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Why We Need a Green New Deal and Half Measures Won't Work

It's too late to rely on the market to solve the crisis we've put ourselves in. No politically acceptable tax or fee will foster the magnitude of change we need, in the time we need it.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) announce the introduction of public housing legislation as part of the Green New Deal outside the Capitol on Thursday, November 14, 2019. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Last week there were two reports released on climate change. The first warned that most nations were falling short of their commitments under the Paris agreement and that time was running out to avoid going above a 1.5°C increase in temperature. The second warned of impending tipping points and suggested a different way of formulating policy that might help us avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

We need a Green New Deal of the scale Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed. Nothing else deals with the reality of climate change and averts its worst effects.

Taken together, they explain why the so-called moderate's proposals to mitigate climate change are a prelude to disaster.

On Sept. 26, the U.N. released their Emissions Gap Report and it noted that most nations are not meeting the goals they agreed to under the Paris agreement. As a result, the world is now heading toward a 3.2°C rise in temperature by the end of the century. This would have devastating, ecosystem-destroying, and irreversible consequences.

The report goes on to say we must begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 percent a year, beginning next year—or about a month from now—to stay below a 1.5°C temperature increase. Even a 1.5°C increase, scientists warn, will cause extensive and possibly irreversible increases in sea levels, more droughts, more frequent storms and heat waves, mass migrations of climate refugees, and increases in extinctions, but temperatures above that risk even more devastating consequences.

But the fact is, the U.N.'s forecast is in many ways conservative, and the actual temperature increases are likely to be higher than forecast, and to arrive sooner. One of the troubling assumptions in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest forecasts is that our carbon budgets are larger than previously thought, because the atmosphere is less sensitive to emissions than earlier forecasts assumed.

The second report, authored by some of the world's leading climate scientists, explains that in the future, the climate is likely to be more sensitive to a given amount of emissions, not less, because tipping points can cause rapid increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, either by compromising carbon sinks or causing the rapid release of natural stores of carbon.

Assumptions about carbon budgets make a big difference in terms of gauging how much time we have left to act. For example, the new carbon budgets the IPCC began using in 2018 suggest we have about nine years of current emissions remaining before we warm by 1.5°C; under the old budget, we only had three years.

But because of feedbacks, the expanded carbon budgets being used by the IPCC are likely to be exposing us to significantly higher risks.

There's ample evidence suggesting that the carbon sinks are getting compromised. For example, there was a great deal of celebration about the fact that human emissions of carbon had flat-lined between 2014 and 2017, but the dirty little secret is that even though emissions held steady, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide continued to go up—indeed, they went up faster than in previous years. In both 2015 and 2016 the atmospheric concentrations went up by 3 parts per million (ppm), which was double the rate of increase between 1990 and 2000.

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Many scientists attributed this to the intense El Niño occurring at that time. During El Niño periods, the sinks—natural systems which absorb carbon—are not as effective.

But there is increasing evidence that the sinks are becoming permanently compromised, which means that a higher proportion of the carbon we emit will stay in the atmosphere. In fact, even before the El Niño, research was showing that carbon sinks were becoming less effective at removing carbon from the atmosphere.

This means that in the future, more of the carbon emitted by humans will remain in the atmosphere—the exact opposite of what the adjusted numbers in the latest IPCC report assume. It also means that even if we do manage to cut carbon emissions in the very near term, we may not have an equivalent cut in atmospheric concentrations, which means warming could continue to go up despite our cuts.

So what does this mean in terms of action we need to take to prevent a global catastrophe?

The second report says we must we move from looking at needed actions through the lens of neoclassical economics—the current framework employed by the IPCC—to a risk assessment model.

The underlying assumption of the neoclassical economic framework is that there's some optimal balance between mitigating warming and maintaining a healthy economy. More than a decade ago, The Stern Review showed that the costs of climate change exceeded the costs of mitigating climate change over the long or medium term, and as climate change has progressed from a distant threat to a current reality the notion of some optimized equilibrium point between the costs and benefits of mitigating it has become untenable. Nevertheless, it is still a widespread belief that this mythical balance exists. The policies suggested by this assumption include carbon taxes, carbon fees and dividends, and/or subsidies for renewable and carbon-free energy technologies.

On the other hand, a risk management framework focuses on minimizing or avoiding risk. The greater the potential risk, the less certain the science needs to be to invoke action. Obviously, with a risk like climate change that is global, irreversible in any time frame other than geological, proximate in terms of time, and catastrophic, risk avoidance takes precedence over any consideration of cost.

The policies implied by a risk management framework include bans, mandatory phaseouts, and other market interventions that are determined by need, not optimal allocation of costs and benefits. And the need is to phase-out fossil fuels beginning immediately and switch to clean renewables. That means immediately ceasing development of new fossil fuel resources and leaving most of the proven reserves we've already found in the ground.

Bottom line: it's too late to rely on the market to solve the crisis we've put ourselves in. No politically acceptable tax or fee will foster the magnitude of change we need, in the time we need it.

In short, we need a Green New Deal of the scale Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has proposed. Nothing else deals with the reality of climate change and averts its worst effects. The plans proposed by neoliberals and other "reasonable" people amount to applying trim tabs to a sinking ship.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track, both available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson

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