When Hurricane Michael hit Florida in October, following a pattern of increasingly powerful storms, I was of course worried for my grandfather. But he and his hurricane-fortified gated community withstood the most intense storm in the past fifty years with little incident. Not so in northern Florida, where poorer towns remain flattened and the hurricane’s victims — many still without housing — fear they have been forgotten.
Storms like these are part of an accelerating ecological crisis that involves not only climate change, but also the collapse of vertebrate and insect populations and the continuing erosion of natural habitats and arable farmland. All of these processes compound each other and are growing faster than the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted in October, meaning we likely have less than the twelve years they gave us to reverse direction on carbon emissions.
Wealthy Americans have caused a large part of this ballooning crisis and have been insulated from its worst impacts — so there’s a powerful moral argument that they (we) should do far more to address climate change. Additionally, our continued prosperity and existence depends on the security of our international order, which is threatened by climate change. No current policy proposal comes as close to acknowledging these moral and practical truths as the Green New Deal, which demands a rapid transition to net-zero emissions as well as a host of investments in infrastructure, sustainability and social safety nets such as a jobs guarantee and universal health care.
The Green New Deal has faced a predictable wave of opposition. Rather than focus on arguments about stolen hamburgers, the end of air travel, or discredited estimates of a $93 trillion price tag, let’s engage with the argument that the Green New Deal does everything a carbon tax would do, but at a much larger cost. Thousands of economists have signed their names to support a carbon tax. Like many policies supported by mainstream economic theory, it promises a simple, beautiful fix. The government charges companies for the harms caused by their emissions, which incentivizes industries to decarbonize while also allowing the government to fund renewables research with the tax revenue. Such a tax, fee or cap-and-trade scheme will no doubt play a big role in a hopeful future wherein the US manages to leave its current fatal path. But on its own, the carbon tax is inadequate for many reasons.
The theory behind a carbon tax presumes that firms operate in a free market where they will automatically respond to a higher tax by lowering consumption. This is true in some cases: a large manufacturer might find ways to remove petroleum from its chemical processes if it gets too expensive. But this presumption doesn’t apply to large swaths of the economy, which is currently completely entrenched in a fossil fuel-based system that is difficult to exit or transform without government support. A carbon tax will not generate the necessary investment needed to decarbonize infrastructure such as natural gas pipelines or long-distance commercial transport.
Even within free-market contexts, firms simply won’t be able to develop the kinds of technology needed — for example, to fully electrify our infrastructural network — in a post-carbon world. Market fundamentalists argue that this kind of groundswell in innovation and change only emerges within a properly incentivized market system. History and common sense prove otherwise: nearly all transformative technological developments from the twentieth century resulted from large government-funded projects, like the Manhattan Project or the development of computers. Few companies would have the means or incentive to carry out such a project, even under the most stringent carbon tax — but this is exactly the kind of project that we need right now.
A carbon tax would also fail to address the many threats from the current ecological crisis, which won’t disappear alongside an emissions reduction. Some of these are impacts on nature: declining insect numbers, plummeting biodiversity, degraded farmland and threatened water supplies, which all afflict the United States as they do the rest of the world. The United States will also continue to see worsening effects of climate change even if our emissions drop to zero overnight, because a significant amount of further global warming is likely already locked in due to past emissions and accelerating natural processes.
Most importantly, both within and beyond our borders we need to protect the most vulnerable first. This is both a moral argument and a strategic one. Securing our own future and a semblance of global stability will be impossible if there is massive societal unrest due to inequality worsened by the ecological crisis. Protecting vulnerable populations isn’t just a moral requirement: it’s a strategic one. Our military understands this: it’s one of the few arms of the government actively addressing threats from climate change at home and abroad.
Even among those who understand that our snowballing problems extend beyond carbon emissions, there’s a tendency to reject the Green New Deal on strategic grounds. Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, argues that Green New Dealers should learn from health care legislation’s contentious history. Ambitious environmental legislation still lacks the coalition or confirmation from regional experiments that supported the Affordable Care Act. Taylor and others argue that the Green New Deal is also too radical; it will alienate moderates and provide Republicans with ample grounds for socialist-baiting. And finally, some argue Green New Dealers fail to understand that politics depends on the will of elites, who must be reached within their protective shell of lobbyists and special-interest groups.
Arguments like these misunderstand both the strategic value of the Green New Deal and the present political context. The recent wave of successful populist campaigns attests to the fact that grassroots campaigns can disrupt entrenched regimes. Environmental groups understand that movement-building and mass civil disobedience are viable pathways to political change and have delivered some of the greatest victories for human rights in history. This is good news, because it’s unlikely that enlightened lobbyists and technocrats could persuade oil-money-soaked politicians away from fossil fuels. Oil, gas and coal companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year protecting their right to emit, because ending that right will cost them far more. There’s little hope in rationally persuading these companies (or the politicians they patronize) away from their path.
In such a context, the best recourse comes from grassroots organizing and mass action. This is something that groups like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion understand. If the Green New Deal is to be politically effective, it must be politically effective as a vehicle for grassroots organizing, not insider lobbying. Is it?
All indicators say yes. The Green New Deal has served as a lodestar for environmentalist and progressive movements. It has galvanized support for legislation addressing climate change and the ecological crisis. Groups like the Sunrise Movement have begun rejuvenating the political support for climate policy on the left. Of course, it will be much harder for movements like Sunrise or Extinction Rebellion to gain purchase with those outside the progressive left. They don’t have to convince everyone. But winning the ardent support of a sizable minority will require that groups continue to coalesce around the sole feasible plan for defending our future while treating it as a serious policy proposal — not as an intentionally vague resolution or a crowbar for prying open the Overton Window.
If they keep this in mind and continue to argue for and develop the Green New Deal as a feasible alternative, they might stand a chance of achieving real, positive change from outside the halls of Washington. Right now, that’s the only way.
Galen Hall ’20 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.