Scholars debate need for a Green New Deal

By RAIN JI

The Green New Deal, a legislative proposal seen by many as a radical answer to the question of climate change, went up for debate in Dana Auditorium last Thursday. The Alexander Hamilton Forum and the Political Science Department co-sponsored the debate.

Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Robert Pollin argued in favor of the Green New Deal, while Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argued against it. Christopher Klyza, Middlebury’s Stafford professor of public policy, political science and environmental studies, moderated the debate, which came during an election year when Democratic voters are more worried about climate change than ever before.  

“We thought the topic was especially timely, as the Green New Deal is an issue in the Democratic primary and is likely to be an issue in the general election,” said Associate Political Science professor Keegan Callanan, who serves as director of the Alexander Hamilton Forum.

The Green New Deal, sponsored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), mandates a transition to clean energy in order to reduce greenhouse gas emission, offers a program to support those who are impacted and creates a variety of job and entrepreneurial opportunities. 

Pollin first spoke to defend the Green New Deal on the grounds of its absolute necessity, and centered his definition of  the Green New Deal around a zero-emissions deadline for the year 2050.

“If you believe in mainstream climate science, we are looking at a world that could be calamitous over the next couple of decades,” he said. “My version of the Green New Deal is to get to net zero emissions in a way that also creates more opportunities, raises living standards [and] expands job opportunities.”

He then proposed a multi-step course of action to achieve his vision of a Green New Deal globally. He suggested that governments begin by placing massive investments into energy sufficiency, including into operations of buildings, industrial machineries, transportation and more. Next, he advised investment in solar and wind power in order to reduce fossil fuel infrastructure down to zero.

He expressed belief that his Green New Deal, although costly upfront, is economically responsible in the long run. According to his research, investing in building the green economy generates about three times more jobs per million dollars than investing in the fossil fuel economy.

“Let’s understand that investment in energy efficiency, by definition, saves money,” Pollin said. “Yes, there are costs, but over time, those costs will get covered by the savings that are engendered by delivering this new energy system.”

Cass spoke second, voicing his objection to the Green New Deal on three fronts: feasibility, high-cost and poor outcomes. 

“With the existing technologies we have, there are tremendous disputes over whether wind and solar [power] have any capability to actually solve the problem,” he said. “To the extent we put all of our eggs in the wind and solar basket, we are actually distracting ourselves from the kind of innovation we are actually going to need.”

He offered the example of Germany, where despite the government’s 30-year long project, the country failed to meet its goal of decarbonizing its economy. While the state of Vermont is politically progressive, it has not developed any wind projects for five years and has seen a rise in emissions in comparison with past decades. 

Cass also emphasized the high price tag of the Green New Deal, then criticized Pollin’s claim that the Green New Deal generates jobs. 

“The jobs that it [the deal] would destroy are particularly good ones: fossil fuel economy jobs are among the best for blue collar workers that we have,” Cass said. “[They are] the highest paying and they in turn support our manufacturing sector.” 

Additionally, countries in the developing world have no incentive to join such a deal, he said, and the effort from the United States alone will not be enough to reduce emissions globally. He pointed to how the developing world pledged “no useful contribution” in the Paris Agreement, a United Nations agreement on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. 

The assumption that the rest of the world would follow America’s lead is, according to Cass, “an extremely condescending and colonial point of view, as it suggests that the leaders of other countries do not know what is good for themselves.”

He proposed to invest in innovation to find an alternative energy source that is both cheaper than fossil fuel and reliable, so that people will have incentive to adapt. 

“I believe that some version of a Green New Deal — or a project to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the climate — will be implemented soon, for the simple reason that we truly have no alternative,” he said. “Mr. Cass is not reading the overwhelming body of evidence accurately.”

Students cited myriad reasons for attending the debate. Evelyn Lane ’23 chose to attend because writer and climate activist Naomi Klein’s Feb. 13 talk deepened her interest in the topic of climate change. 

Elizabeth Kroger ’22.5, a conservation biology major, feels that she is often surrounded by people who hold the same opinion as she does, so she attended the lecture to learn about any potential downfalls of the plan.

“I am curious as to what opponents of the Green New Deal would propose in place of it,” Kroger said. “Cass did not speak of any specific policies or programs to replace the deal.”

Other students, concerned with the Alexander Hamilton Forum’s funding, held another climate-focused event at the same time. Organizers wrote about that event, “What Does it Mean to be a Student at Middlebury in the Age of Climate Catastrophe?: A Koch-Free Conversation,” in an op-ed published in The Campus on Feb. 13.