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Bob Pollin talks about the Green New Deal.
Let’s get this on the table right away, without mincing words. With regard to the climate crisis, yes, it’s time to panic.
We are in deep trouble.
This book is a survival manual for civilization. I want everyone—yes, every person on the planet—to learn its message and to face the challenge it poses: ‘What am I doing to help bring about a global Green New Deal in the early years of this decade?’ For Americans, the first steps are clear: consign all climate deniers to permanent political oblivion and force all other policymakers to match fine words with deeds—i.e. commit to the Pollin-Chomsky global program for climate stabilization, a massive expansion of good jobs, and just transition.
There’s great news on climate:
clean-energy has gotten way cheaper in recent years (the data do apparently show that cost-reduction rates have “slowed, especially for onshore wind”, but fossil-fuels are massively subsidized so you have to keep in mind the massive fossil-fuel subsidies whenever you compare costs)
as of 2020, battery-storage is apparently “cheaper than natural gas to satisfy some peaker plant needs in areas that import lots of natural gas, like Europe, Japan and China” (this is important, since it means that battery-storage is cheap enough to replace natural gas in certain cases)
you can electrify your vehicle-fleet, decarbonize your power-grid, use gas-turbine peaker-plants to stabilize the power-grid, and then finally phase-out the natural gas—that said, Pollin notes in the interview below that natural gas is dirty and that he sees no role for it beyond 2050
Bob Pollin’s “just transition” is 100% doable and will eliminate one of the biggest political hurdles that the Green New Deal faces
The last point is extremely important. Whether it’s Canada dealing with Alberta or America dealing with (e.g.) Texas, you need to ensure that people are guaranteed to be just as well off in the decarbonized world as they are now. It’s politically impossible to decarbonize if you don’t have the people on your side. Noam Chomsky talks about this point:
Some of Trump’s victories are very revealing. A report on NPR discussed his victory in a solid Democratic county on the Texas-Mexico border with many poor Latinos that hadn’t voted Republican for a century, since Harding. The NPR analyst attributes Biden’s loss to his famous “gaffe” in the last debate, in which he said that we have to act to save human society from destruction in the not very distant future. Not his words, of course, but that’s the meaning of his statement: that we have to make moves to transition away from fossil fuels, which are central to the regional economy. Whether that’s the reason for the radical shift, or whether it’s attributable to another of the colossal Democratic organizing failures, the fact that the outcome is attributed to the gaffe is itself indicative of the rot in the dominant culture. In the U.S., it is [considered] a serious “gaffe” to dare to hint that we have to act to avoid a cataclysm.
Poor working people in the border area are not voting for the predictable consequences of Trump’s race toward cataclysm. They may simply be skeptical about what science predicts. Sixty percent of conservative Republicans (35 percent of moderate Republicans) believe that humans are contributing “not too much/not at all” to global warming. A poll reported in Science found that only 20 percent of Republicans trust scientists “a lot…to do what is right for the country.” Why then believe the dire predictions? These, after all, are the messages pounded into their heads daily by the White House and its media echo chamber.
South Texan working people may not be ready to sacrifice their lives and communities today on the basis of claims in elite circles that they are instructed not to trust. These tendencies cannot be blamed solely on Trump’s malevolence. They trace back to the failure of the Democratic Party to bring to the public a serious program to fend off environmental catastrophe while also improving lives and work—not because such programs don’t exist; they do. But because they don’t appeal to the donor-oriented Clintonite neoliberals who run the Democratic Party.
Politically and ethically, you must have guarantees for the people decarbonization might harm. Bob Pollin has good ideas:
We develop a Just Transition framework for U.S. workers and communities that are currently dependent on domestic fossil fuel production. Our rough high-end estimate for such a program is a relatively modest $600 million per year. This level of funding would pay for 1) income, retraining and relocation support for workers facing retrenchments; 2) guaranteeing the pensions for workers in the affected industries; and 3) mounting effective transition programs for what are now fossil-fuel dependent communities.
We can push for Pollin’s ideas before it’s too late. Activism can save us. There is great hope. We can still save ourselves before it’s too late, if we join activism.
See below my interview with Pollin. (I added hyperlinks.)
1) What are your latest articles, papers, books?
My latest book is Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet, co-authored with the great Noam Chomsky.
