Perhaps the defining global challenge of our time is anthropogenic climate change. If the world's energy usage continues unabated in its current fashion, as it looks like it will, environmental disasters will dominate the 22nd century. We are talking about the displacement of 500 million people, extinction of 40 percent of living species, subjection of one-sixth of the world’s population to a lack of drinking water, reductions of 80 percent of crops in sub-Saharan Africa, and loss of five to 20 percent of the global economy every year, just to name a few highlights. Clearly, something needs to be done.
To their credit, Democrats have put this issue at the top of their priorities, where it belongs. Much buzz has been generated on the left of American politics by the Green New Deal, popularized by insurgent firebrand Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The most fundamental goal of the proposal is to cease use of fossil fuels in the United States within ten years. This end goal, while perhaps not possible on the timescale it aims for, is certainly worthwhile, as is the means of massive investment in clean energy and infrastructure.
However, the Green New Deal movement has also attracted a number of actors who hold this worthy environmentalism inseparable from far-left economics. They seek to apply purity tests and other unnecessary constraints that will end up harming the movement if successful. We should make no mistake: their actions, if successful, will probably enhance climate change rather than fight it.
Last week, a group of 626 such groups, ranging in importance from Greenpeace to the environmental club of a New York high school, circulated a letter to members of Congress supporting the Green New Deal. It is notable, however, that most of the country's leading environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and even the sometimes questionable Sierra Club did not sign on to this letter, and there is also no indication that progressive politicians like Ocasio-Cortez are completely on board with it. Like the Green New Deal as a whole, their letter was mostly positive or benign. But when describing the means by which they want the energy transformation to occur, they staked out a position firmly against several of the most important avenues in our effort against climate change.
The organizations promised to "vigorously oppose any legislation that promotes corporate schemes that place profits over community burdens and benefits, including market-based mechanisms and technology options such as carbon and emissions trading and offsets, carbon capture and storage,nuclear power, waste-to-energy and biomass energy." By this position, these groups seem determined that firms must lose money over their action, independent of whether that helps the environment.
Carbon tax and cap-and-trade
There is quite a lot to unpack there. Let's start with "market-based mechanisms." In concrete terms, this refers to a carbon tax and a "cap-and-trade" system (what the letter calls "carbon trading"). As the terminology used in the letter suggests, these policies align market forces against greenhouse gas emissions, creating an economic incentive for emissions reductions. They take alternate approaches to these market forces. A carbon tax charges firms for the emissions they are responsible for. Cap and trade sets an upper limit on emissions that firms may produce without buying licenses, which firms may sell to each other. That selling creates an economic incentive for firms to emit as little as possible, giving them more ability to sell licenses to other firms.
These policies have proven to be immensely successful. Carbon taxes have been more common than cap and trade systems, and where they have been tried, they reduce carbon emissions. In its first two years, Australia's carbon tax reduced emissions by about 5 percent per year. Similar success has been seen in Sweden. The Canadian province of British Columbia reduced its fuel consumption by 19 percent in the first five years of its carbon tax, with emissions following suit. As for hypothetical implementation in the United States, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2013 that a moderate carbon tax would reduce emissions 10 percent over ten years, while the Brookings Institution predicts a 14 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and 50 percent of other greenhouse gases over the short term. To put those numbers in perspective, research commissioned by the Obama White House estimates that industrialized countries would need to reduce their emissions by 80 percent between 2011 and 2050 in order to avoid the much feared two degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures.
Cap and trade has not been tried as much, in part because its enforcement mechanisms are more complicated than a carbon tax. President Obama famously failed to pass a cap and trade system for the United States, with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin releasing an ad of himself literally shooting the bill with a rifle. (Manchin, by the way, is now the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.) But less well known is a limited cap and trade system that is in place. In 1990, the US enacted cap and trade on sulfur dioxide, a gas that contributes to acid rain. This was the first major cap and trade system in the world, and it reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by 50 percent over 30 years. That is real-world proof that market forces can reduce emissions substantially and over a long, sustained period, right here in the United States.
