy, and a prayer.” Also, one could watch the YouTube talk, “The Race of Our Lives Revisited,” by Jeremy Grantham, a “legendary investor” who combines his much-admired market savvy with a deep concern for the future of the planet. The reader wanting to get off the sidelines to join this “race” could contact the local chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, at ccluppervalley@gmail.com or 802-432-8494.

Bob Schultz, of Lebanon, taught environmental ethics as a philosophy professor for 30 years. He is active with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Quaker peace and justice lobby in Washington, D.C.