For an initiative that would cool a sweltering planet, The Green New Deal is hot.
A sprawling and hyperambitious initiative championed by the charismatic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the GND aims to stem both global warming and economic inequity. To date, the “serious” proposals for reversing climate change have been both market-based and incremental: credits and offsets for carbon emissions, capturing and storing atmospheric CO2, biofuel production and building scads of new “next gen” nuclear plants. Economic disparity isn’t even a passing concern in these approaches.
Adoption of the GND (see graphic below for details) is highly unlikely in our current divided government. But the fact that it has become something of a litmus test for Democratic presidential hopefuls marks a dramatic shift in the climate change debate. In just a few months, it has become—well, a target for calumny, derision, and counterattack in some circles, but also a point of serious discussion.
Here are a few points raised by the naysayers:
1. Ambitious demands—without plans for how to achieve them
In an opinion piece posted in the conservative—but not necessarily pro-Trump—website The Bulwark, Steven Hayward, a senior resident scholar at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, lambasted the GND for both “its economic…and environmental illiteracy.”
He argued that, “Climate change orthodoxy says we need to do exactly what the Green New Deal proposes—the virtual elimination of all fossil fuels on a very short timeline. And if you take this scenario seriously, it would mean elimination of fossil fuels is necessary for the entire world—not just the United States. Never mind that that the Green New Deal proposes no specific and measurable technologies. The point is that none of the previous climate policy initiatives, whether the Kyoto Protocol of 1998, the Paris Climate Accord of 2015 or President Obama’s Clean Power Plan came anywhere close to this emission reduction target…There’s also the economic fact that if the United States were to eliminate its reliance on fossil fuels, this would drive the price of oil down, allowing developing countries to use more in their drive to modernize.”
Similarly, Catherine Wolfram, the Berkeley Haas School of Business acting associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of business administration, says the GND is by far the most aggressive climate change response ever proposed, but that it’s scant on details—and that concerns her.
“Calling for 100 percent renewable sources rules out all nuclear power, carbon sequestration and biofuels,” says Wolfram. “It puts tremendous emphasis on energy efficiency, but from my research, those claims are overstated.”
2. Overemphasis on wind and solar power
Wolfram also says that the GNP’s focus on wind and solar would create a critical vulnerability in the production and delivery of energy.
“If the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, you’re not producing energy,” she observes. “Storage still remains the big problem with wind and solar. We really haven’t figured out a way to scale battery storage to make up for energy loss when wind turbines and solar panels aren’t producing. Nuclear plants, of course, can just keep cranking away.”
3. Dismissal of nuclear power
The GND, which generally spurns nuclear energy, falls short with a growing number of environmentalists who have long been opposed to nuclear power, but are now willing to at least consider it. Some, like Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, openly support it. And Richard Muller, a Cal physicist and the co-founder of Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit group that measures and analyzes planetary temperature data, insists that the broad and unequivocal acceptance of “next gen” nuclear power plants (which are less susceptible to core meltdown and other catastrophes than current plants) is essential for slowing and ultimately reversing climate change.
Where the GND might succeed:
Still, not everyone thinks the GND’s shortcomings outweigh its potential benefits—including Mark Delucchi, a research scientist at UC Berkeley. Delucchi has some nits to pick with the GND, but emphasizes he separates his analytical work from his personal views. From a philosophical perspective, he lauds the GND for its boldness and breadth.
“This is a big idea, like Medicare for All is a big idea,” Delucchi says, “and that’s important. It addresses basic issues, including commitment to the public good. It confirms our responsibility to sustainable development in the broadest possible terms, and to people who are most vulnerable to the vagaries of the marketplace.”
And that strategy, says Delucchi, marks a key departure from business as usual—both for climate change response and economic inequality.
“It’s a dramatic shift from the market-driven, incrementalist view,” says Delucchi, “and it points to an alternative path for the future. So I’m personally very excited about these conversations.”
And unlike some of his peers, Delucchi isn’t distressed by the GND’s rejection of nukes and biofuels. Even next gen nuclear plants entail potentially catastrophic risks, says Delucchi. While the threats are much lower than those posed by older designs, they can’t be reduced to zero in any scenario where hundreds or thousands of such plants are deployed. Not to mention the cost: Nuclear plants are and likely will remain extremely expensive to plan, site, and build; the long-time frames currently associated with their construction are unlikely to diminish to any significant degree.
Solar and wind technology, on the other hand, are well developed and relatively cheap; they are scalable, and past experience has demonstrated that solar and wind arrays can make it through permitting and construction relatively quickly.
“So when you look at the real costs and lag times of nuclear plants, even modular, smaller, ‘safe’ next gen plants, they don’t make much sense,” says Delucchi.
Biofuels are also problematic, says Delucchi, because their production and use put carbon into the atmosphere—less than fossil fuels, certainly, but still a significant amount, particularly for a planet that’s overheating dangerously.
Also, Delucchi says, “Biofuels require a lot of land for production—land that typically has higher uses, including food production and environmental remediation.”
Delucchi acknowledges that solar arrays also have large footprints, but notes a significant portion of that impact could be reduced by sitting panels in areas that are already developed, such as rooftops and “brownfields.” As for storage problems, it’s possible that concentrated power arrays could use the heat stored in molten salts to generate steam for the turbines when the sun isn’t shining.
Still, it may well be that WWS (wind, water and solar energy) isn’t the complete answer, says Delucchi. A system relying solely on sustainable sources could prove so expensive that nuclear plants may be necessary for the final 5 to 10 percent of energy production. But he insists that figure represents a far healthier source mix than one in which nukes bear most of the burden.
No one knows how—or if—those hairs will be split. But like Delucchi, Wolfram thinks the GND’s greatest value is in the broad strokes, not the minutiae.
“You can argue forever about that final 5 to 10 percent,” Wolfram says, “and frankly, I’m not at all surprised by the diametrically opposed views it’s stirring up. Mitch McConnell wants a vote on the Green New Deal in the Senate, and I’m assuming that’s his attempt at derision. But my 15-year-old daughter has heard about the GND, and so has my politically disengaged 23-year-old niece. I consider that a huge win.”