When U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey released the text of the Green New Deal in February 2019, they were paying homage to the policies that lifted the United States out of the Great Depression. The resolution tied action on climate change to a wider set of social objectives, including creating jobs in renewables and other clean technologies, targeting the country’s vast need for improved infrastructure, and addressing issues as varied as sources of income and health care inequality. This essay focuses on what is missing—an international dimension.
The resolution has received no shortage of praise and criticism. On the one hand, defenders see the document as visionary, putting climate change much higher on the political “radar” and forcing opponents—Republicans, in particular—to come forward with climate policies of their own. Yet, on the other hand, some critics see the Green New Deal as naïve and severely lacking in political realism, while others see it as insufficiently detailed. Still others have gone further, dismissing the document outright and using it as an occasion to rail against purported bans on air travel and burgers. As the scholar Leah Stokes has argued, the Green New Deal is not a legislative text in the traditional sense, with references to agencies, rules, and particular programs. At best, the resolution is an agenda-setting exercise and a wish list of other policies advocates think will be helpful in building a broader coalition of support. Whether or not it will succeed is another question.
Though he is sympathetic to its goals, the Niskanen Center’s Jerry Taylor worries that the Green New Deal might backfire by tying climate change to a host of other grandiose policy objectives. Taylor, himself a former climate change skeptic and alumnus of the Cato Institute, fears that advocates will alienate moderate Democrats and Republicans whose support for the legislation will ultimately be critical (Leah Stokes and Rhiana Gunn-Wright have each written threaded replies to Taylor on Twitter defending the Green New Deal’s political strategy).
Another concern that has not yet received much attention is the Green New Deal’s parochialism—namely, the resolution focuses almost solely on the domestic scene. There is no mention of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, for example, and indeed, the word “international” only appears in reference to exporting clean technology abroad. This missing international dimension may prove substantively and politically important if and when the resolution’s ambition is translated into actual legislation—perhaps not by this Congress, but in 2020, when both the composition of the Senate and the occupant of the White House may be more receptive.
Climate change is an inherently global issue. As a result, the actions of just one country (even the United States) are insufficient. If anything, China’s actions are perhaps more important than those of the United States. In 2017, China emitted 27 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, while the United States emitted only 15 percent.
The Green New Deal’s domestic emphasis might be based on a political calculation that Americans are unlikely to support policies meant to address the emissions of foreigners. However, one reason that the United States never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was because it did not include commitments for fast-growing countries like China and India. Scholars have noted that U.S. firms are reluctant to accept the costs of environmental protection if firms in other countries are not subject to the same standards.
Even when the United States has been willing to unilaterally impose costs on itself, there has often been pressure to internationalize U.S. domestic environmental policy. For instance, after the United States unilaterally banned aerosols in 1977 in an effort to address the ozone problem, it extended this policy from the inside out by pressing for a global agreement. In another example, during the last serious attempt to legislate climate policy in 2009, one of the central elements of the Waxman-Markey bill was border tax adjustments, which would have imposed tariffs on imported products from countries that did not have adequate carbon control measures. Even though the bill failed, analysts argued that these border tax adjustments were politically necessary to give the bill a chance of passing.
In the midst of an ongoing tariff and trade war with allies and competitors alike, though, it is unclear if Congress will have an appetite for such measures. With the United States now an outlier on global climate policy, some European leaders have suggested that they may use the same logic to impose trade barriers on U.S. imports. Still, in light of faltering efforts in China to address greenhouse gas emissions, it is conceivable that the prospect of serious climate legislation will prompt U.S. firms to ask what measures the government plans to take to ensure that the same standard for environmental protection will be applied on an international level.
Here, proposals for carbon clubs, which are members-only groups that offer trade benefits to members that have strong climate policies, could become salient. Richard Samans, a managing director of the World Economic Forum, has already sketched out such a vision: “Imagine if the leaders of France, Germany, China, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and Britain—all countries that have exhibited broad popular support for climate action—agreed to create a new kind of international economic alliance aimed at collectively scaling market incentives for low-carbon adoption.” This alliance would provide trade benefits only to countries that commit to a raft of policy measures such as phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, eliminating tariffs on low carbon products, establishing common efficiency standards on government-procured energy-intensive products, and alignment of sectoral emission reduction efforts, among others.
The international dimensions of the climate problem could go beyond a low carbon economic alliance and address emissions growth in fast-growing economies. The Obama administration, for instance, pioneered bilateral high-level climate dialogues with China and India and sought to encourage technical cooperation in areas of common concern, such as battery storage. While China can mobilize domestic funds, India is not as well-off and might look to the United States for modest amounts of foreign assistance or clean technology exports supported by export credit guarantees. With India facing a debilitating air quality crisis in many of its northern cities, the United States, through its network of national labs, might be poised to offer its experience, technology, and ideas to help India alleviate these problems and generate ancillary benefits for addressing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Whatever direction the Green New Deal ultimately takes, the final legislation will need a nuanced international component because the problem requires global cooperation. What’s more, the international dimension may also be politically essential for the bill to make it through Congress.
Joshua W. Busby is an Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is also a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law, a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and a senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security. He has published widely on climate change and climate and security for academic and policy audiences. He has been involved in two research grants on climate and security supported by the U.S. Department of Defense under its Minerva Initiative.
Morgan D. Bazilian is Professor of Public Policy, and Director of the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines. Previously, he was Lead Energy Specialist at the World Bank. He has worked in energy and climate policy and investment for over two decades all over the world. He is a Member of the Council on Foreign Relations.