Over the past several months, I have co-authored a series of studies developing green-transition programs for the US states of Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and California. I have also studied the employment-impacts of the THRIVE Agenda—which is a US-wide program focused on investments in clean energy, public infrastructure, land restoration/agriculture, and the care-economy. I also co-authored a paper on the employment-impacts of a clean-energy transition for the Zero-Carbon Action Plan (ZCAP).
2) What exciting projects are you currently engaged in?
All of these projects with the states are very exciting. I have been working with groups of highly capable and highly committed organizers and activists. They are trying to bring together the climate- and labor-movements in the most effective ways possible.
3) How long do we have to decarbonize?
I am not a climate-scientist, so I am not qualified to give an answer on my own. I can repeat the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In their October 2018 report, they set CO2-emissions reduction-targets in order to prevent the global mean temperature from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Those targets are to cut CO2 emissions by 45 percent as of 2030 and to be at net-zero emissions by 2050. So, following the IPCC, it looks like we have no more than 29 years to be emissions-free.
4) Regarding decarbonization, what are the biggest hurdles that worry you?
The only really big hurdles are (1) inertia and (2) politics.
The technologies to transform our energy-system to clean energy are already there. Solar, wind, and geothermal energy are all now cheaper on average than coal and nuclear for generating electricity. The financial challenges are significant, but hardly insurmountable. On a global basis, we need about 2.5–3.0 percent of GDP per year over the next 30 years invested in building the clean-energy infrastructure. That would come to about $4.5 trillion per year (assuming the global economy grows at about 3 percent per year). That is a huge amount of money at one level. But it is also only about 1.3 percent of the current level of the global financial markets. In addition, once we put the clean-energy infrastructure in place, it will deliver energy at lower costs to all energy consumers. The clean-energy transition project will also be a major source of job-creation throughout the world.
Given all of this, the political hurdles do remain formidable. The main factor here is, of course, the fossil-fuel companies—both public and private ones—that are still producing huge profits from selling oil, coal, and natural gas. They want to keep making huge profits. They have the capacity to buy a lot of politicians.
5) What recent technological breakthroughs—solar? wind? batteries?—excite you the most regarding decarbonization?
The most impressive single breakthrough, in my view, has been the roughly 80-percent decline in the costs of generating electricity from solar panels just within the past decade. This has enabled us to think about the clean-energy transition in a different way than a decade ago, when we couldn’t make the case for solar on the basis of costs.
6) What are the biggest misconceptions, misunderstandings, blindspots that the public has about the Green New Deal?
There are many, and often divergent, definitions of what constitutes the “Green New Deal”. By my definition, the Green New Deal is a project, specifically, to hit the IPCC’s emissions-reduction targets, and to do so in a way that also expands job-opportunities, reduces poverty, and raises mass living-standards in all regions of the globe. In fact, all of these things are achievable within a framework of a global clean-energy investment project at the level I mentioned before—of between 2.5–3.0 percent of global GDP per year.
In terms of what I regard as misconceptions and blindspots, I will mention a couple here, and also below with your next question.
It is a misconception that a Green New Deal will be bad for job-creation. It will be a positive force for job-creation.
And it is a blindspot to advance a Green New Deal and not integrate just-transition for the workers and communities that are currently dependent on the fossil-fuel industry for their livelihood. Just-transition must be fully integrated into the Green New Deal.
7) What are the biggest misconceptions, misunderstandings, blindspots that progressives have about the Green New Deal?
If we follow the IPCC, it is a misconception that we need to be at zero emissions by 2030. The IPCC is quite explicit in saying the zero-emissions target is for 2050.
And it is a misconception to think that something like a “de-growth” agenda can put us on a climate-stabilization path. In fact, we need massive growth in clean-energy infrastructure—as well as de-growth, down to zero, in the fossil-fuel industry. But thinking about an overall contraction of economic activity—i.e., “de-growth”—is far too vague a concept to get us anywhere.
8) How would you rate the Biden administration so far on climate?
So far, as of Biden’s presentation of his infrastructure/clean-energy program, I would give the administration a B or maybe B-. The rhetoric and intentions all seem generally good. But the scale of proposed public-investments are not adequate to hit the emissions-reduction targets. I am also quite concerned that the Biden program depends significantly on carbon-capture technology. Other than capturing carbon through natural processes, such as absorption in trees and soil, there is no effective carbon-capture technology in place. And we don’t have a decade to waste waiting for something to get developed.
