“Science for a green new deal” calls for new thinking to tackle environmental challenges

August 24, 2022

A new book by University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Professor Eric Davidson reveals how “green new deal thinking” can connect the dots between environmental quality, economic well-being, and human dignity to help develop solutions to our greatest environmental challenges.

“There is a need for policy to be informed by good natural science, economics, and social science and to incite participation by a broad spectrum of stakeholders, many of whom had been left out of decision-making and economic opportunity in the past,” said Davidson.

“Science for a Green New Deal: Connecting Climate, Economics, and Social Justice” is about the shift in perspective needed to inform future governmental policies, private sector opportunities and responsibilities, structures of institutions and civil society, and individual choices to attain a more sustainable, prosperous, and just future. He shows how multiple global crises are linked, including an acceleration of climate change that has exacerbated storms, floods, droughts, and fires, a pandemic that has reversed progress on fighting poverty and hunger, and a renewed awareness of profound social injustices highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, and how new “green new deal thinking” could help meet these challenges.

First proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, Green New Deal legislation went beyond water and air pollution, parks and forests, climate and biodiversity to focus on economic and social well-being of people living within their environment. Davidson argues that it offers a framework for a much-needed convergence of the natural sciences, social science, economics, and community engagement to develop holistic policy solutions to the most pressing issues of our day.

What inspired you to write this book?
I sense an understandable feeling of doom among young people that governments aren’t taking climate science seriously enough. They are right, but I wrote this book to describe how we now have more powerful science, technology, economics and social science to solve the problem than ever before. We’ve lacked the political will, but I’m optimistic that, too, will change.

This book connects the dots between the environment, the economy, and social justice. We can’t solve one set of problems without solving the others, which makes it sound harder, but the solutions are also mutually supportive. Connecting these dots to show that a healthy environment will reap economic and justice rewards is what the much misunderstood Green New Deal is all about.

What understanding or call to action do you want people to take away from reading this book?
The most important call to action is for people to talk to their family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances about climate change and other pressing environmental and social justice issues. Because many of these topics have become highly politicized in our polarized society, we often are understandably reluctant to bring up these topics for fear of creating unpleasant controversy, but there are ways to start related conversations that are not so threatening.

I tell stories about my life in this book that hopefully help establish some human connections with the reader. Similarly, you could talk about how fun it is to drive an electric car because of its torc and fast response, for example, and see if you can find some common ground before mentioning your other reasons (climate change) for wanting to go electric. The impact of talking to others about EVs could be far greater than just buying one yourself.

The same applies to talking about your dietary choices or diversity in your workplace or how you've saved money on your utility bills. Look for less controversial or adversarial entries to those topics, search for some common interests and values, and then see where the conversation leads.

We need big culture shifts, which require both top-down economic and policy incentives from governments and bottom-up engagement and enthusiasm from consumers, citizens, and voters. For the latter, knowledge and experience can be transformative, but only if it is shared and discussed.

How well do you think "new green deal thinking" was captured in the Inflation Reduction Act? And where do we go from here?
With respect to climate change action, the recent Inflation Reduction Act signed into law in August 2022 is a very good start, but still not enough. The legislation is remarkably Green-New-Deal-ish. It connects the dots between the environment (climate change), the economy (fighting inflation and paying down the deficit), human health (prescription drug prices), and social justice (supporting clean energy for low income communities and communities of color).  The Green New Deal was unfairly and incorrectly characterized as “socialist” and “extreme” when introduced in 2019, but now it is taking on a new life because it really does make good policy sense, as the Inflation Reduction Act demonstrates.

Eric Davison is an international leader in global nitrogen cycle research, has spent the past year as a Jefferson Fellow and science advisor to the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, Office of Environmental Quality in Washington, D.C. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Fellow and Past-President of the American Geophysical Union. He served as the leader of a Research Coordination Network on Reactive Nitrogen in the Environment and as the North American Center Director of the International Nitrogen Initiative, a group of academic and government scientists focused on balancing the positive and negative impacts of human acceleration of the global nitrogen cycle.