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Progressives claim: ‘Capitalism itself has led us towards…a climate catastrophe’ – ‘Rescuing the Planet Is Still Possible: The Case for a Global Green New Deal’

by C.J. Polychroniou

The theme of the 51st Anniversary of Earth Day is “Restore Our Earth.” To be sure, while there has been a growing level of environmental consciousness since the first Earth Day, and some progress has been made with respect to environmental protection, we are really in a race to save the planet.

As things stand, the world now faces two existential crises that threaten organized human life as we know it, and life in general on planet Earth. The first one stems from the continued presence of nuclear weapons. The second one comes from global warming. However, while a nuclear war may be preventable, we are not sure about global warming.

Allow me to elaborate.

Global warming… is already happening, and its effects include excessive heatwaves, frequent wildfires, more droughts, greater frequency, intensity and duration of hurricanes, and higher sea levels which will have profound impact on low-lying coastal areas.

Global warming is the defining crisis of our time. Climate change has always happened on planet Earth, but there is overwhelming scientific evidence that the Earth’s globally averaged temperature surface temperature has been rising due to anthropogenic factors. According to (pdf) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth assessment report, human emissions and activities have caused 100% of the observed increase in temperature since 1950.

Global warming is human-caused and the culprit is industrial capitalism and its addiction to fossil fuels. The burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to temperature increases. Scientists have known for decades how exactly carbon dioxide causes global warming. Nuclear physicist Edward Teller warned the oil industry all the way back in 1959 that their product will end up having a catastrophic impact on human civilization.

So the heat is on, yet action to contain global warming has been very slow. Global climate efforts, including the Paris agreement, have proven inefficient because of lack of boldness. In fact, the Paris agreement is a toothless climate accord, although strengthening it rather than withdrawing from it is surely the way for nations to move ahead.

Phasing out the fossil fuel economy and moving to clean and renewable sources of energy is the only way to combat the global crisis and ensure that global warming remains within 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Phasing out the fossil fuel economy and moving to clean and renewable sources of energy is the only way to combat the global crisis and ensure that global warming remains within 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This is where the Green New Deal (GND) idea comes in. Indeed, “some form of a Green New Deal is essential to ‘save the planet,'” says Noam Chomsky in Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet (Verso, 2020). But which form, as there are several different schemes of the Green New Deal?

Leading progressive economist Robert Pollin, co-author of the aforementioned book and distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has advanced a detailed Global GND project which points the way we can decarbonize the economy, while stimulating growth at the same time, providing millions of new jobs, and making a just transition.

First, to those skeptical about the accuracy of scientific models with respect to the impacts of global warming, Pollin suggests that “we should think of a Global Green New Deal as exactly the equivalent of an insurance policy to protect ourselves and the planet against the serious prospect—thought not the certainty—that we are facing an ecologic catastrophe.” The only question is how much climate insurance we should purchase. Indeed, most homeowners are willing to buy homeowners insurance even if there is only 1% or less risk of a loss caused by “perils” (fire, lightning strikes, etc.). Isn’t it therefore irrational to suggest that we should not take considerable measures to safeguard the planet from the potential impacts of global warming?

Second, Pollin makes a convincing argument that it is irrational to rely on capitalist solutions to global warming when it is capitalism itself that has led us towards the current path of a climate catastrophe. The shift to clean and renewable energy sources mandates, argues Pollin, “forceful forms of government intervention” of the sort that took place during the Great Depression in the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. Governments need to embark on massive public investments projects and ownership of critical industries. With regard to market-driven plans for combating global warming, such as the carbon tax plan, which are highly favored by mainstream economists, Pollin contends that they are largely inadequate, if enforced without other provisions and regulations.

Third, Pollin finds that reducing global carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 is realistic and financially quite manageable. His Global GND project moves in line with the targets of the IPCC on global net carbon dioxide emissions, which amount to 45% reductions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. Pollin has estimated that it would require committing approximately 2.5% of global GDP per year to investment spending in areas designed to improve energy efficiency standards across the board (buildings, automobiles, transportation systems, industrial production processes) and to massively expand the availability of clean energy sources for zero emissions to be realized by 2050. This estimate was recently corroborated by a study released from the International Renewable Energy Agency.

With regard to clean energy transformation, Pollin estimates that it would require investments in the range of $2.6 trillion in the first year of the Global GND project. Assuming that the project gets under way in 2024, and lasting until 2050, average spending would be around $4.5 trillion per year. The total amount for the 27-year investment cycle would come to approximately $120 trillion, and this figure include investment spending on both the public and private sectors.

The above figures may seem overwhelming, but Pollin argues says that the clean energy investment project which lies at the heart of the GND, will “pay for itself in full over time” by delivering “lower energy costs for energy consumers in all regions of the world,” and he has worked out the actual math behind this claim.

