Lucy promises to hold the climate-change football.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, refuses to go away.” – Philip K. Dick

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” – Peter Drucker

The Green New Deal: is it a Big Deal? Or No Deal?

Not unlike Charlie Brown, geo-scientists and environmentalists might be forgiven for harboring a mix of caution and skepticism regarding the Green New Deal generating so much news buzz. To start, the concept by that particular label is not new, but has some history. The idea of blending climate-change measures and economic stimulus has been around for over a decade, dating back to Thomas Friedman in 2007. The intervening years have been hard on climate-change scientists and activists. Repeated warnings, whether global (e.g., the IPCC assessment reports and intervening special reports) or domestic (e.g., the U.S. National Climate Assessments), have triggered momentary media kerfuffles, but these have died down within days or weeks.  Political positions have hardened, even as the science has been weaponized and politicized. Successive U.S. administrations have oscillated, alternately treating the science either as a lodestone for policymaking or as heresy to be suppressed. International and U.S. response has been underwhelming. Perhaps the Markey/Ocasio-Cortez Green New Deal, like so many forebears, will quickly fade to obscurity.

Or maybe, just maybe, this time Lucy will hold the football. Here’s the case for Big Deal:

Responsive to reality. Like other dimensions of Philip Dick’s reality, climate change isn’t going away, despite legislation forbidding its mention, despite heated skeptical rhetoric, despite wishful thinking. Instead, the evidence for the global changes underway is piling up. The reports are proliferating and converging. The implications for the planet, for ecosystem services and society are coming into focus. Opportunities and limitations of proposed technical fixes and policy options are emerging.

And sharpening minds. The 24th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Katowice, Poland, made clear that the world is not following the U.S. lead in disengaging . Instead, the U.S. is increasingly marginalized, isolated on this issue. Here at home, the latest surveys conducted by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication find that American concerns are rising, even among the most skeptical sectors of society. All this at a moment Congress passed the biggest public lands package in a decade. Awareness is on the upswing.

Focusing on the right things. Peter Drucker would approve. The Green New Deal is a bid to encourage discussion about a significant national and global challenge – one far more consequential and problematic than say, immigration, which has preoccupied American minds in a pernicious way for much of the past two or three years. In fact, that immigration challenge is a symptom of the larger, coupled set of natural resource-, hazard-resilience, environmental- and economic challenges worldwide. Make progress on these root causes, and the immigration symptoms will be greatly mitigated. So will the opioid epidemic and other public-health challenges. So will infrastructure. And so on.

Not command-and-control fixes, but re-starting the conversation. It’s important to understand that the New Green Deal is not legislation so much as a resolution.

 It’s easy to lose sight of this. The Markey-Ocasio-Cortez language itself is quite short, an easy read. (You can find one version here.) To read it is to realize that it’s not prescriptive so much as it’s aspirational. It doesn’t provide detailed specifics and particular actions so much as it identifies aspects of the coupled environmental-economic issues that need to be discussed and addressed by the 320 million people who happen to live in a country that happens to be the leader of the free world. It’s about resolve.

But today, thanks to news- and social media, the New Green Deal is a mere speck floating almost invisibly in the (rapidly rising) ocean of commentary about it. That commentary (alert: including what you’re reading here!), is a Rorschach test, revealing as much about the commentators and their institutions as it does about the target. Depending on where you dip in your toe, it’s easy to decide that the resolution is the tip of a subversive wedge designed to destroy America as we know it, or, conversely, that it’s set to right all of America’s past environmental and economic wrongs.

Precisely because its goals are so humble, the Green New Deal may turn out to have great potential for driving change.


Two closing thoughts:

Both sides seem keen to go on record. Strikingly, climate skeptics in Congress seem eager this time around to put the resolution to a vote (here’s a sample link). The thinking seems to be that the Green New Deal, like most big ideas in their nascent stages, has loose ends and wrinkles that make it less attractive today than it may be in more refined form down the road. There’s also appetite to get members of Congress on record one way or another, with the thought that the Deal’s “extreme” views will come back to haunt today’s proponents in 2020. But if public sentiment is changing, this could pose comparable or even greater risks for today’s skeptics. What’s more, action as opposed to inaction at the Congressional level may have an unintended consequence of giving the issue legs – new staying power.

What does this mean for scientists? What should scientists do? The previous LOTRW post offers several suggestions. But at a high-level , the very proffer of a Green New Deal should reassure scientists that years of findings have been noted and are having impact. Any time scientists spend feeling put-upon or being defensive is time wasted.

By contrast, as world awareness builds and the first signs of action appear, we need to step up the pace of our work. The value of advances in the geosciences and related technologies is greatest when they are in time to inform mitigation and adaptation policies and actions, making them more effective. When our work is late on the scene – in time only to document failure, it’s still of some value (we can always learn from mistakes) but less so.

So, let’s get in touch with our inner Charlie Brown. This time Lucy’s going to hold the football. Let’s charge ahead.

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4 Responses to Lucy promises to hold the climate-change football.

  1. Bill:-

    Not sure if it was intentional but the “Lucy holds the football” metaphor is a big reason some of us are very skeptical about the “Green New Deal.” We’ve seen Charlie Brown flat on his back too many times! As I’m sure you know, some of the latest research finds that many right-of-center skeptics are – well, skeptical, not because of the message but the messengers. Even though a newcomer, AOC has already shown an amazing penchant for playing fast and loose with the facts. Senator Markey has a longer history – but of the same anti-business agenda.

    As I hope you know, I accept the evidence that climate change is real. However, I find little compelling evidence that “eliminating” CO2 in the US will accomplish much of anything, and much that suggests that our climate’s natural variability will continue to force global temperatures and sea levels higher independent of any actions we take on CO2. If I’m right, the kinds of disruptions called for in the Green New Deal will make our country poorer and less able to recover from severe weather events than now.

    The one thing I agree with the Green New Deal on is the need to “Go Big.” But let’s Go Big on no-regrets policies like rebuilding our infrastructure so that it is both more robust and better sited – and suited – to a changing world; like providing our kids with the tools they’re going to need to live in this changing world; like eradicating poverty which will lead to fewer people and smaller human impacts on this changing world. A different message (and messenger) but one borne of optimism in our future and not fear.

    • William Hooke says:

      John, your thoughtful and spot-on comment makes me painfully aware that in writing this I’d failed to make it sufficiently clear — my enthusiasm for the Green New Bill is less any of the particulars than the fact it’s refocusing the national conversation on something worth discussing: coping with natural resource-, hazard-, environmental-, and economic challenges broadly and holistically. Finally we’re talking, seeking to find agreement, about the right things. By contrast, funds for “a wall” don’t rise to that standard.

  2. Jud Stailey says:

    Bill-thanks for his post. I needed a dose of optimism. Regarding your response to John’s comments, I think you were sufficiently clear. You called the Green New Deal “a bid encourage discussion about a significant national and global challenge.” You said in bold print that it’s “Not command-and-control fixes, but re-starting the conversation.” You said that “it’s not prescriptive so much as it’s aspirational.” You said that it “is not legislation so much as a resolution.” I don’t know how you could be more clear. While I have some sympathy with what John said in his response and agree to some of what he suggests, the underlying pessimism is not helpful.

    Of course, what the Green New Deal may catalyze–serious discussion about serious action–should have been happening 20 years ago. But that’s water under the bridge (or CO2 into the atmosphere). I agree with you: Let’s charge ahead.

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