Don Jarvis: Green New Deal myths and prospects

May 11, 2019

The “Green New Deal” has stirred up plenty of controversy. Many conservatives as well as some liberals and environmentalists have criticized parts of it. Much that has been written about it is simply inane and mistaken. But in any case, it deserves serious discussion.

We should first examine what it is and what it is not. It is not a bill drafted as a future law, but - like many resolutions - is an idealistic proposal for broad future policy. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) authored what is now on record as House Resolution 109.

The Green New Deal is just six pages long and easily available to anyone who clicks on https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-resolution/109/text.

Despite what Sen. Mike Lee claimed in his famous cartoon-illustrated performance opposing the Green New Deal, it actually does not propose to eliminate airplanes or cows. Feasible improvements in transportation and agriculture are advocated, but neither airplanes nor cows are mentioned. Rumors about it eliminating hamburgers are unfounded.

And although Lee said that the Green New Deal “does not have a single serious idea,” even the most cursory look at HR 109 quickly refutes that, too.

First, it lists serious threats from climate change, including increased migration, heat stress, wildfires, and flooding.

Second, it notes important facts, including decreasing U.S. life expectancy, our low level of socioeconomic mobility and rising income inequality.

Third, it notes that climate change threatens our national security by destabilizing other countries.

Fourth, it advocates clean air and water, community resiliency, healthy food, access to nature and a sustainable environment.

Fifth, it recommends smart power grids and affordable access to electricity.

Sixth, it suggests getting electricity from “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources,” as well as constructing buildings that have “maximum energy efficiency,” and “removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and industry as much as is technologically feasible.”

All the above, plus many other subjects in the Green New Deal, are serious ideas worthy of our best research, development and investment.

No carbon tax?

However, appropriate criticism of the Green New Deal has come from pioneer climate-change activist James Hanson, a former NASA scientist, who faults it for excessively featuring social change rather than more practical measures like a carbon tax.

Many environmental leaders agree with Hanson and recommend a carbon tax to insure that polluters pay some of the costs that they impose on us.

Air pollution and climate change are largely caused by burning fossil fuels and are what economists call “externalities.” That is, those who produce the pollution and climate disruption pay nothing for the damage they cause. And because that harm is not factored into the prices of coal, oil and natural gas, our market system does not appropriately regulate their use.

But all of us pay the real costs of pollution and climate change. A carbon tax could redress that and get the market to help reduce pollution. Pollute more, pay more. Pollute less, pay less.

To make a carbon tax politically doable, much of its revenue could be returned to us by reducing other taxes like sales tax on food. Hence the slogan, “Tax pollution, not potatoes.”

More than 40 countries and two Canadian provinces have carbon pricing systems, and they seem to work reasonably well.

California has a cap-and-trade system, and no state has yet passed a carbon tax, but a group of Utah activists are now preparing to gather signatures for a carbon-tax initiative for the 2020 ballot.

The initiative is led by economist Yoram Bauman, who came close to getting Washington state to adopt a carbon tax. His initiative for Utah is called the “Clean the Air Carbon Tax Initiative.”

A carbon tax would seem an obvious means to spur the market toward the positive environmental ideals of the Green New Deal, whose authors missed a golden opportunity to advocate it.

For more perspective on all this, we should remember that back in 1912, former GOP President Theodore Roosevelt ran again for the presidency with platform ideas that seemed radical for that time, like letting women vote, an eight-hour workday and social security.

They actually were too radical for the moment, because Teddy lost the election. But eight years later, women finally achieved the right to vote, and the rest is history.

We should also remember hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who explained his prowess by saying that he always tried to “skate to where the puck was going to be.” He saw what was needed before others did.

It would be helpful if more of us would follow Gretzky’s example and focus forward to solve the very real problems of our day.