It is hard to generalize. With some companies it is the real deal. Not so much with others. The main thing is to make these climate-targets in corporations mandatory, not just voluntary. That is, “Figure out how to cut your own carbon-footprint down to zero within 20 years.” If the companies don’t do this, they should be faced with massive fines, or their CEOs should face jail-time.
10) Chomsky has pointed out that corporations are inescapably locked into a suicidal short-termism that switching personnel cannot free us from. If Chomsky is right, then why does it seem like the corporate sector is suddenly an ally of environmentalists, to some extent?
Companies are seeing ever-more-clearly that their own short-term profit-interests coincide with the climate-stabilization project. One big recent example is General Motors. Under Trump, they were against having the government mandate fuel-efficiency standards for them. Then, lo and behold, when Biden won, GM announced that they were going to build a 100-percent electric car-fleet by 2035.
11) Dean Baker made this comment: “The other must-do is serious action to stem climate change. This means hastening the shift to electric cars and more rapid adoptions of solar and wind energy. While a carbon tax would be a great policy to speed this shift, it is probably not politically practical. Biden can take steps to make fossil fuels more expensive, such as restricting drilling on public land and imposing tighter environmental standards on fracking operations—however, the bigger part of the story will be reducing the costs of clean energy.” Your thoughts?
I agree with Dean. But let’s recognize that clean energy is already cheaper on average than fossil-fuel energy, as recognized by no less an authority than the US Department of Energy. On top of that, investing in energy-efficiency lowers the costs of energy still further, since by definition, rising efficiency means that you need less energy to transport yourself from Point A to Point B, to operate your computers and heating- and cooling-systems, or to run industrial machinery.
12) And Dean Baker also made this comment: “The tide has really shifted on clean energy. It is now a major industry and even the big oil-companies are recognizing that they have to get on board or become irrelevant. The same is true for the auto industry, which is now committing itself to a future of electric cars. With the enormous progress in lowering costs for clean energy and increased efficiency of battery storage, Biden really has an open door here. He will have plenty of industry support for a green agenda, which is clearly going to be a big job-creator in the next decade.” Your thoughts on this?
Again, I agree with Dean. I have been producing research since 2008 showing that investing in a clean-energy economy can be a major new source of job-creation in the US and throughout the world.
13) What role will natural gas play going forward?
Natural gas will remain as a baseload-fuel for roughly the next 20 years, as the clean-energy supply builds up in increments. But by 2050, I see no role for natural gas. Natural gas does burn significantly cleaner than coal and mostly cleaner than petroleum. But it still generates CO2-emissions through combustion. If we need to get to zero emissions, we therefore need to also eliminate natural gas. In addition, when natural gas leaks into the atmosphere in the production-process, the methane-gas that it emits eliminates any benefit at all from natural gas relative to coal.
14) Are there any misconceptions about the role that natural gas will play going forward?
The serious misconception is that, considering everything, natural gas is a relatively clean fuel. It is not a clean fuel. It needs to be phased out just as much as coal and petroleum.
15) What do you think about this striking report about how the big banks are funding fossil-fuels?
The banks obviously wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t still see big profit-opportunities in the fossil-fuel industry. We need to disabuse them of this idea. The only way to do that is to fight to get the US economy—and the global economy—onto the zero-emissions path. The banks will get the message if they understand that the fossil-fuel industry is going the way of the whale-oil industry.
16) What are your thoughts on this, which is supposed to be a big deal for the climate?
I have long been opposed to treating biomass as a clean-energy source. Burning wood to produce energy generates as much CO2 as burning coal, if not more. The argument in favor of biomass-energy from wood is that, over a 30–50 year cycle, if we plant new trees, those trees will absorb CO2, which then counteracts and neutralizes the CO2 put into the atmosphere from burning the wood. At the simplest level, the problem with this position is that we don’t have 30–50 years to absorb the CO2 from wood-burning that is happening now. When we talk about renewable-energy sources, I always include the qualifier “clean renewables”. That includes solar, wind, geothermal, small-scale hydro, and only bioenergy-sources that do not produce CO2 at all. Burning wood for biomass doesn’t qualify here. This energy-source needs to be shut down just as much as burning coal for energy.