How a Green New Deal Could Redraw America’s Map

Climate change, and the policies to address it, will change where we live and work and how we produce energy and food. Two environmental designers discuss an atlas of our country’s future.

A year ago, Democratic members of Congress introduced a resolution to address climate change and economic inequality, with a plan that promises to fundamentally alter Americans’ relationship to their natural and built environments. That vision, the Green New Deal, recalls an earlier bold plan of action for the country at a time of crisis.

Nearly 90 years ago the original New Deal created vast public works projects to create jobs during the Great Depression. But its legacy transcends economic recovery. Public works projects realized the goal of universal electrification, built highways to speed future growth, and paved the way for migration to the suburbs and from old industrial centers to new. Along the way, the New Deal fundamentally altered the human map of the United States.

Today’s Green New Deal proposes to do something similar. If it comes to pass, it’s likely to change where many Americans live, and how they make their living.

Guests Alexandra Lillehei and Billy Fleming of the University of Pennsylvania’s Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Design talk about what a future map of America, shaped by climate change and a Green New Deal, might look like.

The two have been instrumental in a new initiative called The 2100 Project: An Atlas for the Green New Deal. Through maps, the project envisions changes in population distribution, energy production and agricultural activity over the course of this century.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone.

A year ago, Democratic members of Congress introduced a resolution to address climate change and economic inequality with a plan that would fundamentally alter Americans’ relationship to our natural and built environments. That vision, the Green New Deal recalls an earlier, bold plan of action for the country at a time of crisis. Nearly 90 years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt proposed the original New Deal to lift the United States out of the Great Depression. The original New Deal created vast public works projects to create jobs, but its legacy transcends economic recovery. Public works projects realized the goal of universal electrification, built highways to speed future growth, and paved the way for migration to the suburbs and from old industrial centers to new. Along the way, the New Deal fundamentally altered the human map of the United States. Today’s Green New Deal proposes to do something similar. If it comes to pass, it’s likely to change where many Americans live and how they make their living. On today’s podcast, we’ll be talking about what a future map of America might look like — one that is shaped by climate change and a Green New Deal.

My guests are Billy Fleming, Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design, and Alexandra Lillehei, Climate Infrastructure Policy Fellow at the McHarg Center. The two have been instrumental in a new initiative called The 2100 Project: An Atlas for the Green New Deal. Through maps, the project envisions changes in population distribution, energy infrastructure, and agricultural activity over the course of this century. Billy and Xan, welcome to the podcast.

Billy Fleming: Thanks for having us.

Alexandra Lillehei: Yes, thanks for having us on.

Stone: So Billy, I thought we would start with you. Could you tell us about the 2100 Project and its goals?

Fleming: Sure, so this atlas itself was really conceived in relation to three intersecting issues. The first is the climate crisis itself, or the excess carbon in the atmosphere, driving all of our physical systems to rising seas, increasing temperatures, and the things that we’ve probably all become accustomed to — or at least your audience on a podcast like this is probably accustomed to. The second is that it’s our own systems of extraction, production, and consumption that are really at the root of this. And the third being that the U.S. population, in addition to all of these sort of massive, systemic changes in climate systems and infrastructure — it’s expected to add about 100 million people over the course of the century — the 21st century, all while we’re trying to deal with these huge carbon-related challenges. And so, taking on those intersecting crises or challenges has forced us to ask some really unsettling questions, things like — what will be lost economically, culturally, psychologically, physically, should the climate crisis sort of continue unabated? Or how might we begin to come together or render a response to those intersecting crises in ways that will reshape how and where we live — the things that designers at least like to think that they do quite well.

And then ultimately, I think we also wanted to ask some questions about the degree of certainty that tends to be implied in the climate model, and even in energy system modeling, that percolates in policy conversations today. A lot of our colleagues are very certain about the findings that their projections are about in the physical, social, and economic world. And for us, this atlas was about trying to, one, address all of the crises that I laid out there in the beginning, and two, questioning or calling into question some of the feigned certainty that underlies a lot of that modeling. We can talk about how we did that, if you want, in just a few. And then the third was to really take — if you look through the atlas itself, which is about 100 images — something like 20,000 words of expository text try to capture as much of this sort of disparate information related to the spatial impacts of climate change in America in one place, so that anyone with an internet connection could get online and find it useful, hopefully to the way that they think about operating in the world.

