It was a good idea that didn’t catch on in 2007. Now we’re running out of time.
A technician monitoring turbines at a wind farm in Glenrock, Wy.Damon Winter/The New York Times
Back in 2007, I wrote a column calling for a “Green New Deal,” and I later expanded on the idea in a book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded.” Barack Obama picked up the theme and made a Green New Deal part of his 2008 platform, but the idea just never took off. So I’m excited that the new Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others have put forward their own takes on a Green New Deal, and it’s now getting some real attention.
There is no agreed-upon policy road map for a Green New Deal. But as one of the leading climate bloggers, Joe Romm, recently pointed out, “Since the midterms, dozens of U.S. representatives and at least four Democratic senators have pledged support to create a Select Committee to create legislation for a Green New Deal. The goal is a ‘detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan’ to rapidly transition the country away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy, such as a solar, wind, and electric cars.”
The Green New Deal that Ocasio-Cortez has laid out aspires to power the U.S. economy with 100 percent renewable energy within 12 years and calls for “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one,” “basic income programs” and “universal health care,” financed, at least in part, by higher taxes on the wealthy. Critics argue that this is technically unfeasible and that combining it with democratic socialist proposals will drive off conservatives needed to pass it.
Myself, I like the urgency and energy she and groups like the Sunrise Movement are bringing to this task. So for now I say: Let a hundred Green New Deal ideas bloom! Let’s see what sticks and what falls by the wayside.
My own definition of a Green New Deal, which has evolved since 2007 as the technology has gotten better and the climate problem has gotten worse, remains focused on how a green revolution in America can drive innovation, spur new industries and enhance our security. Originally I also thought it could help us get our groove back after the 2007-8 recession. Success required changes in attitude, scale and innovation.
Clean energy is a problem of scale. If you don’t have scale, you have a hobby. I like hobbies. I used to build model airplanes. But you can’t mitigate climate change as a hobby. The reason I called for a Green New Deal was first and foremost to convey that this undertaking required a massive, urgent response commensurate with the scale and time frame posed by accelerating disruptive climate.
For too long “green” was viewed as a synonym for a project that was boutique, uneconomical, liberal, sissy and vaguely French. I wanted to recast green as geostrategic, capitalistic, economical, innovative and patriotic. My motto was, “Green is the new red, white and blue.” I did not believe in being a “nice” green. I believed in being a mean green. I believed greens should be as brassy, bold, big sky and in-your-face as any oil and gas executive.
I liked the way environmental writer David Roberts put it in 2008: “Like so much of the American left, the environmental movement has become acclimated to the notion that it is operating outside the mainstream, knocking sheepishly on the door. Its rallying cry might as well be, ‘If it’s not too much trouble. …’” Forget that, Roberts argued, it is time for the green movement to think big and make big demands — something oil and gas executives do every day.
To achieve scale, though, my view was that a Green New Deal had to be embraced by more than liberals. You had to reach conservatives and even climate deniers. My way of doing that was to focus on something we can all agree on: math. There are about 7.6 billion people on the planet today and, according to the United Nations, there will be 8.6 billion in 2030. A billion more people driving, flying, eating protein, building homes and drinking water in just over a decade.
If they all adopt the per-capita consumption habits of today’s Americans, we’re going to burn up, heat up, eat up, plow up, choke up and smoke up the planet, whether the climate changes or not. That means that clean power, clean cars, clean manufacturing, clean water and energy efficiency have to be the next great global industries — otherwise, we humans are going to be a bad biological experiment, whether the climate changes or not.
Who believes that America can remain a great country and not lead the next great global industry? Not me. A Green New Deal, in other words, is a strategy for American national security, national resilience, natural security and economic leadership in the 21st century. Surely some conservatives can support that.
And to make sure that they have an incentive to, I would also guarantee that a portion of every dollar raised by a carbon tax in a Green New Deal would be invested in two new community college and high-speed broadband in rural areas of every state. Each state could decide where. Every American needs to feel a chance to gain from a Green New Deal.
But which Green New Deal? Mine is focused on innovation. I believe there is only one thing as big as Mother Nature, and that is Father Greed — a.k.a., the market. I am a green capitalist. I think we will only get the scale we need by shaping the market. If I were drafting a Green New Deal platform today, it would put in place steadily rising mileage, manufacturing and emissions standards; stronger building codes; and carbon market prices that would say to our industries and innovators: Here are the goals, here is the level of clean power or efficiency that you have to hit every year — and may the best company win.
As I wrote in my 2007 column: “To spark a Green New Deal today requires getting two things right: government regulations and prices. Look at California. By setting steadily higher standards for the energy efficiency of buildings and appliances — and creating incentives for utilities to work with consumers to use less power — California has held its per-capita electricity use constant for 30 years, while the rest of the nation has seen per-capita electricity use increase by nearly 50 percent, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That has saved California from building 24 giant power plants.”
To keep it simple, my goals would be what energy innovator Hal Harvey has dubbed “the four zeros.” 1. Zero-net energy buildings: buildings that can produce as much energy as they consume. 2. Zero-waste manufacturing: stimulating manufacturers to design and build products that use fewer raw materials and that are easily disassembled and recycled. 3. A zero-carbon grid: If we can combine renewable power generation at a utility scale with some consumers putting up their own solar panels and windmills that are integrated with the grid, and with large-scale storage batteries, we really could, one day, electrify everything carbon-free. 4. Zero-emissions transportation: a result of combining electric vehicles and electric public transportation with a zero-carbon grid.
That’s my Green New Deal circa 2019. It basically says: Forget the Space Race. We don’t need a man, or woman, on Mars. We need an Earth Race — a free-market competition to ensure that mankind can continue to thrive on Earth. A Green New Deal is the strategy for that. It can make America healthier, wealthier, more innovative, more energy secure, more respected — and weaken petro-dictators across the globe.
I am eager to see what other people propose, but we don’t have another decade to waste. This may well be our last chance to build the technologies we need at the scale of the challenge we face in the time we still have to — as scientists say — manage the unavoidable aspects of climate change and avoid the unmanageable ones.
As the environmentalist Dana Meadows once put it, “We have exactly enough time — starting now.”
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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman • Facebook