Guest column Jon McCabe: Green New Deal’s aspirational spirit kick-starts much-needed discussion

  • Sen. Edward Markey, D- Mass., speaks at a rally for Green New Deal outside the Capitol in Washington. AP photo

  • The cooling towers of the still under construction Plant Vogtle nuclear energy facility in Waynesboro, Ga. MICHAEL HOLAHAN

  • A young girl attends a protest rally of the 'Friday For Future Movement' in Berlin, Germany, Friday, March 29, 2019. Thousands of students are gathering in the German capital, skipping school to take part in a rally demanding action against climate change. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP) Kay Nietfeld

Published: 4/9/2019 9:31:03 PM

Richard Fein’s March 25 Gazette column critiquing the nascent Green New Deal proposal being floated in Congress found me initially agreeing with him that the vast scope and projected cost of effort is problematic.

However, as the parent of a young child who will certainly face the dire consequence of our inaction on climate change, I found most of Fein’s comments disturbingly supportive of an unsustainable status quo. As a longtime policy professional, I share Fein’s skepticism regarding the practicality of grand-scale or totalistic policy prescriptions.

Unlike Fein, I am willing to entertain the aspirational spirit of many GND principles as starting points for much-needed discussion about real and necessary responses to the existential crisis of our time. Our children and grandchildren deserve better than a warmed-over list of arguments for continued inaction.

Let’s examine Fein’s arguments in order:

1. To what degree is the U.S. culpable for causing climate change? To answer this, Fein seizes upon a 2015 study showing that China has surpassed the U.S. in carbon emissions. Why start with 2015? For more than a century, the U.S. has contributed mightily to the carbon pollution that now threatens the planet. Why would we not take the lead in addressing the problem?

2. The GND goal of 100 percent renewable power may not be fully realizable in a 10-year timeframe, but why would we consider this a “flaw,” as Fein does. The GND timeframe may be aspirational, but don’t we need to move as quickly as possible to much greater reliance on renewable energy?

3. Fein points to the objections of some local governments and citizen groups to current green energy proposals as a reason for avoiding new large-scale renewable projects. Local input and consideration of project environmental impacts are absolutely important, but why would we give voices of obstruction the most consideration?

4. Fein asks where GND stands on nuclear power (now 20 percent of U.S. electricity). Don’t we need to shift ASAP from fossil and nuclear toward green energy technologies? Nuclear is carbon emission clean, but remains profoundly unsafe. Why point to nuclear power as a favorable choice versus green energy?

5. Fein raises the specter of too much government control in the transition toward a 100 percent renewable energy goal. Why would we not expect government to play a major role in promoting green energy research and development, manufacture, power generation and transportation infrastructure?

The old conservative saw about free markets and the problem of “picking winners” rings rather hollow at a time when Republicans have clearly chosen gas, oil and coal as “winners” no matter their threat to our future.

6. I wonder, with Fein, why the GND includes language on health care, housing and economic security, but it seems to me that language regarding “clean water, clean air, healthy affordable food and access to nature” could not be greener or more sensible.

7. Fein takes issue with GND language requiring that local implementation of green initiatives include “democratic participatory process(es)” inclusive of “vulnerable frontline communities and workers.” Fein asks, “Aren’t leaders elected from the population at large, not chosen from select identity groups?”

First, to suggest that “elected leaders” will plan, implement and administer large-scale GND initiatives at the local level on their own is an absurdly impoverished notion of how public policy works in a democracy.

Second, why does Fein think GND language about “frontline communities and workers” equates to identity politics? Wouldn’t frontline communities include all those in areas prone to flooding or repeated storm damage, for example? Wouldn’t frontline workers be those seeking to transition to greener practices if not green jobs altogether?

8. Fein seizes upon concerns of organized labor regarding GND workforce changes. Of course labor organizations will value short-term interests in current jobs even if they perpetuate unsustainable fossil fuel use.

Shouldn’t government work with organized labor to help make the broad-based shift to green jobs? Why does Fein give the last word to defenders of an unsustainable status quo?

9. And last, of course, Fein is right that a realistic approach to GND principles must be cost-effective and practical. But this crisis requires immediate action, not more of the usual deflective arguments.

Green energy conversion is a matter of survival. Of course, government action will be required. The private sector alone has proved unresponsive. In the long run, if we want to protect both good jobs and our kids, something like the GND will be necessary.

Richard, change is coming, please get on board.

Jon McCabe lives in Amherst.

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