Make America great again by finally making it green

How Democrats can create millions of jobs, achieve energy independence, and literally save the world

Go green.
(Image credit: iStock)

On Tuesday, President Trump issued a sweeping executive order to roll back Obama-era regulations to combat climate change.

Now, actually undoing Obama's rules may prove a lot harder than Trump realizes. But like the GOP's recent effort to nuke ObamaCare, it's an unpleasant reminder of how precarious Obama's gradualist achievements are. In fact, thanks to ObamaCare's brush with death, some Democrats are eager to stop fiddling around with minor improvements and just go all-in on single-payer the next time they're in power.

Democrats should take the same moonshot attitude to climate change, too.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Specifically, a 100-percent green energy economy should become the new demand of the Democratic Party. Democrats should insist on a massive government industrial policy and a full-blown World War II-style economic mobilization to get us there.

There are three core reasons for this.

1. Democrats should tee off Trump's own stated goals: We need the jobs.

The scale of the green energy effort should be absolutely massive. We'd need large concentrated solar complexes across the country, as well as distributed solar on every roof. We'd need a big increase in wind power, plus tidal power, geothermal, nuclear, and more. We'd need a battery in every home and office building, plus a plug for electric cars in every parking spot, residential or business. We'd need to fully electrify our national car fleet. We'd need to completely revamp our national electrical grid so it can coordinate renewable sources and maintain a continuous energy supply. We'd need to weatherize and properly insulate every last building in the country to maximize energy efficiency. And on and on.

This is daunting. But it also presents a huge opportunity. These are labor-intensive industries, so they create more jobs per unit of energy produced than traditional fossil fuels, and they're more friendly to the working class on average. We'd need armies of workers to not only build the projects, but to do maintenance and upkeep far into the future.

If done right, this would create literally millions of new jobs.

Trump greatly exaggerates America's unemployment problem. But he isn't wrong that a lot of mainstream policymakers underestimate it. The standard worry with big government industrial policies is that they'll crowd out private activity and drive up interest rates. But that only happens once you get close to maxing out the economy's potential output. Gross domestic product could still be as far as $2.7 trillion below that threshold. Apply standard multipliers, and the government could drop at least $1 trillion in new spending — every last cent borrowed — before crowd-out became a noticeable problem.

Furthermore, there's every reason to treat this as a national emergency that justifies some crowd-out. World War II shows how this is done. Recognizing the emergency, the Federal Reserve dropped its usual political independence and agreed to finance Congress' borrowing with money creation. That controlled interest rates while driving up inflation. But we contained the price rise with smart tax policy.

Did I mention the World War II mobilization drove unemployment down to 2 percent?

2. This is the only way to truly achieve energy independence.

The president clearly thinks the way to achieve energy independence is to dig as much coal and oil and gas out of the ground as possible. But all of these fuels, and oil especially, are traded on global marketplaces. That means that no matter how much of them America produces, the prices Americans pay will be influenced by events elsewhere — wars, gambits by state-owned enterprises, etc.

True independence only comes with detaching from these markets entirely. That means green energy: No foreign country or company can influence the sunshine or the winds or the tides. Nuclear power is a bit of a hiccup here, since we'll still need the fuel. But ramping up research could mitigate a lot of this problem, and there are lots of advanced forms of nuclear the U.S. government could already deploy if it put the money into it.

3. Time is of the essence if we want to save the world.

To avoid the worst consequences of climate change, scientists think we need to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius. At this point, we've dumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that global emissions will need to drop to roughly zero by 2080 to stay under that threshold. America certainly isn't all of the problem, but it's a substantial part of it. And as the world's biggest superpower and biggest historical carbon emitter, no one's going to go where we aren't leading.

While certainly well intentioned, policies like cap-and-trade and carbon taxation only incentivize private markets to adopt renewables. So they're also gradualist, slow-rolling affairs. And they face steep political battles: "We're going to green the economy by raising your fossil fuel costs" is a tough sell to voters.

By contrast, the few real-world instances we've seen of an advanced economy rapidly reducing its carbon intensity on a sustained basis involved direct government industrial policy: Namely, France and Sweden building out their nuclear power. Rather than cajole the private market into adopting green energy sources, the government just shoved the private market aside and built them itself. "We're going to green the economy by building lots of stuff and employing people to do it" is a much more attractive message.

The left wants a bold proposal to inspire the nation and get people back on their feet. How about make America great again by finally making it green?

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us