Ross Macfarlane
Jun 8, 2019 · 17 min read
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‘And a Child Shall Lead Them,’ or: How This Boomer Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Green New Deal

“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.”

Bob Dylan, Times They Are A-Changin’

There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

For many graying veterans of the climate and clean energy wars, the sheer audaciousness of the young campaigners leading the charge for the Green New Deal has provoked mixed reactions. “Welcome aboard,” we cheer. “We need your fresh energy to support our policy proposals! Now sit down, and we’ll educate you on the intricacies of carbon pricing, renewable energy tax credits, and Senate procedure.” We love the enthusiasm, but sometimes feel that they should leave the work of developing policy proposals to real experts. It is easy for folks from my generation to sympathize with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who signaled tepid support for the “‘Green Dream,’ or whatever they call it.” Or even with Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was captured in a viral video lecturing student climate activists about the way the real world works. ”I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” she said. “I know what I am doing!”

It is more than a little ironic that so much of this pushback (often veiled as patronizing support) is coming from fellow members of the Baby Boomer generation: we who were raised on the anti-establishment anthems of Dylan, The Who, and Pink Floyd; who lionized the Freedom Riders, Kent State martyrs, and Earth Day marchers; and who even sometimes mouthed the puerile admonition that we shouldn’t “trust anyone over 30.” Now let’s be clear, too many members of my generation have long since traded peace signs for penthouses or McMansions, and have swapped their tie dyes for MAGA hats. I’m not talking to you (let’s face it, most of you didn’t get past the Lenin quote). I am talking to my peeps: those of us who get the science, care deeply about the environment and the need for climate action, and are filled with both disgust and determination at our current course as a nation. But many of us have well-earned scars and deep concerns that make us reluctant to join a children’s crusade that might lead us off a cliff. I get it; I share your fears. This piece articulates some reasons that I believe following these young leaders and embracing the Green New Deal might be our best and perhaps only hope to mobilize action at the pace and scale needed to avert the worst impacts of the gathering climate crisis.

The Kids Are Alright

Let’s start off by celebrating the fact that the leaders driving the Green New Deal are indeed very, very young, and are much more diverse than the mostly old, mostly male, and mostly white group that have tried to drive environmental and climate policy for the past decades. The most famous proponent, of course, is the 29 year-old dynamo, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC, as she is usually known, has become both a breakout star on the left and the favorite villain of Fox News, which actually devotes more airtime to attacking her than to any of the announced Presidential candidates for 2020. She formally proposed the Green New Deal resolution in February, flanked by grizzled climate champion Senator Ed Markey, and has become its chief avatar on cable news and social media for aggressive action on climate and other progressive causes.

But the movement began with even younger leaders. AOC first became a champion of the Green New Deal when she joined a crowd of teenagers and 20-somethings from the Sunrise Movement in a protest at Speaker Pelosi’s office last fall to demand climate action.

Sunrise is a fresh face in the climate movement, led by a brilliant 25 year-old woman of color, Varshini Prakash. Sunrise sprang seemingly out of nowhere in the past 12 months to take center stage in the debate over climate and clean energy policy, pushing not only traditional Big Green groups such as EDF, NRDC, and the Sierra Club to up their games, but even making the last wave of college-campus campaigners at look like old-timers. While conservative media likes to talk about AOC as a figurehead for shadowy and powerful interests, a chief policy architect for the Green New Deal is yet another 29 year-old woman of color, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, at New Consensus, a brand-new think tank. Gunn-Wright, a whip-smart thinker who is equally proficient at policy analysis as she is at generating gifs and memes on Twitter, admits that she missed the “Very Serious Person” class while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and acting as chief policy analyst for a Michigan gubernatorial candidate, but is diving into developing solutions for our climate and energy crisis. Underestimate her, or any of these other young leaders, at your peril.

