TIM DICKINSON, Rolling Stone, April 2020
Tim Larsen/New Jersey Governor’s Office
Opposition to the Green New Deal is often framed as a matter of cost. President Trump’s re-election campaign blasted the “radical” plan, claiming it would “cost trillions of dollars, wreck our economy, and decimate millions of energy jobs.” But science shows that the costs of unchecked global temperature rise are far higher than transitioning to clean energy — which will, in fact, boost the economy. “Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, you have to spend a huge amount of money,’” says Mark Jacobson, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Stanford University. “Well, yeah, there’s an upfront cost, but this is something that pays itself back.”
The coronavirus crisis is changing the world’s comfort levels with massive expenditures. Fresh on the heels of a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package, President Trump has begun calling for another $2 trillion infrastructure package to create jobs. Across the political spectrum, politicians are anticipating that the economy will need something approximating a New Deal to spring back to life after the pandemic subsides. And climate advocates are making the case that we can use this disaster response to invest in renewable energy, to ward off an even more dangerous crisis down the line.
The price of not acting on climate change is staggering. The Paris climate accord aims to limit global temperature rise to 2 C. But a recent study in Nature shows that settling for that outcome — rather than a more ambitious limit of 1.5 C — will cost the world $36 trillion in climate damages. Global warming lowers global GDP, according to a 2019 paper co-authored by Cambridge University economists, who project that “a persistent rise in temperature, changes in precipitation patterns and … more volatile weather events” will slow productivity and investment, as well as damage human health. Holding warming to 2 C can limit the negative impact to one percent of global GDP per capita by 2100. But runaway climate change would crater that GDP figure by seven percent worldwide, and by 10.5 percent in the United States. “Climate change is pain,” Michael Mann, a top climate scientist, recently testified to Congress. “Anyone who tells you differently is selling something — most likely fossil fuels.”
The heart of the Green New Deal is a commitment to largely transition America to renewable energy by 2030, and wholly by 2050. That will require an upfront investment of $7.8 trillion, says Jacobson, who recently published a study in the journal One Earth that modeled the economic and climate impacts of moving to 100 percent clean energy in the U.S. These upfront costs, however, are a true investment. “It’s not just a doling out of government money with no return on it,” Jacobson says. By 2050, this transition avoids $3.1 trillion a year in climate damages. The green energy itself is also cheaper — saving $1.3 trillion a year for consumers over the fossil-fueled status quo. Ending combustion would also save 63,000 lives a year otherwise lost to air pollution. Most surprising: The study projects that a carbon-free economy increases energy employment. While 2.2 million fossil-fuel jobs would be lost, they would be replaced by 5.2 million permanent clean-energy jobs.
America has the clean-power technology it needs to transition to a combustion-free economy. The only thing that’s missing, Jacobson says, is political leadership to drive action with the urgency the climate crisis requires. “You need somebody who really understands the problem,” he says, “and knows you can’t have a half-ass solution.”