Aspen Ideas Festival: What will the Green New Deal cost, and what could it save?

Panelists discuss the costs and benefits of the Green New Deal.
Panelists discuss the costs and benefits of the Green New Deal at the Aspen Ideas Festival. From left to right: David Leonhardt of the New York Times, Rhiana Gunn-Wright of New Consensus, who helped write the Green New Deal, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin of the American Action Forum.
Riccardo Savi | The Aspen Institute

The architect of the proposed "Green New Deal" and the president of a conservative think tank share their ideas about the best way to confront climate change during a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival called "What Will the Green New Deal Cost, and What Could it Save?"

Rhiana Gunn-Wright is the policy director of New Consensus, and she's considered the architect of the Green New Deal and is a Rhodes scholar.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin is a Republican who was policy adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, and is president of the American Action Forum, which has analyzed the costs and benefits of the Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal is a 14-page proposal calling for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, universal health care, living wages and job guarantees. Some economists argue it could cost between $51 trillion and $93 trillion over 10 years.

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Gunn-Wright says we need to widen our consideration of climate change, and knit together a coalition that can make a difference. The Green New Deal, she says, addresses the twin crises of climate change and income inequality, and calls for an economic transformation. When we change our energy system, we need to “design it so everybody benefits,” rather than just claim any negative effects are “the price of progress.”

Holtz-Eakin says he wrote his first climate report in the late 1990s and not much has happened. He urges people to read the complete 14-page Green New Deal resolution, and is happy it has brought so much attention to the climate change issue. And he says, “no one should be opposed to the goals … But is it the best way to get there? … It requires a combination of policy and politics to get there.”

Holtz-Eakin doesn’t think it’s good strategy to combine the “green thing” with the other policy initiatives in the “New Deal” part of the plan. Gunn-Wright replied that the second part of the Green New Deal is “not just a progressive wish list … The Green New Deal is structured as an economic mobilization. Put the full force of the U.S. government as well as the private sector to this problem. There is a ton of work to get done.”

And she added that promoting and achieving this climate change plan will require that “we move away from the abstract and focus on what it will do for everyday Americans.”

Holtz-Eakin said if we’re “genuinely concerned about climate change, you have to think bigger.” It’s global, and we need “something real, like a carbon tax … which would have international appeal. This will only be successful if the U.S. leads,” he said. “If the U.S. leads and the rest of the world doesn’t follow, we’ve just damaged ourselves and don’t solve the problem.”

Gunn-Wright agrees the U.S. needs to lead on the climate change issue, and have a vision that would “encourage the rest of the world to move in this direction.” The Green New Deal, she adds, “is an investment in things. Climate disaster is an erasure of things.”

Holtz-Eakin said bipartisan work is needed, because one party or the other won’t always be in control of the federal government. It’s “not genuine reform if it can be taken apart” by the next party in power. He cited the 2010 Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare — and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 as examples of important policy changes that were pushed through without bipartisan approval. As a result, there are constant efforts by “the other side” to repeal them.

Holtz-Eakin favors a “revenue-neutral carbon tax, where you take the carbon tax revenue and use it to cut payroll, corporation, and income taxes, whatever it may be, thereby not raising the overall tax burden but providing incentives to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.” He said he wished the Congress had bundled the carbon tax with the other provisions of the 2017 tax bill because it sometimes works to have a “coalition of the disgruntled” to pass things through Congress.

The moderator at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado on June 29, 2019, was New York Times columnist David Leonhardt.