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Green deal audacious, but we have to think big

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson is a columnist with the Washington Post.

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Sunday, February 24, 2019

Who's afraid of the Green New Deal? I'm not. It's ambitious, aspirational, improbable, impractical — almost as audacious as putting a man on the moon. We used to be able to think big. Let's do it again.

Since the 14-page resolution was introduced in Congress last week by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., critics have been falling over themselves to denounce the Green New Deal's policies as prohibitively expensive, totally unworkable or somehow Venezuelan. If those opponents would stop shouting long enough to actually read the document, they'd see that it's not a compendium of concrete policies at all, but rather a set of goals.

And they are the right goals. The Green New Deal seeks to outline a national project for our time — not just a response to a grave environmental threat, but a framework for enhanced growth, opportunity and fairness.

The laudable aim is to play offense, not defense, in the fight to limit climate change. We are going to have to wage that battle one way or another. Why not do it on our terms, before Miami slips underwater and the yet-unburned parts of California go up in flames?

The best historical analogy is not the New Deal but World War II, when mobilization of the nation's vast productive capacity not only defeated Germany and Japan but also generated unprecedented domestic economic growth, hugely expanding the middle class. Once again, the planet faces a dire threat. Once again, the United States can help lead the world to victory.

It's a massive overreach, critics say. But any effort to address climate change that is commensurate with the scale of the problem is going to look like an overreach. Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases — the cause of global warming — are beginning to level off, but they need to start falling, and fast, if we are to spare our grandchildren and great-grandchildren an ecological nightmare.

Can we really shift entirely to clean energy sources within 10 years, as the resolution pledges? Well, certainly not if we don't try. In 1961, when JFK announced the goal of sending an American to the moon and back by the end of the decade, NASA scientists had only a vague idea how to do such a thing. They figured it out, and succeeded in 1969.

Breakthroughs will be needed, for example, in solar energy technology and battery storage. Why should China — now the world's biggest producer of solar panels — be allowed to make these innovations and reap the resulting economic benefits? Why not the United States?

It's too expensive, naysayers complain. They point to a clause in the resolution that calls for "upgrading all existing buildings in the United States" to make them more energy-efficient. That sounds absurd — until you remember the massive blackout drills that took place across the country during World War II. People participated. It was their patriotic duty. Windows, roofs, doors, appliances — all have to be replaced every once in a while, and all can be made less wasteful of energy.

Acting alone would be pointless, skeptics say. Indeed, China is now by far the world's biggest carbon emitter, with the United States second and India a fast-rising third. What would be the point of going to great effort to reduce U.S. emissions while others just burn more coal?

Think about it, though. We are, after all, the second-biggest emitter, which means that any substantial reduction would indeed have measurable impact. Also, officials in China and India, unlike those in the Trump administration, understand and accept the conclusions of climate scientists. China may be adding coal-fired power plants, but it is also making massive investments in clean energy. Do you really want Beijing to lead the way into the future? Shouldn't it be Washington?

That's a rationale for the Green New Deal that the Make America Great Again crowd should embrace. If you believe in American exceptionalism, you believe that the United States has a duty to lead at moments of crisis. This is such a moment.

Look at the big picture. Unless you deny the science of climate change, you have to believe that we need to take bold action. Stop all the nitpicking. Enough with the posturing. Let's talk about what to do.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2009.

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