Seeing the Green New Deal For the Trees
President Trump is too double-barreled to be considered an ironist. Yet he did use the dramatic technique of irony in a February 9 tweet aimed at Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Green New Dealers:
I think it is very important for the Democrats to press forward with their Green New Deal. It would be great for the so-called “Carbon Footprint” to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military – even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!
In calling the Green New Deal “brilliant,” Trump was, of course, kidding. The president is in favor of eliminating nothing on that list that emits CO2. In reacting so strongly to the sketchy outlines of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, he was seizing a political opportunity.
That political opportunity was for him to stand up for progress and prosperity, not allowing anyone to get far with ideas that would de-industrialize the economy and turn us all into burlap-wearing hobbits. (Low-tech hobbits that would then, of course, be conquered by China, or even Mexico.)
To be sure, even the most liberal Democrats were not about to let the Green New Deal, this version at least, get very far. The AOC document included, for instance, an FAQ (“frequently asked questions”) section that was begging to mocked. It was full of weird details about phasing out airplanes and meat, while at the same time pledging “Economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work” (emphasis added).
Indeed, no less a liberal authority than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put the kibosh on the plan: “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive. The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”
Okay, so this particular version of the Green New Deal isn’t going anywhere. Yet at the same time, the concerns that drive the Green New Deal aren’t going away.
According to a new poll, 72 percent of Americans say that climate change is important to them. To be sure, the public’s commitment to the issue is, we might say, cheap. Another poll from January found that, while 57 percent of Americans would pay $12 a year to fight climate change, just 28 percent would agree to pay $120 a year. In other words, if fighting climate change costs the equivalent of a Happy Meal, most Americans are for it, but if it costs the equivalent of a year’s subscription to Netflix, most are against it.
The reluctance to part with money in the name of climate change casts a long shadow on one oft-heard proposal, namely, a carbon tax. To have an impact on consumption, a carbon tax would have to be stiff, and thus ordinary consumers would feel the bite. For instance, a 2012 study from the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute found that a $15-a-ton carbon tax would impose a 3.5 percent tax on the income of the poorest decile of households, but only a 0.6 percent tax on the highest decile.
In other words, a carbon tax would be deeply regressive, and voters from Washington State to France have already rejected such measures. Yes, it’s theoretically possible to make a carbon tax progressive, but then if ordinary people are exempted, the question becomes whether it would actually discourage consumption—or whether it would become more progressive than rich eco-warriors might wish.
Yet even if most people would like to forget the AOC Green New Deal, there is one part that’s worth remembering, even resuscitating. In the document’s FAQ, the subject of planting trees as a partial solution to climate change comes up repeatedly: we are urged to “plant lots of trees.”
Trees are, in fact, valuable in the fight against climate change because they provide a “carbon sink”: that is, through photosynthesis, they pull carbon out of the atmosphere. A living tree is about 15 to 18 percent carbon, and according to Scientific American, there are some three trillion trees in the world.
In fact, every living thing, flora or fauna, also contains carbon—and so that’s a lot of sunk carbon in the planetary biota. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that all the life forms on earth hold about 550 gigatons of carbon (a gigaton is a billion metric tons).
For purposes of comparison, humans have released somewhere north of 1,500 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere over the last century and a half. In other words, the total of organically captured carbon is about a third of what’s in the atmosphere. And so we can readily see: if more carbon could be captured organically, that would have a major impact on the carbon load in the atmosphere.
So perhaps it’s worth recalling that the Bush 41 administration, in which I was proud to serve, made a small but sincere effort towards organic carbon capture.
In 1988, the year before George H.W. Bush was inaugurated, NASA scientist James Hansen testified on Capitol Hill about the challenge of climate change. I remember seeing the story on the front page of the The New York Times: it was prominent, above the fold, as we used to say. The headline read, “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate.” As the Times explained, “The warming trend was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide…in the atmosphere.” (Yes, it was “global warming” then, the successor to “global cooling”—and now, of course, it’s “climate change.”)
In 1988, these theories were mostly new to everybody. But the following year, 1989, as a mid-level policy staffer in the White House, I was intrigued to learn that trees were a possible counter-measure to climate change.
And as it happened, the Bush administration was already pursuing a modest tree-planting agenda, seeing it as a matter of voluntaristic beautification and civic engagement. Indeed, planting trees as a do-gooding idea had been around for a long time: the first Arbor Day in the U.S. was back in 1872. I was involved in efforts to shape a small piece of legislation towards tree growth. I even have one of the pens that Bush 41 used to sign the National Tree Trust Act on April 5, 1990.
In those years, it seemed that the importance attached to the climate change issue suggested the need for a broader strategy. That is, if carbon dioxide was a problem, and if trees could capture CO2, then why not make the effort more ambitious? Why not plant a lot more trees? And why not revive the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps and hire young people—especially the disadvantaged—to plant trees? Others took note of the idea, and a small foundation, the Earth Conservation Corps, was formed.
I thought back on all of this when reading that Green New Deal FAQ. The document includes these sentences: “We believe the right way to capture carbon is to plant trees and restore our natural ecosystems. CCUS technology to date has not proven effective.”
CCUS, we might note, stands for Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage. And trees, as we have seen, are a good way to capture carbon. As for CCUS technology more broadly, perhaps it is still unproven. But then all infant technologies are unproven, at least until they’re proven.
If the climate issue is as dire as we are being told, then by all means, let’s push harder for CCUS of all kinds. Here at TAC, I argued that case two years ago, and now, a leading green, David Wallace-Wells, is publishing a book making the same point about the need for “carbon-sucking machines.”
It’s easy to see that CCUS is the compromise we’ve been looking for. That is, we could keep using carbon-based fuels while starting to decarbonize the atmosphere. Moreover, with so much national urgency, smart and determined people would surely find a way to make CCUS work.
Still, as we evolve toward CCUS, we should not forget our leafy friend, the tree. Indeed, with more technological progress in farming, we can reduce the amount of land that we use for crops or pasturing—currently about 40 percent of the nation’s territory—and let the forest grow back to wild.
And speaking of forests, we could not only have more of them, but taller and more giant—as seen, for instance, in many pagan tales, including the 2009 movie Avatar. As techno-optimists like to say, the Tree of Souls is carbon capture done right.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.