As you know, a lot of this stuff is hidden either behind paywalls, it’s scattered through this sort of byzantine universe of peer-reviewed publications, scientific reports, white papers. And you’ll see all of this cited throughout the atlas. So that last piece, about assembling all of these things into a single atlas with a coherent visualization style, with a coherent narrative about how and where all of these different bits of data fit into this broader sociocultural project which could be the Green New Deal, was really the driving force behind assembling all of this, the way we did and when we did it.

Stone: Zan, let me ask you this. Why is this coming out of a school of design, rather than, say, geography or sociology?

Lillehei: I think Billy touched on some of this, but one of the major skills of a designer is to think about the built environment in its transition or transformation, specifically over time — so what is and what could be. And so, having this project take place in a design school, over say, geography or policy or places that are a lot more about what is, we think a lot about what could be and what will be. And also, design is really expansive, and as this project attests to, it can also be about policy and other ways of seeing the world. And so, the design school is a great place to land it in terms of visualizations and also the capacity to imagine different futures and to deal with the lack of certainty in a lot of these models, or the divergent certainty.

Stone: You know, Billy, the map looks ahead to where Americans are likely to live, where industry will be located, and how natural and built environments again will change as this century progresses. Now, the distributions look very different from what we see today. What are the drivers of change going to be?

Fleming: I think there are a few things. I should begin by noting, sort of off the top, that a lot of these visuals are not necessarily projective. If you get into the last, say, quarter or so of the atlas, where we look at things like economic damages, agricultural damages, energy use or energy consumption increases — those are where we start to build in a lot of these more projective models. But I think at its core, what’s driving this are a couple of the forces that I outlined at the top, one of which is just biophysical. It’s the sort of shifting of the Earth’s systems. And if you think about them as an engine that we are continuing to add fuel to — the fuel being carbon — they are going to continue churning out more and more heat. That’s going to change weather and atmospheric and oceanic processes that are going to make it hotter all over the globe. This is what the one-and-a-half and two-degree warming targets are really about. It’s going to drive sea level rise all over the globe, which isn’t a uniform phenomenon. It’s varied from place to place, so it’s not like two feet of sea level rise looks the same in New York versus, say, Norfolk, versus, say, Bangladesh.

And then the other is really like a socioeconomic question, and certainly we didn’t intend, as we were putting this together over the last couple of years, to think about this atlas becoming a tool. We’re thinking about what a stimulus response to a pandemic like COVID-19 might be, but also, we know that every decade, decade-and-a-half, there is this moment of crisis — economic crisis. There’s a crisis of capital and business cycles and the inevitable short-term collapse of bubbles and other things in this system. And this pandemic is really offering, I think again, a moment to think critically about what kind of restructuring we want going forward.

And so if you think about the physical elements driving change, you think about the socioeconomic forces that are resulting in the production of carbon that is driving that physical change, and then you think about these political moments in which profound economic restructuring is going to happen anyway. What this atlas offers, what the Green New Deal, I think, offers is really a way to think about having some agency and some choice over what that form and content of that restructuring looks like. We’re sort of past the point of deciding whether or not we want to restructure things, and now the question is how do we want to restructure them? And so, this was really about trying to capture some of the things we think we might need to answer that question in one place.

Stone: Now Zan, you emphasize that the maps of the future are uncertain, right? The word that’s used on the website describing the atlas is that this is “fuzzy.” That the maps are uncertain might seem obvious, but why so much emphasis on this uncertainty?

Lillehei: There’s a lot of history in mapping of drawing these lines that become reified in policy and other ways of seeing the world that just emphasize really strong borders and imply certainty and fixity. With this project, one of the main pieces of it was in this effort to talk about that you can’t know these futures, and we’re moving towards increasingly and increasingly limited options within these models, even — that you can’t know, but also there’s a simultaneous winnowing of possibility. We wanted to show some idea of what things could look like, but also a test to that uncertainty and that flexibility, that “fuzziness.” Those futures that we can aim towards — one of things that we talk about with this project is backcasting, right? And that’s kind of when, talking about the Green Stimulus, there’s a future that we all maybe want. How do we get there? And then thinking about these maps as ways of also a road map to that place.

