Tuesday, February 26, 2019

To Freak Out or Not to Freak Out

To freak out or not to freak out? That is the question. These are the answers.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Notes on the Green New Deal (GND)

The “Green New Deal” is an ambitious economic and environmental conservation proposal currently gaining traction among congressional democrats in the United States. I recently read the text of the “Green New Deal” on the US Green Party’s web page.


The GND text is not super detailed, but I think it’s detailed enough to make a convincing case for the proposal. From my perspective as a marine scientist focused on how ecosystems work and how they respond to human impacts, the GND proposal makes much more sense than most political “deals” related to the environment. Below are my somewhat-disorganized notes on the GND. I have bolded certain quotes or concepts from the GND, and commented on them in non-bold text:

The GND contends that the fossil fuel economy is “decaying.” Personally I wouldn’t say that it is decaying, but I agree that it is unsustainable because:

1) We will eventually run out. Our fossil fuel reserves took hundreds of millions of years to form, but we’re burning them at a rate that will use them up in just a couple of centuries. So even if fossil fuels didn’t pollute at all, we would need to transition to other energy sources in the not-so-distant future.

2) Fossil fuels cause several very serious pollution problems, which are cumulative and will continue to worsen if we continue to burn fossil fuels. I agree with the text of the GND that Global Warming, in particular is a major threat to human civilization.

  • Toxic air pollution (smog) is created from all kinds of fossil fuel burning, but is especially bad from coal and small engines like cars. Smog contains NOx compounds that rain to earth and cause algae blooms, SO2 that causes acid rain, volatile organic carbon compounds that sicken people and animals, and particulate matter that causes respiratory diseases.
  • The carbon dioxide produced (CO2) reacts with ocean water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), lowering the pH of the oceans and interfering with marine organisms’ body chemistry and their ability to create calcium carbonate shells and skeletons. This “ocean acidification” phenomenon is particularly deadly to coral reefs.
  • The carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel burning is a greenhouse gas, which increases the “greenhouse effect” of the earth’s atmosphere by acting like a blanket preventing heat from radiating away into space. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has gone from 280 parts per million in the 1850s to over 410 parts per million now, and global average temperatures have already increased by about 1 degree Celsius over that same period. With further temperature rise we’ll see significant sea level rise and major “weirding” of weather and climate, in addition to higher average temperatures worldwide.

*Transition to 100% green renewable energy (no nukes or natural gas) by 2030.

  • 2030 is 11 years away. That is pretty soon, but I think we can do it if we combine energy conservation (using less energy overall) with redirecting all funds now directed to fossil fuels to development of green energy. The GND recognizes the importance of energy conservation to reduce demand. “Going to 100% clean energy by 2030 means reducing energy demand as much as possible.” That is something we can begin immediately. 
  •  I agree that natural gas (methane, CH4) mined from the earth is unsustainable. Burning it produces just as much CO2 as is produced by burning any other fossil fuel, and the fracking and other techniques we use to get it out of the ground are very polluting to groundwater resources. Also, the methane that gets loose is an even worse greenhouse gas than CO2.
  • I agree that nuclear power should not be included in the “green” energy category. Though nuclear power generation does not produce any greenhouse gases, the nuclear waste it generates is a very dangerous material for which there is no safe, affordable long-term disposal solution. Also, the risk of disastrous radiation releases like from Chernobyl and Fukushima is always present.

*The GND’s plan to transition to 100% clean energy by 2030 is the only program in any US presidential candidate’s platform that even attempts to meet the scientific goal agreed to in Paris. Yes, this is true. “Business as usual” is not getting it done. When we evaluate the merits of the GND we should remember that the alternative we’re comparing it with is our current state of doing almost nothing, or even putting out MORE pollution, all while the environment and climate system goes to heck.

*"It’s not just a question of what kind of world we want, but whether we will have a world at all." This is overly dramatic, but I don’t entirely disagree. There will still be a world even if we don’t change course on fossil fuels. I.e., there will still be a big rock orbiting the sun. It’s just that it will be a very unpleasant world, rife with environmental, economic, and humanitarian crises, and lacking the richness and relative stability of the natural ecosystems that we enjoy today.

*"Immediately halt investment in fossil fuels." This makes sense because:

  1. Fossil fuel companies are rich enough that they don’t need government help. 
  2. Instead of putting money into something that is unsustainable (unhealthy, won’t last) it’s better to channel investment into things that will last and improve our situation in America and on earth in general.