The most recent data by IPCC reveals that deforestation alone is responsible for about 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, these undertakings need to be complemented by other policy objectives, such as stopping deforestation and embarking on afforestation. The most recent data by IPCC reveals that deforestation alone is responsible for about 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, Pollin points out, upon review of the existing literature, that we cannot rely on geoengineering to get out of the climate crisis. Carbon capture technologies have yet to prove that they are realizable at a commercial level, and, according to some expert assessments, highly unlikely that they can be adequately introduced before the second half of the century. As for the nuclear power option, which appears to be attractive by the mere fact that it does not generate carbon dioxide emissions, Pollin stresses out that there are too many risks associated with reliance on nuclear energy on a global scale, which range from the problem of radioactive wastes to nuclear reactor meltdowns and of course political security issues.

Fourth, financing the Global GND is not an especially challenging problem to solve, argues Pollin, and shows how it can be done through primarily four large-scale funding sources: (1) a carbon tax, with 75% of the revenues going back to the public but 25% channeled into clean energy investment projects; (2) transfer funds out of military budgets; (3) a Green Bond lending program introduced by the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank; (4) the elimination of all fossil fuel subsidies and the transfer of 25% of those funds into clean energy investments. In Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet, Pollin spells out the details for each one of these funding sources for his Global GND, while ensuring at the same time that they meet basic standards of fairness by subjecting them to scrutiny.

Fifth, Pollin shows that the Global GND would create new jobs and stimulate growth. Fear of job losses associated with the elimination of the fossil fuel industry keeps many people away from supporting the GND. Yet, Pollin shows that such fears are completely unwarranted and the only question is how many new jobs will be created through the creation of a green economy, and correspondingly, how many will be lost. Undoubtedly, there will be job losses and community impacts from the contraction of the fossil fuel industry, which is why just transition policies, spelled out by Pollin in a detailed fashion, are absolutely essential. But job creation and the implementation of just transition policies lie at the heart of the Global GND project. Based on research that Pollin has conducted with others on this question, involving countries with significant differences in levels of development, it is shown that all countries will experience significant gains in job creation. In India, for example, it’s estimated that “increasing clean energy investments by 2% of GDP every year for 20 years will generate an average net increase of about 13 million jobs per year.”

Sixth, Pollin shows that actions to combat global warming by individual countries remains important. While a Global GND is absolutely essential and critical for avoiding a climate catastrophe, Pollin points out that every place matters in the struggle to secure the target of zero net global carbon emissions by 2050. The reason for this is rather simple. For if we add up China, the United States, and the European Union (E.U.), the combined carbon dioxide emissions amount to only 52% of the global total. In other words, we are still only half way to global net zero emissions even if China, the United States, and the EU were to get to zero tomorrow. Thus, as Pollin forcefully makes the point, there can be no exception to the application of the GND. He brings this point home by mentioning India, which, if it is excluded from a GND, and continues to rely on the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas for its economic growth, its carbon dioxide emissions would have increased by 5.5 billion tons under a baseline scenario of 3% annual growth through 2050. With this scenario at work, the global economy will be nowhere close to hitting the target of zero net emissions by 2050.

Lastly, Pollin makes a convincing argument that a truly transformative and just GND must be development-led. He argues that degrowth as a strategy to combat global warming does not provide “a viable stabilization framework” and leads to a dead end. As with practically everything else around his Global GND project, he makes the case against degrowth on the basis of economic data and analysis—and actually basic arithmetic. He points out that global carbon emissions need to drop from their current 33 billion tons, according to estimates in the IPCC report, to zero within 30 years. Assuming that under a degrowth strategy for the purpose of reducing carbon emissions global GDP shrinks by 10% over the next 30 years (a contraction four times larger than what was experienced during the global financial crisis of 2007-09), the effect on carbon dioxide emissions would be a reduction of 10%—in other words, from 33 to 30 billion tons. In the meantime, the global economy would have faced massive job losses on account of the contraction and huge declines in the standard of living for average working people and the poor.

As world leaders come together from April 20-22 for Earth Day 2021, it’s important to know that rescuing the planet from the catastrophic consequences of global warming is feasible. What is required is the political will to implement a Global GND.

C.J. Polychroniou

C.J. Polychroniou is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in numerous universities and research centers in Europe and the United States.  He has published scores of  books and his articles have appeared in a variety of journals, magazines, newspapers, and popular news websites. His latest books are Optimism Over Despair: Noam Chomsky On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change, an anthology of interviews with Chomsky originally published at Truthout and collected by Haymarket Books;  Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet (with Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin as primary authors);  and The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic, and the Urgent Need for Radical Change, an  anthology of interviews with Chomsky originally published at Truthout and collected by Haymarket Books (scheduled for publication in June 2021).