This makes it all the more curious that progressives and the left wing, which would ostensibly be the most concerned about the environment, are so willing to oppose these proven measures. Outside of the Green New Deal letter I described earlier, some progressive groups have long denounced carbon taxes and cap and trade as "neoliberal failures." The Canadian left-wing New Democratic Party opposed British Columbia's carbon tax when it was implemented by that province's Liberal government, running under the campaign slogan "axe the tax." On the other hand, to his credit, Bernie Sanders has introduced bills to implement both a carbon tax and cap and trade.
The progressive critique of these measures fundamentally rests on ideology rather than effectiveness. Some point to the regressive nature of carbon taxes — all consumption taxes on their own do place a heavier burden on those with lower incomes, who must spend a larger share on basic needs. However, carbon taxes are often proposed to be "revenue neutral," redistributing their revenue back to individuals in a progressive manner. Some critics of a cap and trade attempt in California have raised concerns that the policy does not address the disproportionate public health impact of pollution on poor people and people of color, an aspect of what is called "environmental racism." But these inequalities are not due to cap and trade, but rather the fact that power plants are built in poorer areas in the first place. And with the clearly observable success of these market measures around the work, no one can seriously claim that they don't reduce emissions.
No, the problem with these measures for those on the left is that they use the market and do not adequately punish firms. The Green New Deal letter bemoans "corporate schemes that place profits over community burdens and benefits" and demands that "fossil fuel companies should pay their fair share for damages caused by climate change, rather than shifting those costs to taxpayers." Scott Edwards of Food and Water Watch warns progressives against carbon taxes because they are supported by industrial groups and anti-regulatory thinkers aligned with Republican politicians.
The problem with this line of thinking is that the planet does not care how the economics of emissions reduction pans out. The only thing that matters for the climate is whether emissions actually fall. And the fact that these market measures can potentially attract Republican voters and interest groups is not a detriment. Whether progressives like it or not, about half of America will vote for Republicans every single time. An issue like climate change will require serious mobilization across the entire government and society. That cannot be achieved only appealing to people left of Nancy Pelosi. It just cannot happen. And by adding their weight behind efforts to defeat policies that would certainly reduce emissions, these progressives are threatening the climate.
Another specific point of opposition made in the Green New Deal letter was to the use of nuclear energy, a common refrain among left-wing environmentalists. Here, the opposition is more widespread than to the market measures previously described. Opponents of nuclear energy include Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club. The German Green Party, originally organized around environmentalism, rose to prominence in the 1980's under the slogan "Nuclear Power? No thanks. "
Nevertheless, one thing must be abundantly clear: nuclear energy is an effective and vital tool against climate change. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds nuclear energy to have the lowest greenhouse emissions of any "base load" energy source, those that can meet demand for energy at all time. That is even lower than wind and solar energy, as shown in the graph below.
Predictably, implementation of nuclear energy has resulted in emissions reductions. The fastest emissions reduction in world history happened in France when it adopted nuclear electricity in the 1970's and 1980's, reducing emissions by two percent per year. Noting that that two percent per year is the fastest drop ever, remember that the Obama report mentioned earlier also found 2 percent per year to be absolutely necessary, and that was already eight years ago. NASA estimates that the use of nuclear energy has saved 1.8 million lives by offsetting 65 billion tons of carbon emissions. Indeed, some calculations suggest that it might not just be difficult to avoid the worst effects of climate change without nuclear energy, but actually impossible.
On the other hand, the dangers of nuclear energy have been drastically overblown. Over the cumulative 17,000 reactor years during which nuclear energy has been commercially available in 33 countries, only three major nuclear power plant accidents have occurred at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. While accidents like this are obviously bad and should be avoided, their dramatic nature causes us to overestimate their impact. A 2016 coal plant explosion in China, which you have certainly not heard of, killed twice as many people in its blast as the blast in Chernobyl. No one died directly due to the meltdown at Fukushima. Of course, another concern of nuclear plants is radiation. On that front, a 2011 study from the British University of Bath found that coal plants are responsible for more than 1,000 times as many cases of radiation illness as nuclear plants. Nuclear safety is always something that should be improved, but we shouldn't quite buy into the popular hysteria.
