Only A Green New Deal Can Meet Both Environmental and Economic Goals
C. J. Polychroniou argues that all financial and political links to the fossil fuel industry must be severely disrupted if any serious progress is to be made towards building a development-led green economy on a global scale.
We live in a strange and dangerous world. By all accounts, the climate crisis threatens to destroy human civilization as we know it unless immediate action is taken to reduce to zero carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. As such, the conditions of rational discourse mandate that climate change would have become by now humanity’s number one priority.
Unfortunately, it isn’t—and so much for rationality.
Five years after the Paris Climate Agreement was adopted, called “historic” because all members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change committed themselves to limiting global warming below 2 – and ideally to 1.5 -- degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, progress towards that goal has quite slow, if not negative.
Yes, there is a rising movement of climate change activism across the world, especially among the youth, and some investors are shifting away from the fossil fuel economy, but the great bulk of global primary energy (approximately 85 percent) still comes from coal, oil, and gas, and no one should be naïve enough to think that the temporary drop in global carbon dioxide emissions during the pandemic will continue in the post-Covid world.
In fact, we are already witnessing a return to the “business as usual” regime: oil and gas stocks are soaring in 2021 and most governments are planning to prop up fuel production by 2 percent annually, according to a report released by the Stockholm Environment Institute, together with the UN Environment Program and other leading research institutions.
For additional proof of how severe the criminal negligence is when it comes to the climate crisis, consider the following: during the first five years after the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, the world’s largest banks have invested a combined total of $3.8 trillion dollars into fossil fuel companies. This is a telling sign that profits alone guide the thinking of the big private sector, even when the survival of human civilization itself is at stake.
Of course, we should not forget that there are still many climate change deniers all over the world, including national leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and former U.S. president Donald Trump. As a matter of fact, the Trump administration did its best during the four years that it was in power to speed up the race to the precipice by not only rejecting the science of climate change and withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, but by embarking on the biggest deregulation strategy on environmental politics in post-World War II America. In this context, Noam Chomsky was absolutely right in labelling him “the worse criminal in history.”
And, yes, the return of the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement, combined with the issuing of Joe Biden’s executive order which explicitly recognizes that the United States and the world face “a profound climate crisis” and that tackling global warming will be a central objective in U.S. foreign policy and national security, are surely most welcome news, but the efforts to combat global warming need to intensify and proceed along the lines of a well laid out plan for a swift transition away from fossil fuel and towards clean and renewable energy systems. Because, as the World Meteorological Organization warned in a report issued back in March 2020, “time is fast running out.”
In the light of all of the above, it needs to be reiterated as strongly as possible that a (Global) Green New Deal is the only way to decarbonize the economy and protect the planet from the dire consequences of global warming (hotter heat waves, increased tropical storms and floods, prolonged droughts, loss of freshwater, flooding of coastal areas, large-scale migration, etc.).
The Green New Deal is neither radical nor unaffordable. Basically, such claims are groundless and come from three groups of people: (a) from those who have vested interests in the fossil fuel economy; (b) from those whose views about climate change are impacted by religious thinking (this is the case with the overwhelming majority of evangelical Christians in the United States); and (c) from those with strong ideological commitments to small government and laissez-faire and opposition to regulation.
The Green New Deal is not a radical project by virtue of the fact that it is an absolute prerequisite for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 through the use of clean and zero-emission energy sources.
Simply put, there is no other way to decarbonize the economy and stop the planet from getting hotter and thus avoiding a climate apocalypse. Geoengineering the climate to halt global warming, either through shading planet Earth from solar radiation (i.e., solar geoengineering) or by removing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the biosphere, involves technologies which are still very young and untested, as in the case of solar engineering, or quite impractical because they need to be applied at an extremely large scale and through the use of large-scale land-use, as in the case of direct air capture of carbon-dioxide. Moreover, both of these geoengineering options create moral hazard problems.
The Green New Deal is also financially manageable, especially given what is at stake if we fail to stop irreversible and disastrous changes to our climate system. Indeed, according to leading economist Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and as outlined in his co-authored book (with Noam Chomsky) Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet (Verso 2020), the global economy must spend an average of $4.5 trillion per year (or 2.5 percent of global GDP) between 2024-2050 in clean energy investments in order to hit the 2050 IPCC emissions reduction target. This estimate is corroborated by the latest study from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), which puts the figure that needs to be invested for the energy transition at $.4.4 trillion per year.
