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Explainer: Why some US Democrats want a ‘Green New Deal’ to tackle climate change

Posted on 17 December 2018 by Zeke Hausfather

This is a re-post from Carbon Brief

A growing number of Democrats in the US Congress are hoping to create a new set of policies which would trigger a rapid decarbonisation of the US economy. They have labelled the plan as the “green new deal”.

The proposed policy would, say its advocates, be in-line with the speed and scale of changes that would be required to meet the Paris Agreement’s aspirational goal of limiting warming to below 1.5C by the end of the century.

While its details are still amorphous, the green new deal envisions massive-scale public investments in energy and efficiency measures, aiming to fully decarbonise the US electricity sector – and much of the rest of the economy – by the year 2030.

A number of Democrats, led by representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York’s 14th congressional district, are advocating for the creation of a “select committee for a green new deal” that would work to develop a detailed plan to decarbonise the US economy. The goal would be to have a plan of action in place by 2020, which could be quickly implemented – if Democrats take both the Senate and presidency in the 2020 elections.

The proposed goals of the green new deal reflect the vast scale of changes needed in the near future to put the US on a path to help limit global warming to below 1.5C. It is an attempt to move the Democratic platform toward ambitious climate action.

However, it is also facing pushback from more centrist members of the caucus who argue that the goals may be too ambitious and that the focus should be on potential near-term bipartisan solutions.

A long history of green new deals

The idea of a large-scale public investment in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is not new. For example, as far back as 2003 the nonprofit Apollo Alliance sought to make an alliance between environmental and labour groups for a “a new Apollo project” to undertake a $300bn, 10-year effort to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

The term “green new deal” has been used by many different groups over the years. It was promoted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman back in 2007, by the UK-based New Economics Foundation in 2008 and by, among others, the European and US Green parties.

Earlier in 2018, the US thinktank Data for Progress published a detailed policy report on what such a programme might entail, including a commitment to 100% clean electricity by 2035 and net-zero emissions from all US energy consumption by 2050.

The details differ by proposal, but the common theme is a large-scale investment of public resources for rapid decarbonisation, modelled after the emergency measures taken in the 1930s by US president Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

A “solving our climate crisis town-hall event is due to take place today in Washington DC, where the green new deal will be debated by the likes of Ocasio-Cortez, veteran environmental and author Bill McKibben and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

Pushing the Democratic party platform

The recent 2018 midterm elections in the US saw a new group of Democratic representatives elected to take office for whom climate change is a major issue. Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a rising star of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, has brought the idea of a green new deal to the fore in recent weeks, proposing the creation of a select committee of 15 representatives in the House to hammer out the details.

At the same time, the youth-driven Sunrise Movement has ramped up pressure on Democrats to commit to an ambitious climate action, staging a number of protests in support of a green new deal, including one last month joined by Ocasio-Cortez outside of minority leader Nancy Pelosi’s office.

The movement is now pressuring Democrats to support the creation of the green new deal select committee. The goal of the select committee would be to develop:

“A detailed national, industrial, economic mobilisation plan…for the transition of the US economy to become carbon neutral and to significantly drawdown and capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and oceans and to promote economic and environmental justice and equality.”

This would be developed through consultations over the next year with a range of experts, including scientists, lawmakers, labour unions and business leaders. The details of a green new deal would be finalised by 1 January 2020 when, advocates hope, a change in the composition of Congress and the presidency could allow a bill undertaking ambitious climate action to be passed by both houses and not be vetoed by the president.

Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal includes a list of goals for the plan that would, ultimately, be developed by the select committee and achieved “in no longer than 10 years from the start of execution of the plan”. The goals include:

  • 100% of national power generation from renewable sources.
  • Building a national energy-efficient “smart” grid.
  • Upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety.
  • Decarbonising manufacturing, agricultural and other industries.
  • Decarbonising, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure.
  • Funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases.
  • Making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the US, helping other countries transition to carbon-neutral economies.
  • Provide all members of society a job guarantee programme to assure a living wage job.
  • Basic income programmes and universal health care.

This initiative reflects a tacit acknowledgement that little meaningful congressional action on climate change will occur as long as Republicans control the Senate and presidency. Rather, the deal’s supporters want to set the stage for rapid action should voters elect “a Democratic administration and Congress in 2020”. It seeks to establish specific actions for rapid and expansive climate mitigation as a core part of the Democratic party platform (manifesto).

