Opinion

As one of the few democratic socialist members of Congress, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) has wasted no time in applying a unique approach to two prescient issues: the plight of the American middle class and the threat posed by climate change in what she has dubbed a “Green New Deal” — a clear and clever evocation of progressive icon and former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The “green” portion of the Green New Deal is an aggressive and necessary step against the extant climate threat. Unfortunately, these goals are bound to economic reforms that are both prohibitively expensive and economically disastrous, a coupling that threatens both the Green New Deal’s passage and the planet as a whole.

The world is at an environmental turning point. Rising global temperatures are causing destructive changes in all corners of the globe. Warming oceans are making hurricanes more destructive and common while rising sea levels threaten millions of people in coastal cities.

Simultaneously, droughts and heat waves are becoming longer and more intense in hot and arid areas, while flooding and rainfall has worsened in wetter, cooler areas. It has long been the consensus of the scientific community that these changes are man-made, driven by a greenhouse effect from human carbon emissions.

Members of Congress are certainly going to tweak and modify the specific policy details of the Green New Deal as it moves through the legislative process, but the preliminaryoutlay seems to target the most prominent sources of American carbon emissions effectively, even if the specific policy details are sparse.

The Green New Deal gives renewable energy sources priority, with an ambitious goal to meet “100% of U.S. power demand” through zero-emission sources. Thankfully, costs are declining rapidly, with a megawatt of solar power in 2018 costing less than half a megawatt of coal-generated power, but change isn’t coming as fast as it could be. Public subsidy and further research on renewables could certainly accelerate the transition away from dirty energy sources.

The Green New Deal targets other sources of emissions as well, particularly in agriculture. Industrial agriculture accounts for 14.5%  of all greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle farming, which accounts for 41% of agricultural emissions, is the worst offender, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Not only do cows emit methane from their digestive tracts, but the large swaths of land that farmers clear to house and feed them destroys plants and trees that can filter carbon from the atmosphere naturally.

There are plenty of other goals within the Green New Deal, such as transportation and energy efficiency. They all have merit but unfortunately lack policy specifics, but do show a comprehensive understanding of climate issues. Unfortunately, the misguided economics that follow tragically undercut the rest of the deal.

One of the more notable economic proposals is a federal job guarantee. The specifics aren’t clear here, but it isn’t the first time such a program has been suggested. New Jersey Senator and presidential hopeful Cory Booker (D) has developed and introduced a federal pilot program that would grant, to anyone who needs one, a full-time job with a prevailing wage and full benefits in certain municipalities.

It’s unclear what the specifics of the Green New Deal equivalent would be, but there is a body of economic research on the topic. According to a University of California San Diego study, Ocasio-Cortez is correct that such a program would increase wages and employment, but 90% of those gains would come from the wage increases that accompany the jobs in the program, not the guarantee of a job itself, and it would come with an enormous price tag.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that such a nationwide guarantee could cost as much as $543 billion a year, rivaling even Medicare in scale. The same effects could be mimicked through minimum wage increases and better labor protections without passing on the cost to the taxpayer.

The public ownership provisions in the Green New Deal outlay are also its strangest and possibly its most dangerous. They seem logical at face value: The deal would ensure that the public would receive “appropriate ownership stakes” in companies that are contracted to perform work dictated by the Green New Deal, or that receive taxpayer dollars for research.

The provisions would ensure that all Americans receive a return on their tax dollar’s investment, but the vagaries of the details open it to broad criticisms from the right that supporters can’t directly dispute. It won’t be long before a Republican brings up the economic crisis in Venezuela, which the failures of state-owned enterprises in part caused, to scare people away from the Green New Deal as a whole.

The Green New Deal’s ambition cannot be overstated. Were it to pass, it would be one of the most impressive, varied and expensive programs in American history. Bigger is not always better. In this case, Democrats’ aspirations might be their folly, taking the future of the earth with them.

 

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