Robert Pollin, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor of economics, has helped design several state-level Green New Deals and is a key player in designing a nationwide zero-emissions plan. His proposal will likely contain many of the same elements already in the 14-page Green New Deal recently proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, and Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts: enacting stricter emissions standards; taking advantage of rapidly advancing technology and the plunging costs of clean energy; calling for extensive public investments and tax incentives to reduce carbon emissions; and encouraging private investment in renewables. And like the Democratic proposal, Pollin’s plan is shaping up as one that will stress providing financial aid and retraining for the people currently working in fossil-fuel industries (where employment is expected to shrink drastically). “[A transition] needs to be done, and it can be done,” Pollin recently told The New Yorker. “But it needs to be done judiciously.”
But Pollin’s approach differs in key ways from the “official” Green New Deal. These differences may sound relatively minor at first, but carry huge implications.
For instance, some critics—including climate scientists—have worried that in its current incarnation, the Green New Deal tries to take on too much at once, packaging climate action with a host of other initiatives such as universal health care, affordable housing, and guaranteeing everyone a job. “While these are worthy causes … their presence makes it all too easy for its detractors to oppose the Green New Deal without addressing the fundamental climate issue,” geosystem science professor Myles Allen has written in the Bulletin.
Another glaring difference: The proposal by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey originally aimed for 100 percent of US needs to be met by clean energy by the year 2030. But Pollin says that the best the country could hope for is closer to 80 percent renewables—and with a target date of 2035, not 2030. And that it would likely be 2050 before the United States could hit the much more difficult goal of 100 percent renewables.
Reaching 80 percent renewables by 2035 would still be an impressive accomplishment; the United States currently gets that amount of its energy from oil, gas, and coal, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Going from 80 percent fossil fuels to 80 percent renewables in just 16 years is still a major transition. It took the world about a century to go from burning wood to burning coal for heat, and another century to go from coal to oil.
Consequently, the nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts details of any version of a Green New Deal really count.
Which is why Bulletin deputy editor Dan Drollette Jr. interviewed Pollin via Skype.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Drollette: The overall take-away from the New Yorker article [which quoted Pollin fairly extensively] was that experts seemed to be coming to a consensus that some kind of large-scale renewables revolution could indeed happen in this country, and not all that far in the future—maybe not the goal of 100 percent renewables by 2030 as first proposed in the original Green New Deal, but still pretty darn good in a pretty short time frame. That was encouraging to see—a glimmer of hope on a topic where the news is often dire.
Did you feel that the article was basically correct?
Pollin: Yes. There were tiny quibbles, which I corresponded with the author about; but basically yes.
One significant thing was that while he wasn’t wrong, he didn’t convey accurately the full picture on the issue of land-use requirements. They’re much more modest than what he conveys because of the way you combine different renewable sources—the land-use requirements are not a significant constraint.
Drollette: That’s interesting, because I was just at the annual meeting of the American Association of Advancement of Science, where ecologist Thomas Crowther gave a presentation to the effect that if we were to reforest some of our landscape—and just aim for the very easiest places to reforest, like abandoned farmland—that would take care of something like 30 percent of the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the presentation was based on figures still to be released from an unpublished paper in review at a journal, and I don’t know when it will come out.
Pollin: A good paper came out in Nature about six months ago, that looks at all those so-called negative emissions technologies and shows what realistically could be done with them compared to afforestation.
Drollette: Because negative emissions technology is one of the things that periodically comes up here at the Bulletin—people will say “Well, we can solve the problem of global warming by changing the amount of reflectivity of the atmosphere,” or “We have these scrubbing technologies that can remove carbon dioxide and permanently sequester it underground.” To me, as a reporter—someone who’s not a researcher in this area—that seems kind of… ambitious.
Pollin: I know what you mean. I was at this conference last May in Frankfurt, Germany, which focused on the prospects of all these negative emission technologies (and I was actually the only economist there). This one guy’s paper was the best, in that it was like a very rigorous survey, whereas other people were presenting just their own research on various things. And his net finding was: “Look. These things can be useful. But some of them are pie-in-the-sky technologies, and we don’t know anything about them. Meanwhile, we do know that something as simple and straightforward as afforestation works. So the question is how far we can go with that.”