Fleming: Yes, it says in there that the future is fuzzy, and our maps should be, too — or perhaps our visuals should be, too — is largely because I think there’s a little bit too much feigned certainty in the way that we treat models about the future. Often, I think even the folks behind producing them imagine them as kind of guides or speculative works about what might happen, should a certain set of scenarios or assumptions unfold. But they get treated often, certainly in the media, and often in this sort of policy development stage, as gospel. And we wanted to treat this project as a way of critiquing that certainty. And that’s why I think, to Zan’s point, so much of this is about trying to sort of pixilate some of the data, trying to remove some of the certainty about both how things will look in the future, but also how they look now. And that’s why you see this set of drawings represented the way you see it represented.

Stone: Now, you referenced the original New Deal from the 1930s as a guide to how we might understand future changes to the country. Why is the first New Deal a useful guide here in thinking about the future?

Fleming: Well, there are a few reasons. I think if we take the Green New Deal seriously for a moment, then we also have to take its central reference quite seriously, which is the New Deal. And that’s for a few reasons on their end. One is that the New Deal itself was probably the last time in U.S. history that strong sort of national goals were really directly tied to policy — whether it was industrial policy or other forms of intervention in American life.

But the New Deal is often remembered as like a universal policy. Its legacy is remembered as one of universal social policies. So when we think about Social Security as one of the obvious outcomes of the New Deal — and while that’s true, the New Deal also had a profound transformative effect on the build and natural environment of the U.S. It built something like 55,000 projects in real places all over the United States, some things as high-profile as, say, the Appalachian regional trail, all the way down to the more mundane but vitally important sanitary sewer systems, state parks. We get something like 90% of all the state parks ever built in the U.S. during the New Deal. We get about 40, 45% of all the trees ever planted in American history over the course of the New Deal, a lot of that going into protecting the shelter belts and the agricultural fields of the Midwest.

And we also get about 40, 42% of all the electrical transmission lines ever built in the history of the U.S. — many of them by the REA. And so the New Deal, in addition to providing Social Security, also brought cheap and reliable electricity to rural communities. It modernized and built our municipal airport system, put millions of young people to work constructing shelter belts in parks and public works projects, not to mention forests and farms and other public lands. And it also built tens of thousands of new public schools, libraries, parks, college campuses, civic infrastructure, and it did it in almost every single community. And certainly, it did it in every state.

And so when we think about the way the Green New Deal might actually be understood by most people, it seems pretty unlikely to me that it will be really felt acutely in molecules and electrons. By that, I mean like molecules, as in carbon reduction and electrons, as in electricity. We’re not going to flip a switch or, say, get on our computer to tape a podcast with you, and notice that the power supplying it is coming from wind instead of coal. But we are going to notice when the homes we live in have these luxurious, new, deep energy retrofits, with all conduction stoves and other electrical appliances. We are going to notice when our commute to and from work is powered by either an electrical vehicle that we were able to buy very cheaply because of a tax credit, by a low or no-carbon train or bus. We are going to notice when there is a massive upgrading and expansion of the park system in every community in the United States. Those are the things where the material benefits of national economic policy can really be felt and understood by most people. And the New Deal, although I think a lot of that history or a lot of that legacy has been forgotten, offers us a really interesting way to think about how a Green New Deal, with its own set of abstract national scale policy, might be understood in real places to real people.

Stone: So what are the elements of the Green New Deal, as we understand it right now, that will drive such transformational change as you’ve just spoken about?

Fleming: The Green New Deal remains in its relative infancy, compared to a lot of the other ideas that have been in wide circulation in policy conversations for years and years and years, if not longer. But at its core, it has three planks. One is about jobs. One is about justice. And one is about decarbonization. And they’re all linked. And the idea is to create tens of millions of jobs that decarbonize the economy and that put frontline communities at the top of the queue for the rolling out of those kinds of projects, those kinds of funds and financing.

