IT’S NOT EASY BEING GREEN

By Jim Malatras | February 16, 2019


We are facing a climate crisis. Period. Full stop. A 2014 report from the Pentagon said that climate change poses an “immediate threat” to national security and the military is not known as a progressive-leaning, tree-hugging enterprise.

But how do we solve this crisis?

One solution recently offered was House Resolution 109 or the federal Green New Deal. As a momentum-building slogan, the Green New Deal is the perfect vehicle. It’s about lifting up all communities and building an economic engine to combat the devastating effects of climate change.

While it has captured national attention, it should serve as a cautionary tale. The initial rollout of the federal Green New Deal was ham-handed with dueling fact sheets and disagreement by sponsors over what was and wasn’t in it, like nuclear power.

The federal Green New Deal calls for a 10-year “mobilization” to “to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.” In other words, the goal is the total elimination of carbon emissions in the electric power sector, transportation, buildings — everywhere— in 10 short years.

It’s an admirable goal and worthy of a directional push, but it’s not plausible.

As a result, it has received a healthy dose of skepticism from experts. More than that, some of the federal Green New Deal language hands ready-made talking points to political opponents and climate deniers. For example, the expansion of high-speed rail isn’t a bad idea. But, in the context of using it as a way to replace air travel, it is mind-bogglingly cost prohibitive and one that can’t possibly be accomplished in 10 years. In fact, the newly elected liberal Democratic governor in California just pulled the plug on high-speed rail because of cost.

In another sign that it wasn’t ready for prime time, the federal Green New Deal includes other provisions that most Americans would oppose, like using tax dollars to support people “unwilling to work.” This makes for easy political fodder for the opposition — all while the planet continues to warm.

The federal Green New Deal isn’t really a plan—it’s a Jerry Maguire-like mission statement of the ideal world. That’s fine, but some of the goals are so lofty that many could dismiss them as fantasy. There are no incentives or funding behind the program. It’s not a mandate; it’s a non-binding ambition. But even the mission statement has problems. In the end, it may do more harm than good for the cause of combating climate change if not backed up — and soon — by a real plan.

But we need to take action. And given the president’s climate denial and his complete capitulation to gas industry interests resulting in the rolling back of many important federal environmental protections, it’s up to the states to act. And many are.

In New York, there are several proposals pending before the state legislature, including a bill called the Climate and Community Protection Act. There are many important provisions in the bill, but unlike the “goal” of eliminating carbon emissions in the federal Green New Deal, the Climate and Community Protection Act legally requires the elimination of all greenhouse gas emission in the entire state in 30 years. Unlike the federal Green New Deal, this specific provision suffers the opposite problem: it’s a legal requirement that would create a sea change in every facet of daily life.

Thirty years to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions will dramatically alter air travel — and impact the billions of dollars in investment we’re making at our airports, how we heat our homes, types of vehicles we drive, agriculture, emergency services, and various other ways of life. In the abstract it sounds fine, but it runs into what I call “people-people” problems. You can’t shock the body politic without a developed program or people sympathetic to your cause will turn against you.

For instance, this past November the voters in the state of Washington overwhelmingly rejected a fee on carbon. Banning all emissions outright has greater consequences that have to be thought through. How you get the public there is an important part of it. You see the consequences playing out here in New York. The recent natural gas issues in Westchester County have both Democrats and Republicans calling for more natural gas capacity — including some of the very same legislators that voted for a bill that calls for its elimination.

We must aggressively combat climate change. Now it’s a matter of how. For decades, New York has been forward-thinking about climate change from both Republican and Democratic administrations. Governor George Pataki, a Republican, helped create the multistate Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a program that has successfully lowered carbon emissions in the Northeast and invested in growing the green energy economy. When I was in Governor Cuomo’s Administration, we implemented a comprehensive regulatory plus market incentives program with a clean energy mandate in the electricity generation sector (including the elimination of coal); used our institutions of higher education to spur green tech R&D; invested billions in solar deployment, electric vehicle infrastructure, and offshore wind; significantly expanded home energy efficiency programs; and provided millions in green energy job training so all New Yorkers could benefit from the state’s green investments.

We need the same bold but balanced approach going forward. Governor Cuomo’s proposed state Green New Deal includes aggressive mandates to get to 100 percent clean electricity by 2040 using existing sources of clean power, like nuclear energy as a bridge and expanding renewables such as wind, solar, and hydro power. That’s more aggressive than California.

The biggest challenge is how to eliminate our carbon footprint in other areas, like transportation, agriculture, and homes. Here we need to balance our goal to combat climate change with the types of services people want and use as well as the timeframe to accomplish it. The best thing we can do is invest in green technology, and that’s what New York has been doing. It’s creating jobs and building next-generation industries here in New York. Otherwise, we give climate-deniers potent talking points to run with and help slow the momentum to build the carbon-free economy.

We need to have a sound, thoughtful, and rational debate, but we need the political environment to have it. Climate change has become more a political litmus test for both the political Left and Right. Policy debate has been replaced by polarization. What’s driving the debate is ideological purity over sound policy— you are with us or against us mentality—on both the sides of the political spectrum.

It’s theater of the absurd. On one hand President Trump takes great pleasure firing off a tweet denying the deleterious effects of climate change every time there is a cold front or snowstorm—intentionally (or unintentionally) misleading people about the differences between weather and climate. But, climate deniers like the President aren’t the only ones to blame.

Some climate advocates refuse to admit that there are real life problems when transitioning to zero carbon, like strains on home heating with natural gas, claiming without evidence of corporate conspiracies as opposed recognizing a bona fide issue. If you mention any fossil fuel, you aren’t a true environmentalist. You’ll be nuked for saying nuclear. There’s no room for discourse.

We’ve got to move beyond climate change as an ideological purity test and tackle it with real solutions and a workable strategy that doesn’t tip over the entire effort. The ultimate goal should be to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. It’s the how and when. The problem is that the current race is to the unrealistic. I don’t question the goals and intent, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

 

 

Jim Malatras is the president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government and an adjunct professor in political science at the University at Albany. He is the former director of state operations to Governor Andrew Cuomo and was the administration’s point person on education policy as well as the state’s property tax cap.