Checkpoint: The Green New Deal and the Risks of Politicizing the Environment

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The United States stands as the second largest polluter in the world, with each American responsible for over three times as many CO2 emissions than the average global denizen. Along with this fact, a recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warning that we have just over a decade to limit emissions in order to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, has brought climate change to the forefront of political discourse. This impending deadline has rallied climate-conscious politicians of the 116th Congress who advocate for more robust federal regulations concerning the environment, with progressives leading the pack in advocating for a seemingly novel “Green New Deal.”

Modeled after the stimulating economic reforms of FDR during the Great Depression, this ambitious policy package is meant to solve the dual issues of climate change and poverty. Chief among advocates is freshman-representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a cohort of progressives who campaigned and won on the principles of reducing inequality and alleviating poverty in the richest country in the world. Protecting the environment, they reason, should not be considered in a vacuum, instead, the structural reforms necessary to implement environmental controls should be used to address other pernicious issues, such as improving the plight of lower income-workers.

 While inequality and the levels of poverty in the United States (third highest among OECD countries) are concerning, it is dangerous for progressives to include such reforms into any environmental policy proposal. While eliminating poverty is a laudable goal, curbing emissions is an immediate concern and cannot afford politically motivated delays. Politicizing the issue by making progress contingent upon the advancement of the progressive agenda is detrimental to the intended goal of ameliorating the environment for two main reasons. First, including progressive socioeconomic policies will prove counterproductive to the actual “green” goals of the policy proposal. The environmental goals of the draft resolution calling for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and infrastructure through a concerted scheme of “massive” government funding for the expansion of renewable power sources and the creation of a “national, energy-efficient, ‘smart’ grid.” Such a structural overhaul is bound to be an expensive endeavor and reflects the steep price tags of similar proposals in the past. The pioneering but limited “green provisions” in President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package cost $90 billion and Jill Stein’s less robust and identically named Green New Deal was projected to amount to $700 billion to $1 trillion in higher spending every year.

With bi-partisan support for environmental protections from three-quarters of Americans such costs, while staggering, could, in theory, be justified. However, the inclusion of socio-economic progressive reforms such as a universal basic income (UBI) program and universal healthcare, as suggested in Article six, Section B of the draft resolution, are likely to exacerbate costs, forcing political prioritizing and an inevitable scale back in environmental investment. In order to afford such policies, Ocasio-Cortez and others have resolved to employ a mix of tax hikes, spending cuts, and deficit-driven spending. Taking the high estimates of $3 trillion for UBI, $3 trillion for universal healthcare and $1 trillion for environmental reform, pursuing such a policy would leave the government with a shortfall of more than double the current U.S. budget and of more than $5 trillion if the entirety of federal discretionary and Medicare (which would be absorbed by universal healthcare) spending were cut. Even with the lower estimates of $539 billion for UBI (which includes a 50 percent marginal tax rate), Bernie Sanders’s estimate of $1.38 trillion for universal healthcare, and $700 billion for environmental reform, the $2.6 trillion dollar price tag would still require cuts to the entire discretionary budget and a tax hike that would put the marginal tax rate for those making more than the poverty line at over 50 percent. Furthermore, implementing other programs such as a $15/hour minimum wage is unlikely to make “‘green’ technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States” considering that many countries, such as China, have already developed green industries with much lower labor costs.

With climate change expecting to cost $360 billion annually over the next decade, many progressives deem that Keynesian style deficit spending is an appropriate approach to implementing the costly policies today. While the original New Deal illustrated that targeted government intervention in the economy could be beneficial in times of stress, advocating for the use of such measures at a time when the US economy is at its strongest performance since the Great Recession of 2009 perverts the intention of Keynes by appropriating his theories as a means to implement communitarian schemes completely unrelated to the environment or economic stabilization. The Green New Deal, even if constrained to purely environmental targets will inevitably require Keynes’s approach to stabilize an economy which will likely react in a volatile way to the trade-offs of a concerted move away from fossil fuels, which has long been the source of economic growth in industrialized countries. With that in mind, deficit spending should be used to deal with the adverse effects of the policy rather than serve as a source of its funding, especially since even without such bold policies in place 8.5 percent of every tax dollar is already used to pay off interest on public loans.

Second, including such radical progressive policies makes any such Green New Deal a political nonstarter at best and politically divisive at worst. The centerpiece of the Green New Deal involves the creation of a Congressional standing committee on climate change. The new Democratic House Rules did this in part by creating the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis which, while possessing fewer prerogatives than progressives hoped, is a positive step as it signifies growing federal awareness in this arena and foreshadows action on the issue. Any such Green New Deal is bound to pass through this committee where six of the fifteen members will be Republicans. With such a minority, the committee is not likely to approve any radical socio-economic measures. Thus by maintaining the calls for such policies in the Green New Deal, progressives are doing the environment a disservice by effectively sending the reform proposal to a committee which is sure to reject it. Furthermore, should such measures gain sympathy with the slight Democrat majority in the committee, it is unlikely that the Republican-controlled (and even among its Democratic members) conservative-leaning Senate would concur.

Additionally, while the environment may be a bi-partisan issue, universal healthcare and other progressive policies are not. By framing the Green New Deal within such parameters, progressives are likely to alienate many potential supporters who would rather see no environmental regulations over controls tied to socio-economic reforms that they fundamentally disagree with. With healthcare among one of the most divisive issues, credited with the downfall of the Democratic party in the 2016 presidential election, the Green New Deal risks becoming a political flashpoint rather than receive the political support that is necessary to effectuate lasting change to our economic approach to the environment. Already, reticence has been felt to some economic measures implemented in order to manage the negative externalities from human activity on the environment. An example can be seen in France, where a publicly scheduled fuel tax increase has been met with the country’s most violent protest movement since the infamous events in May 1968 that saw the collapse of France’s government and economy. Prognostics for American civilian reactions to tax increases that have nothing to do with the environment, the policy’s ostensible goal, should be considered bleak at best. Thus by insisting on including socio-economic reform that is not even widely supported within their own party, progressives are hindering environmental progress with their proposed Green New Deal.

A “Green New Deal” that incorporates progressive socio-economic priorities is neither a “new” initiative or an advantageous “deal” for the American economy. What remains to be seen is how the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives decides to pursue the policy proposal, and whether they can avoid imbibing it with a radical progressive agenda and focus on its truly “green” aspects. After all, pursuing climate responsibility should not be done by neglecting fiscal responsibility, lest the progress made in the environmental arena be reversed due to popular demands to address a potential implosion of the economy.