If you go back and look at H.R.109, this is House Resolution 109, the first formal document beginning to list some of the goals of what a Green New Deal might accomplish, it includes tons of material in there that are just of utmost importance to anyone in the design or built environment professions. It talks about things like decarbonizing and maximizing water efficiency in all buildings. I think it even calls for doing so in every single building in the United States by the year 2050. It calls for decarbonizing public transportation and connecting via high-speed rail every major city in the U.S. It calls for — to the extent that it is technologically feasible — decarbonizing things like agriculture and other kinds of exurban or rural land uses. And so the Green New Deal, as imagined in H.R.109 — it really begins to lay out a sort of built environment agenda that, at least in the Center, we’ve tried to take very seriously. It’s part of, I think, how and why this atlas came together the way that it did. And the Green New Deal, post H.R.109, now lives on in many other places, one of which was in — at least recently was in — the Democratic Presidential Primary, where you had a half-dozen or so candidates for president really trying to articulate a specific climate and infrastructure vision for the future that often directly referenced the Green New Deal and tried to put some meat on the bones — I think probably, in their minds, some lab meat, or some like non-meat meat on the bones of the GND. But it also lives on in other places, in these hubs for research, like the McHarg Center, like Data for Progress, like the Sunrise Movement, like a few others who have really started to take seriously what it might mean to move this from, say, a political strategy or a high-level policy concept into something that is operationalizable, both for Congress and for state and local government.

Stone: I want to ask you one additional question along these lines. We’re talking here about how the policy might drive changes, but really, as we’ve mentioned earlier, policy alone isn’t going to be responsible for the changes in the atlas of the United States that we’re going to see. Climate change itself will be the fundamental driver. Obviously the Green New Deal is a response to climate change. How sensitive are the models that you are using in the atlas to our actions to mitigate climate change over this century that we’re in? And how will scenarios where we mitigate emissions differ from those in which we won’t?

Fleming: Sure, it’s a great question. If you look, again, at the last quarter or so of the atlas, where we start getting into some of these more projective images, a lot of those models are taking us, not at the worst case RCP, emissions pathway, but really in the second-worst, so somewhere between, say, six and seven degrees of warming Celsius. And as you can imagine, there is a lot we can do to avoid that pathway. Those models are the ones used by David Wallace-Wells in his book The Uninhabitable Earth that really paints the most dystopian image of the future possible. Even for whatever reason, he decides at various points to talk about a geologic time scale in which there were palm trees growing in the Antarctic, which is a nice narrative move to get people to think about how bad things can get — although no one alive on the planet would ever experience that.

But the models that you see there at the end are really, I think, trying to visualize what might happen spatially, were we to basically continue on as we’ve continued on business as usual for the foreseeable future. There is lots and lots and lots that we can do between now and that fuzzy future to change the sort of shape and form and content of those maps. And I’ll say quickly, too, just sectorally in housing and safe transportation especially, most of the technology that we need to avoid that pathway is already commercialized. It is readily available. The issues there are around deployment and sort of political economy. They are not around technological development.

There are lots of things we don’t know how to decarbonize, like air travel and steel production, but when it comes to decarbonizing building materials and the electric sector and vehicles and all the things that animate most of our everyday lives — those are things that we know how to do, and often, in many other places, are already doing.

Stone: So let’s talk about the maps themselves. Xan, tell us about the major population shifts that are coming, and what places will people leave, and what places will people go to?

Lillehei: I think a lot of people know already that we’re going to see a lot of coastal migration happening, and the maps that we drew working with Matt Hauer’s data for the most part show that there are actually a lot of coastal in-and-out migrations — people swapping coasts. And so that’s a really interesting piece of some of the work that we’ve done is actually finding narratives that counterbalance some of the more common knowledge that we’re seeing. But for the most part, people will be leaving the coasts when they are seeing damage.

Some of the later maps suggest that the coastal areas, to pretty far inland, will see a lot of damage and migration patterns, and people are going to be moving north into areas that are also going to be flooding. People are just going to be moving around a lot, and there’s not going to be a huge — [LAUGHTER]

No one’s going to be safe, but the economic damage and the coastal damage are going to be the major drivers that force people further north and further inland.