*Guarantee full employment / End unemployment for good. That would be a good thing, but seems like an exaggeration if not an impossibility. However, 20 million new, living wage jobs seems reasonable.

  • The extensive and diverse technology development and infrastructure upgrades involved in the GND will absolutely add a huge number and variety of jobs to the economy. 
  • The public jobs program seems legitimate, too. We have other “public jobs programs” like paying soldiers, teachers, police, etc. We might as well pay people to clean up the earth, too, because it benefits the workers and the rest of us enough to be worth the tax money. Even most conservatives would probably agree that the government paying someone to do a job that improves the community is better than the government paying the person welfare without any work involved. 
  • The replacement of the general unemployment office with “local employment offices” could help local municipalities put federal support to better use by creating jobs that will improve the local environment and other aspects of the local community. If I was out of work, I reckon I’d be happy to be able to get a temporary job in my area, even something like picking up trash out of the ditches or planting trees. Nothing will ever end all unemployment, but employing people in green energy enterprises is an excellent idea. The “renewable” nature of green energy means that green energy jobs are a renewable resource, as well.

*Make wars for oil obsolete. I mostly agree with this. While “wars for oil” may be an oversimplification of our expensive conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, few would deny that our enormous military expenditures and dubious alliances with authoritarian regimes in the region have been “justified” by our desire to secure our supply of oil.

*Revive the economy. This is an interesting contention, because by some measures like GDP, employment rate, and stock market growth rate, the US economy is doing great and doesn’t need any reviving. However, these most common measures of economic health fail to capture the economic struggles and threats to well-being that everyday civilians experience. What good is it to be employed if you’re working three jobs just to pay the rent on your tiny apartment, you’re lonely, sleep deprived and deeply depressed, you’re being exposed to toxic air and water pollution, and you can’t afford to go to the doctor? By measures that integrate economics and human well-being, such as the “genuine progress indicator (GPI), the US has actually been declining since the 1970s. Even without a numerical indicator like this, older liberals and conservatives agree that things aren’t as good as they used to be. We DO need a revival. https://sustainabilityadvantage.com/2011/03/08/5-reasons-why-a-gpi-should-replace-the-gdp/

*Fight the corporate takeover of our democracy. Another thing that both liberals and conservatives tend to agree on is that our political system is being seriously corrupted by soulless corporate entities, leading to laws that benefit those big businesses and hurt everyday people. Legislation is written by and for moneyed interests, with disregard for the general public. The subsidies, tax-breaks, and lax environmental laws enjoyed by fossil fuel polluting industries are the direct result of their decades of corrupting our democracy. In Florida, even environmental ballot measures clearly supported by the majority of the voters are ignored by the corrupt politicians. We must identify and rectify this corruption.

*"The transition to 100% clean energy will foster democratic control of our energy system, rather than maximizing profits for energy corporations, banks and hedge funds." I don’t know if I would agree with the implication that clean energy is inherently more democratic and less “big money” than dirty energy is. I think it’s up to us to make sure that clean energy development doesn’t happen by the same corrupt monopoly route that dirty energy development did.

*"The Green New Deal not only saves us from climate catastrophe. It also pays for itself through health savings alone." I don’t know if the numbers support that the GND would be totally paid for by the health savings alone, but I agree that the health saving from environmental protection would be SIGNIFICANT. I remember being on a biology class fieldtrip to an autopsy, where we examined the lungs of a smoker, and the lungs of non-smoker who had lived in Tacoma, Washington near pollution-belching paper mills. The smoker’s lungs were worse, of course, but there were lumps of black pollution goo in the non-smoker’s lungs, as well. The links between pollution and human health are numerous. Toxic effects of harmful algae blooms and photochemical smog, both of which related to fossil fuel burning as well as other factors, worsen many illnesses.

*"Right now, our federal subsidy programs benefit large agribusiness corporations and the oil, mining, nuclear, coal and timber giants at the expense of small farmers, small business, and our children’s environment. We spend billions of dollars every year moving our economy in the wrong direction, turning our planet uninhabitable while imposing the greatest harm on communities of color and the poor. The Green New Deal will instead redirect that money to the real job creators who make our communities more healthy, sustainable and secure at the same time."

