Green New Deal is More New Deal Than Green

by Benjamin Studebaker

Like many of you, I’ve seen that clip of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) arguing with children about the Green New Deal. If you haven’t seen it, I have it right here for you:

In and amidst the hostility, Feinstein said something quite honest in this exchange:

Well, it’s [climate change] not going to get turned around in 10 years.

I have a certain admiration for honest centrism. So often these days, politicians pretend to be more radical than they are to excite voters, only to disappoint them. But it’s not merely because we can’t get the votes in a Republican senate to pass the Green New Deal. No–it’s because the United States is at this point no longer capable of cutting its own emissions enough to deal with climate change, and it’s unlikely to successfully lead other states in this direction even if it tries.

Climate change is an irreducibly global problem. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s report, limiting temperature rise by 1.5 degrees centigrade requires a 45% cut in global emissions by 2030. If we tolerate a 2 degree rise, we could instead cut emissions by just 25%.

The United States, however, commands just 15% of total emissions. The EU commands a further 10%, while other rich states (such as Japan, Australia, and so on) add another 8%. This means that the rich states only control about a third of total emissions. China controls nearly another third (about 30%), and the rest comes from the remaining developing countries, with India and Russia making the largest contributions (7% and 5%, respectively) of that bunch. These developing countries are not merely failing to cut emissions–they are continuing to increase their output. This means that reductions from rich states are cancelled out by the growing emissions of developing countries. The IPCC report recommended making this cut from the 2010 level, but by 2014 China increased its emissions by nearly 15% over that 2010 level, and global emissions rose 8%.

The Paris Climate Agreement won’t make much difference, not merely because the United States has abandoned it, but because of countries like Canada, who routinely sign climate agreements and then openly flout them:

Canada helps people like Donald Trump make the argument that other countries won’t hold up their end of the deal. Say what you will about the United States–at least we’re honest. Canada has lied pathologically regardless of which of its political parties have been in power for nearly 30 years now. Why would anyone take a voluntary climate agreement seriously given these figures? You’d have to be a moron to trust Justin Trudeau.

Canada is rich, but it’s a cold petrol state with lots of interior permafrost it would be perfectly happy to dust off and piles of sailors anxious to dip their oars in the Northwest passage. It doesn’t care. Then there are countries like India, where without considerable outside aid, choosing not to increase emissions is choosing to let poor people die in squalor. I met a couple Indian gentlemen at an event at Cambridge. These men have advanced degrees and are quite willing to acknowledge that climate change is very real. But they don’t think it merits priority for India, and they are proud of Prime Minister Modi for choosing not to prioritise it. Modi has signed the Paris Accords, and if you’ve heard his remarks at Davos, you might think he cares about this. But in the last year alone, Indian emissions have risen by 6.3%. These increases wipe out the hard-won decreases the EU is achieving while most other countries do nothing or make it worse.

So what is Green New Deal really about? It’s not going to save the kids. I think there are three main reasons politicians sign these climate deals and entertain legislation like this:

  1. Signing the Paris Accords or committing to vote for a Green New Deal make it look like we’re doing something, even though we’re not. They alleviate the fears of activists without meaningfully addressing the substance of those fears. In other words, international climate accords are the opiates of the people, and they can win you votes.
  2. Many politicians want to do a big pile of infrastructure spending, but they want to find a way to make that infrastructure spending sexy. The Green New Deal is more about the “New Deal” than it is about the “Green”. It’s a jobs program in a slick suit. Or, to put it another way, it’s not “Green” as in trees, it’s “Green” as in greenbucks.
  3. Some politicians genuinely care about climate change. Because there’s no world state through which we might hold rogue polluters like Canada to account, all they can do is tilt at windmills at the national level. For them that’s reason enough to try.

This is one of the fundamental problems of this century–at this point, we have integrated the global economy so thoroughly that there may now be many irreducibly global problems that cannot be solved at the national level, even with an American commitment. That commitment is still not forthcoming, and the latest push to pass the Markey/Cortez resolution isn’t going to change that. If Dianne Feinstein won’t budge, try moving Senate Republicans. We don’t have the global political institutions we need to handle problems like this, and every time we try to create them voters baulk, accusing us of trying to destroy their cultures and deprive them of “sovereignty” and “national self-determination“, as if there were any meaningful sense in which they still had these things to start with.

Going forward, if Bernie Sanders wins and the congressional composition changes, we should of course create lots of jobs and spend lots of money replacing our ageing infrastructure, and we should make sure when we do create those jobs and spend that money that it’s spent on clean jobs and clean technologies. But we shouldn’t imagine it’s going to save the world, because even Green New Deal is not enough. It’s going to take a lot more than that to put the climate monster back in the box.