Fleming: [OVERTALK] I was just going to say, yes, I would add to that. Those migration maps are drawing on Matt Hauer’s work. He’s a climate geographer based at Florida State. This is really the first time any of it has been visualized in anything other than like a county-level map, and he was very gracious to share his data with us so that we could do it.

But I think to Xan’s point, the reality of climate change is that literally everything will be on the move, and everything will be changing — certainly people, but also ecosystems and other things. And these maps are showing essentially the most optimistic possible scenario for the future. So you can look at them, and they are a tangled mess of spaghetti noodles. But also that’s about as good as it could possibly be because Matt’s model is really just taking the number of structures that will be inundated or literally underwater during the median tide each day, in each of those places that Xan just mentioned — and then counting up the number of people who live in them. And that’s only about 13 million people. So about 13 million people in the most optimistic scenario will have no choice but to move. And we know, just from knowing the way that state and local economies are structured — particularly in places like Texas and Florida, where there is no income tax and where almost all state and local budgets are floated by a very heavy property tax — that when any sizeable portion of, say, a Houston or a Miami or a Tampa or a New Orleans in Louisiana are forced to move, that that will put incredible strain, probably irreconcilable strain, on budgets and force a new round of municipal and state bankruptcies that will further drive displacement of people.

I think what these maps are really trying to show is just one, certainly everything will be on the move. But two, also that — at least for the moment in this country — we leave a lot of that motion completely up to the market. So when your house is flooded out, and you hopefully, in the best case scenario you’ll get a little bit of money — not enough — but a little bit of money from FEMA to help you either rebuild or relocate, there are no strings attached to that that dictate where you might move.

So I live in a flood-prone part of Miami, and I want to move to a flood-prone part of New York, that’s what I’m going to do. And those maps show, actually, a lot of people doing it, when you attach climate displacement models to conventional demographic models, which is really what Matt has done. And so I think we don’t make this argument explicitly in the atlas, although Xan and I have made it in other places — part of what any viable adaptation strategy on the climate or Green New Deal side of things has to include is a little more attention, a little more thought given to how and where we sort of send people when they are inevitably displaced by the effects of climate change, whether it’s sea level rise or extreme heat. Or, as this agriculture map shows you, there are agricultural damages, and Matt shows the collapse of your local economy when crops are no longer viable.

Stone: So we talked here a lot about the push, right? Rising sea levels, for example, will push people out of certain parts of the country, but what is the pull going to be? What will draw people to their new homes, to their new jobs, in the new locations?

Fleming: Well, I’m not a demographer, and I don’t want to pretend to be, but I can say the way that these things are typically modeled is that people move for a couple of reasons, one being that they have some kind of economic opportunity. Maybe they have a job waiting when they’re displaced from where they live now to where they’re going next. Maybe they have some kind of familial or cultural connection to a place, so if you’re in an immigrant community living in — this actually happened in Philadelphia post-Sandy, where there was a large swath of the New York area with a lot of Puerto Rican residents who were displaced winding up in Philly, because there was already an existing Puerto Rican community here that’s partially a result of the island’s diaspora extending certainly well before Sandy and Maria, and will continue long after.

And those are the things that tend to drive where people relocate. I think there’s always this kind of fantasy that we will be able to make our cities extraordinarily attractive to them in other ways that probably don’t cost as much or that are a little less out of our control. So we build parks, and we sort of do other things that we think of as kind of amenities that will attract people to urban locations. But ultimately, nearly all of that is driven by economic opportunity and familial or cultural connection.

Stone: Let me dive a little deeper on that one, if I may. Do we have any projections here for specifically what industries may relocate to what areas and create new job opportunities? Or other forces in specific areas of the country that the maps show?

Fleming: We don’t, really. And I do think this is an interesting question that we’re going to see coming up a lot more in the next few weeks and months. I think the sort of crisis in the global supply chain that was revealed, as well. And I want to thank some of the scholars, but less well known in the policy community post-pandemic is going to require us to be a bit more thoughtful about the extent to which — at least in the U.S. — we want to have some kind of planning in our economy. We’re not quite a full market economy at the moment. We’re a mixed economy in economic terms. But we’ve never really — at least in a hundred years — haven’t had formal industrial policy in this country. And I suspect, and I know from some of our conversations with members of Congress about some of the stimulus work we’ve been developing with them that one of the most salient points for them is thinking, I think creatively, about how to formalize and have real goals tied to industrial policy in the U.S. that would include thinking about exactly what the question is that you’re raising here, Andy, which is how do we think about strengthening our supply chain, strengthening our economy, and maybe strengthening some of the places that are going to fare quite well in an era defined by climate change, all at the same time?

