the national interest

The Green New Deal Is a Bad Idea, Not Just a Botched Rollout

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The fallout from the Green New Deal rollout last week can be felt in the form of a new round of stories explaining what went wrong. Reports in Vox and the Washington Post focus on a set of frequently asked questions prepared by the staff of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and then clumsily obfuscated, which left the policy open to ridicule and easy attack.

But the trouble with the Green New Deal wasn’t just an unvetted fact sheet. As Mike Pesca points out, very few environmental experts consider the targets laid out in the plan to be remotely attainable. Climate change experts have called for zeroing out emissions in the power sector by 2050, while the Green New Deal proposes doing so by 2030. On what basis does it maintain the time frame can be accelerated by two-thirds? It does not say. If my plan for retirement is to have a million dollars in the bank when I’m 70, and then I decide the new plan is to have a million dollars when I’m 50, is that “progress”? Or just empty sloganeering?

The plan has attracted praise from the left for its bold ambitions. That is, at best, half true. The plan contains too little prescription in areas where it’s needed, avoiding any mention of the need to expand nuclear power, increase population density in cities, and cap pollution. At the same time, it contains far too much prescription in areas where none is needed, using the Green New Deal as a platform to add in unrelated proposals for free college, a job guarantee, and other ideas that motivate progressives.

The choice to leave out important climate policy, and toss in a bunch of non-climate policy, can be seen as a result of coalition-building efforts among progressive activists. Ross Douthat’s dark interpretation of this choice is that it feeds conservative suspicions that dire warnings of climate change are merely a ruse, “seizing opportunistically on the issue to justify, well, #fullsocialism — the seizure of the economy’s commanding heights in order to implement the most left-wing possible agenda.”

A more realistic account is less sinister. Ideology is a tool people use to make sense of the world. Presented with a gigantic problem like climate change, people who believe capitalism is the root of all problems will naturally and earnestly gravitate toward solutions that require dismantling capitalism.

A few years ago, Naomi Klein wrote a book laying out the case for why climate change required a revolutionary attack on global capitalism. Her argument, while deeply flawed and frequently self-contradictory, anticipates the Green New Deal’s ideological character. Klein not only disdained the value of using prices to efficiently allocate the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, she celebrated the defeat of the cap-and-trade bill in Congress as a victory for real climate progress against the sinister forces of neoliberalism.

If you believe, as Klein does, that the only path to saving the planet lies in broader economic change, then it makes perfect sense to wrap the cause of climate change tightly to socialism. But the vast majority of the Democratic Party does not believe this. And if doing anything meaningful on climate did require quickly enacting Bernie Sanders’s wish list, then we might as well give up, because nothing like that is going to happen in the next presidential administration. Other than a handful of socialists in Congress, the Democratic Party remains overwhelmingly moderate and liberal, not socialist.

The Green New Deal is a document that defines the party’s entire domestic agenda. Turning that over to a member of Congress who’s been in elected office for a few weeks and whose views are a radical outlier within the party was a bad idea, and not only because of the FAQ debacle.

You may have heard the old joke: We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this. For the moment, some version of this logic is the best rationale for the Green New Deal. Democratic presidential candidates need to start thinking about how they can avoid getting stuck with it as their platform against Donald Trump. That means coming up with some better climate change plans, fast.

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Green New Deal: A Bad Idea, Not Just a Botched Rollout