Anti-climate change activists are wont to claim a pro-science mantle, using it as a cudgel over anti-science conservatives. However, here is a case where the left is the wing opposed to science. As James Hansen, the eminent climatologist from Columbia University, put it, “nuclear [power], especially next-generation nuclear [power], has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change...To say we won't use all the tools to solve the problem is crazy.”
The progressive left displays further anti-science sentiment on many points related to food and agriculture. As consumers, they are driving the rise of products marketed under such nonsense terms as "all natural" and fearing the use of "chemicals." The most egregious stance in this arena is opposition to genetically modified foods (GM foods or GMO's). Among the signatories of the Green New Deal letter were the Toronto anti-GMO Coalition and a number of "organic" farming groups. Progressive politicians and activists have clamored to put warning labels on GM food, with many believing them to be dangerous or unhealthy.
This belief is plainly wrong. The scientific consensus that GM foods are just as safe as any other foods is demonstrated by the number of scientific organizations testifying to that fact: the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the National Academy of Science, the American Microbiology Society, the Royal Society, and the German, Chinese, Mexican, and Indian Academies of Science, for starters. A directory of thousands of scientific studies on the health and safety of GMO's can be found here. A 2018 review of over 6,000 studies on GM corn, by far the most widely grown GM crop, found that it is actually healthier than non-GM corn due to the significantly lower amount of toxins found in the corn. Further analyses of thousands more studies can be found here and here. Despite what the armchair biologists roaming the parking lots of Whole Foods or the comment section of the Huffington Post may persist in saying, GM foods are safe and healthy, period.
But this article is about climate change. In addition to being more efficient and nutritious, GM foods are also important in the fight against climate change, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a number of ways. For instance, GM crops often require no tilling by tractors, preventing the emissions created by tractors driving across fields whenever they need to till. The most popular GM also use reduced herbicides and pesticides compared to conventional crops, improving the carbon sequestration capability of their soil. These attributes combined reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by as much as removing 12 million cars from the road. Furthermore, GM crops save forests and pastures by reducing the amount of land required for farming. Researchers from Purdue University estimate that if all 26 countries currently growing GM crops increased their rate of GM planting to that of the US, more than 2 million acres of farmland could revert to forests and pastures, an area almost the size of Connecticut. Because forests are major hubs of photosynthesis, this would further reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air.
And those emissions reductions only spring from the use of GMO's in food crops. There are further possibilities concerning other areas of agriculture. For instance, scientists in New Zealand are currently producing GM grass to feed to cows. This grass, with a higher lipid concentration, is expected by those scientists reduce methane produced by cows by 25 percent. Methane, much of it produced by cows, accounts for 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And being about 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in terms of the greenhouse effect, it is essential to the climate that methane be reduced.
Even for all we can avoid further climate change, we will also have to adapt to the changes that have already been caused for sure. Here too, GMO's will help. Climate shifts will decrease crop yields, which scientists find will need the increased efficiency of GMO's to overcome. As croplands shrink, GMO's will allow crops to grow in less and less hospitable places. At the end of the day, climate change will require us to get better at making food. Genetic engineering is an incredibly powerful tool to enhance our agricultural capabilities. By opposing it, members of the progressive left actively blunt our efforts against climate change. Yes, Monsanto and other chemical companies will profit from their use. But progressives should take note: while you may not like Monsanto, you will like global climate disaster even less.
Ultimately, left-wing environmentalists face a choice. Their ideology, opposed to market solutions, corporations, and science is at odds with the needs of the climate. But short of that, no other solutions will cut it. Infrastructure and renewable energy are great; don't get me wrong. But even if they could find enough money to build ten Hoover dams completely out of solar panels, we would still be at a loss. We need to reduce consumption, so we need pigouvian market solutions. We need electricity when it's not sunny or windy, so we need nuclear power. We need to eat, so we need biotechncology. These environmentalists often frame this issue as a choice between people and profit. Unfortunately, they are choosing against people themselves. Caught up in their opposition to capitalism or technology, they risk letting people get hurt. They ought to realize the gravity of the situation and buck up to the fact that real, effective, politically viable solutions are on the table, and they should not walk away.