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Drexel Experts Consider the Green New Deal

By Britt Faulstick

Drexel Experts Consider the Green New Deal


April 12, 2019

Unrealistic. Not ambitious enough. Too little, too late. Worth a shot? Already the subject of a great deal of conjecture and debate, the Green New Deal, a broad set of policy goals addressing environmental justice and climate change, recently reinvigorated by House Democrats, is likely to remain a central issue as the 2020 election approaches. Drexel faculty experts, with background spanning environmental science, engineering, atmospheric chemistry, environmental justice and policy, labor and environmental economics weigh in on the origin, scope and viability of the GND’s goals and similar policy efforts.

How might Green New Deal policies intended to transition the U.S. to a “green economy” affect the workforce and organized labor?

Diane Sicotte, PhD, associate professor and environmental sociologist in the College of Arts and Sciences, studies environmental injustice and inequality. Her current work addresses issues related to natural gas extraction, including labor union members’ preferences for natural gas or alternative energy sources; the connection between hydraulic fracturing and plastics production; and the role of natural gas infrastructures in technological lock-in that will ensure continued use of fossil fuel as an energy source.

  • The Green New Deal could expand employment opportunities for groups of people who are currently underrepresented among private industry union members. If the Green New Deal included government-funded training programs for retrofitting cars, making homes more energy-efficient, and producing materials and building infrastructure for renewable energy, women and people of color would have more access to skilled jobs and labor unions that represent skilled workers.
  • The transition from fossil fuel energy sources will potentially end the livelihoods of coal miners, oil and gas drillers, refinery workers and support activates for those industries — a loss of nearly 900,000 jobs. Green New Deal policies would have to ensure a just transition to renewable energy sources, which means providing retraining and employment to those who lost their jobs in fossil fuels.
  • When it comes to the Green New Deal, environmental issues and the U.S. energy system, the attitudes and policy preferences of labor union members and leaders are not predictable. What a “just transition” entails – moving from the current fossil fuel energy system to renewable energy sources (such as solar and wind power), has yet to be fully illuminated. But some of the proposals in the Green New Deal show that building a truly sustainable energy system could potentially reduce unemployment.
  • The Green New Deal, and the transition away from fossil fuels, has the potential to transform not just the U.S. energy system, but also the entire system of production. The environmental problems we face are connected — the amount of drinkable freshwater we have is affected by how we produce energy, and gas liquids produced from fracking are stimulating the production of plastics, which increases the problem of plastic waste.

How does the Green New Deal compare to existing environmental policy, what political hurdles does it face?

Christian Hunold, PhD, associate professor of politics in the College of Arts and Sciences, studies environmental politics and policy.

  • At face level, the Green New Deal ties concrete goals, such as decarbonizing the economy, to a far more imaginative political vision compared to, say the technocratic federal loan program for renewable energy projects authorized by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act a decade ago. Whether you think that’s a feature or a drawback depends on your perspective.
  • The storyline offered by the plan’s proponents is one of modernizing the U.S. economy by reducing carbon emissions, as well as economic inequality, all without sacrificing economic growth. On the one hand, that’s nothing new. The Green New Deal draws on milquetoast, business-friendly environmental political ideas like sustainable development and ecological modernization that have been around for decades. On the other hand, against the backdrop of the federal government’s climate change denial and corporate-friendly regulatory rollback, the Green New Deal looks like progress — transformative even.
  • Besides the obvious need for Democrats to win the 2020 election, the GND is up against a politically dominant framing of economic growth and environmental protection as mutually incompatible, of putting the economy and the environment in separate boxes. This view is dogma in the Republican Party, but its hold on the political imagination of conservative Democrats seems no less unshakable. As a result, it’s a lot easier for industry critics to brand greens as job killers than it is for greens to lay out a progressive, politically compelling vision for a livable future.
  • Already, there are folks in the Democratic Party who want to put the brakes on the GND by throwing progressive ideas overboard while keeping only investments in energy and infrastructure they see as immediately relevant to addressing the climate crisis. But — as Jimmy Carter found out so painfully 40 years ago — American voters want to be inspired, not lectured to with technobabble. So I think the GND will succeed to the extent its supporters can convince the American public that climate change is not primarily a cause for despair (though it is that too), but a likely permanent condition of humankind, an opportunity, of sorts, that empowers us all to rethink our society’s fundamental economic and political priorities.

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