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Keeping the Green New Deal Green

The Importance of Prioritizing Social and Climate Policies Independently

You may have heard talk of a Green New Deal. High profile, rising stars in liberal politics, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been touting a Green New Deal as a panacea for climate change and social inequities. What you probably haven’t heard are any specifics on the actual policy. This is because there is currently a battle going on among its proponents to define exactly what a Green New Deal should strive to achieve.

It’s worth paying attention to the details of the Green New Deal. If passed, the final law will change the landscape (quite literally) of the American economy and your way of life.

The tug of war shaping the Green New Deal is between radical progressives pushing a social reform agenda and moderates focused on combating climate change. In order to curb rising global temperatures, dramatic objectives are central to the Green New Deal. The green proposals include 100 percent renewable energy, nationwide, by 2035, and zero net emissions by 2050, including 100 percent zero-emission passenger vehicles and net-zero building energy standards by 2030.

The sheer scale of such undertakings (e.g., every car on the road will be electric within the next decade) raises serious policy considerations regarding the level of associated investment and economic turmoil we can accommodate as a nation to achieve such goals. However, with irreversible climate change imminent and the enormous economic damage it will cause (the National Climate Assessment published last year estimated climate change costs to the U.S. economy in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year by the end of the century), necessity will carry the policies forward.

Progressives see this as an opportunity to correct some of the social injustices that exist in our society. Universal Health Care via Medicare-for-All is one such policy proposed as part of the Green New Deal; it would cover those Americans without health insurance and relieve the financial burden of health care on the lower and middle class. Another proposal is a Job Guarantee: a living-wage, government job for any American worker who wants one (the hourly pay and social consequences remain hotly contested), which is being promoted as a way to lift many minorities and disadvantaged communities out of poverty.

And herein lies the strategic debate on how to package a Green New Deal. Americans largely realize that climate change is caused by human activity (59 percent of all voters and climbing) and is an immediate threat that must be tackled with comprehensive and bold policy. Support for socialist policies like Universal Health Care and a Job Guarantee is more divisive. Medicare-for-All polls incredibly at 70 percent, but when described as “government-run health care,” the polls only finds 40 percent support. A Job Guarantee struggles with only 46 percent, but the concept finds opposition decreases significantly when the guaranteed job is “green.”

Progressives hope that by tagging their social policies onto more popular climate-change proposals, they can push through an agenda that would have a much harder time getting realized on its own. While there is truth in their argument that climate change has disproportionately impacted minorities and disadvantaged communities, the claim that policy addressing climate change must therefore also redress that suffering is problematic. The complexities of the policies to reduce carbon emissions and correct social woes means they deserve to be paid individual attention, rather than bundled together.

Getting to 100 percent zero net emissions in the next couple decades requires massive legislative undertakings like a national Renewable Portfolio Standard, carbon tax, electric transportation mandate, and energy-efficiency building regulations. The investment in infrastructure, tax credits/rebates, technology innovation, and workforce development to make those programs feasible requires a national focus and commitment equivalent to President Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon when space travel did not yet exist.

Universal Health Care and a Job Guarantee warrant examination and discussion of their individual merits (and challenges, like paying for universal health care and managing a job guarantee for a constantly shifting, nationwide pool of untrained workers). Real problems exist that both proposals could ease for those who need help the most. Yet, all these initiatives are going to be costly, and resources are finite. This is not to say that social and climate policies are mutually exclusive, only that they must be prioritized independently. Conflating them is a dangerous misstep.

On a practical level, the climate change policies of the Green New Deal address the universal imperative to keep our world hospitable and thus demand attention first. Further, many of the woes the social programs seek to address will naturally be mitigated by the green policies themselves. The massive investment in workforce development and new jobs that would be created by transforming the nation’s economy and infrastructure will in itself act as a form of job guarantee. The cleaner environment will lessen the disproportionate health impact that climate change has on the poor. In terms of overall merit, suffice it to say that the social programs do little to combat climate change while the green proposals do also naturally improve social inequities.

Well intentioned Americans might support both environmental and social policies for a Green New Deal, but strategically it would be an error to try and bind them together. The opposition will be those who no longer see popular green policy but the anathema red of socialism. Attempting to make the Green New Deal a solution for the country’s social problems will likely slow and potentially derail essential climate change action, and we can ill afford to risk the planet by drowning it in good intentions.

Elliott MacDougall is the CEO of Weymouth Development Group, an energy real estate development company based in Santa Barbara.

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