I don’t think any amount of great municipal planning or urban design is going to, say, make a million move to Montana. They should, because it’s beautiful, and my brother lives there, and so I always want an excuse to go see him. But locating tens of thousands of new jobs in a sector that’s going to be a core part of the 21st century in the U.S. is a much easier way, or a much more effective way, probably to think about doing it.

Stone: There’s a very interesting map that shows how much land Americans will need to mitigate their carbon emissions in the 21st century, in this current century. And it looks like there’s a lot more land that’s going to be needed to mitigate than actually produce energy in the first place. Xan, could you explain to me what’s going on with that?

Lillehei: So we’re talking about the renewable energy section, and there’s a carbon sequestration demands map. And we are looking at just the total area needed for carbon sequestration in the U.S., for the existing population, and then for the influx of 100 million Americans. And the science backs this up, as well, but we’ve just found that’s not really a viable option for thinking about decarbonizing in the future. There is just not enough land possible for this. And also it’s not the best way to decarbonize, generally. 

Fleming: Well, yes. I would add to that, too for Xan — I think it’s all right. I feel at times like I’m losing my mind, because I’m yelling about how we can —

I’ve become a tree-hater, even though I love trees. There are just so many people who are trying to pitch this idea of trees as a long-term carbon sink. Certainly there’s the carbon catcher and sequestration technology, which I do think is an important part of this conversation, but trees are often bandied about for lots of reasons. Even just last year in Davos, we saw the world’s economic relief mobilizing behind the idea of a trillion trees across the planet as a way to sequester carbon, which is a ludicrous idea for all kinds of reasons. One is that, as your question points out, Andy, it demands so much damned land that there is no way we can do that and do anything else.

But the other is that trees don’t actually sequester carbon on a geologic time scale. They do it on a short-term basis, 20 to 30, maybe 40 years, and very slowly. And as they do that, they create fuel for wildfires, which we know will become more rampant in an era defined by climate change. And they also release that carbon back into the atmosphere the moment they are cut down and burned or repurposed for whatever they might be repurposed for.

And so this map is in there to do lots of things. One is just to show exactly — well, not exactly — but about how much land it would require to sequester carbon in the U.S. alone through trees only. And looking at that map, setting aside all the techno-fix issues that I just highlighted, looking at that map, it’s hard to imagine trees being a primary strategy, if we had any plans to do anything other than plant trees for the next 50 years.

Stone: You know, as I was looking through these maps, it recalled to me The Grapes of Wrath, the famous book by John Steinbeck, where people flee the Dust Bowl, and they go to California to look for new opportunity. And so the question I want to ask is, are cities and states going to compete for migrants from other parts of the country as the map of the United States changes? Or are some places going to fight to keep those migrants out, as happened in that famous book? I know this is a bleak question, but it seems like one that’s worth considering or keeping in mind. Billy, what do you think about that?

Fleming: Well, I think the short answer is certainly they’re going to do both. I’ll jump in, but I want to let Xan take a whack at this, too.

Lillehei: Okay, so I think it’s going to be really interesting. I agree with Billy, that it’s going to be a little bit of both. I think that is what’s happening now to a degree, when we look at different industries that require some degree of migrant labor or non-union labor, and the ways that that supports a lot of other areas and cities and economies. I also think that’s going to be a huge driver of inequality as we move forward, and as people are forced from where they live, in different ways and means, depending upon their economic rallies. And that’s the reason we’re going to have to pay attention to and make sure that as industrial policy or national scale policies do come through — the Green New Deal, for example — that we take seriously what it means to be displaced and to be moving and to think about job creation as a way of enticing people to specific areas of having more robust communities and of taking seriously a just transition.

