Costing the Green New Deal

It’s a remarkable testimony to these times that while Donald Trump has declared a “national emergency” because of politically inspired “border security” concerns, he has chosen to ignore the true national emergency caused by global climate change. The bad news is that Trump is playing to his base, most of whom don’t believe in climate change. The good news is that because of the “Green New Deal,” climate change is going to be a major issue in the 2020 election.

In many parts of the U.S., climate change is now one of the top voter concerns.  Recent polls (https://www.vox.com/2019/1/28/18197262/climate-change-poll-public-opinion-carbon-tax ) indicate that two-thirds of Americans believe the climate is changing, and a strong majority feel that human activity is causing this change.  In the San Francisco Bay Area we’ve seen a lot of evidence of climate change: we’ve just experienced a week of torrential rain, and flooding — one of my major commute routes is still impassable.  (And, of course, last summer we had a series of horrendous wildfires.)

Public concern about climate change is backed up by an overwhelming scientific consensus.  In the New York Times   (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/16/opinion/sunday/fear-panic-climate-change-warming.html) science writer David Wallace-Wells warns that we are approaching a planetary crisis,The emissions path we are on today is likely to take us to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2040, two degrees Celsius within decades after that and perhaps four degrees Celsius by 2100.”  Vast areas of the planet will be rendered uninhabitable and none of us will be safe.

Nonetheless, action to avert the impact about climate change is opposed by Republican leaders.  Donald Trump is a climate-change denier.  While he no longer calls reports of climate change “a hoax,” he has cast doubts on the latest dire warnings.  In October, Trump told Fox News that he believes climate-change scientists have a political agenda, adding that he did not believe that humans were responsible for earth’s rising temperature.  (In November the Trump Administration released a federally-mandated climate-change study, the Fourth National Climate Assessment; at the time, Trump told reporters, “I don’t believe it.”)

Unfortunately, Trump’s attitude reflects that of most Republicans.  A major year-poll (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/meet-the-press/consensus-emerges-climate-change-debate-n950646 ) found that only 15 percent of Republicans believe that climate change is a a major problem requiring action.  (Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s response has been to call for the use of more coal.)  Republican leaders contend that Green New Deal would be “too expensive.”  (https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-02-08/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-s-green-new-deal-is-unaffordable ).

In contrast, 71 percent of Democrats believe climate change requires action.  Democratic Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have introduced “The Green New Deal.”(https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/14/politics/green-new-deal-proposal-breakdown/index.html )  It’s likely to evolve into the official Democratic 2020 talking point about the action we must take to deal with climate change.  The Green New Deal references the Roosevelt era, “the Federal Government-led mobilizations during World War II and the New Deal.” It’s a resolution that insists we mobilize now; that whatever the ultimate cost we must take action to save our families and the planet.

The Green New Deal resolution has a lot in it but what jumps out is the call for a “10-year national mobilization” with several key objectives:

  •  “Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.”  That is, eliminating our dependence on fossil fuel in 10 years.
  • “Upgrading all existing buildings” in the country for energy efficiency.
  • Working with farmers “to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions … as much as is technologically feasible.”
  • “Overhauling transportation systems” to reduce emissions — including expanding electric car manufacturing, building “charging stations everywhere,” and expanding high-speed rail to “a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary.”
  •  A guaranteed job “with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security” for every American.  While this may appear to be a gratuitous add-on, the notion of a guaranteed job makes sense in light of the scope of the national mobilization, which will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

While there’s been positive response to “The Green New Deal” — outside of the Republican Party — Mother Jones just published a poll (https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2019/02/poll-likely-2020-voters-support-parts-of-green-new-deal-despite-concerns-over-the-cost/ ) that indicates the level of support for “Green New Deal” proposals varies depending upon the perception of cost: “Faced with a range of possible price tags, voters’ support varied, suggesting costs could factor high into the Green New Deal’s political viability. The results showed a majority of voters would likely oppose policies with stringent mandates—rules requiring all cars be electric by 2030 and every fossil fuel power plant close by 2035.”

