International Policy Digest

Books /22 Sep 2020
09.22.20

Noam Chomsky is Still Trying to Save Us from our Own Stupidity

Much has been said about the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders have both championed it by proposing bills in Congress. Right-wing nutjob Sebastian Gorka claims that a Green New Deal would “take away your hamburgers.” Intellectual G.OA.T. Noam Chomsky and eco-economist Robert Pollin (who has worked with Bernie Sanders and Spain’s Podemos Party on tackling climate change, among others), in conversation with C.J. Polychroniou (a frequent Chomsky collaborator), discuss the actual merits and significance of a Green New Deal in Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal.

The book is in the format of an interview between C.J. Polychroniou and Chomsky and Pollin. As such, it’s light on technical jargon and heavy on easily digestible substance. The first chapter discusses the existential danger of climate change. Chomsky argues that it’s an even graver threat than the Second World War because it threatens to wipe out much of human and animal life. Rising sea levels from oceanic warming and melting polar ice caps threaten the greatest contributors to the crisis: energy-intensive coastal cities. Forty-four percent of the world’s population lives within 150 km of coastline, including residents of eight of the ten most populous cities in the world, such as Tokyo and NYC. Many island nations, such as the Maldives and Indonesia, could potentially become partially or wholly submerged by rising ocean levels. The rising heat will disproportionately punish the Global South, which is ironically largely un-responsible for carbon emissions. Countries in places like Africa, South Asia, and Latin America will have to deal with deadly heatwaves, drought, flooding, wildfires, and tropical storms. Tropical diseases, which thrive in heat, will become more common worldwide. As the book points out: “A prime underlying cause of the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as other recent epidemics, including Ebola, West Nile, and HIV, has been the destruction of animal habitats through deforestation and related human encroachments, as well as the disruption of the remaining habitats through the increasing frequency and severity of heatwaves, droughts, and floods.”

Chapter 2 is entitled “Capitalism and the Climate Crisis”. It illustrates how the capitalist Industrial Revolution has been directly responsible for the carbon-based catastrophe. An interesting tidbit the book reveals is that coal furnaces were first used not because they were much more efficient than preexisting water turbine technology of the 18th-19th centuries (they weren’t), but because coal plants weren’t tied to bodies of water. In other words, they could be brought to whatever areas had the most labor to exploit, regardless of proximity to water. Another fossil fuel, petroleum, soon became an even more popular and polluting source of industrial fuel.

‘Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal’ by Noam Chomsky; Robert Pollin; C.J. Polychroniou. 192 pp. Verso

Reaching its zenith far later than coal, its biggest producers have actually been aware of the environmental destructiveness of their commodity: “The oil companies’ record in dealing with climate change represents a dramatic case study of neoliberalism in practice. In 1982, researchers working at the then Exxon Corporation (now ExxonMobil) estimated that by about 2060, burning oil, coal, and natural gas to produce energy would elevate the planet’s average temperatures by about 2°C…In 1988, researchers at Shell Corporation reached similar conclusions. We now know what Exxon and Shell did with this information—they buried it…[It’s] clear that both companies behaved exactly according to the precepts of neoliberalism— that is, they acted to protect their profits.” Chomsky and Pollin also talk about deforestation, industrialized animal agriculture, and the dumping of plastic into the ocean, among other industrial-scale crimes against nature.

Chapter 3 goes into the nuts and bolts of a realistic Green New Deal. It would not be as gargantuan an undertaking as some in the media would have you believe. Chomsky quotes the intellectual Jeffrey Sachs: “Contrary to some commentaries, decarbonization will not require a grand mobilization of the U.S. economy on par with WWII. The incremental costs of decarbonization above our normal energy costs will amount to 1-2% of U.S. GDP per year during the period to 2050. By contrast, during World War II, federal outlays soared to 43% of GDP from the prewar level of 10% of GDP in 1940.” Much of America’s funding for a national Green New Deal could come simply from downsizing military spending; Chomsky points out that the U.S. alone devotes hundreds of billions a year, about 2/5 of total global military funds.

As many critics of a Green New Deal have pointed out, it would create a lot of job losses in the fossil fuel industries. In response, Pollin proposes, “Considering the U.S. economy, Brian Callaci and I estimate that a rough high-end estimate for such a program is a relatively modest $600 million per year (that is, less than 0.2 percent of the 2018 U.S. federal government budget). This level of funding would provide strong support in two areas: (1) income, retraining, and relocation support for workers facing retrenchments; and (2) guaranteeing the pensions for workers in the affected industries. Comparable programs will of course need to be implemented in other country settings.”

Green New Deal proponents point out that the program would, like the original New Deal that it was named after, create tens of millions of new infrastructure jobs and billions in funding to industries such as construction and renewable energy manufacturers and installers. For example, Pollin states that “Shouvik Chakraborty and I estimate that increasing clean energy investments by 2% of GDP every year for twenty years will generate an average net increase of about 13 million jobs per year. This would represent a gain of about 3 percent in overall jobs in the current Indian economy. This is also after factoring in job losses resulting from retrenchments in the country’s fossil fuel industries.” To reiterate, a Green New Deal would revitalize the manufacturing sector that has been languishing in most of the West for decades, due to outsourcing, and bring back many blue-collar laborers into the workforce.

The final chapter reinforces the importance of tackling climate change. The goal is simple, if not easy: “The IPCC estimates that to achieve the 1.5 degrees maximum global mean temperature increase target as of 2100, global net CO2 emissions will have to fall by about 45% as of 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050.” The ensuing appendix includes a bullet-point list of proposals mentioned earlier in the book, with accredited estimates and dollar figures.

Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal is a thought-provoking and succinct manifesto on how to address the planet’s most existential threat. It rolls out pre-written policy proposals, backed by credible estimates and research, rather than wallow in theory or platitudes. It spells out an optimistic future if we as a species choose to be proactive in saving ourselves. I hope that staffers in the offices of every non-climate change denialist Congressman read it and advise their bosses on the importance and feasibility of passing a Green New Deal.