New Deal, Old Science
Current Big Green proposals for a Green New Deal are coalescing around inadequate targets.
From James Lamont
The Green New Deal is everywhere, perhaps in part because it has remained nebulous. Years, cuts and specifics are all over the place depending on who you ask. The U.S. Green Party, for example, has detailed plans for what it might mean because they were the first to champion the concept here over the past decade, rather than just the past few months. Those plans include decarbonisation of the whole economy by 2030.
Events this week supported by a large number of green NGOs (such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, 350.org and Food & Water Watch) seem to be an attempt to clarify the current clamour. Amongst a number of admirable details they have settled on calling for 100% renewable energy by 2035 (note that this is not the same as total decarbonisation, as it refers only to power generation), and the phase out of fossil powered land transport by 2040. No specifics are given for other emissions sources (such as the fastest growing sector, aviation).
The phrasing for the electricity demand used in all documentation is some variant of “by 2035 or earlier.” It is my hope that the use of “or earlier” indicates a willingness to admit that 2035 is too late for any serious target, and has been included to allow for improvement at some nearby point. Because the people who drafted this particular sentence must know that when you give government a range of goals rather than a firm demand they will rise only to meet the easiest interpretation: it will be read as “by 2035, and not a minute sooner.” So the wording must be for the benefit of future activism.
What doesn’t make any sense in this scenario is why we would build this huge push for legislation that we know to be inadequate. We have taken this approach before and gotten nowhere. There’s no point going from half-honest to mostly honest about the climate crisis at this stage. These same NGOs are currently complaining that the Green New Deal bill unveiled this past Thursday by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t explicitly ban fossil fuels. But the tone set by these demands hardly gives them steady ground for dissent (Ocasio-Cortez’s bill at least calls for net-zero emissions within ten years). As the media representative for Extinction Rebellion NYC, Rory Varrato, recently explained on Redacted Tonight:
“Let’s pretend like [the deadline is] tomorrow, because functionally it is. We know the inertia of this system, we know the obstacles we have to overcome, and 12 years might as well be a blink of an eye. Indeed we have something like negative 30 or negative 40 or negative 200 years, depending on where you want to peg the problem . . . we have less than no time.”
With this framing, you could make a legitimate argument that decarbonisation by 2025 -- one of the central demands of Extinction Rebellion -- is also too late, on the simple grounds that it may already be too late to avoid a runaway scenario that makes life impossible. But the date must unfortunately be in the future rather than the past. The only sensible deadline is not four numbers but four letters: ASAP. You will struggle to find a climate activist who disagrees with that by now. The sooner we can get to net zero, the better chance at avoiding decimation we will have. So why would we rally for a later date when we could rally for an earlier one?
To the argument that demanding decarbonisation by 2025 is unnecessarily steep and will turn people off the issue, let’s consider the recent IPCC report that got all this action supercharged. That report called for a 45% reduction in global emissions by 2030 (much higher cuts in high polluting nations) and the end of fossil fuel burning by 2050, so within that framework, these demands seem reasonable. But there are compelling arguments that the IPCC significantly underplayed the urgency of the situation as it has done in the past. For example, the panel used 1850 as its baseline year rather than the pre-industrial period of a century earlier, ignoring 0.3 degrees of temperature rise. They also ignored natural feedback loops, assuming that only greenhouse gases emitted by humans contribute to warming. The idea that there is any carbon budget that we can safely burn is a falsehood. This is what Rory Varrato meant by “we have less than no time.”
You begin to understand why the Green Party plans aim for decarbonisation by 2030; some have been stating that this deadline is necessary for a number of years. You begin to understand why Extinction Rebellion activists stepped up their messaging from “Oh Shit” to “We’re Fucked” in the weeks after the report. You may not know how seriously to take these criticisms, not being a climate scientist, but there's no controversy to the idea that every IPCC report in the past has been unreasonably restrained to the point of negligence. To ignore the possibility that it may have been so again this time is nothing but a coping mechanism. Holding back the worst news has not stoked action up to this point. It is time we were treated like adults and told the truth.
Another way to comprehend why the 2025 goal is the most sensible one being suggested is to look at targets that were being suggested by respected actors over a decade ago. The Guardian columnist and Extinction Rebellion supporter George Monbiot wrote extensively and compellingly in the mid-2000s about the need to cut emissions in the rich nations by an average of 90% by 2030, with a greater emphasis on the earlier part of the period. It goes without saying that we have utterly failed to do anything of the sort. In light of this, and without the need to understand complicated scientific calculations, it follows that we must now meet an even higher cut in an even shorter amount of time. We have also learned in the intervening years that the situation is far graver than previously thought, for example lowering (at the behest of the Global South) the recognised upper threshold from 2 degrees down to 1.5. Thinking that we should have similar or perhaps even lesser targets today as those proposed in 2006 is, to put it politely, illogical.
I suspect 2035 has been picked based on what is deemed to be physically possible, politically realistic or socially bearable. 2035 is far enough away to be thought of as “the future”; there's a semblance of breathing room in it. Well, if we want to keep breathing, we don't have time to breathe. This Green New Deal coalition by definition acknowledges that the concept of “realism” is elastic, based almost entirely on political momentum and will, so let’s get behind some serious stretch goals. Speaking of politics, we might also consider how the difference between a 6 year timeline and one of 16 years frames our view of election cycles.
The former allows no room to worry about the next presidential pissing contest, as doing so would burn almost almost a third of the available time. The 16 year timeline allows us to continue engaging with that game and its soap opera entertainment. While it may be reasonable to assume that little will be done via the White House before 2021, the question is where do we wish to put our efforts? We can, as we are already being encouraged, spend our precious time debating the differences among the many candidates, whose theoretical eight year terms will still not bring us up to the main target date, giving them plenty of incentive to blather and stall and kick the can down the road as we have seen many times before. Or we can make an impact on the election passively, by building the boldest social movements possible and making those candidates chase us for votes.
There’s no doubt that the excitement for a Green New Deal has reignited the conversation around climate breakdown, and for that we should be pleased. This is not about being more radical-than-thou, nitpicking or trying to poach fellow activists. But the proposals sent to government offices this week risk channeling our efforts into a deadly end, and drawing attention away from those voices that are telling the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth. The time for fiddling over percentage points with confusingly different base years and sector parameters is gone. We must get rid of it all and fast.