Bernie Sanders Will Have to 'Very Seriously Rethink' Green New Deal if Elected, Says Former White House Economist

Earlier this week, Bernie Sanders released new details on his Green New Deal (GND), revealing how he plans to fund the ten-year mobilization program compared in scope and ambition to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s.

It has been applauded for its ambition, but some experts warn that it may require more than a little tweaking before it can be put into practice. According to a former White House economist, Sanders would have to "very seriously rethink" the plan if he is elected president.

"It will be very difficult, but bold and ambitious action against climate change can make it possible and the Green New Deal is about being bold and ambitious," Philip Gass, Senior Policy Advisor, Energy and Lead, Indonesia, at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, told Newsweek.

Bernie Sanders Green New Deal
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attends a news conference to introduce legislation to transform public housing as part of the Green New Deal outside the U.S. Capitol November 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The cornerstone of the plan is the swift and complete conversion to a 100 percent renewable energy system for both electricity and transport by 2030. This action is partnered with the full decarbonization of the economy by 2050, if not before.

The dates have been selected to reflect goals laid out by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which urges countries to achieve "net zero" on greenhouse gas emissions by the mid-century.

"With focused investments, allocated in ways that are equitable and inclusive, a fossil-free economy by 2050, if not sooner, is not a fantastical initiative," Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director for the Institute for Policy Studies, told Newsweek.

However, as things stand currently, were Sanders to implement the plan as president, he may face several roadblocks; political, legal and administrative. Think back to Barack Obama's struggle with the Affordable Care Act, which encountered stiff opposition from Republicans and resistance from members of his own party.

"The plan correctly recognizes the importance and urgency of climate change, but it would be extremely difficult to get any traction on it under the current legal and regulatory constraints," Kenneth Gillingham, Associate Professor of Economics at Yale University, told Newsweek.

"Should Sanders be elected to the Presidency, his team will have to very seriously rethink the plan if they actually want to accomplish anything on climate change.

"The plan is really more of an aspirational idea than a serious policy proposal," he added.

In terms of costing, the proposal currently racks in at $16.3 trillion—but Sanders' team says the plan will pay for itself in 15 years.

A large chunk of that cash ($6.4 trillion) will come from the wholesale of energy generated by regional Power Marketing Administrations (PMAs), organizations that sell the electricity generated by dams owned and operated by the federal government. Other sources of income listed in the proposal include corporation tax, the fossil fuel industry and taxes from 20 million newly-created jobs promised to revamp the U.S. economy into a greener, more sustainable alternative.

Sen points to the PMAs cited in Sanders' plans, which he says are largely compatible with the principles of energy democracy—that being the idea of transitioning from a centralized corporate fossil fuel economy to an alternative governed by communities.

"To this end, it is entirely possible to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2030—we don't lack the innovation," said Sen, who highlights examples in Brooklyn, New York, and Puerto Rico. "What we lack is the political will to scale-out local, frontline led initiatives that can put us on a trajectory to a regenerative economy."

The use of PMAs Sen mentions feeds into the social justice aspect of Sanders' plan that lies at its core. According to Tom B.K. Goldtooth, Executive Director of Indigenous Environmental Network, the plan offers an opportunity to recognize the integration of Native tribes' renewable energy and electrical generation infrastructures.

"This plan could play a major role in reversing the trend from a U.S. policy of exploitation toward energy justice in Indian Country, which would be a door opener for tribes to tap into the federal electrical grids for the purposes of achieving renewable energy goals," Goldteeth told Newsweek. He sites Western Area Power Administration and the Bonneville Power Authority as examples.

But PMAs alone are not enough. Gass told Newsweek achieving 100 percent renewables and complete decarbonization will need more than just PMAs—"it's going to take every tool in the box."

These tools include vehicle (or tailpipe) emissions standards, carbon pricing, fossil fuel subsidy reform and clean energy incentives.

Taking fossil fuel subsidy reform as an example, research suggests the U.S. pays more than any other country in the G7 to bolster the domestic coal, oil and gas industries and removing subsidies could save somewhere in the region of $20.5 billion a year (based on 2015 and 2016 figures). Meanwhile, switching to renewable energy is already cheaper than coal in many areas—and is projected to keep getting cheaper.

"Sanders has chosen the right policy levers, including fossil fuel subsidy reform, commitment to polluter pays principles, and tax reforms," said Gass.

As for the idea that it will "pay for itself" in 15 years, Gillingham says it is "optimistic" and hinges on how the costs of renewables and batteries continue to drop—"It's perhaps possible for this to be true, but it is very unlikely."

worker repairs a power generating windmill
A worker repairs a power generating windmill on June 14, 2018 near Dwight, Illinois. Sanders' Green New Deal promises 20 million new jobs as the country transitions to a clean energy economy. Scott Olson/Getty

The bill for the GND is large but proponents say the cost of the plan is "peanuts" compared to the cost of inaction.

Indeed, the Fourth National Climate Assessment projects annual losses in some economic sectors will be in the hundreds of billions by 2100. That is a figure higher than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many states. The government's own research reveals extreme weather has cost the federal government more than $350 billion and the number of these events like these are only expected to increase as climate change progresses.

"We know for certain that the most pressing realistic forecast is that doing nothing and perfunctory actions will lead to increased climate catastrophe that could very well bankrupt the nation," Anglea Adrar, the Executive Director of Climate Justice Alliance, told Newsweek. "Not to mention the high number of lives that will be lost, especially in frontline communities."

"Asking questions associated with the cost of saving the planet for future generations should be replaced with questions about the cost of doing nothing."

But while the plan and costing include some concrete statistics—$1.215 trillion is to be saved by scaling back military operations and $70.4 trillion is to be saved over 80 years by averting climate catastrophe—some elements of the program are more vague. Newsweek has reached out to the Bernie Sanders campaign team for further details.

"It is hard to say exactly what would be involved in practice," said Gillingham, who served as the Senior Economist for Energy and the Environment at the White House Council of Economic Advisers between 2015 and 2016.

The plan also seems to reject certain technologies that may be helpful to its cause, stating: "To get to our goal of 100 percent sustainable energy, we will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators."

Technologies like carbon capture and nuclear may be controversial, but many environmentalists and professionals say they may be an important part of the solution in fixing the climate crisis and should not be ruled out. To take nuclear as an example, Bill Gates is working on new technology to make it a safer, more viable option (though he has been met with some setbacks of late.)

"We don't know yet whether these will pan out to be safe, reliable, and inexpensive, but it is possible," said Gillingham. "It seems short-sighted to restrict the set of zero net carbon approaches if one really cares about the climate. But perhaps it is smart politics."

Correction 2/27/20, 12:00 p.m. ET: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated "White House Council of Economic Affairs." This has been corrected to "White House Council of Economic Advisers." This article has been updated to correct Philip Gass' name.