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Pushing all of these leaders is a broader and even younger movement of children and students around the world demanding that we do something to fix the climate crisis. Kids are marching, striking, and even suing the US government for inaction. No one personifies this moment better than Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish school girl who has seen her solitary “Climate Strikes” balloon into worldwide events numbering in the millions. Thunberg has lectured world leaders at the UN Climate Conference and Davos and was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

These kids are rightly impatient. You can practically hear them shouting at their parents and all of us oldsters: “Do your homework [on the climate science]! Eat your vegetables [and less meat]! Clean up your room [and our only planet]!”. They are bringing a commitment to radical honesty about the gravity of the climate crisis and the stakes of continued inaction. As Greta Thunberg put it to the assembled world leaders at the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gathering in Poland, “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children.” Or, to use words we Boomers might remember: “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is drawing late.”

What’s The Deal?

The debate about the Green New Deal has had much less to do with the Resolution introduced by AOC and Senator Markey in February than it has with the variety of wild claims from opponents and, in some cases, supporters of dramatic action on the climate crisis. It’s important to note that, as a resolution, it is not intended to be detailed legislation or ever be passed into law. Instead, it was intended to kick start a debate and set the terms of this discussion. Instead of a debate, it has ignited a firestorm of support and wild accusations.

The Green New Deal calls for an economy-wide mobilization to confront the climate threat over the next decade, invoking the original New Deal and World War II as precedents where we put millions of people to work addressing existential threats. The Resolution calls for moving to 100% clean and renewable energy, zero emissions vehicles, net-zero building standards, and a goal of eliminating net carbon emissions by 2050. It promises major investments in clean air and water as well as urban and rural resilience and restoration. The Resolution smartly sidesteps many issues that sometimes split the climate and clean energy advocates, including the role for carbon pricing; whether the electric grid will be 100% renewable or if there will be a role for no-carbon sources such as nuclear or fossil fuels with carbon-capture; and How the government will pay for this action.

The Resolution establishes some key goals for action, not detailed policy prescriptions. While it will benefit from more detail on some key issues — notably the ways that we decarbonize transportation, buildings and industry — it is intended to be a starting point for a debate about the elements of a comprehensive plan to really tackle the climate crisis with the scale and urgency it demands.

The Green New Deal is explicitly intersectional: an aspect that has generated the most controversy and hand-wringing from battle-scarred climate campaigners. By intersectional, I mean that it specifically demands that we build equity and social justice into the economy-wide transformation of our economy toward clean energy. The Resolution addresses the need for health care, jobs, and opportunities, especially for under-served and front-line communities. More on this later.

Blowing Open the “Overton Window”

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Overton Window for Climate Policy

It is critical to recognize that the initial goal is forcing a discussion about the need for dramatic action to reshape our economy to address the climate crisis and not to debate specific policy proposals. Proponents aim to radically shift the “Overton Window,” the range of ideas that are considered socially and politically acceptable for discussion. Toward that objective, they have already been wildly successful. As clean tech writer James Murray puts it:

“But passing a bill is not the point — not yet anyway. For decades the economic Overton Window has been so completely owned by the Right that it has basically been chained to a radiator in a Trump Country Club basement. Incidentally, the Left’s ownership of the cultural Overton Window is so complete it can now be found in Beyonce and Jay-Z’s Manhattan penthouse hanging between a Picasso and a Warhol….The Green New Deal and the wider resurgency in climate campaigning is staging a breakout of the economic Overton Window. ”

Since at least the 1990’s, the parameters for discussion on climate policy have been framed by conservatives, with the outer bounds (or holy grail) for advocates being the neo-liberal idea of gradually pricing carbon pollution through a tax or cap-and-trade system.

Perhaps the most important value of the Green New Deal is that it has blown open the discussion to ideas that have been virtually unmentionable in polite company, such as banning internal combustion engines, moving to 100% clean energy, stopping new drilling and mining, and completely freeing our economy from fossil fuels within a few decades.

