A few days ago a video of Sen. Dianne Feinstein lecturing some school children that the Green New Deal can’t be paid for and isn’t going to pass went viral. The video encapsulates what is so exhausting about the Democratic Party old guard — they’re over cautious, stuck in the past, and still playing defense against being called “tax and spend liberals.”
The children were part of the Sunrise Movement, a a youth-led organization promoting a Green New Deal. Someone might explain to Sen. Feinstein that these young people will be the ones to pay for her inaction. Climate change will demand payment, one way or another.
Well, maybe. But Feinstein was, in fact, demonstrating why climate change exemplifies an issue on which older people should listen to the young. Because—to put it bluntly—older generations will be dead before the worst of it hits. The kids whom Feinstein was talking to are going to be dealing with climate chaos for the rest of their lives, as any Californian who has lived through the past few years of drought, flood, and fire must recognize.
This means that youth carry the moral authority here, and, at the very least, should be treated with the solicitousness due a generation that older ones have managed to screw over.
Sen. Feinstein let the children know she didn’t respond to ultimatums, and she also told them she had her own proposals for dealing with climate change. McKibben continues,
Later Friday evening, Feinstein’s aides released portions of her proposal, and on first view they appear to be warmed-over versions of Obama-era environmental policy: respect for the Paris climate accord, a commitment to a mid-century conversion to renewable energy.
It’s not that these things are wrong. It’s that they are insufficient, impossibly so. Not insufficient—and here’s the important point—to meet the demands of hopelessly idealistic youth but because of the point that the kids were trying to make, which is that the passage of time is changing the calculations around climate change. …
… The irony is that, when Feinstein said she’s been “doing this for thirty years,” she described the precise time period during which we could have acted. James Hansen brought the climate question to widespread attention with his congressional testimony in 1988. If we’d moved thirty years ago, moderate steps of the kind that Feinstein proposes would have been enough to change our trajectory. But that didn’t get done, in large part because oil and gas companies that have successfully gamed our political system didn’t want it to get done. And the legislators didn’t do anywhere near enough to fight them. So now we’re on the precipice. Indeed, we’re over it. The fires that raged in California last fall were the fires of a hell on earth.
Sen. Feinstein isn’t the only Dem who doesn’t get it. When asked about the Green New Deal in an interview, Nancy Pelosi responded, “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive. The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” If she wasn’t ready to endorse it, she could have said something like “Yes, that’s one of the exciting proposals we’re considering.”
If the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to be believed, humanity has just over a decade to get carbon emissions under control before catastrophic climate change impacts become unavoidable.
The Republican Party generally ignores or denies that problem. But the Democratic Party claims to accept and understand it.
It is odd, then, that Democrats do not have a plan to address climate change. … Plenty of Democratic politicians support policies that would reduce climate pollution — renewable energy tax credits, fuel economy standards, and the like — but those policies do not add up to a comprehensive solution, certainly nothing like what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests is necessary.
There are a lot of details to be worked out. The Green New Deal as it currently exists is more about the goals to be achieved than how to achieve them. It is, essentially, a proposal to mobilize the nation and put solutions to climate change on the front burner. David Roberts:
As we will see, the exact details of the GND remain to be worked out, but the broad thrust is fairly simple. It refers, in the loosest sense, to a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. It is meant both to decarbonize the economy and to make it fairer and more just.
So let’s talk about paying for it. “We can’t pay for it” is not an answer. A little girl who confronted Feinstein asked why there was infinite money for a military but not to address climate change. Feinstein brushed off the question. But in fact, climate change is becoming a bigger threat to the nation than other nuclear powers.
Let’s ask an economist about this — Here’s Paul Krugman:
Specifically, let me suggest that there are three broad categories of progressive expenditure: investment, benefits enhancement, and major system overhaul, which need to be thought about differently from a fiscal point of view.
So, first off, investment – typically spending on infrastructure or research, but there may be some room at the margin for including spending on things like childhood development in the same category. The defining characteristic here is that it’s spending that will enhance society’s future productivity. How should we pay for that kind of outlay?
The answer is, we shouldn’t. Think of all the people who say that the government should be run like a business. Actually it shouldn’t, but the two kinds of institution do have this in common: if you can raise funds cheaply and apply them to high-return projects, you should go ahead and borrow. And Federal borrowing costs are very low – less than 1 percent, adjusted for inflation – while we are desperately in need of public investment, i.e., it has a high social return. So we should just do it, without looking for pay-fors.
Much of what seems to be in the Green New Deal falls into that category. To the extent that it’s a public investment program, demands that its supporters show how they’ll pay for it show more about the critics’ bad economics than about the GND’s logic.
To me, this is the difference between can’t and won’t. We can pay for whatever we want to pay for. It’s just a matter of priorities. If we borrow money to invest in improvements that will create great value, if not direct financial returns, that is good investing, especially if the alternative is letting the nation rot or even putting it in danger.
Put it this way — if we found out that an asteroid was about to take out most of the midwest, and stopping it would take spending the equivalent of our entire GDP for the year, would we do it? Or would we sit around and argue about paying for it? And for that matter, when are we going to fix the infrastructure?