A ‘Green’ New Deal



A lot of people, including presidential candidates visiting Iowa, are throwing around the idea of a “Green New Deal” to confront climate change, as polls indicate more Americans are thinking about how they can help turn back the devastation that Earth’s warming promises. It’s easy to support until the specifics come down. Nobody really knows what such a program entails. But we hear of increasing taxes on the uber wealthy in just about every way you can imagine to pay for a massive national effort to create jobs around “green” initiatives.

Iowa is the perfect place to define what we’re talking about.

We generate more electricity per capita from wind than any other state thanks to one of the earliest Renewable Energy Portfolios in the nation. As the complex has been built out and threatens the fossil fuel industry, groups have emerged that create false alarms. Just this week environmental scientists had to bat down the latest disproved theories that wind turbines harm human and animal health. David Osterberg and Kerri Johannsen reported through the Iowa Policy Project last Friday that the peer-reviewed scientific literature demonstrates no ill effects from wind turbine sound or shadow flutter from its blades. Yet the phony evidence used to attack the wind production tax credit and local property tax incentives fuels turf-grass groups that are attempting to block new wind development all over northern Iowa. It is having a real stifling effect.

Likewise, the Iowa Legislature eliminated a solar tax credit program. It defunded the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which showed farmers how to capture carbon through crop rotation and help tamp down climate change. Congress just cut in half funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides payments for conservation on working lands in line with rotational grazing and building soil health. Funds for livestock confinement oversight were shifted to other programs within the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The statewide water quality monitoring program is frequently suggested for elimination because it continues to provide scary results about toxins in our water.

There could be a different way for Iowa.

We can build rural communities and jobs through renewable energy and sustainable agriculture. There are a lot more well-paid technicians tending wind towers around there than coal-fired power plants or natural gas plants. Iowa has as much solar energy potential as Florida, believe it or not. Businessman Rob Hach is creating jobs and opportunity by installing solar units here that make money for the owners — farmers are prime for opportunity. We could double our wind energy output (and thus revenues) easily if we could settle misinformed opposition that creates bottlenecks to transmitting power from western Iowa to Chicago. (Why is an oil pipeline favored over a transmission line that runs renewable energy?)

The petrochemical complex is prepared to pay any amount to fight a new model of agriculture that reduces oil-based land treatments to integrated crop and pest management. Programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Conservation Reserve Program (whose funding is frozen in the new farm bill) that offer farmers a window to a new production paradigm have been under attack by Big Oil and the seed/chemical companies since their inception.

We could have cellulosic ethanol produced from soil-saving hemp or switchgrass if the corn-ethanol-hog complex didn’t own the existing production system that sits on and suffocates new feedstocks. We could have biodegradable plastics made from biomass if research were directed that way, but it isn’t.

Putting more Iowa land in grass suggests cattle. Cattle suggest more small independent owners and processors, which means jobs. If we paid producers for the carbon they sequester, we could create a new profit structure for Iowa agriculture that eliminates toxins from our rivers and keeps soil out of Storm Lake. That idea was shot dead in the early years of the Obama Administration. So was the solar program after one bad and embarrassing rollout. You could say the Green New Deal was tried 10 years ago and shriveled to brown.

Merely suggesting that we recall the 10% crop set-aside program that existed until the Reagan Era brings ridicule and is casually dismissed. Yet, Iowa State University research indicates it could reduce nitrate pollution of our state’s surface water by 90%, while increasing corn prices from reduced acreage by everyone.

A Green New Deal is a slick marketing phrase but it needs meat on the bone. It also needs to recognize the monied and formidable opposition to every single bit of it. Wind turbines help maintain the Ridgeview School District — that is rural revitalization. Small beef plants sustain Sioux County and bring workers in — that’s economic and rural development. By contrast, rural America is dying on the vine in the existing economic structure that sees two-thirds of Iowa’s counties depopulating. The opposition is firmly rooted where a New Deal of some sort is needed most.