The Green New Deal Relies on a Fear That Just Isn't There

Sweeping change needs sweeping concern. It's not there yet for climate change.

Posted Feb 08, 2019

Have you heard about the Green New Deal? On its face it is so inspiring, a sweeping program to combat the immense threat of climate change. It proposes that we convert the American energy system to all renewables, upgrade all existing buildings to make them more energy efficient, build a massive new high speed rail system so efficient we won’t need to fly as much anymore, and install an enormous nation-wide system of electric car charging stations. 

 And while we’re at it, the GND would also create a guaranteed job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security for every American, high-quality health care for all Americans, and universal access to healthy food (mostly from small farms.) It would strengthen the right of workers to unionize. And it would “promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, de-industrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.” Oh, and it would also clean up all of America’s hazardous waste sites. It’s a sweeping progressive manifesto.

And this is all to be accomplished, or at least we’re supposed to be well on our way to getting it all accomplished, in ten years. 

A big ask, you might say. Idealistic, even. How can we ever rally the American public to back such unprecedented change? The cost to redo the energy sector alone is estimated by one expert to be $5 TRILLION per year, one quarter of the entire Gross Domestic Product of the United States, every year for ten years. 

The proponents of the Green New Deal argue that the threat of global warming is so enormous and so urgent that Americans are worried enough to back their aspirational agenda. They are half right, but critically, half wrong about that threat. The actual peril from climate change is every bit as dire as they describe. But the degree to which we FEEL threatened is nowhere close to what is necessary for the American public to support such broad progressive social change, change that goes far beyond the issue of climate change itself. 

National Library of Congress
The mood of America in the 1930s
Source: National Library of Congress

The proposal invokes the New Deal of the 1930’s, a set of government programs, some created by Congress and some by Executive Order of President Franklin Roosevelt, that radically reshaped America. Social Security, unemployment insurance, the electrification of rural America, the building of 650,000 miles of highways and thousands of hospitals, schools, bridges, reservoirs, a cap of 44 hours on the work week and a 25 cent minimum wage, were just a few parts of that change. If we could do that much then, why not now? 

 Let’s consider why we were so ready back then.In 1932, when Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt first promised America “a new deal”, the country had been devastated by the early years of the Great Depression. One working-aged American in four was unemployed. Nearly one in five mortgages had been foreclosed. Drought and “the Dustbowl” had begun to wipe out the agricultural heart of the country, pushing hundreds of thousands of people out of the midwest. Construction of anything, anywhere, all but stopped. 5,000 banks had failed and closed. Shantytowns of hundreds of thousands of formerly prosperous Americans, now homeless, sprang up in cities across the country. Bread lines and soup lines fed tens of thousands of Americans who could not feed themselves. In 1933, global economic production had dropped 15% from just three years earlier. (To put that in perspective, the economic crash in 2008 caused a drop of just 1%).

There may be a lot of concern out there about climate change, concern that is growing as damaging extreme weather events make the threat more current and personal for millions of Americans. But it is naïve fantasy to believe that the worry about climate change is anywhere near what people were feeling during the Great Depression.

The proponents of the Green New Deal realize they are proposing a lot, but use a trope from another episode in American history to suggest we can get all this done. They say this can be “our Moonshot” moment, harkening back to the incredible technological accomplishment that went from President Kennedy promising a man on the moon within ten years, to the Apollo 11 landing just eight years later. So let’s consider how Americans were feeling back then.

We were afraid.

U.S. Civil Defense Department
Duck and Cover drills in the event of nuclear attack, circa 1960
Source: U.S. Civil Defense Department

Viscerally, deeply afraid. Putting a person on the moon was the capstone to the “space race” that began in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik. (I was 6 back then, and still remember how frightened Americans were that our Cold War arch enemy had something flying over our heads.) And of course the space race was just part of the “missile race” that was only one part of the Cold War, a viscerally tense conflict with regular open confrontations, each of which threatened the catastrophe of a nuclear World War III. Spy planes being shot down. Wars in countries like the Congo and Vietnam between armies backed by either the U.S. or USSR. Terrifying atomic weapons being tested in the atmosphere. Fidel Castro making Cuba a communist country 90 miles from Florida. A Soviet astronaut in space in April 1961. The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba failed a week later, and the Berlin Wall went up that August.

That was a truly frightening time. We were way more worried about the existential threat of nuclear annihilation (to which we came perilously close one year later with the Cuban Missile Crisis) than we are now about climate change. We were ready to spend whatever we had to…to keep ourselves safe from a threat that felt imminent and personal to every living American. We are nowhere close to that worried now.

Should we be? Yes. But we aren’t, because climate change doesn’t feel like an existentially serious personalthreat to most of us. It doesn’t feel imminent to most of us, though that is slowly shifting in parts of the country hit by extreme weather events. The suffering climate change will somedaycause doesn’t invoke the same acute fear as nuclear war, or massive nationwide economic destitution. We are nowhere near ready to support anything as sweeping as a New Deal, no matter what color it cloaks itself in.

So what will likely come of this proposal is some hope, but also rejection by political realists who understand that it goes way too far, and by doing so gets in its own way. In the breadth of its aspirations, and its mistaken assumption that concern about climate change is deep and broad enough to support all those aspirations, the GND will be discounted by some as a pipe dream, picked apart and debated component by component by others, have its moment in the sun of the distractable public attention span, and then fade into the background while more realistic work on more practical solutions to climate change continues.

That work isn’t doing nearly enough of course. The GND and its higher goals are a frustrated response to that failure. But its naïve aspirations aren’t the answer either. Only when we’re much more worried about climate change, when the threat becomes more real and severe than it has, will we be ready to push for the really big changes we need. At which point the snowball will already be rolling way down the hill, already immense and getting bigger and bigger, when we’ll need enormous changes just to minimize the damage of what our behavior and lack of concern have already set in motion.