When two members of Congress introduced the Green New Deal last month, both right and left tensed up in ways rarely seen. The ensuing vitriol will provide a specimen of history for future students of political science, a perfect example of the routine divisiveness that accompanies modern hyper-polarized politics. Many argue that the deal was a testament to the two politicians’ ignorance of failed past policies; others have validated it, citing calculations of supposed social improvement and economic growth. Lost amid the rancorous debate is the heart of the bill, which aims to preserve the sanctity of nature that still exists, and to restore that which has been lost, for our posterity (and hopefully ourselves) to enjoy.
Unlike most political issues, environmental legislation should be a source of agreement. Few people, even among those who deny climate science, want to harm the environment, and most seem to be open to reasonable proposals that would ease our collective impact on the earth. Problems arise when environmentalists jump to extreme, politicized measures without taking into consideration the impact of those policies on individuals. To be palatable in our divided political environment, legislation needs to benefit our natural world, while acknowledging the associated economic and individual costs. Such a compromise would not only have bipartisan support in the United States, but would also constitute a gesture of goodwill towards other countries.
Rather than fundamentally restructuring society to achieve a sustainable future, we need to find the best way of maintaining humanity’s current economic and societal progress, while also pursuing practical environmental policies. One good first step is to identify problems that are both solvable with current technology and that, as environmental expert Mallen Baker has recently argued, benefit everyone. For example, some types of fish contain factory-produced mercury, which has seeped into our oceans, and we are also now finding many fish full of microplastic debris. These tiny particles can cause substantial internal damage in animals—among other, potentially unknown, problems. Smog has engulfed cities like Beijing, whose citizens are now at risk of severe respiratory issues. We are also trying to wean ourselves off oil and coal, but the proposed alternatives don’t generate the necessary amount of energy at a comparable cost. These are not (and should not be) political issues, but they get framed as such when they get mixed with a partisan agenda. Fortunately, we don’t need to radically restructure our society to solve them.
The prevalence of microplastics in the ecosystem is relatively new. Not only are they found in our oceans, but we are seeing them in other parts of the food chain, too—the chain of which humans are the apex. The research is still on-going, but some scientists are beginning to see the detrimental effects of these particles on our internal biology. What are the primary sources of these tiny specks? Single-use plastics, as well as those used in the manufacturing process are the main culprits, along with synthetic fabrics and other modern staples. Something has to be done. But, rather than banning plastic outright, policy should use tax breaks to incentivize companies to use recycled plastic or other biodegradable materials in their production processes. Additional tax revenue generated from the inevitable growth of the plastic alternatives industry would then fund additional research into the plastics already in our environment and seek to minimize their lasting impact.
Governments have proven tremendously effective at reducing smog in cities, especially in places like New York. With the benefit of hindsight, we can study the policies that have worked, to create a model for the rest of the country. Public projects that call for more green space in cities—from public parks to bike lanes lined with trees—have been successful. They also have the added benefit of making city spaces more enjoyable for their inhabitants by cleaning the congested air. To further limit air pollution, New York, among other metropolises, is now modernizing its MTA system by working with private companies Proterra and New Flyer to grow its fleet of electric buses. This reduces our day-to-day smog, cleaning the atmosphere in the process. Our lives are healthier as a result, and the environment is better off. Rather than forcing everyone to stop using their cars, policy should implement—or further develop—reliable, electric public transportation in New York and other cities.
Our legislation would not be complete if we did not discuss the reality we face with respect to oil, coal and renewable energy sources. Renewables can supply neither our current nor our projected energy needs at a reasonable cost. While those costs have come down in recent years and are expected to fall further, we still need to consider all the alternatives now. In a recent post in Quillette, Michael Shellenberger provides a comprehensive overview of one of these alternatives—nuclear power—and its benefits. He demonstrates that not only is it vastly superior to sources such as wind and solar in terms of safety and power generation, but it is cleaner than fossil fuels. Legislation revitalizing the industry would be relatively straightforward to implement. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) could communicate clear and concise rules for the industry, and actively work with companies to develop safer ways to extract energy from nuclear material. As entrepreneurs put their ideas into action, we will see breakthroughs that are only theoretical now. By capitalizing on nuclear power (and thus cutting back on oil and coal), we can reduce emissions, while maintaining current energy costs. This would also give us more time to develop renewable technology to the point at which it is cheap enough for practical use, a win-win for everyone.
We have to be frank about our goals. While transitioning to nuclear, we can work with researchers to bring down the cost of carbon-capture technology and to encourage entrepreneurs to implement it widely. The processes for this are already in motion: according to the International Energy Agency, “the Unites States [sic]…in 2018 introduced a significant stimulus for CCUS [carbon, capture, utilization, and storage] investment with the passage of legislation to expand and enhance the so-called 45Q tax credit.” Ensuring that vital programs like these remain funded is a necessary bridge to a time in which the free market implements a clean, viable alternative to oil.
The government does not have to be—and should not be—the sole provider of solutions. With regard to plastic, policy can incentivize people to act in an environmentally friendly way, by providing tax breaks to people who buy biodegradable products or to the companies that produce them, which often has the positive effect of saving people money as well. The same thing goes for air quality: permanent tax breaks (as opposed to subsidies or temporary measures) for companies that use carbon-mitigating technology on smokestacks and in consumer vehicles will go a long way towards curbing smog. Finally, nuclear energy startups are already trying to convince the NRC to more clearly articulate rules governing research and development in that area. Congress should buttress their efforts by providing them with additional protections from legal wrangling, of the kind enjoyed by startups in other fields.
Some might suggest that proposals like these don’t do enough to curtail the possibly substantial changes to our environment. Unfortunately, they might be right. These policy suggestions are a mere step in the right direction: they de-politicize the conversation so that our policymakers can discuss additional legislation. Such proposals do not have to be part of a larger agenda. The fact that we have seen recent op-eds on this from various sides of the aisle reflects a growing recognition that the debate is currently too one-sided to be effective. It also demonstrates a growing commitment to reducing humanity’s impact on the environment without enlarging the government or promoting a single agenda, an important point about which many Americans care deeply. We don’t need politicized legislation to help protect our environment—just sensible proposals.
We will inevitably see radical legislation when the debate on climate is politicized. Rather than allowing such an agenda to dominate the conversation about the natural world, we need to think about plausible alternatives that will respect the natural world, while benefiting humanity. Perhaps each step will be small, but a small step is better than nothing. Once each group realizes that there are issues affecting us now, and that solving them will stave off a potentially horrible disaster, we might be able to find additional reliable, apolitical solutions to our collective crisis. We must remember that our climate problems impact both sides: the environment is way too important for politics.