Myths and Concerns About the Green New Deal

We needn’t spend much time on some of the more fevered claims that are being thrown at the Green New Deal. Will it ban ice cream, hamburgers, and cow farts? No. Will it eliminate air travel and put the American Dream out of reach for millions? No. Is it “tantamount to genocide?” No. Does it have anything at all to do with Ronald Reagan shooting machine guns from the back of a velociraptor? Ummm … No. Is it part of a UN plot under Agenda 21 that will result in millions of rural residents and suburbanites being herded into urban re-education centers? Well, as a deputized operative of the “Black Helicopter Corps,” I am not really at liberty to discuss that one (Just kidding: No!).

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Senator Mike Lee, on the floor of the US Senate. Source: Grist

So instead of wasting time rebutting the wildest myths, let’s focus on key concerns that some fellow climate activists and progressives have voiced about the Green New Deal.

Is the Green New Deal Socialist?

While AOC and a few of the early proponents (I’m looking at you, Bernie Sanders) favor the kind of Democratic Socialism that is common in Scandinavia, the heart of the Green New Deal is industrial policy of the type that marked the original New Deal and America’s economic transformation during World War II. Robinson Meyer, writing for the Atlantic, makes the persuasive case that the real spiritual forbear of the Green New Deal is not Marx or Lenin, but rather a celebrity immigrant who played an outsized role in the early days of our republic: Alexander Hamilton. Meyer quotes Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a chief architect of the Resolution: “The core of the Green New Deal, if you just look at the projects, is … industrial policy, industrial policy, industrial policy…. The Green New Deal is one of the largest interventions in U.S. industrial policy in a long time.”

The Resolution certainly envisions the type of muscular role for government that is anathema to free market purists. This kind of industrial policy is no more socialist than rural electrification, the creation of the interstate highway system under President Eisenhower, or many other interventions that have shaped our modern economy. And, like those prior examples, it doesn’t necessarily exclude an active role for companies, investors, and entrepreneurs who will likely build much of the new infrastructure that this transformation will require. As avowed “climate capitalist” Jigar Shah says, if the US is able to muster a response at the speed and scale that global warming demands, it will inevitably draw on our experience confronting the Axis Powers in World War II, the last time that we faced a truly existential crisis. Any realistic response “will by design be audacious, unifying, and transformative.”

Is the Green New Deal Too Expensive?

Conservative critics (and even some progressives) throw around a claim that the Green New Deal will be wildly expensive, often repeating a widely debunked figure that the Resolution will cost $93 trillion. This number came from a back-of-the-envelope calculation by a shadowy, fossil-fuel funded think tank, which totaled up wild guesses for non-climate elements of the plan, such as a job-guarantee and medicare-for-all. The author of that estimate, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, confessed that he has no idea what the Green New Deal will cost. “Is it billions or trillions? Any precision past that is illusory.”

Action at the scale and speed needed to address the climate crisis will undoubtedly require significant investments and costs, and delays make the slope of those required expenditures much steeper. As Henry Jacoby and Jennifer Morris at MIT state: “climate change is the type of problem where delay is especially costly.”

Make no mistake, delaying or preventing climate action also carries a huge expense. Scientists have warned that the global costs from climate change if we stabilize warming at the Paris target of 2.⁰⁰ c are approximately $69 trillion. Currently, global emissions are increasing and we are no place close to meeting this target. Their estimate if we continue our current trajectory and blow past 3.⁷⁰ c are an astronomical $551 trillion, which exceeds humanity’s entire net worth.

As Oscar Wilde famously said, a cynic is someone “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” We shouldn’t let ourselves be bamboozled by cynical claims of the costs of equitable climate policy, especially when our future on this planet is at stake.

Is the Schedule for Implementing the Green New Deal Unrealistic?