From a short-term perspective, this position makes sense: voters support climate-change proposals so long as they appear to be free.  For example, “Mandates requiring the country to generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050 enjoyed sweeping support.”  But as the possible costs increased, support fell off.  This finding illustrates a fundamental problem initiating programs to tackle the effects of climate change: to some voters “doing nothing” appears to have no cost or an indeterminate cost; for example, voters in areas subjected to increased temperatures have the choice of doing nothing — suffering through longer heat waves — or to renovate their residence to withstand blistering temperature increases.  (Initially, the prospect of doing nothing may seem more attractive.)

The key question is: What is the long-term cost of doing nothing about climate change?  The impact of climate change has a personal component — it affects where we live — and a community component — it impacts water and air quality — and a national component — it impacts national competitiveness and the economy.

(I’m focussing on California because that’s where I live, but every state will experience its own spectrum of climate-change consequences.)  California residents will be impacted by drought, fire, and flooding.  For example, the southeastern counties (Imperial, Riverside, and San Bernardino) touch on the Mojave Desert — an area that will expand because of higher temperatures and drought.  As another example, vast swaths of California are subject to increased threat of wildfires.  And, there are many areas that are subject to flooding — in Northern California the Alviso region of San Jose and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Many California residents will have to move to higher ground (for example, Berkeley has an average height of 171 feet which means that several thousand residents now live in areas that will flood as the bay rises.)  However, residents should not move into the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) because that is subject to wildfire (California residents who live in the WUI are finding they cannot get insurance).  And of course, wherever Californians move they have to make sure there is adequate water — a particular problem in Southern California.

As a result of last fall’s catastrophic California wildfires, we’ve blown through California’s $443 million emergency wildfire fund.  The legislature just authorized $200 million for tree clearing in rural areas but this is just a drop in the bucket.  A recent state report (http://www.climateassessment.ca.gov/state/docs/20180827-SummaryBrochure.pdf ) indicated: “It could soon cost [California] $200 million a year in increased energy bills to keep homes air conditioned, $3 billion from the effects of a long drought and $18 billion to replace buildings inundated by rising seas, just to cite a few projections. Not to mention the loss of life from killer heat waves, which could add more than 11,000 heat-related deaths a year by 2050 in California, and carry an estimated $50 billion annual price tag.”

In California, billions will be required to help folks relocate out of dangerous areas or to upgrade for energy efficiency.  Additional billions are needed to ensure that all of California has adequate water.

In 2017, California got 43 percent of its energy from fossil fuel (mostly imported natural gas) and 9 percent from nuclear — a facility thats being decommissioned; we’re well on our way to generating 100 percent of our energy from renewables but it will cost billions to get there.

Finally, Californians like cars; there are 15 million cars for 40 million residents.  Even though there are an estimated 1 million electric or hybrid vehicles here, many Californians depends upon gas guzzlers to get to work (average commute time is 30 minutes.)  How many billions will it take to develop a green transportation system?

My point here is not to illustrate that it will cost Californians billions to convert to a clean green economy, but rather that Californians, and Americans in general, have no choice.  If we do nothing, the areas where we live will be rendered uninhabitable.   That’s why the “Green New Deal” is comparable to the national mobilization during World War II — after the Axis declared war on the U.S. we had no choice but to respond.  (It is was unthinkable to “do nothing” after the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

This grim reality is an opportunity of sorts.  Response to climate change will necessitate billions in infrastructure investment and, in the process, generate jobs.  Climate change will force Californians to make major changes in order to protect themselves and their children and grandchildren; it will usher in a new era of innovation that, in the long term, will heighten our productivity and strengthen the economy.

Nonetheless, the Green New Deal won’t be free.  And the longer we wait to take action on climate change, the more expensive the effort will be.