I’ll send you the paper, but I think he was suggesting that maybe 10 percent of the total carbon dioxide reduction that we need could be done through that technique—the planting of trees. The other ones I think he was pretty skeptical about. As were most attendees.
Drollette: I know there’s at least one researcher whose name comes up periodically, who is looking into permanently changing the albedo of the atmosphere. And some climate scientists are leery of this idea, saying that once you start down this path, you have to keep following it, forever. It’s like putting someone on a life support system. You can’t ever unplug.
Pollin: I agree. At the same time, however, there is some promising work being done on technological fixes such as low-carbon bio-fuels and synthetic fuels. Which I think could be part of the solution: Convert carbon in the atmosphere into a fuel, so you don’t have to store it.
On the other hand, that approach doesn’t actually reduce the stock of carbon: You take it out; you convert it to a fuel; you burn it. So at best it’s sort of getting another energy cycle out of a given amount of carbon.
But maybe as a short-term supplement, it’s of use. Because the main thing is that we have to get to zero emissions.
Drollette: Zero is that hard?
Pollin: Yes. But I think we can do it; physicist Mara Prentiss’ work argues that we could run the total global economy on renewable energy in 50 years. And she’s been steadily coming to the conclusion that we could do it in less time.
Realistically, I would say we can do it in 30 years, which means roughly around 2050. And remember that the goal of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is net zero emissions by 2050.
Which I think is realistic, if very, very challenging.
Unfortunately, that 2050 date is still considered too conservative by the official, 14-page Green New Deal House Resolution, which aims for those same goals by the year 2030—which I don’t agree with. It’s too much, too soon. Which is why John Cassidy was writing that piece in The New Yorker in the first place, because 100 percent renewables by 2030 is just not realistic, and it isn’t necessary if you look at the IPCC’s most recent report. The IPCC is aiming for 2050, not 2030.
Drollette: Why is 2050 more likely than 2030? [A number of versions of the Green New Deal have been brought up in a relatively short period of time; the version here is what was discussed with staffers for Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the time they spoke with Robert Pollin—and both groups had zero emissions by 2030 as their goal then.]
Pollin: We still need to solve a lot of problems with regards to existing technologies, especially with respect to storage and transmission. We need to solve problems with liquid fuels; we really don’t have a good substitute for petroleum as a liquid fuel. There are possible alternatives out there, but it’s not going to happen realistically in 10 years. We can’t run airplanes on electricity yet.
And then there are legal and political problems.
Drollette: Can you give a real-world example?
Pollin: I’m just finishing a Green New Deal study for the state of Colorado, commissioned by the mainstream labor movement leadership, the AFL-CIO. And of course, they’re very interested in what a transition to renewables means for jobs.
They told me to look at Pueblo, Colorado, because it’s a relatively moderate-income community that had voted to go 100-percent renewable. And it gets really interesting when you get down on the ground on these things.
At first glance, it all seemed straightforward. The voters are very into this. The town is home to a factory owned by Vestas, the world’s biggest or second-biggest wind turbine producer. And there’s a solar farm right outside town.
But here’s the really interesting institutional fact that we have to deal with: Pueblo has a long-term contract with their electric utility, which burns coal. Which is ironic, given that they have Vestas right there, making wind turbines; a solar farm right outside of town; and that the townspeople voted that they want to go 100-percent renewable.
How do you get out of that contract? The company is not going to go away for nothing. You’re going to have to either spend tens of millions of dollars to buy your way out of the contract, or live with it for another decade until the existing contract expires.
My guess is you live with it for another decade.
So this is why we need 30 years to get to zero carbon emissions nationwide, instead of 10 years. Because if you multiply the Pueblo situation by a thousand other communities around the country, there’s no way you can get out of a thousand contracts—and Pueblo is highly motivated to do it. Other communities may not even have heard of the Green New Deal, so realistically we have to start looking at all these existing contracts with fossil-fuel burning power plants. How do you get out of them?
