There is something in the human psyche that must abhor tranquility. The resilience born of suffering and sacrifice, after all, is not afforded those who languish in prosperity and comfort. Though we are not without significant personal and public challenges, they pale compared to those endured during the Great Depression and the Second World War. And so, bequeathed an inferiority complex, we seem eager to appropriate these terrible experiences for ourselves.
The scale of the threat posed by climatic and environmental changes is just not comparable to an aggressive fascist menace and the collapse of the global economy. Perhaps that’s why advocates for radical environmental policy prescriptions are so eager to borrow from the Greatest Generation’s hardships if only to lend psychological urgency to a cause that is empirically lacking.
“This is kind of like Winston Churchill in 1939,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is preparing a presidential bid on a platform consisting primarily of measures that purport to mitigate the threat posed by climate change. Progressive Senator Bernie Sanders seems to agree. “We must look at climate change as if it were a devastating military attack against the United States and the entire planet,” he wrote. California Gov. Jerry Brown noted that it took Franklin Delano Roosevelt years to nudge Americans toward support for Britain over Nazi Germany, and climate change represents an “enemy” that is “devastating in a similar way.”
When climate change is not World War II, it is the Great Depression, and the only prescription is a “green New Deal.” As an early adopter of this rhetorical flourish, 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made herself a powerbroker in Democratic politics. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced her intention to explore a presidential campaign ahead of 2020, she did so with a nod of support for the freshman congresswoman’s signature proposal. For her part, Ocasio-Cortez sagely acknowledged the prudent deference displayed by the senior senator from Massachusetts.
So, what is a “green New Deal?” Stuart Chase, the author of the 1932 book A New Deal that so inspired the administration that adopted the slogan, modeled his recommendations along Bolshevist lines and famously concluded with a rhetorical question: “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” The green version of Chase’s idealism seems contented with remaking the economy. A draft resolution aimed at resurrecting the New Deal with a queasy emerald hue resolves to shutter every fossil-fuel-powered electricity plant in the country, eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture by contracting down to “local-scale,” “funding massive investment” in greenhouse-gas emissions (whatever that means), and to export this paradigmatic and technological revolution to every corner of the globe—all within 10 years.
The green vanguard behind the document make no mention of the strides that the private sector has made in addressing environmental concerns in accordance with the demands of consumers. They didn’t note, as the often apocalyptic United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does, that two of the chief ways in which individuals can reduce their carbon footprint would be for consumers to purchase electric or hybrid cars and to install “smart thermostats” in their homes—two things consumers are increasingly doing. Nor do they account for why U.S. carbon emissions declined to a 67-year low in 2017, or why the U.S. power-generation sector cut emissions by 28 percent since 2005, or why the United States is meeting many of its Paris Climate Accord targets despite having left the agreement in early 2017. The answer is innovation, technological advancement, and the marketplace. Increasingly, the source of the world’s climate emissions is in the developing world, where the market is tempered by a far more active public sector.
Tellingly, the Green New Deal’s draft resolution devotes an entire section to detailing why the scale of the challenge is too immense and the window of time to save humanity from climatic disaster is too small to rely on the private sector. “[M]erely incentivizing the private sector doesn’t work,” the document reads. “The level of investment will be massive,” it continues. Indeed, the authors scoff at the notion that the private sector could even marshal the necessary sums. $1 trillion, they remark, is the “entire market cap of Amazon,” and even that astronomical amount has been “criticized by climate experts as wholly inadequate” to the task. And where do these funds come from? Credit, of course, extended by the Federal Reserve; “the same ways we paid for World War II.”
The perverse nostalgia haunting policymakers for the years in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt occupied the White House has less to do with the appalling circumstances with which Americans struggled than with their effects on the national psyche. Crisis made us closer, they believe. We lived simpler and more austerely—the kind of downsized lives that those who blame capitalism for climatological problems eagerly prescribe. We were in thrall to the idea that public works delivered economic salvation, and public service papered over our differences. But there is something less romantic in this sentimental longing for an unequivocally grimmer time: the lust for power.
It was no accident that when Jimmy Carter called on Americans to dispense with the luxuries to which they’d become accustomed to meet the challenges posed by the fuel crisis, he urged them to view it as “the moral equivalent of war.” War is an extraordinary circumstance. It demands that you forego discretion in favor of action and that you abandon the conventions and impracticalities that render republican democracy a sluggish and unwieldy thing. It’s easy to see why those who genuinely believe that current climate trends represent an existential threat want the green movement to be “the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation,” but that’s not quite nostalgia. It’s more like envy.