Planning a rapid transition

The goals proposed by Ocasio-Cortez reflect many of the proposals in the earlier “Data for Progress” report, though she suggests an even more expedited timeline, namely, fully decarbonising US electricity generation by 2030 rather than 2035. Ocasio-Cortez specifically calls for 100% renewable generation, while the Data for Progress report calls for 100% clean and renewable generation, which allows for the use of nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.

This is an important distinction, as roughly a fifth of current US electricity generation – and the majority of current near zero-carbon electricity – comes from nuclear power. Shutting down all of these power plants along with all fossil-fuel generation over the course of a decade would impose significant additional challenges.

A decade-long transition would also entail the early retirement of a large number of electricity generation assets well before their end of expected life. Depending on the scope of decarbonisation in the transportation sector, it might also entail the early retirement of petrol and diesel vehicles. There has been little assessment to-date of the cost of these proposals.

At the same time, however, these goals do reflect the scope and scale of the transition that would likely be required to be consistent with emissions pathways limiting warming to below 1.5C in 2100.

The figure below, from the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5C, suggests that scenarios that minimise the amount of late-century negative emissions deployment require global emission reductions of around 60% by 2030 from current levels – and, presumably, even larger emission reductions in developed, high-emitting countries, such as the US.

The figure shows CO2 emissions in four future pathways – P1 through P4 – each of which has some combination of positive emissions from fossil fuels and industry, and negative emissions from afforestation and land use (AFOLU) and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Pathways with more rapid near-term emission reductions – such as P1 and P2 – minimise the need for a massive-scale deployment of negative emissions later in the century.

Four illustrative integrated assessment model pathways to limit warming to 1.5C, with increasing reliance on negative emissions– and slower ramping up of mitigation – from left to right. Source: Figure SPM.3b in the IPCC SR15 summary for policymakers.

For the US to reduce its emissions more than 60% by 2030, it would likely require a near-complete decarbonisation of the power sector, along with additional large reductions in emissions from transportation and industry.

The figure below, produced by Carbon Brief, shows the baseline US greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of any new policies in dark blue – based on estimatespublished by the Rhodium Group. A pathway consistent with limiting temperatures to below 1.5C without a massive-scale deployment of negative emissions is shown in light blue – and involves a 60% decline in emissions by 2030, reflecting the global trajectory to 1.5C. Finally, a scenario with 100% clean electricity generation by 2030 is shown in yellow – and assumes that emissions in other sectors remain flat.

US greenhouse gas emissions – in million tonnes CO2-equivalent (MtCO2eq) for a baseline no-additional-policy scenario (dark blue), a 100% clean electricity by 2030 scenario (yellow), and a 1.5C-consistent pathway with a 60% decline in emissions by 2030 (light blue). Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

The 100% clean electricity by 2030 goal in the new green deal would only get the US about halfway to being on a below-1.5C pathway, even if the US only took on a global-average level of ambition. Large reductions would have to come from other sectors of the economy, specifically transportation and residential, commercial, and industrial energy use.

Moving away from markets

Many of the climate solutions offered by both the left and right in the US over the past decade have focused on utilising market mechanisms – such as cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes.

The green new deal proposal moves away from a primary reliance on market-based approaches, arguing that “given the magnitude of the current challenge, the tools of regulation and taxation, used in isolation, will not be enough to quickly and smoothly accomplish the transformation”.

The proposal notes that it is possible that “if we [the US] had put in place targeted regulations and progressively increasing carbon and similar taxes several decades ago, the economy could have transformed itself by now”. But, it adds, “we did not do that, and now time has run out”.

It suggests that while there is a role for a carbon price, the main thrust of the transition should be in the form of large-scale public investment.

The proposal also argues that the private sector alone would be unable to leverage the level of resources needed for such a rapid transition. It suggests that the required investment would be enormous, noting that prior calls for $1 trillion over 10 years reflect a “wholly inadequate level of investment”.

These “massive” government investments would be funded by increasing the money supply via the Federal Reserve similar to the quantitative easing programmes undertaken in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. This would be through new public banks to extend credit and through various taxation tools, such a price on carbon and progressive wealth taxes.

Role for incrementalism?

The new proposal is likely to prove controversial among the wider Democratic caucus, given its scope and price tag. It is unclear at this stage how much support the creation of the select committee will get – though, at the time of publication, 18 of the 235 Democratic representatives had announced their support.

