If a foreign adversary announced to the world that it had a new arsenal of destructive nuclear weapons and threatened the imminent doom of the United States, what would we do? Push for a peace deal that would limit and hopefully end the atomic threat? Invest heavily in missile defense?
If you were running the state of Pennsylvania, you’d probably propose a brand-new radioactivity tax — the more rads, the more tax dollars flowing into Keystone State coffers — and scheme to spend all that new revenue on 15 million protective suits, or a giant glass dome to save Altoona.
That sounds crazy, but how else to describe the ironically named Restore Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf’s newest plan for taxing the state’s robust fracking industry. It proposes a severance tax to pay for a bridge repair here and some sewage treatment there — and would lock in fossil-fuel production just as the rest of the world is focused on the all-too-real planetary threat of climate change.
“You will never collect enough money to make up for all the devastating harm that fracking imposes on communities,” Maya van Rossum, longtime leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network told me — reflecting growing grassroots frustration with the lack of urgency in Harrisburg over climate change. “All you are doing is building up a set of constituents who really want to see fracking happen — because they want the money.”
Climate change is having a moment in early 2019 — a pre-apocalyptic moment. Just ask the residents of Novaya Zemlya, a remote Russian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean which has been overrun by more than 50 polar bears fleeing the melting sea ice that they used to habitate, before the mercury soared and the ice melted. It’s the kind of end-of-the-world scenario you used to see in Hollywood “I Am Legend”-type thrillers, not real life. Same thing in Australia, where temperatures in their January summer down-under soared as high as 120 degrees, as overheated bats fell from trees and pictures of dead horses in a dry gully shocked even the most jaded internet readers.
In Washington, the rising din of climate-catastrophe news and the almost weekly drumbeat of grim scientific reports about melting glaciers or rising sea levels has created a belated-but-badly-needed sense of urgency — at least among some people. The Green New Deal — a broad but sweeping blueprint to all but end carbon pollution in the United States by 2030 — was unveiled by first-term phenom Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and immediately triggered the type of debate over environmental policy that had been drowning in the coal-lobbyist swamp of the Trump administration.
In an era of gridlock, the Green New Deal is the most ambitious proposal to come out of the nation’s capital at least since LBJ’s Great Society of the 1960s and possibly since FDR’s New Deal itself. It calls for eliminating fossil-fuel use “as much as technologically feasible," making every American home and office energy-efficient, and — most controversially — sweeping social and political changes needed to make it happen. (You can, and should, read the whole thing here.)
America’s Republicans — who haven’t had a genuine good Big Idea since the 14th Amendment — are losing it over the Green New Deal, in part because of AOCDS (AOC Derangement Syndrome), and are claiming it would turn America into the next Venezuela. But it’s a little ridiculous to fine-comb obsess over every detail of the plan. It’s meant, in the now-famous words of the conservative pundit Salena Zito, to be taken not literally but seriously — a powerful statement that climate change needs the same energetic, all-in response that America gave World War II or the Great Depression, back when we were a country that did stuff.
Meanwhile, there’s doing stuff ... and then there’s Harrisburg. It’s got D.C.-style gridlock in reverse — a Democratic chief executive and an increasingly ultra-conservative legislature. That Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, has made a doomed proposal for a severance tax on oil-and-gas production (Pennsylvania’s the only big energy-producing state that lacks one) an annual winter event to compete with Punxsutawney Phil. But in the age of global warming, his idea is starting to look like a Brown Old Deal.
Ever see a poll where a GOP incumbent is pitted against “a generic Democrat,” That would be Gov. Wolf: An environmentalist who’s also an incrementalist. Running for re-election last year, he told the Inquirer editorial board: “We are moving — I think — into a sustainable energy future. The question is, what are we doing in the meantime?”
In that “meantime,” Wolf’s ecological policies — you can read my longer take on this from last fall — have been a mix of the good (a moratorium on new oil-and-gas leases in state parks and forests, some belated help for solar), the bad (a willingness to play ball with GOP demands for looser regs) and the ugly (pipeline boosterism, even as the risks of those pipelines become more apparent,) He also recently signed an executive order to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 — which makes Restore Pennsylvania even more puzzling.
From an environmentalist point of view, Restore Pennsylvania reflects the state of play in 2014, when there was more anger about how Big Oil and Gas had campaign-contribution-bought its way out of taxes, and not the moral crisis over climate change that exists 2019. Restore Pennsylvania is more of a revenue-raising plan than any kind of “green” deal, new or old; it seeks to bring in a not-inconsiderable $4.5 billion over four years to, in the words of a newspaper headline, “corral sewage, attack blight and boost internet speeds” and would get Mexico ... oops, I mean, fracking companies to pay for it.
I’m all for corralling more sewage. But the thing about Restore Pennsylvania which makes it the anti-Green New Deal is that the concept locks in fossil-fuel production in the Keystone State, both philosophically — the idea demands the fracking tap keeps flowing to feed the tax meter, because, hey, that sewage doesn’t corral itself — and literally: The fine print calls for helping more factories plug into natural gas and to make Pennsylvania a world leader in manufacturing with ethane, even though ethane pollution from fracking is contributing to smog that is worsening global warming.
The state’s established environmental groups have tread lightly so far — most, after all, have long urged Pennsylvania to impose a severance tax — but increasingly there is concern about Pennsylvania’s lack of bold vision on climate. Joe Minott of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council told me “this proposal would absolutely lock Pennsylvania into fossil fuel dollars for decades to come.”
Grassroots environmental groups that have been fighting fracking on ground level for the last decade are even more cynical about Restore Pennsylvania. Karen Feridun of Berks Gas Truth, who’s been sharply critical of Wolf’s environmental policies, said its provisions such as taking some of the severance-tax dollars to hook up factories or schools to natural gas are “really diabolical.”
Benjamin Finnegan, a 22-year-old Philadelphia-based organizer for the Sunrise Movement — the youth-oriented activists who made headlines last fall when Ocasio-Cortez joined them for a sit-in at now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office — pointed out to me that the infrastructure work in Restore Pennsylvania include flood-mitigation projects, even as floods are being made worse as a result of burning the fossil fuels that fund the program.
“The plan,” Finnegan told me, “is really a joke.” That’s harsh, but I can’t really fault the 20-somethings and teenagers who are flocking to groups like the Sunrise Movement for their frustration with the baby-boomers-and-older like Wolf or Pelosi — who spoke dismissively of “the green dream, whatever they call it” — who claim to be environmentalists but don’t share their sense of urgency.
This state — which, by the way, produces 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases — doesn’t need Restore Pennsylvania nearly as much as it needs a Green New Deal of its own. It’s not so much a question of legislation — the GOP-controlled legislature wouldn’t pass a Green New Deal, but it won’t pass any plan from Wolf — as a matter of vision, of Pennsylvania’s leaders promising today’s youth that this will become the moral equivalent of war. That’s a better choice than bunkering down and praying that you can mitigate the floods, sweep away the dead bats and fight off the roving bands of polar bears.
This month’s action: BYO fork. I promised at the start of 2019 that I’d write a climate change column at least every month — so far, so good. I also promised to offer, each time, a tip on some small (or not so small) thing you can do to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution. That prompted an email from a long-time journalist friend back in Birmingham, Tom Gordon, who sent me a picture of a small cutlery container that he brings with him when he goes out, especially for fast food. Hey, it takes energy to manufacture all of those forks, let alone sporks — then truck them to a landfill. And who needs 'em?
Read last month’s climate change column: Why the fate of this tiny Louisiana island is the world’s most important news story of 2019