The Green New Deal

Book Release

John Bunyan (1628-1688)
This week we have released the first section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. It is the Introduction to the book — what we refer to as ‘The Author’s Apology’. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here. (The Table of Contents for the complete book is available here.)

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The Green New Deal

Green New Deal Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez

In February 2019 Democrats in the United States Congress submitted a Resolution entitled, ‘Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal’. One of the Resolution’s sponsors is the newly famous Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This resolution is very unlikely to move forward as an actual bill. But it is clearly an opening shot in what promises to be an on-going debate within governments throughout the world.

So how should the church respond to this important initiative?

Well, probably the first thing that we should do is to sit down and actually read the document, rather than listening only to  opinions about it (including mine). The Resolution is available at various web sites such as this one. It is just 14 pages long, and is perfectly readable.

The Resolution

Here are a few of the notes that I took as I read through the Resolution.

  • Page 1.
    Refers to the “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C”. The Resolution is grounded in established science. It identifies human activity as being the dominant cause of climate change.
  • Page 2
    • Identifies many of the serious impacts of global warming.
    • Calls for global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 60% by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050.
  • Page 3
    Discusses many issues not directly to do with global warming. These include declining life expectancy, economic inequality and repairing the nation’s infrastructure.
  • Page 4
    References the World War II New Deal.
  • Pages 5-6
    The resolution has five elements. Only the first refers to global warming directly.
  • Pages 7-9
    These pages discuss some of the proposed actions to be taken. They include the use of clean, renewable, zero-emission energy sources, and radical changes to farming and transportation.

Analysis

The Resolution covers an extraordinary swath of issues. Yet it provides essentially no detail as to how these changes are to be made, how they are to be funded or how such massive projects can be implemented in such a short time frame.

Lack of Focus

One of the failures of many environmental movements is that they lack focus — they want to solve the problems of the world, rather than fixing one specific issue. This is a problem with this Resolution. Rather than focusing on just one issue — such as reducing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to say 350 ppm — it covers such a broad range of issues that it loses credibility.

The authors of the document probably added the material to do with extraneous issues such as health care and job security to get away from the “gloom and doom” image that climate change discussions often generate. And maybe they had to do this because they are working in a political environment. But, by promising so much, and by plunging into issues such as health care and income inequality that have their own controversies, they have taken their eye off the ball.

Zero Emissions

The concept of zero emissions does not make thermodynamic sense. This is a topic I discuss at some length in Chapter 5 of my book. Take a very simple example. The picture below shows an electrically-powered vehicle (EV). It has no tail-pipe, and so there are zero emissions. What’s not to like?

Electric Vehicle (EV) – no emissions
Zero Emissions?

The catch is that the vehicle does have a tail-pipe — it is the stack of the power plant that generates the electricity that the vehicle needs.

Power plant stack
The EV’s tailpipe

A careful analysis of all aspects of EV technology — including the environmental impact to do with the manufacture and disposal of their batteries — suggests that they are not nearly as “green” as people think. They are certainly not ‘zero emissions’.

Energy Needed for Infrastructure

A radical transformation of the infrastructure, such as is proposed in this Resolution, would require the use of enormous amount of fossil-fuel energy (assuming that such large amounts of fossil fuels are actually available). The transition itself would contribute greatly to global warming.

Project Management

California High Speed Rail

The type of transformation that the authors of the Resolution propose, particularly in such a short time frame, is not realistic. To take one example, on page 9 the Resolution contains the words “high-speed rail”.

In the United States, the biggest high-speed rail project is the one being implemented in California. The project is, as they say, “troubled”. It has been more than twenty years in development, is way behind schedule, over budget by something like $50 billion, and is environmentally disruptive. And not one passenger has yet been taken from Point A to Point B. And that’s just one project that uses well-established technology.

The Resolution refers to the original New Deal, implemented at the start of the Second World War. In a remarkably short time span the United States was able to complete projects such as the building of thousands of Liberty ships, and completing the Manhattan nuclear weapon project. The catch is that, in those days, they did not face the resistance, regulations and the need for “studies” that applies now.

What’s Not There

Our Friend the Atom

The Resolution does not discuss some of the technical responses that many people feel are important. Examples are nuclear power and carbon-capture. (On page 9 there is a reference to low-tech carbon capture, i.e., trees. Once more, the technical reality of such a solution is not considered. There is not enough available land in the United States for the number of trees needed to capture industrial emissions. Moreover, that land is needed for the other low-density energy solutions such as solar panels and windmills.)

Hopium

Maybe the biggest difficulty that I have with this Resolution is that there no acknowledgment that economic and social conditions are likely to deteriorate. Indeed, with its talk of “green jobs” it not only promises that Business as Usual can continue, but that life will get better. This is not hope, it is hopium.

We all recognize that this document is sponsored by professional politicians. And any politician who says, “Vote for me and I will make your life worse” will soon be an ex-politician. But Christians are required to tell the truth. Indeed, one of the themes of this site and of my book is that we are in a time when we really must tell the truth — no matter how difficult that may be. The time for hoping for the best, or for assuming that “they will think of something” is long behind us.

The Christian Response

I try to end each of these posts with some thoughts as to how the church can and should respond, and what lessons we can learn when it comes to developing a new theology. So how is the church to respond to this ambitious, yet technically flawed, document?

One response is to fully support the people who are driving this document forward. Here we have young, energetic people who are at least facing up to the dilemmas that face us. And they do hold a modicum of power. For that reason they deserve our full support. We recognize that their proposal is not realistic. But that’s not the point; this Resolution is a starting point, a stake in the ground. So let’s gather around and support it. The sponsors of this Resolution are to be congratulated on at least getting the ball into play. Moreover, the authors of the document are linking environmental programs with issues of social justice.

A second response is to say that that the Resolution is so far detached from the realities of thermodynamics, physics, ecology and even project management that we should not be associated with it, otherwise our credibility will be lost. At a time of crisis — the decline of the western Roman Empire — Augustine of Hippo was insistent that Christians tell the truth about what was going on. This was the only way, he maintained, that the church could establish auctoritas, the authority it needed to guide society through coming difficult times. This approach requires that proposals such as this must at least pass the red-face test.

St. Wilfred Church, Calverley, Yorkshire

Is there a middle ground? Could the church would work on two fronts? The first front would be to recognize that — materially speaking — the future looks grim. So we work with people at the local level to make our societies as resilient and adaptive as possible. This is the parish concept introduced in the home page of this blog.

The second front would consist of working with  society leaders such as those who sponsored this Resolution on developing a message that lines up with the realities that we face. We show support for what they are doing, but we try to make sure that the message is credible. For example, we would take a honest look at the use of our available land. Do we want to use it from carbon-capturing trees, or for solar panels or for windmills? Pick one.

Doubtless this Resolution is the first of many that will be developed as politicians recognize that we are in for some wrenching changes. It is both an opportunity, and a challenge, for the church to help guide the development and implementation of such resolutions.

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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