Fleming: Yes, I think that’s all right. I would add living in a country organized through a federalist system — you know, I think the moniker that often gets bandied about on the op-ed pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times is like, “What a wonderful experiment. States and cities are labs for innovation, et cetera.” And I think there is some truth to that, but not all of the innovation is about progress towards some just, decarbonized future. It’s also about innovation on ways to exclude and discriminate against people. This is why you can see certain municipalities and certainly certain states. Our lovely friend Joe Arpaio, who was convicted and then pardoned by the president is now running for his old job in Arizona, where he pioneered the “papers, please” act that resulted in — among many other things and many other bits of human misery and suffering — the loss of several seasons of real agricultural productivity in Arizona because there was no one left to work the fields because they ensured through extraordinarily racist immigration policy that it was almost impossible for any person of color to feel secure sort of walking around without papers.

And we saw that in Alabama a few years afterwards. We’re going to see this sort of backlash to this coming influx or reshuffling of people all over the country for the foreseeable future. I think there are ways that we can imagine blunting the worst effects of that through stronger and more egalitarian controls that might come through a Green New Deal. It might come through a just transition — whatever it might be that either compel or incentivize states or local governments to set aside that kind of racial animus and focus purely on being the most economically competitive, which requires that they also then be probably also the most culturally and racially diverse places they can be. But we also just know from several hundred years of American history that things will not work out quite that neatly.

Stone: All right. So Billy, we’ve been talking about distributions of people and resources across the country, but some changes will be as you’ve just kind of alluded to it, on a more local level. Along these lines, you’ve mentioned in the atlas the idea of public wealth and private simplicity. Can you tell us what that’s about?

Fleming: Sure. So this isn’t my idea. I would love to take credit for it, but it has been floating around in the academic literature for a little over 150 years now. But really, this is about thinking about climate policy, as again, being about something more than simply electrons and molecules, but being about shaping how and where we live and how we all relate to one another in the places where we live.

And so we’re on the verge of having our first trillionaire in the world with Jeff Bezos. That’s happening in the specter of just immense human suffering, not only around the world, but even just like really in any city, any community in the United States right now where he lives. And so really, I think what a Green New Deal is sort of demanding is probably a way to think differently about the way our economy is structured and the way we all relate to one another. And it’s not to say that Jeff Bezos would be, say, stripped of all of his assets, and they’d be redistributed across the entire country to everyone else who needs them — although that would be nice. But I think when we think about public luxury and private simplicity, what we’re really saying is that there are a set of needs on the public side — in our public spaces, in our public housing, in our public infrastructure, in our public transportation, in our public communications systems, telecom systems — that have to be satisfied before any of those other questions about individual hyper-wealth can really begin to factor in. And there are lots of ways to think about instrumentalizing that, but I think the most important is to sort of imagine how many people might use, say, Rittenhouse Square here in Philadelphia? How many people might use Central Park or Prospect Park in New York? How many people might use the Riverfront Park in Little Rock, Arkansas? These are all the things where actual immense numbers of people stand to benefit greatly from relatively modest investments, in turning our parks into luxurious public spaces of leisure for anyone who wants to use them. And turning our public housing or our affordable housing into what housing movement folks have begun to call “temples of public luxury.” And doing all of those things by asking for just a little bit more from the world’s first trillionaire, and maybe a few other people along the way, in the form of a slightly higher tax bracket.

And so anyway, I think this idea of public luxury and private simplicity is really about the Green New Deal’s demand that we rebuild a public sector that’s been hollowed out by 40 years of privatization, of financialization. Not to take everything over — I can’t imagine a world in which everything that I would want to become sort of a public good or service is, in fact, a public good or service — but it’s about asking for more from the bits of public space or bits of public infrastructure that we need now have and will have, as the world is rebuilt by something like the Green New Deal.

Stone: To bring it into the climate perspective and reducing emissions, for example, couldn’t this also apply to public transportation? That’s a public infrastructure that could replace a private infrastructure, such as everybody owning their own car or two cars. If that could all become a public good, meaning more extensive public transport, then there’s a shift there, as well, right?

