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The Green New Deal debate is in part about the absence of details

Posted on 27 March 2019 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Bud Ward

The ambitious, and some would say wholly unrealistic and impractical, Green New Deal (GND) pending as a non-binding “sense of the Senate” resolution deserves credit for having raised the visibility of the clearly urgent climate change issue, not only across Washington, D.C., but across the U.S. overall.

That’s an important and critically valuable first step, given that the issue has been all but deep-sixed by the abject undercutting of it by the Trump administration.


So much has climate change moved toward, if not actually on to, the center stage that some savants can realistically foresee its becoming a full-fledged “issue” in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. That would be in stark contrast to the 2016 presidential campaign, during which climate change went virtually ignored throughout the primary season and the general election.

An issue, yes. But perhaps also a wedge issue, with the GND and its amateurish flawed introduction having set the table and given the President and those steadfastly rejecting climate science a ready target for their trumped-up ire … a gift of “irresistible talking points,” as a New York Times September 24 editorial called it.

Beyond bestowing on the climate change issue the air of seriousness and urgency that scientists clearly warn it demands, GND and the pro- and con-brouhaha surrounding it provide a real service in putting forth what one of its original cosponsors described as, in effect, an RFP … a request for proposals.

Those many widely and wildly rejecting the climate change elements of the GND – keep in mind, the resolution as written ventures also into critical issues well beyond climate change – track pretty closely with those who for too long refused to acknowledge the overwhelming body of scientific evidence on the climate. That’s a familiar pattern: First challenge the evidence and then, when that approach becomes unsustainable, challenge the proposed cures. Funny how that happens.

There may too be other ways in which the history on these kinds of issues appears bound to repeat itself. The last time a “sense of the Senate” climate resolution was considered on the floor was in 1997. Who can forget the “Byrd-Hagel” resolution, passed 95-0 in rejecting the then-administration’s efforts to move forward on the Kyoto Protocol? Or, more importantly, forget the lessons to be drawn from that experience?

Led by the then-senators from West Virginia and Nebraska, that effort expressed the Senate’s opposition to proceeding with binding greenhouse gas emissions initiatives for developed countries (read U.S.) unless developing countries (read China, Russia, India) did the same. It became an albatross, a lead weight, for years to come, hobbling three administrations in their efforts to take action, and becoming a weapon of choice for those wanting to douse any climate change anxieties.

Columbia University adjunct law visiting scholar Susan Biniaz, of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, wrote in January that “By its terms, the Byrd-Hagel Resolution applied not only to the Kyoto Protocol but also to any subsequent climate agreement.” It helps to keep in mind that such historical comparisons are seldom perfect fits. It’s fair to acknowledge that there are both similarities and dissimilarities between the then of Byrd-Hagel and the now of Markey-Ocasio Cortez, the lead Senate and House sponsors.

But think about it. That “nonbinding” single-chamber congressional vote more than two decades ago is unlikely to have slipped from the memory of, let’s say, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), whose coal-focused steadfast opposition to advancing climate actions is part of his DNA. One can fairly wonder if and to what extent the newer and younger breed of senators and representatives also carry the torch, or the scars, left by that Byrd-Hagel vote.

In addressing a wide and critically important range of social and economic issues – higher education for all Americans, pay inequities, job guarantees, secure retirements, housing – the sweeping GND (remember it’s only an RFP) likely is written to enlist some supporters whose motivations aren’t primarily the sustainability of a livable planet. And it may do so. At the same time, of course, it runs the risk of weighing down a proposal for which a plan for attacking global warming might have proved a sufficient burden on its own.

There are of course, and as always, devil’s theories that might apply. Perhaps the canny McConnell, in proposing a full Senate floor vote, is laying a trap, one he hopes will drive a wedge not only among some 2020 congressional candidates defending, or seeking, seats in “red” or pro-coal states, but also among the would-be Democratic presidential candidates. There are early signs that one or both may be happening.