Some advocates of clean energy and climate action claim to support the broad goals of the Green New Deal but complain that the timeframes for clean energy transition in the resolution are too aspirational and will be impossible to achieve. In most cases, these critics are responding to a “straw man” schedule that the Resolution requires complete decarbonization of our economy in 10 years. These critics argue, for example, that it will be impossible to completely transition our electric grid to renewable energy by 2030 or achieve net zero emissions economy wide by 2035. In fact, the Resolution articulates the need for a national campaign to go as far as we can as quickly as we can to address the climate crisis from a foundation of equity. As Rhiana Gunn-Wright explained it, “For ten years, we should throw the weight of the nation against the twin crises of climate and income inequality.”

If you understand the science, it is very hard to argue with this goal. It is very similar, to the IPCC’s widely misunderstood admonition that we need to dramatically shift our global energy economy in the next decade if we hope to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. This does not mean that we need to eliminate all use of fossil fuels by 2030, or that it is “game over” if we fail to achieve that target. It does mean that we need to take dramatic steps to cut the production and use of fossil fuels, invest in clean and efficient energy, and transform our economy around the climate imperative over the decade. If you believe the scientists, you should also agree that “this is an emergency, damnit!” And, from that premise, two conclusions inescapably follow: 1) we should go as hard as we can as fast as we can to solve this crisis; and 2) time spent arguing about the specific schedule for the individual components is time wasted.

Will the Green New Deal Undercut Republican and Centrist Support for Incremental Climate and Energy Policies?

Another common criticism levied against the Green New Deal is that the scope and scale of the proposal will make it harder to get bi-partisan support for the kinds of incremental energy policies that might move in a divided government. This criticism assumes a fact not in evidence: that there is any real prospect for bi-partisan action of a scale, scope, and speed that the climate crisis demands. Or, frankly, of any significant action at all. When the undisputed leader of the Republican Party spouts “weaponized stupidity” about renewable energy — such as Trump’s claim that the noise from wind energy may cause brain cancer — otherwise sensible politicians cower in fear of Fox News and backlash from the party’s base. As someone who has long advocated the need to cultivate bi-partisan support of clean energy, that dream dies hard. But many self-proclaimed “realists” ignore the hard reality that in our current political moment, we are not going to make significant progress by triangulating across the aisle. The climate crisis demands building a movement to build real power, and the Green New Deal represents our best chance for growing a broad and energetic movement.

The second response to centrist critics should be: “welcome to the party.” Far from suppressing bi-partisan or centrist proposals to address the climate crisis, the Green New Deal has sparked an outpouring of counterproposals, ranging from Representative Matt Gaetz’s “Green Real Deal” to economists arguing that a carbon tax is finally just around the corner. We can argue about whether any of these proposals will scale to the problem, but they show the power of the Green New Deal to jump start a vibrant policy discussion.

Is the Focus on Equity a Feature or a Bug?

Perhaps the most common attack levied at the Green New Deal from clean tech leaders and many others who generally support climate action is to label it a “Christmas Tree” or progressive wish list that bundles together too many disparate elements to have any chance at success. The New York Times posed the question this way: “Is the Green New Deal aimed at addressing the climate crisis? Or is addressing the climate crisis merely a cover for a wish-list of progressive policies and a not-so-subtle effort to move the Democratic Party to the left?” These critics claim that tying the clean energy and climate elements with other progressive causes — such as addressing income inequality, access to jobs, health care and racial inequity — simply makes the package too unwieldy and vulnerable to attacks. “Focus the policies solely on climate and energy,” they cry, and you will have a much better chance of success.

It is important to remember that the Green New Deal is not detailed policy, and will not be developed as a single bill or package of proposals. Any legislation will doubtless be broken into discrete proposals that will address key elements. Nevertheless, it is worth taking this criticism seriously, because if the critics are right, the intersectionality of the Green New Deal will doom its viability.

There are two major responses to this line of criticism: one moral and one political. From a moral standpoint, the drafters of the Green New Deal recognize that transforming our economy to address climate change is going to be a massive effort, that will create tremendous opportunities but also significant disruption. In Gunn-Wright’s vision, the Green New Deal fundamentally envisions transforming our economy and society around three fundamental goals: 1) making investments to tackle climate change; 2) leveraging these investments to create jobs; and 3) ensuring everyone can participate in a green economy.