Fleming: Exactly. And it’s not like — when I say “public luxury,” it’s not that I mean, “Oh, instead of riding in a beat up Septa train, you’ll be riding in whatever the limousine version of that is.” It just means that we’ll have enough trains running, so more trains — not necessarily more luxurious, high-end trains — but more of them, so that anyone who needs to rely on public transportation to get to and from work can actually afford to do that. We don’t need to get into the weeds of it too much, but in the U.S., almost all U.S. Department of Transportation funding is set aside for capital projects, not for operations and maintenance, which means that we often tend to build new extensions to lines that already exist to public transit, or as is more often the case, we tend to build roads and roads and roads into exurbia, as opposed to taking care of the infrastructure and the services that we already have.

And so a world in which there is private simplicity and public luxury might simply mean that you and I can safely rely on a train or a bus to get to and from work and not worry that if we miss the one we were planning to grab, and the next one doesn’t come for 30 minutes, that we might be late and might get fired if we’re late to work.

Stone: Let me ask the two of you a final question here, if I may: What specific Green New Deal ideas have been floated that will be most instrumental in creating the maps as forecast by the 2100 Project? What specific policy initiatives or ideas are out there right now that will bring much of this to pass?

Fleming: I think that’s a great question, and it’s one that we’ll probably all sit with for a long time. It’s probably going to be one of the more pressing or defining questions for the next 10, 20, 30 years of climate policy development in the U.S.  I think the easy answer is that there is no one or couple of policy ideas that are going to help us avoid the worst case scenario that some of these maps highlight. I think the challenge that climate change poses to us, to the world, to the planet is that it’s diffuse and complex. It’s hard to discern, in a sort of clouded field of different signals bouncing all over the place.

And what the Green New Deal really demands, I think, is that we think holistically about the ways that we might restructure everything we know about the world that we all live in and operate in. There are lots of specific things we could point to sectorally — so around housing, around transportation, around public land — that might help us think about achieving some of the more discrete goals of the Green New Deal in each specific sector. But ultimately, climate change is bigger than any one sector. It’s bigger than any one community or country. It is planetary in scale. And so I think thinking about this question just reminds me that there is probably no single or single set of answers to this question.

And I guess maybe people are looking for concrete things to sort of hold onto, which I get because I do this all the time, too. I would direct them to this project that’s very much related to this atlas that was released a couple of months ago in late March called “A Green Stimulus to Rebuild our Economy.” Lots of familiar faces or names are on there for folks who are in the climate world that we put together at the beginning of the global shutdown due to the pandemic that basically divides the economy up into eight sectors, lays out anywhere from, say, 10 to 20 specific policy interventions or ideas that Congress might be able to sort of pick up and run with, that can put us on a short path to Net Zero or a short path to the Green New Deal.

And I’m very happy to say that that letter itself has now resulted in something called a “Dear Colleague sign-on letter.” So Nannette Barragan from the Port of L.A. District in California, along with Congressman Tonko and several others on the House side are leading a sign-on process that’s intended to really shape the sort of post-Heroes, post CARES act stimulus negotiations in Congress. Whether that yields the kinds of things we want it to yield is very much to be determined. But that letter itself, and certainly I think the future debates that will unfold there as people begin the slow process of returning to work — that letter itself will offer a bunch of these kinds of more concrete, specific ideas that I think we’re all looking for in this moment.

Stone: Xan and Billy, thanks very much for talking.

Fleming: Thanks for having us.

Lillehei: Thanks, Andy.

Stone: Today’s guests have been Billy Fleming, Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center and the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design and Alexandra Lillehei, a Climate Infrastructure Policy Fellow at the McHarg Center. The maps we’ve talked about in today’s podcast are available on the website of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology.

The Center’s website is mcharg.upenn.edu. And for more energy and environmental policy news and research, visit the Kleinman Center’s website or subscribe to our Twitter feed. Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now, and have a great day.


Billy Flemming

Wilks Family Director, Ian L. McHarg Center
Billy Fleming is the Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center in the Weitzman School of Design. and a senior fellow with Data for Progress.

Alexandra Lillehei

Weitzman School of Design
Alexandra Lillehei is a landscape architecture student at the Weitzman School of Design and a climate infrastructure policy fellow at the Ian L. McHarg Center.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.