Democrats were already planning on bringing back a different select committee focused on climate change, similar to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming which existed from 2007-2010 when Democrats lost control of the House. There is concern that having two separate select committees would be duplicative and some more centrist Democrats have expressed scepticism about the scope of the green new deal committee’s goals.

Some Democrats want to focus more on searching for bipartisan solutions that can be passed by the current Congress, rather than gambling on a hypothetical future Democratic takeover of both congress and the presidency.

Prof Dan Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and former science envoy for the US State Department, tells Carbon Brief that “Democrats need to work within the existing committee system – rather than creating a new select committee – to have any hope of passing something”.

Kammen suggests that while planning for future action is important, Democrats should not abandon the option of finding common ground with some Republicans in the Senate to pass climate policies in the near-term.

The green new deal proposal has received significant attention in the media over the past few weeks. Activist author Naomi Klein praised it in an article in the Intercept, calling it “a comprehensive and holistic plan to actually put the fire out”, rather than a piecemeal approach like past climate policies. On the other hand, the Hill criticised the potentially “exorbitant price tag”, quoting Vibrant Clean Energy’s Dr Christopher Clack that the 100% renewable mandate alone “would cost at least $2 trillion” over the decade. Meanwhile, Vox’s David Roberts stressed the importance of aspirational exercises, even if they are unlikely to be passed into law:

The proposed green new deal reflects a new focus on climate change by Democrats, advancing for the first time a set of measures that reflect the scale and speed of a mitigation response that would be consistent with a pathway limiting warming to below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. At the same time, it is still far from being a fleshed-out plan, and the proposal to create a green new deal subcommittee in the House thus far only has a handful of supporters and has a long path to go to becoming reality.

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. Ambitious but persuasive. Look at it in context. The ozone hole problem was simple, only really affected refrigeration and air conditioning and was resolved with a cap and trade scheme.

    The climate problem is complex, affects most of the economy, and requires multi layer solutions including mitigation, negative emissions and adaptation. It's very hard to see how you resolve all these issues with a singular stand alone mechanism like cap and trade or a carbon tax. Inevitably you need a top down lead government plan that combines several mechanisms.

    However without a price on carbon, measures would be ad hoc and arbitrary. and I think theres still a place for a carbon tax and dividend sort of scheme.

    In an ideal world I prefer market solutions, but its just not appropriate for the climate issue. In addition individuals wont do much until they see a concerted effort to transform the grid, and leadership from government and industry. It's human nature and individual economic rationalism.

    Funding can't really come out of taxation. The GOP have recently cut taxes and increased the deficit so the money isn't there. This has eliminated the ideal way of funding such a scheme. This has effectively been an attempt to limit governments ability to do anything, but all it really does is make it harder to fix the climate problem amongst other problems. So you are left with "quantitative easing" as was used for public works projects in the 1930's. Not ideal, but so be it.

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  2. A few non-scholarly comments regarding possible misunderstandings and potential solutions :

    Climate Change Denial
    Many people exhibit a complacent, if not an outright attitude of denial toward human-induced climate change. The following list contains many of the fundamental reasons behind this irrational behavior:
    -Ignorance of the complex science required to understand this serious, complicated issue.
    -Contradictory information disseminated by the media.
    -Misinformation distributed by politicians and scientific imposters with deep fossil fuel interests.
    -The threat is not immediate. It has been accumulating over a long period of time.
    -There exists no historical precedent with which to compare.
    -The cause is not derived from a specific, tangible enemy. Nearly all humans are collectively responsible for the problem.
    -There is a tremendous misunderstanding regarding temporal and spatial scales.
    -There is a failure of the experts to properly educate the public regarding the urgency of the problem.
    -There is little direct, noticeable impact.
    -Environmental problems are typically too disturbing and unpopular for the general public to address.
    -Why should one entity spend resources to reduce pollution when others that are contributing a far greater problem do nothing.
    -Many people have a passive attitude- expecting others to fix the problem.
    -Unclear links exist between costs to solve problems and the benefits.
    -Many elderly people do not care since they will not be around to experience the consequences.
    -There is a strong unwillingness of people in general to change their lifestyles or specifically, to sacrifice their perceived luxuries.
    -Lack of desire to participate and get involved at Local, Regional, State, National and Global levels which would provide or lead to exposure to other ideas and ways of looking at problems.