While the changes to our energy economy and other sectors will undoubtedly create a huge number of jobs, there is also potential for locking-in many of the structural inequities that our system contains and perpetuating or even worsening existing challenges for front-line communities, workers, people-of-color, tribes and others. The Green New Deal proponents are deeply committed to addressing these issues as we envision a new economy. They also want to ensure that marginalized voices have a seat at the table and a leading role in drafting the policies that will shape our new economy. The young leaders correctly see equity and climate as closely tied together. Morally, I think it’s past time for my fellow Boomers to rediscover our inner idealist.

Politically, the critics are missing a key point: bundling climate action and clean energy with equity is the only way to ensure that these issues remain central to the political debate and ultimately to the agenda of a new Administration and Congress following the election. While public concerns about global warming and support for action are soaring, many other issues are also screaming for our attention. There is a very real danger that climate and energy proposals under a President will fare the same as they did under the Obama Administration: given a place in line behind health care, immigration, and other priorities. The genius of the Green New Deal is precisely that it frames equitable climate action as the center of a broader progressive agenda. Seen this way, the intersectionality of the Green New Deal is decidedly a feature, and not a bug.

Is the Green New Deal Bad Politics?

Finally, many clean energy proponents worry that the Green New Deal will force Democratic candidates to adopt positions that are political poison. Polling suggests otherwise. Voters are embracing clean energy and climate action with an intensity we have never seen. The Yale Six Americas Poll, for example, shows that the number of voters who are “alarmed” about global warming has more than doubled in the past five years. Democratic voters in Iowa identify climate action as one of their top two issues, and 65% support the Green New Deal And this trend is particularly strong among Millenial voters, who support the Green New Deal by a spectacular 30% margin and will overtake Boomers as the largest generation this year. Other key components of the Green New Deal also poll well among voters in both parties, including healthcare-for-all and a jobs guarantee. For these reasons, an unprecedented number of Democratic presidential candidates have been embracing the Green New Deal and making climate action a signature issue in their campaigns.

Joe Biden’s recent pirouette on climate policy illustrates this point. After Reuters leaked elements of his “middle ground” climate platform in May, activists reacted with outrage. Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash had a typical response: “A ‘middle ground’ policy that’s supportive of more fossil fuel development is a death sentence for our generation and the millions of people on the frontlines of the climate crisis.” Within weeks, his team responded with a hasty, cut-and-paste effort calling for trillions of dollars of federal investments in a “clean energy revolution” and expressing support for the Green New Deal. As Robinson Meyers notes in the Atlantic, whether you love or hate Biden’s plan, it sends a clear signal that the “Green New Deal has already won” in the battle for the hearts and minds in the Democratic Party.

Is the Green New Deal bad politics? If politicians run scared from the issue and let our opponents define the terms of debate, certainly. But this is a debate we can and must win.

Follow the Leaders

This is an exciting time to be a climate and clean energy advocate — the most exciting moment that we have seen in at least a decade, if not forever. The winds of change are coming not from old veterans but from the fresh faces on the scene, the kids and young people who are demanding action and have the temerity to completely change the terms of the debate. The plea from this Baby Boomer is simple: it is time to follow the leaders and wholeheartedly support the Green New Deal. We might only have a small chance to avert the worst of the climate crisis, but that’s better than no chance at all. I, for one, am not planning to “throw away my shot.”

Ross Macfarlane is a Director for the Sierra Club (National Board), Climate Solutions, and the Clean Energy Transition Instititute, but bears sole responsibility for any rants. He also teaches at the Western Washington University, Institute for Energy Studies. He has been involved with environmental law and policy for over 35 years, and thinks his generation has a lot of ‘splaining to do. You can follow him at: @ross_macfarlane

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