The recent blue wave that washed over the U.S. House of Representatives may soon be followed by a green wave. Since the November midterms, a group of young Democratic representatives have been demanding that passing a Green New Deal be a top priority of the next Congress. A Green New Deal could help the United States drastically cut CO2 emissions and create a productive and sustainable economy. Legislation that invests in green jobs, clean energy, and modern infrastructure could be a galvanizing moment in the world’s fight to slow climate change. But a deal is only as good as its promise. The Green New Deal’s now highly-publicized goal of obtaining 100% of our energy from renewable sources by 2030 sounds great, in theory; in reality, though, a goal like this could end up crippling the bill.
Obviously, climate change is a perilous trend. We are only weeks removed from two reports – one from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the other from the U.S. government – that concluded climate change and its impacts may be worse than expected. Both reports find that swift action must immediately be taken to cut carbon emissions worldwide to delay a 3.6℉ rise in global temperatures from pre-industrial levels. Realistically, if things continue as they are, we’ll hit the 3.6℉ mark by 2030. Society now has to deal with the truth that climate change will not only be affecting future generations; its impacts will actually be felt within the next decade.
And, boy, are those impacts severe. According to a report published in Nature in 2016, the Antarctic ice sheet is melting faster than originally predicted by the IPCC, meaning greater sea rise sooner. Now, the oceans are predicted to rise more than three feet by 2100 – enough to drown the cities of Miami, New Orleans, and Tokyo. On a geological scale, this is an unfathomable change in an unbelievably short period of time. But even on a human scale, this means that our children will most likely be alive to witness the disappearance of entire cities due to a changing climate. Additionally, between now and 2100, climate change is expected to wreak havoc in ways previously unimaginable. By 2050, the number of refugees forced to flee their homeland due to climate change impacts is expected to exceed 200 million. By 2030, drought brought on by higher temperatures will cost the U.S. agricultural industry tens of billions of dollars. Even right now, extreme drought in the western U.S. has led to the spread of costly forest fires. Historically, the U.S. spent about $1 billion annually to fight wildfires. In 2017 that number jumped to $2.9 billion and will most likely be more in 2018. Estimates of the impacts range depending on the study and assumed temperature change but the fact remains: climate change will cost us dearly.
Fortunately, we know what causes climate change and understand what must be done to slow it down. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas and although it makes up a small percentage of our atmosphere, it is incredibly effective at retaining infrared heat that would have otherwise escaped into space. Using Charles Mann’s example in The Wizard and the Prophet, imagine the atmosphere as a tub with holes in it. The faucet is the sun, filling our atmosphere with infrared radiation. The tub fills up but the holes allow some of it to spill out, maintaining the water level. Emitting CO2 into the air is equivalent to plugging up those holes with your fingers. Of course, since the industrial revolution, the world has been spewing CO2 into the atmosphere and this has resulted in a relatively fast climb in temperature. The only way to reverse this trend is to reduce the amount of CO2 in the air to 350 parts per million (it is currently at about 400 ppm). A majority of people and almost all scientists agree on these basic facts.
Unfortunately, climate change is an incredibly difficult problem for humans to solve. Understandably, it is hard to believe that emitting something invisible to the human eye could cause problems on such an immense scale. The fact that society has to make major disruptive changes now to prevent future impacts only adds to the difficulty of preventing climate change. We’ve spent 30 years bickering over its existence, despite scientific consensus certifying its existence. All the while, countries have continued burning fossil fuels at unprecedented rates to fulfill their energy needs. Climate change is now breathing down our necks and swift action absolutely needs to be taken by national governments to prevent catastrophic impacts.
A major piece of legislation that invests federal dollars in research, job growth, modern infrastructure and clean energy, and provides a road map to achieving a carbon-free future would be the first genuine step towards combating climate change taken by the U.S. It would embolden other rapidly industrializing countries to mobilize their own green economies. If done correctly, everyone, from local farmers to everyday consumers to major energy companies, could win. Thankfully, such an idea has picked up steam following the midterm elections. Newly-elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made a lot of headlines since she won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district but her latest demand has been her boldest: the passage of a green new deal. It could be an important bill for congressional Democrats to rally around but it would need the support of nearly a dozen Senate Republicans as well. If Democrats simply want to use the next two years to build a climate change strategy and wait until 2020 to push a bill through with what they hope is a congressional majority and White House control, that’s fine. But, as we know, the sooner the better. With this in mind, right now is the perfect time to begin discussing a national climate change strategy, what legislation would actually look like, and who needs to be brought to the table.
