Conservatives fondly recall an anecdote from Ronald Reagan’s time as governor of California. As his limo crawled through a crowd of boisterous student protesters on the campus of UC Santa Cruz, a bearded activist put his face by the window of the governor’s car. “We are the future,” he yelled. Reagan asked an aide for a sheet of paper, wrote something on it, and pressed it to the glass.
“I’ll sell my bonds,” read his reply.
I bring this up because “We Are the Future” sometimes feels like Columbia’s unofficial student motto, a refrain that bounces off the walls of our neoclassical enclosure. We are, after all, the “Activist Ivy.” Some students apply to Columbia for this activist reputation; I applied in spite of it (though admittedly, partly to gawk at it). I didn't have to wait long—my first visit to campus as an admitted student coincided with the 2016 occupation of Low Library by fossil fuel divestment activists.
Advocacy efforts surrounding climate change on campus fall into one of three categories: polite reminders about how each one of us can do their part to save the planet, advocacy for University-level action (like the occupation), and mobilization to influence the world beyond campus. Actions within each of these categories differ vastly—2016’s faux civil disobedience bears scant resemblance to to advocacy to make Columbia carbon neutral, for example. In a similar way, activism for climate policy solutions doesn’t need to be monolithic support for the Green New Deal plan recently unveiled by progressive politicians.
The quality of debate at Columbia eliminates a frustrating aspect of the national conversation surrounding environmental issues: You’d be hard-pressed to find a Columbia student largely skeptical of humanity’s massive and negative impact on the climate. At the same time, I fear that a productive conversation about crucial policy options to save the planet could get swept up in the sensationalistic wave that engulfs the Green New Deal debate. Both Columbians and GND proponents have a tendency to frame conversations in a binary way: Will you join the movement to take back our future from the oil companies, or do you want the planet to burn? Are you in, or out?
...Does anyone know a bond broker?
“We Are the Future” packs a powerful punch. It is also a line of reasoning employed by the Sunrise Movement, the growing activist group mobilizing behind the Green New Deal, which now has a Columbia chapter. An inspiring phrase, “We Are the Future” effectively dismisses opponents as old, self-interested, and out of touch (sometimes those opponents help the activists make their point). This argument can generate media coverage and persuade people—but it means nothing without a credible thing to persuade them of.
And the Green New Deal lacks credibility. Through World War-scale peacetime civilian mobilization, the plan's backers seek to to reorder the American economy in favor of green jobs and marginalized communities. It features an impossible list of goals that includes Medicare for all, a fountain of unionized jobs, a green economy, and even a “New Social Contract.” And its backers acknowledge that they face a long journey through a congressional committee process that will have to fill in the plan’s many blanks. All said, the Green New Deal is just another catchphrase in a politics full of them. It merely repackages the environmental policy activism that has long existed in our country, but this time adds a grab bag of the hottest progressive causes—which makes it perfect for our campus.
Incrementalism sucks; Columbia students occupy buildings and raise hell. They want broad, sweeping change enacted with halting immediacy. GND captures that spirit, and offers students a way to marshal it behind a push for national policy changes. If the history of climate activism at our school is any indication, the Green New Deal represents a perfect fit and might catch on.
But there are better solutions that Columbia’s climate activists shouldn’t ignore. Consider, for instance, the impressive carbon dividends plan endorsed by thousands of economists, including every living former Federal Reserve Chair, and dozens of Columbia faculty. The idea calls for levying a tax on carbon emissions, and sending every household a carbon dividend check from that revenue to offset corresponding energy price hikes (differentiating it from the failed carbon taxes attempted in other countries)—it harnesses markets to save the planet. Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, now a fellow at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, introduced his own version during the last Congress. But unfortunately, the conversation at the University’s research institutes hasn’t yet reached the student body.
Columbia's climate activism community can, and I suspect will, decry these proposals as neoliberal and not nearly far-reaching enough, but for the moment they are among the most credible solutions out there, as the Green New Deal practically amounts to little more than a high profile marketing campaign.
The obscurity of the carbon dividends plan and the lack of advocacy for it on campus represents a predictable oversight by an activist culture that prizes—at the expense of enactable solutions—agitation for instantaneous social change. Count me a skeptic of Columbia’s activist culture, but I’d happily keep my bonds if my classmates could disprove these doubts.
Jimmy Quinn is a General Studies junior studying political science in the dual B.A. program with Sciences Po. If you know someone who can sell his bonds, send him a message at email@example.com or on Twitter @realjimmyquinn. Short Views runs alternate Fridays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.