This past February, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office released an updated version of her Green New Deal bill. The 14-page document presents forecasts of the potential impact of climate change outlined in terms of mass migration, $500 billion in annual lost economic output by 2100, increased wildfire activity, loss of coral reefs, heat stress and public infrastructure damage.
The bill then describes the widespread wage stagnation since the 1970s and record levels of income inequality that surpass those of the Gilded Age. The goals of the legislation mirror many of those contained in the draft San Antonio (SA) Climate Ready initiative, including themes such as decreasing levels of carbon emissions, increasing circularity by reducing landfill deposits and promoting healthy ecosystems.
Corporate and industry leaders remain understandably concerned about the scope of proposed frameworks. Lifestyles and business models developed over more than a century would undergo significant overhauls based on the implications of the policy prescriptions.
With these divergent outlooks, what can we infer about the way forward? Gallup polls, for example, regularly report that the public is far more interested in economic performance or competent government. Environmental concerns usually fall below issues like healthcare, immigration and taxes.
At the same time, humans have, in a relatively short period, reached the point where they can match or even dominate the great forces of nature. Since 1870, human ability to alter the environment and disrupt essential ecosystem services is without precedent — and it’s not at all clear to what extent the planet can continue to absorb large quantities of human waste products.
Absent game-changing technological advances, shoring up the infrastructure base will likely dominate public policy discussion in the years ahead. However, rebuilding the aging U.S. infrastructure only supports current living standards. From the standpoint of productivity, reconstructing or even upgrading infrastructure does nothing particularly new. For the rest of the 21st century, it’s possible that the overriding goal of humanity may constitute simply maintaining quality of life. If true, such an admittedly controversial paradigm shift begins to address the question of new jobs in the future — which lies firmly within the realm of under-provisioned public goods.
In the broadest terms, many will work to sustain regenerative capacity in ecosystem services necessary to supply the needs of a global population comprising 10 billion or more. Depending on the speed of planetary warming and the impact of climate change, resilience and mitigation planning will engage large segments of the workforce as droughts, hurricanes, typhoons and other events become more prevalent — important jobs, certainly challenging to human intellect and creativity. However, once again, they merely permit us to hold on to what we already have.
With a world population estimated to be 9-12 billion before the end of the 21st century, the earth is on track to become a much more crowded place. A planet so full of people will require different management philosophies. Pressure on limited global resources and ecosystem services — exacerbated by growing inequality — will generate instability, political conflict and broad-based institutional changes.
Meantime, societies will confront important philosophical choices. Pulitzer-prize winning author Jared Diamond identifies only two strategies that have prevented ecological and societal collapse across various geographies throughout history. The first is long-term planning; the second is the willingness to reexamine societal core values. These approaches present non-trivial challenges for developed countries. Long-term planning is not the hallmark of most industrialized societies that often lurch from one election cycle to the next. In the corporate world, the planning horizon typically runs shorter, from quarter to quarter. Likewise, reexamining core values will not be an easy prospect for consumer societies heavily reliant on relentless depletion of ecosystem services.
The Green New Deal and the SA Climate Initiative represent bold policy objectives that resonate with growing numbers of citizens. Nonetheless, large constituencies continue to weigh in on both sides of the debate. From a public policy perspective, we stand face-to-face with the uncomforting dilemma that any consensus still appears a long way off.
About the author: Thomas Tunstall, Ph.D. is the senior research director at the Institute for Economic Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the principal investigator for numerous economic and community development studies and has published extensively. Dr. Tunstall recently completed a novel entitled “The Entropy Model” (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1982920610/?coliid=I1WZ7N8N3CO77R&colid=3VCPCHTITCQDJ&psc=0&ref_=lv_ov_lig_dp_it).