    Some potential Climate Change Solutions:
    The present state of climate conditions presents out society with complex, serious moral, social, environmental, economic and political issues unparalleled in history.
    The anthropogenically-induced climate problems are reversable if approached with wisdom in a timely fashion.
    This crisis will not be solved by 195 countries arguing over multiple issues. It can be best solved by the United States implementing important environmentally related regulations, which will ultimately force other countries to participate.
    This horrific problem has become so large, it has evolved into a tragedy of the commons in which others share or will share (future generations) in the cost, in addition to those who actually created the problem. Make no mistake, this climate change is not a liberal left or conservative right issue. It is a species survival issue. It is a species survival issue, including humans.
    If the grave finality of this crisis is to be solved, the following measures could be implemented in a timely fashion by the United States, in an effort to reduce energy consumption, improve energy efficiency, improve/expand existing clean energy sources and search for new clean energy sources, otherwise the problem will soon be irreversible and out of control for the next generation:
    -No couples should produce more than two children. Tax incentives/penalties can be used to encourage this concept. The penalties can be earmarked for R&D of clean energy.
    - The U.S. should implement a C-tax program. The solution is not simply for bigger government and increased taxes. Governmental officials, influenced by special interest groups and lobbyists, lack the knowledge or integrity for successfully managing such C-tax programs. This can be consumer driven. A large fee on fossil fuel businesses implemented at port of entry as well as domestic mines and wells would ensure that the fossil fuel businesses are paying their fair share for their cost to society. The taxes due to the increase at the pumps could then be distributed equally among all legal US residents annually. The wealthier people have a greater C-footprint and can afford the tax. The middle- and lower-class people will receive money back (which would likely exceed the taxes they paid in) which they can then spend and stimulate the economy. Likely, due to the rising cost of fuel, they would spend a substantial portion of the dividends on vehicles of increased efficiency, better insulation in homes, improved heating systems, more efficient appliances, etc. This would further drive R&D of businesses regarding improved energy as well as giving entrepreneurs incentive to invest is such endeavors while unleashing a huge faction of innovations in technology. Industries will compete far more aggressively with far improved results without “help” from the government. The differing prices of food, goods and services based on their C-footprint will cause a shift in what consumers purchase, so the market will drive a healthier and swifter result.
    Cap and trade, as some have suggested as a wise choice, would likely fail in its objective because it will enable rich businesses/nations to not reduce their emissions because they can afford otherwise. Furthermore, the cap and trade scheme cannot be implemented for all types of pollution (personal vehicles, home heating oil, etc.).
    -Huge tariffs must be placed on foreign imports for countries that do not engage in similar environmental policies as that of the United States. This will make competition fair and more importantly, create tremendous incentive for foreign countries (China, India, etc.) to reduce their C footprint as well. This will stimulate all markets/innovations, foreign and domestic.
    -Improved forestry and agricultural practices (i.e. no-till) must be encouraged.
    -Increase individual contributions; car-pooling, improved recycling/re-using, food waste reduction.
    -Support local framer’s markets and other businesses. Educate people from early age on.
    -Reduce travel, particularly air travel and reduce vehicle travel speed
    -Reduce meat consumption overall and eating larger percentage of wild game (deer, fish, turkey, etc.)
    -Sustain vehicles in good condition (tire pressure, tune-ups, filters, exhaust, etc.) and require vastly improved fuel mileage.
    -Reduce thermostat in cold months and limit air conditioning in warm months.
    -Insurance companies can influence climate-based decisions due to their cost from associated health problems (cardiac/respiratory etc.).
    -Law enforcement can influence climate-based decisions due to direct correlations between hotter temperatures and violence.
    -Implement zoning/planning regulations at local levels to encourage a smaller C-footprint; lights off at night in residences, encourage smaller houses, narrower driveways and roads, smaller lawns, reduce street lighting, lights off after business hours, etc.
    -Vote for politicians who have no fossil fuel interests and who care about issues rather than simply devoting their efforts into getting elected and then getting re-elected.
    -Get involved personally and participate at all levels. VOTE! Write senators, representatives, governors and presidents. Write articles in newspapers. Exercise consumer pressure. As Winston Churchill once suggested, if people do not have courage and participate, all of their other virtues are wasted.
    Surely many other wonderful ideas can be considered. We enjoy what we have today because of people who came before us who were wise stewards of the land. Likewise, we have an obligation to future generations. It is all about quality of life and leaving the place better than how we found it.

