The Green New Deal’s 10-Year Timeframe Is Unrealistic Even If a Lot Can Happen in a Few Decades
By Seth Blumsack
The Green New Deal Democratic lawmakers recently proposed would confront climate change by eliminating America's net carbon emissions within a decade. If enacted, it would transform America's energy industries and slash pollution, improving public health.
This proposal is a non-binding resolution, not an actual bill, and many of the proposed measures are long shots as long as the Republican Party holds a majority in the Senate and the Trump administration remains committed to its fossil fuel-supporting energy dominance policies.
Having studied the electric power sector and energy policy for more than 20 years, I think that some of the changes in the Green New Deal could actually happen within a decade – as long as all three branches of the federal government were on board.
But even if the most progressive Democrats were calling all the shots, the idea that the U.S. could accomplish this ambitious overarching goal within a decade strikes me as a stretch. California, which is committed to making all of its electricity carbon-free, aims to get that done by 2045, rather than 2030.
Even if completely revamping the nation's power grid within a decade proved feasible, the Green New Deal also targets emissions from sectors such as transportation and agriculture. And reducing their carbon footprints has proven much harder around the world.
Change Can Be Fast
Politically, the Green New Deal certainly seems like a non-starter even if the environmental and economic benefits would likely outweigh many of the costs. But are the ideas in the Green New Deal – especially those that would require radical changes, such as reinventing how the U.S. generates and consumes energy within a decade – truly outlandish?
While no nation has ever achieved anything quite as dramatic in so short a time, countries can rapidly change how they get their energy, without destroying their economies or compromising energy security. There are several good examples, especially in Europe.
France's swift adoption of nuclear power is the best one. Nuclear reactors generated only 10 percent of France's electricity in the mid-1970s, a share that rose to 70 percent within 10 years and has remained at about that level ever since.
More recently, countries such as Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Portugal have made strides toward shrinking their carbon footprints within a decade by ramping up the power they get from renewable energy, primarily onshore wind energy.
Brazil managed to boost the share of ethanol produced from sugarcane in the fuel it used to run cars and trucks from virtually nothing to about 50 percent within a decade following the adoption of targeted policies in 1975.
Change Can Also Be Slow
A common thread running through many of these success stories is a limited number of players. France's nuclear embrace largely involved its big state-run utility company, Électricité de France. Having a single big state-run oil and gas company, Petróleo Brasileiro, or Petrobras, made it easier for Brazil's government to bring about such a quick shift with ethanol.
When there are multitudes of companies and decision-makers, as is the case in the U.S., these transitions tend to be harder and take longer.
Two proposals in the Green New Deal, to make buildings highly energy-efficient and to electrify transportation, would require action on the part of hundreds of millions of people. These are also areas where change has generally come much more slowly.
The potential for energy efficiency is vast, but getting people to upgrade appliances or buildings to increase energy efficiency has been particularly difficult. What's more, some researchers have found a persistent gap between whether an energy efficiency investment is worthwhile and the willingness of consumers and businesses to spend their money on them.
This is probably due to a number of different factors. Researching and replacing your old appliances and equipment takes time and effort. There are usually high upfront costs when you own your own washing machines and hot-water heaters.
And for renters, problems arise when it's up to landlords to buy new equipment so their tenants can save money on their electric bills.
Some states have ramped up energy efficiency through outreach efforts and incentives. But there is still a long way to go, and revising building codes to raise these standards is politically very challenging.
Replacing vehicles that run on gasoline, diesel and other fuels with electric models is also harder than it may sound. Despite years of federal subsidies for electric vehicles, U.S. EV sales remain sluggish. Only around 360,000, or 7 percent, of the 5.5 million passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2018 were electric models.
And because cars generally last longer than a decade, replacing all of the nation's cars, trucks and SUVs will take a long time. Power plants also last a long time, but since many of the most polluting power plants in the U.S. are several decades old, many of them could be retired soon.
Market Forces and Policies
One common thread in every country that has been able to make rapid and major changes in their energy supply has been the role of government initiatives.
Big changes in the U.S. energy mix are nothing new. The U.S. transformed from a wood-based energy economy to mostly coal within a few decades at the end of the 19th century. And as Americans rapidly increased how much energy they were using in the the mid-20th century, their reliance on oil, natural gas and nuclear power grew. Since 2000, wind and solar power have become more significant contributors to a diverse mix of energy sources.
But, from what I can tell, market forces alone are setting a much slower path toward a lower-carbon economy than the Green New Deal's supporters would like to see. A two-decade transition, in my opinion, is more likely to succeed as long as the nation's politicians were to unite around making it a top priority.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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