the national interest

Obama Had a Green New Deal, and It Worked. Let’s Do That Again.

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Last month, the Green Advocacy Project conducted a poll on the Green New Deal. The results are alarming. Slightly more Americans oppose the idea (46 percent) than support it (43 percent), but the truly catastrophic finding is the imbalance in passion. The opposition is extraordinarily intense, with nearly all opponents of the Green New Deal registering strong opposition, while those in favor are split between supporting it strongly and only somewhat. And this of course is happening before anybody has even attempted the difficult-to-impossible task of translating the Green New Deal’s mostly popular precepts into specific proposals with concrete trade-offs.

So, remind me, why are we doing this again?

By “this” I don’t mean an ambitious plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I mean the specific political and policy design choices embedded in the Green New Deal, to whatever extent they exist. Those choices include insisting on a 10-year target for phasing out greenhouse gasses rather than the 30-year schedule required by the Paris climate accords, tossing in an array of non-climate-related policies like universal health care and guaranteed jobs for all, and avoiding important emissions-reducing tools like nuclear power.

The most explicit rationale, as Dave Roberts has laid out (see here and here) is to kindle mass activism on an unprecedented scale to radically expand the parameters of what Washington can and will do on climate policy. Two months ago, Roberts was hailing the incipient arrival of this game-changing movement, castigating the critics who dismissed its vast potential. “A wave of grassroots enthusiasm like this isn’t fungible,” he wrote. “It can’t be returned to the kitchen in exchange for a new one with the perfect mix of policy and rhetorical ingredients. It is lightning in a bottle, easily squandered.”

More recently, acknowledging the poll (which he brought to my attention) showing that the enthusiasm is heavily weighted against the Green New Deal, Roberts is presenting the grassroots wave as a future aspiration rather than a countable asset. “Intensity is what matters in politics,” he argues. “Democrats and climate hawks need to figure out how to generate some.” Roberts is a brilliant policy analyst from whom I have learned enormously. But I believe the theory of political change upon which he has hung his support for the Green New Deal strategy is showing its fatal flaws.

The second rationale for the Green New Deal is the belief that Democrats need a radically different strategy because what they tried under the Obama administration failed. Mike Konczal defends it as “a reaction to the failed strategy of cap-and-trade.” Kevin Baker, writing in Harper’s, calls Obama’s climate agenda “woefully inadequate in the first place,” and insists it has “now largely been squashed by President Trump.”

This widespread belief understates both the scale and the durability of Obama’s climate reforms. An overinflated sense of failure has always hung over the last president’s climate agenda, in large part due to the high visibility of his failure, and the inconspicuousness of his success. Obama sought, and failed, to pass a cap-and-trade law through Congress in 2009 and 2010. The defeat played out over a year, in full view of the media, and left behind a devastated and disillusioned core of activists who saw their work smashed against the Senate filibuster.

The successes, by contrast, occurred with barely any fanfare. Obama’s stimulus included $80 billion in green energy subsidies, the largest investment in renewable energy technology in American history. The stimulus was written and passed in mere weeks, during an atmosphere of economic crisis when its impact on a long-developing environmental problem hardly registered with the news media. (Its tax credits for wind and solar power were extended in 2015, as part of a low-profile bipartisan budget deal.)

While the Republican capture of Congress closed off any chance of major new climate laws after 2010, the administration pursued an aggressive agenda through regulation and diplomacy. Obama imposed a wide array of new regulations on power plants, cars, buildings, public lands, and elsewhere. In 2014, Obama struck a bilateral greenhouse gas emissions deal with China, which paved the way for the global Paris climate accords the following year.

Baker’s notion that Obama’s agenda has been “quashed” contains some grains of truth. The Trump administration has launched a vigorous effort to roll back Obama’s regulations, and announced its refusal to abide the Paris agreement while throwing itself behind a campaign to revive coal and other dirty energy sources. But even if this rollback were completely effective, it could only reverse the regulatory aspects. Trump can’t un-spend stimulus funding that was spent before he took office.

And in any event, Trump’s rollback has been uneven at best in its implementation. It’s been hampered by incompetent staffing, and has lost an extraordinary 90 percent of the court battles over its regulatory changes. Some of the rollback has been blocked by state resistance, especially in California. And the sheer economic power of the changes Obama helped to set in motion has overwhelmed Trump’s efforts to reverse them. Despite all his efforts to revive coal, the industry has continued to shrink. Solar and wind power have quintupled over the last decade. Meanwhile, Trump’s refusal to abide the terms of the Paris accord has not unraveled the entire deal, which remains largely intact. And worldwide participation is the key thing, since the United States accounts for a shrinking minority of global emissions.

None of this is to say that Trump has had no effect, or that the world is on track for a positive outcome. The urgency of the the climate crisis is such that the crisis has already arrived, and rapid and accelerating speed is required to avert deeper disasters. Merely slowing down the pace of the response is a serious act of sabotage. But that is all Trump has done — he’s put some speed bumps on the path his predecessor forged. He has not erased the Obama climate agenda any more than he erased Obama’s health-care reforms (as Obama critics predicted would occur, with equal confidence, after Trump’s election).

All of this suggests Obama’s presidency offers a model, after all, for how the next Democratic president can address climate change. The three tools used by the 44th president — green energy investment as part of a stimulus bill, tighter regulation, and aggressive international diplomacy — may lack the transformative ambition of the Green New Deal. But the Green New Deal is nowhere close to overcoming either the technocratic challenge of designing workable policies to fulfill its grand designs, or the political challenge of enacting them.

A scaled-up version of Obama’s model, by contrast, is workable. Democrats might have to alter the rules for what kinds of spending the Senate allows to pass with 50 votes to allow for green energy subsidies. That will be a hard task when the 50th Senate vote comes from a red state, but not as hard as getting that 50th vote to approve a revolutionary overhaul of the entire economy. It’s not impossible to imagine a Joe Manchin or a Kyrsten Sinema approving a bill to deploy lots of new green energy infrastructure if it included enough investment for their states.

In addition to whatever spending can pass the Senate, they can use regulations and diplomacy to leverage enormous amounts of positive change. And, as the Obama era shows, the three tools work especially well in concert. Investing in green energy brings down the cost of these technologies, making tight regulations easier to design and comply with. (Power companies couldn’t easily phase out dirty fuel sources until clean ones became cheaper; car companies can bring down their fuel intake because electric cars have become cost competitive.) Tighter regulations create a market demand for more clean energy innovations. And the more affordable these new technologies become, the easier it is for more leaders of developing countries to commit to a green energy path.

Is this suite of reforms going to be “enough”? No, nothing is going to be enough — even eliminating all greenhouse gasses tomorrow would leave the planet dangerously overheated. But more is better than less. The Green New Deal’s advocates are already starting to realize how desperately unlikely it is to yield anything resembling its promises. (Roberts calls it “a long shot — a desperate Hail Mary in a game where time is running short.”) Why would Democrats turn their backs on a model that has actually produced important progress for a desperate long shot?