Drollette: That brings up something I was curious about: Is it because of resistance from these coal-burning facilities that the United States is moving so slowly on dealing with climate change? Is it because of the Koch brothers that the Republican party is so vehemently against the Green New Deal? For example, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said that this proposal is going to confiscate cars and require Americans to “ride around on high speed light rails supposedly powered by unicorn tears.”
Pollin: (Laughs) Oh my god.
Drollette: Is it all about defending the status quo?
Pollin: Unfortunately—as I indicated in that article—I think that the people who put out the Green New Deal Resolution set themselves up for this kind of nonsense because they did not put out a proposal that was realistic. Consequently, they don’t have a defense.
I was in touch with various people, including a guy who advises Ocasio-Cortez, and the staff of Bernie Sanders. In fact, I told Bernie himself—I was sitting with him after I met with his staff—and I said: “It’s unrealistic. You can’t do this in 10 years without totally disrupting the lives, the livelihoods, and the communities of people who are engaged with the fossil fuel industry. We need to have a just transition, meaning that they still have a way of earning a living. And we can do it, as long as a Green New Deal is done in a smooth, incremental way.”
And the staff responded: “Well, we want to disrupt.”
Because “disrupt” is the new, hip, buzzword from the tech-industry, which seems to be under the mistaken impression that the word “disrupt” is a synonym for the phrase “to do good.”
And because I was finishing this Colorado study I just mentioned, I could tell them exactly what the transition away from fossil fuels meant. I had the documents on me, and I just said: “Okay. I’m going to read you some facts and figures about the jobs at risk in one town in Colorado. Pipe fitter: $108,000 a year. Utility worker: $118,000 a year. These are the average wages. All of these people are going to lose their jobs, and you’re telling me you’re okay with that. And that you don’t really have a plan to deal with it.
So I was saying to them: “A lot of what I’ve done here is to show how you can do this conversion from fossil fuels to renewables in a non-disruptive way—or minimize the disruption—which is critical.”
Speaking of which, you may have seen that last week the AFL-CIO—which represents 12.5 million workers—came out against the Green New Deal.
Drollette: Because of the things that you’re talking about?
Pollin: Right. And not only did they say that this is going to be really damaging to the lives and livelihoods of their members, but they said that they were upset that they weren’t even consulted by the creators of the Green New Deal proposal.
Which is really not the way to do it.
Interestingly, after that New Yorker piece came out online, within an hour-and-a-half, the staff of Senator Markey sent me an email saying they wanted to talk to me.
Somehow they didn’t think of it before.
So hopefully we won’t lose the momentum. Because I really love the spirit of the Green New Deal proposal. I think it is reflective of the magnitude and the urgency of the problem.
But to convert to 100 percent renewables in 30 years is itself a massive challenge, and it’s a long shot to succeed. But to say we’re going to do it in 10 years instead of 30—and not even address any of the real issues…
Drollette: Which reminds me—the Bulletin just published an op-ed that was critical of the existing Green New Deal, written by a climate scientist who was actually one of the people who had a hand in the latest IPCC special report. He wrote that while there are a lot of laudable things that the Green New Deal wants to do, if we’re going to focus on reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, then the current Green New Deal sprawls too much. It’s trying to take on too many different things at once. Do you feel that’s an accurate assessment?
Pollin: Yeah, it calls for single payer health care, full employment, $15 minimum wage—it’s too much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for those things; in fact, I’ve written extensive studies and testified and advocated on all those issues, mostly recently on Medicare for all. So I’m for all of it, there’s no question.
But why do they have to be mixed in with climate change? These are all massive, massive, massive challenges, and they require a lot of care, commitment, and rigorous analysis, not just tossing everything into the pot and saying: “We can do everything in there.” That’s just not the way.
We’re trying to transform an $18 trillion enterprise, if we’re just talking about the United States alone. That’s not going to be done easily, even if all the parties concerned had the best of intentions—and, of course, we are not facing the best of intentions. We’re facing gigantic opposition. So why would you want to alienate the labor movement?
