From the cover of “Solving the Climate Crisis.”

July 1, 2020; The New Republic

At 538 pages, and building on 18 months of consultations, the US House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’s action plan is certainly far more detailed than the 14-page Green New Deal resolution offered by US Representative Alexandria Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) a year-and-a-half ago.

“Put together by nine Democratic majority members of the committee through hearings and consultations, the document released Tuesday is more ambitious than anything that could have come out of Capitol Hill even a few years ago,” writes Kate Aronoff in The New Republic.

The report, Solving the Climate Crisis, contains 12 main recommendations. Cutting through some of the jargon, these recommendations can be summarized as follows:

  • Invest in clean energy infrastructure.
  • Support technological change/innovation.
  • Encourage industry transition to cleaner energy.
  • Shift tax incentives from fossil fuels to clean energy technology.
  • Assist workers, including transition strategies for fossil fuel workers.
  • Cut pollution in communities of color and advance environmental justice.
  • Mitigate climate crisis-related public health risks.
  • Commit federal dollars to support climate stewardship in agriculture.
  • Adjust building codes to support structural resiliency.
  • Foster “carbon sinks” through changes in land and natural resource policy.
  • Require consideration of climate in military expenditures.
  • Strengthen democratic institutions and invest in science.

But if the above list sounds a little bit vague, that is because it is. Moreover, for a report so lengthy and detailed, there are some startling omissions.

In particular, estimated costs to meet carbon reduction goals are notably missing. However, there are estimates galore of the trillions of dollars in likely economic savings from making clean energy investments. Apparently, it’s all savings and no cost—a neat trick if you can pull it off.

Less surprising, but disappointing nonetheless, is an unwillingness to consider greater changes in economic structure that might be needed to shift to a carbon-neutral economy. For instance, some have argued that public ownership of key sectors, such as nationalizing fossil fuel firms, is required to neutralize opposition. (We won’t even bother delving into broader critiques of the entire capitalist economic system’s growth dependency, a difficult resource challenge that will certainly need to be addressed if a real transition to a “green” economy is to occur.)

As Aronoff puts it, citing President George H.W. Bush’s words at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the official Democratic Party position remains that “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.” Alas, the laws of nature and physics might have other ideas.

What does this mean? Well, it may be the case that climate disruption will require faster adjustment than politicians would like. For instance, Aronoff observes that the report’s authors recommend that the US agree to immigration by 50,000 “climate displaced persons per year.” That sounds humane, but it is woefully inadequate. According to Oxfam, the number of people displaced per year by extreme weather over the last decade averaged 20 million. Doing the math, 50,000 amounts to 0.25 percent of that total. If climate displacement continues to rise…well, let’s hope there are other more generous countries that are able to house refugee populations.

This is just one of a host of examples where the means fall far, far short of the ends. Take the critical issue of transitioning workers out of fossil fuel industries while finding them replacement jobs. As Aronoff notes, “Decarbonizing without throwing millions into unstable living conditions will require transitioning workers now in emissions-heavy sectors to greener work,” but that work doesn’t necessarily mean work in energy. Yes, there are “plenty of well-paid and unionized jobs to be had in an energy transition—in insulation, maintenance, and building a smart grid, for instance.” But a plan that anticipates replacing jobs like-with-like ignores the fact that many clean tech businesses are, as the word “tech” suggests, highly automated. The numbers just don’t work out.

Fortunately, there is a lot of necessary work that is not energy-related but is low in energy cost, and could, if work conditions were improved, be a cornerstone of a more equitable green economy. As Aronoff points out, there is “lots of sorely needed work that’s already low-carbon, much of it today done by mostly underpaid women in professions like teaching and nursing.” But such a shift requires increasing compensation levels and other adjustments in addition to “retraining.”

One other omissi