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 March 11, 2019
The bogus number at the center of the GOP's Green New Deal attacks

 Republicans claim the Green New Deal would cost $93 trillion --- a number that would dwarf the economic output of every nation on Earth.

The figure is bogus.

But that isn't stopping the eye-popping total from turning up on the Senate floor, the Conservative Political Action Conference and even "Saturday Night Live" as the progressive Democrats' sweeping-yet-vague vision statement amps up the political conversation around climate change.

The number originated with a report by a conservative think tank, American Action Forum, that made huge assumptions about how exactly Democrats would go about implementing their plan. But the $93 trillion figure does not appear anywhere in the think tank's report --- and AAF President Douglas Holtz-Eakin confessed he has no idea how much exactly the Green New Deal would cost.

"Is it billions or trillions?" asked Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "Any precision past that is illusory."

The Green New Deal isn't even a plan yet --- at the moment it's a non-binding resolution that calls for major action to stop greenhouse gas pollution while reducing income inequality and creating "millions of good, high-wage jobs." But top Republicans have embraced the $93 trillion price tag, using it to argue that the climate plan would bankrupt the United States.

Democrats say Republicans are using the number to try to dodge responsibility for decades of denying climate science, while the White House continues to disregard the evidence linking human activity to rising temperatures and extreme weather.

To come up with the $93 million total, Republicans added together the cost estimates that the AAF report's authors had placed on various aspects of a Green New Deal platform. Most of those were based on assumptions about universal healthcare and jobs programs rather than the costs of transitioning to carbon-free electricity and transportation.

"There's a race for think-tankers, analysts and academia to be the first to come up with a number, and you can see why --- look at how many people latched onto that $93 trillion number," said Nick Loris, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "A lot of times you just see the number and you don't get a lot of the backstory behind the number."

Holtz-Eakin told POLITICO that he was interested only in "ballparks," adding that the study is best viewed as "a sincere but a heroic estimate of a not very well-specified proposal." When asked whether he had a problem with the way Republicans had characterized his study and the $93 trillion figure, Holtz-Eakin said: "We did try to play it straight here. We never added it up."

Green New Deal supporters acknowledge that their preferred polices won't be free, but they say Republicans are acting in bad faith by trying to paint the resolution with a specific brush so early and refusing to acknowledge that unchecked climate change poses its own economic risks. For instance, a United Nations report last fall estimated a global cost of as much as $69 trillion from even a modest rise in global temperatures.

"We all knew this vacuum was here, but you can't put a price on it until you have a piece of legislation that you can score," said Greg Carlock, Green New Deal research director with the progressive think tank Data for Progress. He said the AAF study "was an attempt to fill that vacuum, but it does it in a mean-spirited way."

Yet the figure is already a fixture of GOP talking points about the Green New Deal --- echoing attacks the party has made on environmental regulations going back decades.

"That's always been the crux of the Republican argument against making all these changes," said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and managing director at Purple Strategies, a bipartisan consulting firm. "It's significant lifestyle changes in exchange for an undefined benefit."

The GOP's eagerness to wield the price estimate underscores the prominence that climate change has achieved in Washington for the first time in nearly a decade.

When they set out to put a price tag on the Green New Deal last month, Holtz-Eakin and his associates had no real policy or plan to evaluate, so they made one up to perform back-of-the-envelope calculations. AAF's analysis extrapolated from the various ideas laid out in the non-binding resolution from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) --- such as switching the electric grid entirely off fossil fuels and providing jobs and health care for everyone.

Democrats dismiss the AAF study as a fabrication. And on Wednesday, as Republican senators railed on the floor about the $93 trillion estimate and the dangers of socialism, several Democrats interrupted them to demand that the GOP acknowledge the reality of climate change.

"That is a completely made up number by the Koch brothers," Markey, who also co-sponsored the 2009 cap-and-trade bill, said on the Senate floor.

Markey interrupted a speech by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is expected to be among Democrats' top targets in next year's elections.

"I don't care if it is $93 trillion, $43 trillion or $10 trillion --- it is unsustainable," Tillis shot back. "We can sit here and question the sources, but at the end of the day, we all know that this was theater."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also kept pushing the talking point, noting that $93 trillion is "more than the combined annual GDP of every nation on Earth" --- as well as more than enough to "buy every American a Ferrari."