Drollette: Can you give some details?
Pollin: From my own experience, the labor movement is trying to get behind this, but it’s a struggle. Obviously coal miners are not going to be happy, but in general the labor movement is coming around and is supportive.
So how could you propose something that is not going to be supported by most of the labor movement? And labor and environment are two of the mainstays of the Democratic Party. Until you include them, I don’t think you really have a serious agenda.
It was exactly on this issue that my own research first began, 12 years ago—to really consider the so-called “inevitable” huge trade-offs between jobs and environmental protection. At the time, it was taken as an absolute given that either you can protect the environment or you can create jobs, but that you can’t do both at the same time.
While what I was trying to show was the exact opposite: You can do both, and investing in a green economy will create jobs. And in fact what I showed way back in 2008 was that investing in a green economy on average will create about three times more jobs than maintaining our existing fossil fuel infrastructure.
Let me repeat that: Investing in a green economy will create about three times more jobs than maintaining our existing fossil fuel infrastructure.
So, that was my first big foray into this kind of work.
Subsequently I’ve tried to focus on how we make a fair and equitable switchover from an economy based on fossil fuels to one based on a green economy, concentrating on how we can wind down the fossil fuel economy and provide a just transition. And the questions that come up are “How do we do that” and “How much does it cost?” So that’s basically what I’ve been doing.
Drollette: It seems a lot of numbers are thrown around all over the place when it comes to the cost of shifting to a green economy. A New York Times article, “What is the Green New Deal,” said that modernizing the electrical grid alone would cost as much as $476 billion, yet reap something like $2 trillion in benefits. So, what conclusions do we make from all this?
Pollin: I think there are some basic things. All of my own research and cost estimates are derived from figures from the US government and the US Energy Information Administration, which has this wonderful thing that they put out every year called “levelized costs of electricity from alternative sources.” It tells you the average per-megawatt-hour cost of building and operating a power-generating plant over the course of its life cycle, for all the different energy sources.
I was telling my coworker that this is my favorite document coming out of the US government, and they just published it two or three weeks ago.
And it shows that solar and wind are at cost parity or cheaper [meaning that they cost about the same as advanced natural-gas power stations]. Meanwhile, nuclear power costs about twice as much as the average.
And don’t forget that this study is ultimately coming from the Trump administration’s Energy Department—saying that onshore wind and solar PV are at less than four cents a kilowatt-hour while nuclear is at nine cents or eight, something like that. They certainly are not ones that are going to be touting clean energy.
So to answer the question with respect to cost, the way I’ve always framed the clean energy transition is that there are two components. Investing in renewables is one. And energy efficiency is the other.
To give you an example, I drive a hybrid vehicle—a Prius—which means that I get roughly twice the miles per gallon as a conventional vehicle. And if the nation’s whole stock of autos were Prius or Prius-equivalents, then we’ve essentially cut what is known as the “energy intensity ratio” in half, and we’re spending less. We had an upfront cost to buy our Prius that’s more than a conventional car, but then we save over time.
So with efficiency and renewables at cost parity, that means that for the consumer, there is basically no cost to an energy transition.
You’re not going to be paying more for energy, you’re going to be paying less for energy.
Now we still have to figure out the upfront capital expenditures, but that’s a financing problem, not a cost to consumers. If you can deliver a product over time that saves money, well then, you can figure out how to finance it. For example, if I retrofit my home and I save 30 percent on my energy and electricity bills, then I can pay it back. If I have to invest in equipment, insulation, new lighting, new windows, then I can pay that back over five years with my savings. So there’s ultimately no cost; it’s more a question of how you structure the financing.
That’s the critical thing.
Drollette: Here in Massachusetts I think we get a little bit spoiled, because there are all these state-sponsored, energy-efficiency incentive programs for homeowners, for example, for things such as insulating and weatherstripping homes, installing alternative energy sources, purchasing LED lightbulbs, and putting in more efficient appliances—programs that include outright grants of significant sums of money, as well as zero-percent long-term loans. And you can tell the utility company you want to have your electricity come entirely from wind power or some other renewable source. You sort of take it for granted and assume that every place in the country is doing these things as well. And then you discover that’s not the case.
