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A new green deal

Across America, calls for climate action are growing louder and more fervent. As Naomi Klein wrote this week, “[we have] been waiting a very long time for there to finally be a critical mass of politicians in power who understand not only the existential urgency of the climate crisis, but also the once-in-a-century opportunity it represents.”

We’re almost there. We understand the problem – we can’t allow temperatures to rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives the world 12 years to make substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid severe climate effects later this century – including in the United States. The urgency of the situation can’t be overstated.

We have momentum – incoming Democrats, like Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, are building support for an ambitious climate plan, and more than 15 members of Congress are calling for a select committee with a mandate to draft comprehensive legislation: a Green New Deal. We have the outline of a plan: We need a mass mobilization of people and resources, something not unlike the U.S. involvement in World War II or the Apollo moon missions – but even bigger. We must transform our energy system, transportation, housing, agriculture and more.

What we don’t (yet) have is the final, vital ingredient – a critical mass of politicians prepared to unleash the enormous power of the public purse to save the planet. We need more political courage and less political consternation.

Sure, it’ll cost a lot of money. That’s likely to rattle the nerves of self-proclaimed deficit hawks, Democrats and Republicans alike, who will ask the same tired questions: “How will we pay for it?” “What about the deficit and debt?” “Won’t it hurt our economy?” In fact, these questions are already coming, with the eager help of the fossil fuel lobby.

Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah recently said that “all the proposals I’ve seen so far… would devastate the U.S. economy.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) says he’s theoretically open to action but adds, “I’m also not going to destroy our economy.”

Democrats risk aiming low if they merely repackage proposals for “pay-go” infrastructure spending that would build more roads and bridges but fail to strengthen resilience to worsening climate hazards. These politicians, and the pundits who echo them, approach the debate all wrong. We can’t afford to let deficit politics stand in the way of an ambitious Green New Deal.

Here’s the good news: Anything that is technically feasible is financially affordable. And it won’t be a drag on the economy – unlike the climate crisis itself, which will cause tens of billions of dollars worth of damage to American homes, communities and infrastructure each year. A Green New Deal will actually help the economy by stimulating productivity, job growth and consumer spending, as government spending has often done. (You don’t have to go back to the original New Deal for evidence of that.)

In fact, a Green New Deal can create good-paying jobs while redressing economic and environmental inequities. One policy vision, by the progressive think tank Data for Progress, is based on a foundation of equity and justice.

It proposes a transition to a low-carbon economy using clean and renewable energy, the restoration of forests and wetlands, and the build-up of resilience in both rural and urban communities.

To save the planet and fix historical inequities, however, we must change the way we approach the federal budget. We must give up our obsession with trying to “pay for” everything with new revenue or spending cuts.

Are taxes an important part of an aggressive climate plan? Sure. Taxes can shape incentives and help change behaviors within the private sector. Taxes should be raised to break up concentrations of wealth and income, and to punish polluters for the cost and consequences of their actions.

In a period without federal leadership on the climate crisis, this is how many state and local governments are considering carbon pricing. That’s useful – not because we “need to pay for it” but to end polluters’ harmfulbehavior.

The federal government can spend money on public priorities without raising revenue, and it won’t wreck the nation’s economy to do so. That may sound radical, but it’s not. It’s how the U.S. economy has been functioning for nearly half a century. That’s the power of the public purse.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘We Can Pay for a Green New Deal’.