Why the Green New Deal won't work

The Green New Deal isn’t a bill, it’s just a resolution, no different than the kind of resolution that could make today National Ice Cream Day. What it lacks is any legal power to force people to eat whatever Ben & Jerry flavor of ice cream Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants people to eat. But even if you put that aside and assume that, somehow, the GND took on the full force of law and could begin making people move toward a future without fossil fuels, it won’t save the planet. It can’t possibly do so because, as Megan McArdle points out today in the Washington Post, America isn’t the planet. In fact, we’re not even a terribly significant portion of the carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere at this point.

Today, the United States accounts for 4.3 percent of the world’s population, roughly 25 percent of its economic output and 15 percent of its carbon emissions from fuel combustion. Meanwhile China, with 18 percent of the world’s population, has 15 percent of its gross domestic product and 28 percent of its emissions. And India, with a population almost as big as China’s, produces only about 3 percent of global GDP and 6 percent of emissions.

Looking at these three countries brings the scale of the problem into focus. There is a small, rich world that lives in comfort and plenty, and a much larger, poor one that wants to get rich. To do so, those billions of people will pass through an intermediate stage when their developing industries are much dirtier than their highly regulated rich-world counterparts. The global emissions problem is likely to get much worse before it gets any better…

No matter what rich-world economies do about their energy consumption, or what “moral leadership” they exert, people in the non-rich world are going to want to drive cars instead of walking; to wash their clothes in machines instead of in a river; to cool their houses with air-conditioning; to eat meat every day — in other words, to do and own all the things that make modern rich-world lives so safe and pleasant.

She goes on to say that the quickest route between the developing world and the well-off world is not a green energy scheme, it’s coal, and oil, and natural gas. That’s the path people in the developing world are going to take. McArdle made a point on Twitter which isn’t in the article but seems worth considering. If the U.S. adopts something like the GND and puts tremendous energy and resources into lowering our fossil fuel consumption, the likely result will be a drop in the global price of such energy:

No doubt there are all sorts of creative ways to reverse U.S. energy dominance. (Destroying the energy sector has worked great in Venezuela.) So maybe prices would go down as our demand dropped and then go back up as we stop producing oil and gas, something the left is very eager to see us do. In any case, McArdle is undeniably correct that poorer countries are not going to abandon their chance at a better future based on cheap reliable fossil fuels simply because the U.S. is doing it. They are going to take the fastest route to a better life no matter how green America gets.

McArdle says the response she hears to points like this is that, hey, we just have to exert our moral leadership. Once we do, the rest of the world will fall in line. Only, as she pointed out, that’s not what happens in the real world:

The Green New Deal can’t work because, at best, it can only address a tiny fraction of the global problem. Daydreaming about the world following in our footsteps because it’s the right thing to do is just daydreaming. In reality, there’s only one way America can change the ball game: By doing the hard work to actually make green energy the shortest, quickest path to prosperity.

You don’t need a cap and trade system if solar panels are 35% efficient and cheap to manufacture. You don’t have to twist arms in China or India if fusion is a workable, safe alternative to fission. So McArdle argues that if you want a greener, cleaner planet, the solution is not a WWII style mobilization toward efficiency here, but developing green technology that everyone in the world will eagerly adopt because it’s obviously better than any fossil fuel alternative.

I think McArdle is basically right about why the Green New Deal won’t work, even if it were somehow adopted tomorrow. However, like many other commentators who’ve looked at the GND, she treats the social justice wishlist it contains as tangential to the real goal. I continue to think this is a mistake.

McArdle and many others who see it this way, as a grab bag of unrelated items, are missing the big picture. Ocasio-Cortez believes the real source of the problem isn’t fossil fuels per se, it’s capitalism. That’s the system she ultimately wants to eliminate and that’s why all the extra stuff in the GND, such as job guarantees for everyone, makes perfect sense. AOC wants a greener future as a means to achieve a redder one. For her purposes, the GND will be a success if America is less capitalist and more socialist, whether or not the rest of the world goes green. That’s a significant difference. We shouldn’t assume AOC’s goals are as modest as preventing climate change.