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    • "Making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the US, helping other countries transition to carbon-neutral economies.
    • Provide all members of society a job guarantee programme to assure a living wage job.
    • Basic income programmes and universal health care."

    This is where Democrats shoot themselves in the foot every time, and why US has such pushback. They have never put forth a workable plan and even this one can't work, because they insist on using AGW as a tool to make completely unrelated major socialist changes to the US economy.

    In many of my conversations with denialists, it always comes up ultimately. First they try to deny AGW. But at some point it becomes a socialist plot, ot a communist plot, or a Chinese plot, or a Russian plot, or Al Gore's destroy the US form of capitalism and substitute socialism.

    And there it is yet again...... universal health care and various socialist  welfare programs attached directly to AGW mitigation strategy.

    As long as the democrats continue with unworkable plans like this, the rest of the country will be fighting them tooth and nail.

    In the good side, at least they finally figured out we must sequester carbon. That oversite on previous plans made certain their plans were literally impossible to actually solve the problem. However, they still haven't figured out to stop attaching welfare programs to AGW mitigation.

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  3. Red Baron, I understand your point of view and believe me I have wondered the same about the wisdom of linking environmental and social policies. I'm a political centrist and pragmatist.

    However heres the issue that is making me reconsider. The GOP has a history of  opposing everything and anything the Democrats have suggested on climate change (and everything else) unless it involves cutting taxes and other Republican beliefs.

    The GOP opposed all Obamas climate policies with or without social programmes attached. The Democrats have ended up watering their ideas down so much to try to please the GOP they end up standing for  nothing. This was Hilarys problem. I think they have given up in frustration, and are going for everything they want adding a few things they know they may have to compromise on, hoping to get something close through the senate.

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  4. Alonerock @2, good list. Thank's for mentioning population. If we don't meet Paris goals, and we are stupid enough to still be burning fossil fuels, it will help if population stops growing and falls. Ideally I think we should aim as an immediate priority to get the fertility rate down to something like 1.5 - 2 so a bit below replacement rate. It won't make much difference by 2050, but the difference by 2100 is profound with population trending down in absolute terms. 

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  5. The other issue is things like universal health care and better minimum wages might be 'socialist' but most countries have such policies, basic human welfare is important,  and they are popular in America with the majority public according to polling. Its only the GOP that oppose them on principle and gerrymander electoral districts and get up to other tricks to push their own policies against the wishes of the majority. At some point the Democrats have to stand up to all this, or they are nothing.

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  6. >>Alonerock @2, good list. Thank's for mentioning population. If we don't meet Paris goals, and we are stupid enough to still be burning fossil fuels, it will help if population stops growing and falls. Ideally I think we should aim as an immediate priority to get the fertility rate down to something like 1.5 - 2 so a bit below replacement rate. It won't make much difference by 2050, but the difference by 2100 is profound with population trending down in absolute terms.<<


    Population control is up there with religion as being almost taboo to bring up.

    Millions of words are printed about climate change but almost never is overpopulation mentioned, yet it is arguably the most important part of the equation. We are way past the sustainability of the planet even leaving overpopulation out of the argument. Malthus may have been off by a hundred years but incremental v exponential is always going to end up in one way. And we are not starting with a virgin earth but one with a substantial proportion of its capital already gone or un-reclaimable.

    It's not only the popular press that refuses to tackle the fundamental issue: New Scientist is currently running a series on climate change with barely a word about population.

    Some say, as Jeremy Clarkson would have it, that it would take too long for population control to have any effect, but without it in some form the problem will never be solved.

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  7. Alonerock above: "There is a tremendous misunderstanding regarding temporal and spatial scales."

    That's the big one. The layman is confused when a graph is shown that has tens of thousands of years or millions on the x axis. "It's happened before." Then I say "not in 200 years at this rate." I am met with just confusion. I refer them to a book or website, and the conversation is finished.

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  8. "Some Democrats want to focus more on searching for bipartisan solutions that can be passed by the current Congress, rather than gambling on a hypothetical future Democratic takeover of both congress and the presidency."

    Exactly how would that work when the other side doesn't accept there is a problem that requires a solution? To me this is just the corporate democrats beholden to their donors in the fossil fuel industry trying to delay and avoid real action - making them just as culpable as the GOP. 

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