Plenty of good policy mechanisms and funding strategies have been suggested already. Shifting subsidies toward renewable energy sources, creating a national bank for green investments, and requiring more electric vehicles to be manufactured are a few that have been thrown out there. Some ideas, such as a carbon tax, have been ignored while other ideas, such as nationalizing the energy grid, have arguably been given too much weight. There’s been no pen put to paper and therefore these are issues that can be discussed once the new Congress is in session. More importantly, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and others have claimed that a Green New Deal should follow a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2030. This goal has been the rallying cry behind the movement and has made for an eye-catching headline; the reality, however, is that such a thing is impossible and therefore threatens the effectiveness, and the possibility of passing, any legislation.
When it comes to setting emissions and energy goals, the benchmarks must be bold but achievable. As a campaign organizer in Arizona, I advocated for bold renewable energy goals in the cities of Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe. I quickly learned that if the goal were too low, it would be easy to pass but risked achieving too little; if the goal were too high, it would be impossible to pass because the path to achieving it was incredibly unlikely. Our team worked with engineers and policy experts to learn how well renewable sources could support current and future energy needs, what policies and technological changes would need to occur in order to achieve the ideal scenario, and what the timeline for these changes looked like. Eventually, we helped get the City of Tempe to approve a resolution in 2014 setting a goal of 20% renewable energy by 2025. After making significant strides the last few years, the City increased their goal to 100% renewable energy by 2035.
A desert city’s ability to meet their operational energy demands using renewable sources is a lot easier than an entire nation’s ability to meet all energy demand using renewable sources. Make no mistake about it, current storage and distribution restraints ensure that 100% renewable energy is impossible. Steven Chu, former U.S. energy secretary under President Obama, is a strong supporter of renewable energy. But even he knows it has its limits:
“There are times when you get a week of bad weather or a week of cloudy days over hundreds of miles. There are times when the winds stop blowing across all of Washington and Oregon for two week. During these times – guess what? – you still need a source of reliable power.”
The hope is that federal investment could help improve the nation’s ability to retain excess energy from solar and wind, either in the form of batteries or storage technology (i.e. load-shifting), for future prolonged use. However, researching and expanding a renewable energy network that can provide reliable 24/7 power couldn’t be achieved in a decade. Imagine what would need to be done: the massive overhaul to our grid while maintaining the old one, the environmental due diligence needed for every energy project (which rightfully takes years when projects are planned on sensitive lands), and the massive shutdown of fossil fuel power plants without a reliable source of power to immediately replace them. Attempting to achieve this in 10 years would carry a lot of risk.
So what would a more realistic – but equally as bold – goal look like? I’d suggest that we look at two recently announced energy goals that have made headlines. Xcel Energy, one of the largest utility companies in the U.S., has committed to going 100% carbon-free by 2050, echoing California’s recently adopted goal of 100% carbon-free energy by 2045. Notably, the goals focus on going carbon-free, rather than committing solely to renewable energy. Both goals emphasize centralized plants that provide power on-demand without emitting more CO2. That means investments in nuclear power. Nuclear power could be the bridge to a green energy future, providing clean, reliable, and cheap energy immediately while the nation scales up renewable sources and an updated grid. The timeline is also much better. Considering the U.N.’s belief that countries must cut their CO2 emissions in half by 2030 in order to prevent the world from warming beyond 2.7℉ by 2100, going completely carbon-free by 2045 would still be an effective goal.
Constructing national policy to comply with a 100% renewable energy goal by 2030 is not only technically risky, it’s politically risky as well. A goal so wildly unrealistic as the one proposed by Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez could kill any chances of a Green New Deal being passed. Yes, there are members of Congress that would oppose any bill that attempts to combat climate change. But there are some moderate members of Congress whose districts would benefit from an expansion of green jobs, clean and affordable energy, and federal investment in infrastructure. Yet, they would be hesitant to support such a goal that 1) would never be achieved and 2) could make the transition to a clean energy future a complete mess. A better goal, one that helps the U.S. significantly reduce CO2 emissions but is also achievable, means a more diverse coalition of support. And a more diverse coalition of support means a better bill that works for everyone and is more likely to become legislation.