  • Shifting taxpayer subsidies from polluting industry to green industry is one of the compelling, common-sense things about the GND, which makes it both affordable and logical. Instead of putting taxpayer money into polluting industries, we’ll put it into sustainable ventures.

*The creation of a “Commission for Economic Democracy” and other GND proposals intended to foster local, public involvement (for example, small businesses, small farmers, and local energy cooperatives) instead of distant, corporate and big-government control. I think this is generally a good thing. By getting more people aware of and involved in green projects specific to their area, they are more likely to have a personal sense of investment in the ventures, and more likely to be better stewards of their environment and economy.

*The creation of a Renewable Energy Administration to “provide technical support, financing, and coordination to more than 900 municipal cooperatives.” Though this work might also be done through existing agencies like the DOE or EPA, I like the general idea of having a federal-level organization to help guide and fund the smaller local groups that are carrying out the green energy changeover.

*"closed-loop cycles that eliminate waste and pollution, as well as organic agriculture, permaculture, and sustainable forestry." These are big things that my colleagues in the Marine and Ecological Sciences department at FGCU discuss a lot. They make a ton of logical sense. For example, instead of synthesizing nitrate and phosphate fertilizers in factories, then blasting them into the environment where they build up and cause algae blooms and other harmful pollution, we should be extracting the nitrate and phosphate from the polluted environment and reusing it as fertilizer. We do this to a small extent now by using nutrient-filled wastewater to fertilize some farms and golf courses, but the problem is that we still use synthetic fertilizers on those lands, too, so the buildup of nutrient pollution continues to increase.

*Paying for the GND. Obviously the GND would be incredibly expensive at $700 bn to $1 tn / year. However, a lot of that would be from shifting spending rather than from new taxes. E.g., ceasing our subsidies of polluting industries would free up billions of dollars, cleaner air and water would improve human health and reduce healthcare costs, and ending “wars for oil” would save enormous sums.

  • Carbon tax. Because the effects of carbon dioxide pollution are a burden on all people, it makes sense that there be a carbon tax such that the people who are producing the most carbon dioxide pollution be contributing the most to dealing with that shared burden. The combination of ending fossil fuel subsidies and levying a carbon tax will lead to more “true” pricing on fossil fuel products, reflecting the costs of all the pollution they create, and market capitalism will do its thing and adjust. However, I am glad that the GND recognizes that there must be measures to ensure that the carbon tax burden doesn’t fall unfairly on poor and middle class people. Otherwise we’ll have problems like with the “yellow vest” protest in France that were in response to a fuel tax that disproportionately hurt working class people. The carbon tax should not be a “regressive” tax.
  • Progressive tax rates. At face value it seems unfair to “punish” rich people by taxing them at a higher rate than middle class and poor people. But before we shed tears for those poor, poor billionaires, let’s consider the dynamics of how personal wealth is actually accrued. Wealth comes from saving your earnings, then investing those savings. When you’re poor or middle class, most of your earnings go to paying your essential bills for housing, food, healthcare, transportation, etc. You have little or nothing left for savings or investment, so it’s hard to grow your wealth. However, when you’re starting out rich (your rich parents paid for your expensive education, bought you your first car and home, and used their connections to set you up with a cushy white-collar job), your income is much bigger than your essential bills, so you have much more leftover for savings and investment. Therefore it’s inherently easier for the already-rich to get richer than it is for the poor and middle class to get richer. Without any counterbalance to that “rich get richer” effect, it only takes a few decades for society to polarize into the super-rich who can do whatever they want, and the poor people trapped in poverty. Sure we can point to the occasional "rags to riches" story to try to say that this is still the land of opportunity and it's just a matter of how hard you work, but I think that's mostly a bullshit myth. The reality is much more "rags to rags" and "riches to riches." So while progressive tax rates and taxes on large inheritances are not “fair,” per se, they are a essential to prevent the permanent division of society into a born-wealthy upper class and a stuck-in-poverty lower class. They also generate the necessary revenue for programs that benefit all, like public education, and infrastructure development programs like the GND.
  • Other times of high tax rates on the rich were prosperous times in the US, like the 1950s through the 1970s when our economy boomed, we advanced in the space race, stayed on top in the cold war, cleaned up the environment through the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Magnusson-Stevens Fisheries Act, etc.