The U.S. Could Use a Green New Deal
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- America needs a Green New Deal. That’s easy to say. Spelling out what it means, or ought to mean, is harder.
Democrats leading this campaign intend the allusion to the first New Deal — FDR’s multi-front assault on the Great Depression — to convey urgency, ambition, commitment to social justice, and breadth of policy, except this time with the need to address climate change as an organizing principle. All of that is admirable and inspiring, and most Americans seem to get it: Polls say they like the idea. The question is how to make such a program work.
In fact, one can imagine a Green New Deal that would modernize energy networks, boost growth, create good jobs, reduce inequality, and improve the quality of life while letting the U.S. do its part to restrain global warming. But this enticing prospect will demand pragmatism as well as ambition.
It’s worth recalling that FDR was a pragmatist through and through. He began his New Deal with nothing but a determination to “wage a war against the emergency.” He also believed in experiments: Try it and see. His program changed shape with time, and putting all the elements in place — work relief, new banking regulations, worker protections, unemployment insurance and guaranteed pensions — took years.
A Green New Deal could and should evolve in the same way. It doesn’t need to be planned to the last detail at the outset. But to assure its success in the long run, it should start off with realistic cost projections, achievable goals, and a plan for how to afford them.
Cutting emissions enough to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the frontier of climate disaster, will require significant improvements in the ways Americans generate and consume heat and electricity, commute and travel, accumulate and dispose of garbage, and use the land. A well-managed Green New Deal will carefully measure the emissions savings from many different endeavors — to produce bigger and better batteries, for instance, or build more sophisticated electric grids, close coal- and natural-gas-burning power plants, expand car-charging networks, construct more efficient buildings, and sequester carbon dioxide in forests and grasslands.
Experience shows that green efforts like these create lots of new jobs. It will be essential to track how many, what kinds, how much they pay and who gets them — in order to make sure they are available for those who most need them. This effort will surely call for programs to retrain workers now employed in fossil-fuel industries. Transforming U.S. energy systems will mean big changes in energy jobs.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman from New York who has prominently championed a Green New Deal, says the program should include a national job-guarantee scheme. That’s a good example of overreaching ambition. It’s unnecessary, and puts the larger idea under needless fiscal and political strain.
Costs will need to be realistically considered. If the effort is as comprehensive as it should be, they will be high. But they should be weighed against the rising costs of storm damage, forest fires, heat waves, drought, sea-level rise and other effects of unmitigated climate change.
The greatest challenge for advocates of a Green New Deal is to persuade voters that an unprecedented national effort is both necessary and affordable. The right kind of program can be both. Americans increasingly see climate mitigation as a patriotic duty, as they should. Done well, a Green New Deal, like the one that inspired it, can bring them together and help their country succeed.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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