Pollin: Yes, unfortunately. And giving financial incentives for all of these more incremental, conventional technological fixes is critical, even though they don’t sound as sexy as saying that there has to be a complete revolution within 10 years. But those kind of things—such as getting everybody to drive a Prius-equivalent, or making homes 30 percent more energy-efficient than they were a decade or two ago, are actually not that expensive.
And they do help tremendously in making a difference.
To get a sense of the hard numbers, right now we’ve got an economy that runs on roughly 98 quadrillion BTUs of energy in the United States. With more efficiency, we can get it down to 50 quadrillion BTUs, allowing for economic growth. [A BTU, or British Thermal Unit, is the standard unit of measurement for the heat content of fuels or energy sources.]
And that would be a big step toward reaching our goal—we’d only have to get 50-to-60 quadrillion BTUs of capacity, instead of 98 quadrillion, from solar, wind, supplemental geothermal, hydro, and maybe some clean bio energy.
Drollette: On a related note, during that water crisis in Cape Town last year, when it looked like an entire modern city might have to turn off the taps, the Bulletin had done an interview with a water expert named Peter Gleick—who had won a MacArthur “genius” award for his work. We asked him what lessons the world could learn from observing the Cape Town experience, and he said it showed that the smartest thing we can do is make our water use more efficient, grow more food with less water, and flush our toilets and wash our clothes with less. And the way that he phrased it was: “[T]he cheapest source of new water is not actually new water, it’s spending money on conservation and efficiency programs that let us save water we’re already using. A gallon of water that we save with a conservation program is a gallon we don’t have to find in another over-tapped river.”
Pollin: Yeah, that’s right. But the problem is getting that idea across to the general public.
A couple of years ago, I was giving a lecture at the New School in New York and the moderator was the editor of The Nation magazine. She was very supportive but said: “How can you make this story about energy efficiency sexy? Because it’s just not.”
Drollette: But in some places, it’s catching on. Speaking of which, you mentioned a few places that you’ve done green energy plans for. Have you done one here [in town]?
Pollin: No, because I haven’t been asked. I don’t market myself, so I only do one if somebody asks—such as New York, Washington state, and now Colorado.
And I’ve also done green energy plans for places that are not states; I’ve done it in Puerto Rico. I’ve done a national study in Spain, and some other countries. I’ve been commissioned to do a national study of the US just now, to try to address this issue of what should a viable Green New Deal program look like. The United Nations commissioned me to look at different countries, for what is called Global Green Growth.
Drollette: But I see you didn’t mention Massachusetts or California. Because I would have thought that those two places would have immediately jumped on the chance to have their own, statewide, Green New Deals.
Pollin: Well, California’s already doing pretty well, though not as well as often touted. New York State promotes itself as doing very well under Cuomo, but they’re just okay; they’ve got a long way to go.
The rhetoric often does not match up to the reality—which was one of the things I emphasized in my study for New York state. You have to do the upfront investment.
In New York State they have the entire infrastructure in place in terms of incentives and so-forth; the goals are there and the rhetoric is there. But the level of commitment is a lot flimsier than what it appears to be. And that was a big feature of my report for New York: “Let’s do all the things you say you want to do, but let’s really do them. And let’s take those renewable portfolio standards and make them mandatory—make sure they get enforced.” Because right now they’re basically voluntary, which means nothing.
For example, New York State had a 2015 renewable portfolio standard for electricity of 29 percent and they missed the target—even though they already have 18 percent hydro. They still missed the target, and there was not a single article about it in the press. And there was not a single document coming out of the state saying: “We missed the target. What did we do wrong?” Not one. I actually had a research assistant look into this in detail. I said find any strip of paper that acknowledges that we missed the target.
No one ever said anything. They just made up a new target.
