Green New Deal discussion needs to consider the ‘why’

Oceans are impacted by carbon emissions. (By Malene Thyssen/Wikimedia Commons)

Oceans are impacted by carbon emissions. (By Malene Thyssen/Wikimedia Commons)

submitted by Dr. Sig Harden

We would like to thank our colleague for starting the conversation about renewable energy in the perspective article in the August 22 Troy Today entitled “ A ‘renewable electric grid’ may be a mirage.”  This article illustrated many important points, and highlighted some of the challenges we face moving to a renewable energy future.  The concerns are real.  Indeed, there are major financial and logistical challenges associated with transitioning to a renewable energy-driven electrical grid, especially battery technology and improving electrical transmission.  It is important to identify and critically evaluate these costs. However, the article failed to explain why we need a shift to renewable energy and face these challenges.

Without discussing “why” and only focusing on the cost of the solution, we get a very misleading viewpoint.

For example, I have a friend who takes off every Monday from work, drives to a different city just to sit in a room and have someone pump chemicals into his body.  He pays thousands of dollars each year for this, and often feels so bad that he misses the next day of work.  This seems illogical.  Why would someone do that?  What would happen if all of us did that?  Think of all the time and money spent, time and money that could be better spent with family or at work. 

Without knowing the fact that my friend actually has cancer and needs medical treatment, his course of action would make no sense.  Therefore, most people would interpret his solution as a burden on society.

So why do we need a Green New Deal?  If I may keep to my analogy, it is because our earth is sick and needs treatment. The heart of the nonrenewable energy generation problem is atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are causing the oceans to warm (and therefore expand) and land-based ice to melt, thereby flooding coastal areas and making them more susceptible to storms.  Carbon dioxide levels have been increasing since the beginning of the industrial revolution and have dramatically increased over the last 50 years due to the increased amount of gas powered cars being driven and the burning of coal based fossil fuels for electrical generation (280 ppm-1850 to 410 ppm-2019).  The solution to burning less coal and gas to generate electricity and fuel our cars is to use more renewable energy sources (a combination of solar, wind, hydroelectric, etc.) to generate our electricity.  As with lifesaving chemotherapy, the cost is going to be high, and there will be some side-effects.  

Let’s ask the important question.  What is the cost of inaction?

The 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment estimates that climate warming of an additional 2oC, and the associated sea level rise with that warming, are estimated to cost $500 billion per year from lost economic output in the U.S. (due to crop failure, lost labor, damages related to extreme weather, and drought), and $1 trillion of U.S. public infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) and coastal real estate damage[DCB1] .  

The Green New Deal is not intended to be a rigid law; it is an aspiration document, summarizing in broad terms issues that the U.S. government should devote more personnel and future funding on and outlining why promoting the green energy job sector is important not only for the U.S. economy but for the Earth as well.  Fear-mongering, such as statements that airplane travel will be outlawed and you might not be able to charge your cell phone or run your air conditioning, is not a helpful response.  It perpetuates a regressive attitude and reactive approach to problems that is opposite of what we as educators try to instill in our students.  Climate change is a scientific and technical problem needing science and technology-based solutions to help protect the Earth’s resources for future generations.

Dr. Sig Harden is interim Chair and Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Troy University.