Perhaps the initial apparent coolness to the GND resolution by the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca) and leading Senate office holders – think Dianne Feinstein (also D-Ca) – are such indicators. And add to that the apparent early hesitancy from would-be leading Democratic presidential candidates Amy Klobuchar (D-Mn) and as-yet unannounced Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

In its lengthy February 24 editorial somewhat reservedly, somewhat fully, endorsing the Green New Deal, The New York Times chose as a headline “What’s Green? What’s New? What’s the Deal?” That seemed pretty much on-target, echoing the thoughts of many who want, deeply want, some “solution” to the challenging risks that climate change presents. The Times’s sub-headline under that headline: “A dream? Maybe. But it’s better than the climate nightmare we’re living.”

True. No argument there. But is that really where the bar should be set? Isn’t it just too low? What if the ambitious, and some will say unreachable, goals set in the GND inadvertently end up harming prospects for progress in futile pursuit of what some may see as perfection? Possible? Yes.

But once more, look back to history for context. What if John F. Kennedy in that inaugural address had thrown out the challenge to get half-way to the Moon? That’s likely what we would have accomplished, rather than the full-blown societal mobilization, as experts say the climate challenge now demands.

It’s crazy. It’s complex. It’s so far at this point from being an actual legislative proposal, let alone a bill or a law, that GND may best be judged a success if it succeeds only by the measure of a simple formula: GND = RFP. All good ideas welcome, and those rejecting the GND as a whole or its individual climate-related components, must be asked to answer: If not this, then what?

It’s their turn now.

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Comments 1 to 3:

  1. Pushing for the separate/isolated pursuit of climate action is unlikely to be effective. It's promotion needs to be paired with related corrective actions. And the ultimate result will be a significant correction of the developed socioeconomic-political systems (and related corrections of perceptions of status, prosperity and opportunity).

    In Canada, climate action has been pursued as a stand-alone issue. The Federal proposed action is Carbon Fee and Rebate. It is imposed on any Province that has not implemented a comparably effective action. And the playbook of those trying to win power by resisting the 'actions that can be understood to help correct what has incorrectly become popular and profitable' is on display. They oppose the climate action by making-up poor excuses that actually are popular.

    The successful misleading marketing attacks on Carbon Fee and Rebate in Canada (and in each Province) include claims that the actions to reduce the burning of fossil fuels are:

    • Job-killing (in spite of the larger amount of job-creation)
    • Harming the Poor (even though the rebate more than covers the fees for a poorer person)
    • Reducing public funding for health care and education (a claim successfully made by a party that openly declares they will reduce tax collection from the richest, their fans do not see the inconsistency. They also do not get challenged on what future generations will have to do when the non-renewable resource can no longer be benefited from).
    • Not going to change anything (that gem poor excuse that people who want to believe it can claim cannot be dis-proven to their satisfaction)
    • Pointless. Others are required to behave better (like the 1997 “Byrd-Hagel” resolution that demands that the largest contributors to the current problem, and biggest beneficiaries of the harmful unsustainable development, are not to be required to 'do anything' unless all others who are trying to improve their circumstances 'have to behave better than the already harmfully over-developed in the incorrect direction did'.

    Those claims can be made-up to attack any effective climate action policy proposal. Having those easy criticisms addressed up-front in the Green New Deal should not be criticized by proponents of climate action. That is complaining about the unpopularity of having climate action associated with the issues that it will be associated with by the misleading critics of climate action.

    Many people who may be inclined to support climate action, including elected representatives, will unfortunately allow the popularity of those misleading marketing efforts to lead them to support the political tribe that is actually resisting the correction. They will allow poor excuses to motivate them to vote United in support of each other's understandably harmful developed beliefs and activities (you cannot remain part of the group if you vote against part of the group).

    Recent news is the pronouncement by VP Pence that NASA must put people on the Moon within 5 years. That will likely mean a refocusing of NASA funding, likely away from anything climate related. But it also highlights the 'pursuit of perception of status problem' that is fatally affecting thoughts and actions in the USA. The mission to the moon 'will be popular' because it will unjustifiably, yet undeniably, boost perceptions of status of many people in the USA who desire perceptions/impressions of superior status relative to Others.