Drollette: Do you see a few technologies as being especially promising for bringing down the global emission of carbon dioxide?
Pollin: I think solar and wind are probably going to be the biggest, especially when we look at how the costs of solar in particular have really plummeted. If you look at the International Renewable Energy Agency’s charts on this, the cost of solar panels has come down 50 or 60 percent in the last five or six years. So we’re at the point where it’s totally cost-effective. Those are the averages, and of course, averages aren’t meaningful for a specific site, but you can work with it to the extent you can improve storage and transmission. If you do that, then the average does become meaningful. If you’re in a sunny area and you can transfer the stored electricity to a not-sunny area, or you can transfer it from daytime to nighttime, then the average becomes the number. So those are the real challenges.
Drollette: So that’s where things like a really genuinely nationwide grid would make sense. Especially a “smart grid” that uses digital communications to detect and react to local changes in usage?
Pollin: Yes. Right now in the Midwest, farmers are already doing really well putting up wind turbines. They can generate way more than they need, but how do we move it to places of high demand, like New York City?
Manhattan obviously isn’t going to be putting up a whole lot of wind farms. So you do have to have transmission of energy from far away, like the Midwest. So that is a really critical part of what needs to be accomplished, getting the smart grid set up.
Drollette: Did you find yourself looking at things like Germany’s Energiewende soft energy path?
Pollin: That was one of the countries that the United Nations commissioned me to do a comparison study of. Germany’s doing well.
But the biggest thing—which is not well-known at all—is that the greatest success in Germany has been with energy efficiency. In contrast, the degree to which they have integrated renewables is really only modestly better than the United States.
Which is a surprise, because you see all these glossy studies with pictures of solar farms and wind turbines in Germany. But when you actually dig into the data, that’s not where the action is; it’s energy efficiency. Basically, Germany runs at roughly twice the level of energy efficiency of the United States, with roughly the same per capita gross domestic product, so they’re twice as efficient.
And that’s why their per capita emissions are 40 percent lower than the United States.
And the reason why Germany has high efficiency is because they have financed it. They have a public investment bank owned by the federal government, known as the KfW bank, which was formed after World War II as part of the Marshall Plan to rebuild the country. It’s still around to this day, it’s the third-largest bank in Germany, and it has heavily subsidized investments in energy efficiency. So Germany has a more efficient economy.
And don’t forget that Germany does not have any oil. It’s all imports. So the idea of trying to avoid wasting any of it is a big motivator. If you don’t have any oil, you don’t want to import more than necessary. Because it’s money in people’s pockets.
Or to be more precise: In Germany’s case, it’s money in Saudi Arabia’s pocket.
Drollette: I notice that you have not talked at all about a carbon tax.
Pollin: From what I’ve seen in Colorado and in Washington state, the word “tax” is such a big killer that a carbon tax is almost not worth it.
The main thing I think we could get out of a carbon tax relative to other policy interventions is the revenue, which we could then plow into the clean energy investments.
Using that money, if we had a renewable energy portfolio standard that said that X percent of all electricity is going to come from renewable sources, and if you fail to meet to the standard you go to jail, then that would have some impact.
Then you would start to see some changes, and you wouldn’t necessarily even need the carbon tax.
Another option is to stick to the auto efficiency standard that Obama imposed. He was able to do it because we had just nationalized General Motors and Chrysler during the economic crisis. So Obama was, in effect, the boss of General Motors. And he established the goal of 55 miles per gallon by 2025, and it’s still there.
Though Trump is trying to get rid of it.
Drollette: As an economist, do you think that former president Barack Obama missed an opportunity back in 2008? I seem to remember his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, saying something like: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Pollin: Well, I think Obama did a lot. The stimulus program was about $800 billion, and about 12 percent of that—$90 billion—was targeted to green energy investments. So 12 percent of the entire stimulus package was effectively a green energy program. You can think of it as “Green New Deal, Mark One.”
