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The Green New Deal Is Impractical, But ‘Practical’ Solutions Haven’t Worked Either

This morning when I took a shower, the water was warmed by natural gas that had been carried through a network of pipes that crisscross the country, run through my town and come up into my house. I walked down streets that were essentially terraformed to conform to the needs of personal cars. The shoes I wore were made from petrochemicals. The breakfast I ate was transformed by the fossil fuels that helped farmers grow it, and that allowed me store it and cook it. At every step, I contributed to climate change.

Fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions are tangled into every part of our economy and our lives. If we reduce our dependence on them, we’re likely to end up changing parts of society we didn’t expect. But what does that mean for how we should try to pursue renewable solutions? Should we go big, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey did last week when they proposed a “Green New Deal” — fight a huge, complex, society-spanning problem with huge, complex, society-changing solutions? Or should we aim for something achievable and fight climate change with bipartisan, market-based strategies that have a hope in hell of actually becoming law? The Green New Deal has fostered a debate about which is better: the profound or the practical?

But that’s a false choice. As I talked to experts about the Green New Deal and its feasibility, I realized that the practical, politically feasible way of dealing with climate change hasn’t proven to be either practical or politically feasible. The question we have to deal with right now isn’t “Is the Green New Deal practical?” The question is, “What do you do about a crisis when even the practical-seeming solutions haven’t been practical?”

The Green New Deal that Ocasio-Cortez and Markey proposed last week is broad, ambitious and vague. It’s a list of goals more than an actual policy, and it calls for, among other things, funding to retrofit energy-inefficient buildings, building charging stations for electric cars, and guaranteeing health care and jobs for all Americans. Under the Green New Deal, this country would stop using fossil fuels to generate power in just 10 years — something experts think may not actually be possible. American companies would build more electric cars and American consumers would buy them. High-speed rail lines would spiderweb the country and eliminate the need for air travel. The resolution doesn’t include proposals for how to pay for any of this, it just states that we should.

The result is a piece of legislation that captures the economy-spanning scope of fossil fuels in our lives but that is also functionally impossible to achieve. Nancy Pelosi called it a dream. It has divided Democrats. The experts I spoke to framed the bill as a tool that was really good for restarting stalled conversations around how to address climate change … and not good for much else.

“I don’t think the whole market-based economy has to go down the drain,” said John Holdren, professor of environmental policy at Harvard and a former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. A proposal like the Green New Deal isn’t really necessary, he told me, because we can deal with climate change perfectly well by making simpler, less sweeping changes to our energy system. Lose the coal and oil, increase the renewable energy sources and nuclear power, and keep the country running along — business as usual. The problem may be complex, he told me, but that doesn’t mean we have to overhaul how our government and economy function. “Which is fortunate,” he said. “Because, if that were true, we’d never get there.”

I got the same basic message from political scientist Aseem Prakash and marine policy expert Nives Dolsak, both professors at the University of Washington who have written frequently about the politics of climate policy.

Dolsak and Prakash understand why someone might frame climate change as equivalent to the crisis posed by the Great Depression and why you’d use the language of the New Deal to sell solutions. “But the parallel isn’t valid,” Prakash said. “Are people really concerned about climate to the same level? They aren’t really.”

Instead, he, Dolsak and Holdren think we’re better off pursuing the same general goals, but in a less radical way. For instance, Holdren told me it would be feasible to transition to a fossil-fuel-free energy system by 2050 — in 30 years instead of 10. But fighting climate change on the slow and narrow path isn’t exactly a new idea. There’ve been efforts to build coalitions that cross political aisles and bridge ideological divides for at least two decades, said Cale Jaffe, an environmental law professor at the University of Virginia. These efforts were meant to make climate change a big-tent issue — to frame it as something that wasn’t just for the left, that offered solutions that appealed to Republicans and Democrats, environmental activists and Exxon. Policy proposals that came out of these movements were specific, detailed and practical. They didn’t demand we reshape all of American society. They imagined a world mostly like our current one, but cleaner.

And they’ve largely failed.

Take, for instance, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which formed in 2006 as a lobbying organization that spoke for a diverse group of interests big enough to include both the Natural Resources Defense Council and BP America. The partnership eventually led to the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act, a bill that would have introduced a cap-and-trade system for controlling greenhouse gas emissions and provided federal funding for research and development of renewable energy.

But that bill didn’t pass the Senate. And there’s been little forward momentum on climate legislation since then. Instead, the scope “practical” solutions has just gotten smaller and smaller. Even the more recent Climate Solutions Caucus — a bipartisan congressional group aimed at showing that people of many political stripes can agree on combating climate change — declined to criticize the Trump Administration for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. “That should have been an easy lift,” Jaffe said.

And if bipartisan, practical, detail-oriented climate solutions aren’t working, are they really practical? “I think that’s a fair observation,” Jaffe told me.

It’s been 40 years since the first National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report that identified climate change as a serious risk, and almost nothing has been done about it. Today, one of the main things the government is required to do to address climate change is issue regular reports showing the growing impact of climate-change-related floods, fires, storms and sea-level rise. Federal and state governments don’t even really keep track of how much they spend to fight climate change or have detailed goals for what the money they do spend should achieve.

So can we address climate change while keeping things mostly business-as-usual? Or must we instead make drastic changes to the economy and the government? Maybe the answer is just “yes” … as in, “Sure, whatever it takes to make sure something gets done.”

“In that sense, the Green New Deal doesn’t seem fanciful,” Jaffe said. “It seems like, well, show me the other climate legislation you’ve enacted with a different approach.”

From ABC News:

What is the Green New Deal?

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.