    Improving awareness and understanding and application of that improving knowledge to develop sustainable improvements for the future of humanity 'on this planet which is the only place we are certain that humanity can have a future on' (pursuit of local helpful actions that are not harmful to Others, especially not harmful to future generations), must govern the thoughts and actions of everyone, especially leaders. Leaders should not be pushing for the harmful or distracting development of unjustified perceptions of superiority relative to Others.

    The best summary of what is helpful that has been developed to date is the Sustainable Development Goals (along with a few other related helpful UN developed understandings like the requirement for nuclear disarmament).

    Achieving and improving on all of the Sustainable Development Goals (and the other helpful UN developed understandings), is undeniably required to govern the thoughts and actions of everyone, especially leaders. And based on that understanding, the USA landing astronauts on the Moon cannot be a priority over climate action and the other Sustainable Development Goals (sending people to Mars, which is a very challenging and interesting pursuit, is also not a current day urgent priority). And those types of pursuits should not re-direct funding away from climate science related activity by NASA/NOAA.

    A developed lack of interest in that improving awareness and understanding, and the development of resistance to it, is a fundamental part of the incorrect development that has occurred in the USA. And it also can be seen to be happening in many other supposedly more-advanced developed nations. And it is the root of the following statement in the OP:

    "In addressing a wide and critically important range of social and economic issues – higher education for all Americans, pay inequities, job guarantees, secure retirements, housing – the sweeping GND (remember it’s only an RFP) likely is written to enlist some supporters whose motivations aren’t primarily the sustainability of a livable planet."

    The fundamental problem is the promotion of the following unhelpful characteristics in people: One-ism, Me-ism, My Tribe-ism, anti-All Others-ism.

    People who grow up heavily immersed in the competition for perceptions of status relative to Others in 'environments flooded with misleading marketing promoting beliefs and actions that are understandably harmful to Others and are able to be gotten away with' can be expected to over-develop harmful unhelpful Self-Interest.

    An attempt to pursue something like climate action in isolation from the other understood goals to be achieved for development to be sustainable is unlikely to be successful. The SDGs are what is required for humanity to have a sustainable future. Climate Action is a key Goal, but it is harmful to pursue it to the detriment of achieving the other required corrections. The implementation of a Carbon Tax in France without related measures to correct developed inequities in France produced a damaging result.

    The real problem is a serious developed flaw in the system of competition for popularity and profit that has naturally developed. The current day developed reality clearly indicates that without addressing that serious developed flaw, the resistance to correction will further delay effective correction of the harmful unsustainable things that have developed. Those opposed to climate action are indeed partnering with anyone else who is opposed to any other understandably required correction of what has developed in the USA in order to develop sustainable improvements within the USA. But that is not a Good Reason to fracture the collective of people pursuing the diversity of corrections required to achieve the SDGs.

    Developing a sustainable solution to the developed problem requires open and frequent public admission of what the real problem is, especially by all leaders and wanna-be-leaders. The 1997 “Byrd-Hagel” resolution is a clear example of the results of harmful over-developed "Self-Interest". And its unanimous support is evidence of how incorrectly over-developed in a harmful direction the the leadership of the USA was in 1997. It seems clear that that problem is not being effectively addressed in the USA. In fact, the evidence indicates that misleading marketing appeals to resist admitting and addressing the real problem have developed even further in the USA.

    What is required is the correction of governance to ensure improving awareness and understanding is valued and that only helpful actions are rewarded (and harmful actions, including misleading political marketing, are penalized). Every person needs to be held accountable to be helpful rather than harmful, to improve awareness and understanding and the application of that improved knowledge to develop sustainable improvements locally that do no harm to any Others. And leaders need to be seen to be setting the highest examples rather than pandering to a united diversity of harmful self-interest motivated popularity and profitability promoted by misleading marketing as was clearly done in 1997 and continues to be done today.