But there is more to the Green New Deal than staving off the worst effects of global warming. The transition to a clean energy economy through the Green New Deal will also boost economic growth by creating millions of new, good paying jobs in manufacturing, construction, energy, sustainable agriculture, engineering, and other sectors of the economy.
The economic benefits of Green New Deal have also been extensively researched by Robert Pollin and some of his associates at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. While arguing that a Green New Deal must be global if we are to succeed in reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, Pollin has shown in various published studies that the transition to clean energy systems will prove highly beneficial for any country or region of the world moving forward in this direction by expanding job opportunities across the economic spectrum. With respect to the United States, the employment opportunities that will be generated from the infrastructure programs designed to move the economy towards clean energy systems amount to millions of jobs.
To be sure, there is mounting evidence that making the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy can meet both environmental and economic goals. In addition to staving off the worst effects of global warming and creating millions of new jobs, going forward with the transition to clean and zero emission energy systems will also reduce rather substantially energy costs and healthcare expenses. According to Mark Jacobson, one of the authors of a Green New Deal energy study published in the journal One Earth, the world will spend around $13 trillion per year on energy by 2050 if we are still reliant on fossil fuels, but the cost drops down to $6.8 trillion if we are using clean, renewable energy. According to the same study, trillions of dollars will also be saved per year in health costs on account of the fact that the Green New Deal energy would reduce toxic air and water pollution from fossil fuels, which are now responsible for millions of deaths annually.
Yet, powerful economic interests and lack of political will due primarily to the existence of archaic institutions with minimal exercise of democratic governance and accountability stand on the way to a shift away from fossil fuels and towards a green economy. These two determinants are intertwined and must be addressed simultaneously if civilized order is to continue to exist in any recognizable form before the end of this century, if not much sooner.
The fossil fuel industry, which has been fully aware of the damage that its products cause to the environment but had managed until fairly recently to hide this fact from the public for many decades, should be henceforth treated like a pariah and must be phased out because fossil fuel companies are wrecking our climate and cause deadly air and water pollution. Banks and international financial institutions should be banned from funding fossil fuel production and “environcide,” the deliberate destruction of the environment, should be recognized by international law as a crime against humanity, as Emmanuel Kreike has argued in his new book titled Scorched Earth: Environmental Warfare as a Crime against Humanity and Nature (Princeton University Press, 2021)
In addition, fossil fuel subsidies, which are estimated to run into hundreds of billions of dollars annually, must also be phased out.
In sum, all financial and political links to the fossil fuel industry must be severely disrupted if any serious progress is to be made towards building a development-led green economy on a global scale.
Of course, critical in the overarching mission of saving the planet from the devastating consequences of global warming is a massive worldwide shift in public opinion in favor of clean and zero emission energy sources. This is absolutely essential for making clear to those in public office who serve as the political arm of the fossil fuel industry that they will be treated by the public with the same disdain and contempt as the fossil fuel companies themselves. Both the fossil fuel industry and its political and financial allies must be treated henceforth as environmental criminals.
The battle to save the planet is the biggest challenge facing today’s world—and time is indeed running out before civilization collapses like a house of cards. Indeed, climate change is not a long-term challenge such as the survival of our species before the end of the Sun’s lifetime, but an immediate threat, one which puts at great risk organized life as we know it before the end of the present century. As such, the climate change challenge transcends national boundaries and political/ideological divides. It is a challenge that requires all nations to stand united and work together.
C. J. Polychroniou is a political scientist/political economist who has taught at numerous universities in Europe and the United States and has also worked at various research centers. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Delaware and is author/editor of several books, including Marxist Perspectives on Imperialism (1991), Perspectives and Issues in International Political Economy (1992), Socialism: Crisis and Renewal (1993), Discourse on Globalization and Democracy: Conversations With Leading Scholars of Our Time (in Greek, 2001) and hundreds of articles and essays, many of which have been translated into scores of foreign languages. His latest book is a collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky titled Optimism Over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change (Haymarket Books, 2017).