The figure has been a fixture of GOP messaging since AAF released its report on Feb. 25.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) wielded the $93 trillion figure at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) took to a USA Today op-ed with the price estimate. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) proudly displayed it on a poster from the Senate floor. It worked its way into an online skit from "Saturday Night Live" that parodied Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) interaction with a group of young climate activists.

The number is so large as to be nearly incomprehensible, but it dwarfs other massive endeavors such as building the Interstate Highway System, which cost $241 billion in today's dollars, for example. And the AAF study does not distinguish between government and private-sector spending, nor does it attempt to quantify the benefits of reducing pollution or other policies. For example, Stanford University's Mark Jacobson estimated that eliminating the electricity sector's carbon emissions would avoid $265 billion in annual U.S. damages beginning in 2050.

"A central challenge to climate policy-making is there are costs right away and the benefits emerge over time," said Michael Greenstone, an economist and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. "But just because the benefits happen over time doesn't mean it's not real."

In fact, $80.6 trillion of the costs in AAF's study come from a jobs guarantee and universal healthcare. The Green New Deal resolution calls for "guaranteeing a job" and providing "high-quality health care" to everyone, but it is primarily focused on outlining a set of goals to get the U.S. economy to net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. While liberal activists say economic justice must be a part of any eventual policy based on the resolution, most see the Green New Deal itself as a vehicle for an energy transition and industrial economic policy, rather than something more sweeping, like "Medicare for All."

"Given that the [Green New Deal] is at this point simply a set of long-term goals, without any specification of how those goals would be achieved, any estimate of cost is itself likely to be exceptionally speculative," Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University, said in an email.

Many studies that warn of dire economic effects overstate the potential harm, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts review of environmental policies.

Nevertheless, having a specific figure to cite can define the contours of policy conversation, said Margo Thorning, a senior economic policy adviser with the American Council for Capital Formation. Thorning was a frequent Capitol Hill witness when Congress debated cap-and-trade legislation in the early years of the Obama administration. She was coveted partly because her organization published an influential study that used U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics to show that the policy would curb economic growth $3.1 trillion between 2012 and 2030.

Similarly, a National Association of Manufacturers-backed study on the potential effects of tightening standards for ozone said the measure would cost $1.1 trillion and surrender $1.7 trillion in economic growth between 2017 and 2040.

"I think it helped shape the debate because if people realized we were going to be losing 2 to 3 percent of GDP or more and other countries weren't, we were going to be losing a lot," Thorning said of her organization's study on cap-and-trade.

Climate hawks say Republicans dismissing the Green New Deal as unaffordable are ignoring the cost of doing nothing, such as property damage from extreme weather and public health effects from continued fossil fuel pollution. The AAF study makes no attempt to address potential benefits of avoiding those consequences.

"Not talking about the cost of inaction is incredibly misleading," said Rhiana Gunn-Wright, policy director with New Consensus, one of the groups working on the Green New Deal. "It's about how, when and where you want to spend your money, because you're going to spend it."

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in October that the global cost of temperatures rising 1.5 degrees Celsius --- the target the Green New Deal aims to avoid --- would be $54 trillion in 2100. That would rise to $69 trillion in a 2-degree scenario. Those targets also served as the basis of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement, which Trump has announced plans to abandon.

Global temperatures are on track to rise by at least 4 degrees by the end of the century, according to projections from the Trump administration. That would lead to even greater economic devastation --- for example, damaging $3.6 trillion of coastal property by 2100 without measures to adapt to climate change, according to the National Climate Assessment published last November.

Some GOP strategists see a long-term risk in a dismissive approach to climate policy.

"With the Green New Deal, Republicans are excited to talk about climate change for the first time because we can point out how silly Democrats are being," said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist and partner at Firehouse Strategies. "It's likely not a long-term position. Ultimately Republicans, if we want to be taken seriously on climate change, we will have to offer conservative solutions to it."

At least one Republican has kept her criticism of the Green New Deal more muted: Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose home state is warming more quickly than the rest of the country. Chairing an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on climate Tuesday, Murkowski pointed to dwindling fisheries and melting permafrost, which her constituents are already dealing with. She has never publicly cited the American Action Forum study.

"This has got to be a priority for all of us," she said of confronting climate change. "It is directly impacting our way of life."