    The cycle of development of harmful attitudes and actions and the development of resistance to correction of those developed popular and profitable things needs to be broken. Pursuing 'All of the Sustainable Development Goals', including the pursuit of improvement of those goals, is clearly what is required.

    The Green New Deal is a step in the right direction for new development, and for the correct correction of what has developed. A One-ism driven focus on climate action that dismisses the importance of the other required corrections is not helpful. Climate action is unlikely to be sustainably supported without all of the other sustainable development goals being connected to it.

    There is a fundamental resistance to admission of what the real problem is because it is understood that the required corrections will likely result in a reduction of developed perception of status for many people. The resistance to any action that would 'negatively affect developed perceptions of superiority, prosperity and opportunity no matter how unacceptably and ultimately unsustainably those perceptions were developed' continues to be loudly, proudly, harmfully successful. That is what needs to be changed/corrected, because the future of humanity cannot benefit from (is actually harmed by), people who are able to continue 'living and winning like that'.

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  2. The GND has certainly gained some attention and caused a stir. This suggests it might be broadly on the right track, or is at least it is forcing people to confront the issues. It's a shame the article had to start on such a negative note about it.

    There's been much discussion about whether the GND should have included socioeconomic policies, and my initial impression was it was unhelpful to include those. However on second thoughts I'm changing my mind. Perhaps it's not of huge concern whether they are in or out of the GND. They will be attacked by some quarters whether they are in or out of the GND. The democrats stand for various things environmentally and socially, and should obviously promote them.

    What is likely to be more important is to consider 1) do the GND policies make sense? and 2) are they likely to get enough public support and 3) Are they likely to get enough support from elected politicians? Because we obviouslly all want polices that are good legislation, and work to solve problems, and which are sustainable, and the policies also have to get enough votes or they are pointless.

    A couple of things stand out. The environmental provisions in the GND make sense on the whole and so do the social provisions. None of the social provisions are particularly revolutionary. The fact that some in America think anything that is even remotely like universal healthcare or  publicly provided is bad is beyond my comprehension. The rest of the developed world has grasped the need to have the sorts of socio economic provisions in the GND. Watering such policies down to nothing is pointless.

    Polling shows the majority of the public in America broadly want more done about climate change, and support the social goals in the GND. Although some tweaking of the provisions is probably required.

    The GND plan is for a government infrastructure spend based on deficit financing or creation of additional credit or some such. I think carbon fee and dividend is preferable technically, however a government infrastructure spend might actually be more attractive to the public and politicians for obvious reasons, because people just don't love taxes. The GOP have no problem with deficit financing when it suits. But if there was no carbon tax, the GND would lack an obvious price on carbon so this is a problem.

    The sticking point is probably politicians rather than the public. Politicians are generally well intended, I don't think criticism of them is always that helpful, but it's a fact they sometimes become captured by various ideologies, lobby groups, marketing and so on. We all are at times. A lot is dependent on politicans (and everyone else) finding some courage and doing what is right (and helpful to others) rather than being overly influenced by such groups. 

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  3. Suggested supplemental readings:

    How the Green New Deal Is Forcing Politicians to Finally Address Climate Change by Justin Worland, Time Magazine, Mar 21, 2019

    Mitch McConnell wants a Green New Deal vote. Democrats should take him up on it. by David Roberts, Energy & Environment, Vox, Mar 25, 2019

    Senate's Green New Deal Vote: 4 Things You Need to Know by Marianne Lavelle, InsideClimate News, Mar 26, 2019

    Senate defeats Green New Deal, as Democrats call vote a ‘sham’ by Dino Grandoni & Felicia Sonmez, PowerPost, Washington Post, Mar 26, 2019

    The Green New Deal vote shows Republicans would rather mock climate change than challenge big lobbying groups, Opinion by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse & Rep. Jared Huffman, Think, NBC News, Mar 26, 2019

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