At a rally in Washington, D.C., this week, Senator Edward Markey described the scope of his Green New Deal: “Racial injustice, economic inequality, housing, education, jobs, and climate change. It is all intertwined.” Co-sponsor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chimed in, saying, “We’re going to transition to a 100 percent carbon-free economy that is more unionized, more just, more dignified and guarantees more health care and housing than we’ve ever had before.”
Translation: Every progressive social program under the sun can now hitch a ride on the climate bandwagon. The Green New Dealers are serious about socialism. But are they serious about climate change?
There are reasons to doubt it.
The Green New Dealers talk as if achieving a zero-carbon economy by 2050 won’t cost anything. Indeed, they believe that transitioning to a zero-carbon economy will open up vast new sources of money for a dizzying array of social programs. It’s no surprise. After all, these same people believe that raising the minimum wage will increase average wages without diminishing employment among low-skilled workers, and that taxing corporate income will generate revenue without diminishing the tax base.
In fact, that Green pie-in-the-sky only gets bigger. A 2018 report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Plan on Climate Change (IPCC) called for unprecedented changes to the human economy in order to stave off “catastrophic” effects of climate change. The IPCC report calls for much greater energy efficiency and dramatic reductions in household and industrial energy use, along with the familiar renewable- and clean-energy mandates, but it didn’t stop there. It also called for sweeping changes in agricultural patterns, restoration of ecosystems, and transitioning to new diets. Seaweed for breakfast, anyone?
Meanwhile, on planet Earth, the only realistic way to achieve a zero-carbon electricity with a grid that is reliable and affordable is through the massive deployment of nuclear energy. Solar and wind are too variable to serve as “base load” generation, which is why renewable-energy mandates have made America’s electricity grid dangerously unstable, as we saw most recently in Texas. The United Nations’ own IPCC has said that meeting the goals of The Paris Agreement will require a doubling and perhaps tripling of nuclear power around the world.
Instead, nuclear energy is in a free fall. According to the International Energy Agency, nuclear power has fallen from 18 percent of worldwide electrical capacity in the 1990s to 10 percent, and it is expected to hit 5 percent by the end of next decade without concerted government intervention. Yet the U.S. is closing nuclear plants and has no plans to build any new commercial nuclear plants anytime soon. California recently closed its last operating nuclear plant.
If you’re really serious about fighting climate change, reviving nuclear power would be the highest priority. But President Biden’s infrastructure plan calls only for a few experimental research reactors that wouldn’t provide anyone with power. The Green New Deal resolution doesn’t even mention the word “nuclear.” It really is too much to expect former hippies such as Edward Markey and Bernie Sanders to change their minds on nuclear energy, which they grew up hating almost as much as they hated the Vietnam War. But the worldwide fading of nuclear power, just when the U.N.’s professional climate alarmists are saying that we need it more than ever, is a clear sign of how unserious the effort to stave off climate change really is.
Assuming no dramatic increase in nuclear power, one study estimates that the U.S. alone would have to add 750 GW of wind capacity and 550 GW of solar capacity by 2050. Focusing just on the solar part, consider that each new solar project might have a total footprint of 10,000 acres. Multiply that by 1,000 projects, and you’ve already covered an area twice the size of New Jersey with solar panels. Because of intermittency and other issues, you can multiply that area by maybe two. Now add thousands of utility-scale batteries (just to extend the power output of solar plants through evening hours and cover increasingly frequent shortfalls), and hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines. Oh, and outside the desert southwest, the vast majority of the land needed for all of that is currently either forest or farmland, and in both cases doing a lot of “carbon capture” just through photosynthesizing plants.
The Green New Dealers don’t spend a lot of time talking about the staggering quantities of land (and offshore ocean areas) that would be needed for the hundreds of thousands of new wind turbines and thousands of new solar plants that will have to be built by 2050 in order to achieve zero emissions. That’s probably because many of those projects are deeply unpopular with the locals — even among the Green New Deal’s own supporters!
This is no surprise: The Green New Deal coalition includes more than its fair share of NIMBYs (“Not In My Back Yard”) and virtually all of the country’s BANANAs (“Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything”).
One Massachusetts family discovered this first-hand when they decided to build a ten-megawatt solar plant on their family farm. (Ten MW, incidentally, is a tiny fraction of a utility-scale solar plant). They saw it as a chance to confront climate change, but their neighbors had other concerns, such as solar panels ruining their view, declining home values, and impacts to Native-American heritage sites.
The story, in Politico’s “Climatewire,” notes that Massachusetts, like the rest of New England, is strongly committed to fighting climate change:
All six [New England] states have committed to deep emissions reductions by midcentury. And two-thirds of the region’s residents support government requirements that 20% of electricity come from renewable sources, according to a recent poll by Yale University.
But fulfilling those aspirations is more complicated. In Maine, environmental groups have led opposition to a transmission line that would bring hydropower into the region from Canada. Fishermen are objecting to plans for building offshore wind farms off the coast of southern New England. And solar development has prompted worries about loss of farmland in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Here in Massachusetts, high-profile fights are flaring over clear-cutting forest to make space for solar panels. “We say yes to climate goals, but no to all the solutions that get us there,” said Sarah Jackson, who oversees Northeastern climate policy for the Nature Conservancy.
Indeed. And it gets worse. Each of those projects will need its own federal permits and environmental reviews. And as I wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently, the process for getting federal permits is so convoluted, costly, time-consuming, and unpredictable that it’s a wonder any infrastructure project at all gets built in America. Project sponsors routinely spend $100 million or more during a process that can drag on for years without any way of knowing when or whether a decision will ever be made. The most “shovel-ready” renewable energy project is years away from being shovel ready.
Worse still, despite the largest bureaucracy in the known universe, the capacity of the federal government to process permit applications is frightfully tiny. In a typical year, federal agencies issue permits to, at most, a few dozen solar and wind projects across the entire country. Individual federal agencies get totally overwhelmed by just a handful of permit applications. But guess what. The word “permit” also doesn’t appear once in the Green New Deal resolution.
Without overcoming these challenges, the Green New Dealers’ vision of a zero-carbon future is simply a fantasy. Yet they can hardly bring themselves to acknowledge that these challenges even exist. It’s hard to say whether they simply don’t understand the reality facing their zero-carbon ambitions, or just aren’t interested. Either way, their priorities simply seem to lie elsewhere.
I once asked a radical environmentalist: “If we found out that the planet was warming for purely natural reasons, would you be in favor of climate engineering to stop it, because the current temperature and sea level are the right ones for humans?” He was appalled. “No, of course not, man,” he said.
What really keeps that young man up at night, and many others like him, is not climate change, but capitalism. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said at the Green New Deal rally this week, “The climate crisis is a crisis born of injustice. It is a crisis born of the pursuit of profit at any and all human and ecological cost.”
The Green New Dealers may be in shabby shape when it comes to climate policy, but if saving the planet requires socialism, their hearts are in the trim.