Now, I’ll grant you it was not well-designed, as it mostly consisted of tax incentives instead of direct government spending. Because when the country is in the middle of a crisis, even if you offer businesses tax incentives, you still have to convince them to take up the incentives. Businesses still have to say: “I’m willing to put my money at risk.” And in a crisis the take-up rate was low.
So, one of the things I and some of my graduate students have been researching is exactly how you need to think about things like stimulus interventions, recognizing the time lags that are required to really move on any kind of clean energy investment project.
Again, it can’t be done in a year or two. I happen to be a very small-time green energy capitalist myself. I have a tiny company that we set up that handles financing and projects and investments in this area. So from first-hand experience, I know that a year is fast to get a deal done; that’s just the reality. People don’t want to put money at risk, unless they’re confident something’s going to work.
As a result, I think the Obama thing was a good start. Maybe he could have done more, but by 2010 he lost the Congress, so by then any support for green investments and the stimulus program was basically taken away. Not that it should have been, but it was.
Nevertheless, there were some good things he accomplished, and there’s a lot to build on. And one of the things that I think that the supporters of the Green New Deal today should look at was what happened in 2009 and learn from it. Because there are positive stories there.
Drollette: What do you think will be coming out of your nationwide Green New Deal study, the thing you’re working on right now?
Pollin: I’ve already roughed it out, though I have to improve it. Basically, if we say we have to get to 50 percent emissions in 10 years and zero emissions by 2050, then on average you’re looking at about a target of about 2 percent per year of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) invested in renewables and energy efficiency improvements. You can get there even with current technologies, assuming that the US economy grows at 2.4 percent per year—which is the average growth rate of the previous 30 years.
So at 2.4 percent growth, the economy grows, you create jobs. You create more jobs because you’re increasing the green investments that are more labor-intensive, and you can hit the emission target.
There’s a fixed amount of money that we need to get enough renewable energy capacity, and after a while, you’ve used up all your efficiency. So basically what I’ve estimated, on average, is that if we take the average for a 30-year investment cycle, it’s $600 billion a year for 30 years. It’s about a $18 trillion program, and that’s it.
Now I need to refine the model because the first 10 years are harder, because we’re going from where we are today to a 50-percent emission reduction. So that’s probably going to be a little over 3 percent of GDP per year. And then once we get to the 50 percent, to get from 50 down to zero will only be about 1.5 percent of GDP.
That’s the rough version. I still have to improve it, but that’s basically it.
Drollette: At first glance, those numbers sound frighteningly big—$600 billion per year for 30 years, which works out to $18 trillion, if I follow you correctly. But I’m sure someone must have worked out how much it would cost the planet if that was not done, if we did not make the effort to tackle climate change—especially at a time when South Florida alone would face costs of about $1 trillion due to rising sea levels, and that’s before factoring in the cost of moving the state’s three low-lying nuclear power plants. Plus the nationwide costs of massive numbers of climate refugees, the introduction of tropical diseases to formerly temperate zones, increased hurricanes and wildfires, and the health costs of burning fossil fuels. At least one report, “The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States,” says that in this country, we’re already spending $360 billion annually due to climate change…
Pollin: And again, there’s ultimately no cost to the consumer in making things more energy-efficient and using renewables. At the end of the day, the consumer is going to get energy cheaper, and we are just substituting out an existing energy system for a better energy system.
The biggest cost to the people is in the actual process of transitioning, which we’re not going to make that back. And it’s the costs of the transition, and how to make that transition in a just manner, that I’ve been focusing on.
Drollette: Based on what you’ve learned, if you had to look into your crystal ball and predict the future, would you say that you are an optimist? Do you think that we will actually do these things?
Pollin: Well, you know there’s a great quote from an Italian philosopher and political theorist named Antonio Gramsci, who spent a good bit of his life in jail under Mussolini. I don’t know if you ever heard of Gramsci.
Drollette: No, I can’t say that I have.
Pollin: His quote is: “Pessimism of the mind. Optimism of the will.”
Which I think pretty much sums things up: There’s a lot of obstacles out there to overcome, especially with this political administration. Which does give me cause for worry.
But you just do what you have to do and hope things work out.