What is that Green New Deal the Americans are talking about?

Climate marchers filing past Trump Tower Chicago in 2016.
Climate marchers filing past Trump Tower Chicago in 2016.
Flicker/Max Herman, Survival Media

Publish date: March 15, 2019

What hope do sweeping ideas for addressing climate change have in Donald Trump’s America? That’s exactly what many of his opponents in the Democratic Party aim to find out, and they’re rolling out an ambitious plan to test the waters.

What hope do sweeping ideas for addressing climate change have in Donald Trump’s America? That’s exactly what many of his opponents in the Democratic Party aim to find out, and they’re rolling out an ambitious plan to test the waters.

It’s called the Green New Deal and it’s an initiative sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the buzzy new representative from New York who is the youngest person ever elected to Congress, and Senator Ed Markey, a Democratic party stalwart with a long environmental track record.

The 14-page legislative resolution they are supporting calls for “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” through a ten-year “national mobilization” and even though Green New Deal is non-biding, it has become one of the most controversial and potent Congressional initiatives in recent memory.

Trump’s supporters have called Ocasio-Cortez a Communist and Republican politician have taken to national television to accuse Democrats of wanting to abolish air travel and criminalize hamburgers. Democrats have shot back, saying they won’t pass a Trump infrastructure bill unless it includes elements of the Green New Deal. And the political press has been packed with headlines like “How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Green New Deal’ Might Help Save the Planet,” and “Is the Green New Deal the Only Way Forward?”

“This is going to be the Great Society, the moonshot, the civil rights movement of our generation,” Ocasio-Cortez told a town hall meeting in December. “That is the scale of the ambition that this movement is going to require.”

That’s a big sell.

aoc green new deal New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Credit: Senate Democrats

Yet what Ocasio-Cortez’s version of a Green New Deal is and what it might become are two different things. The long-term goal is to deliver the most comprehensive piece of environmental and economic legislation in American history – a heady brew of Roosevelt’s Great Depression era New Deal, Obama-era Great Recession stimulus, the recommendations of UN climate scientists, all heated on the flame of trillions of federal dollars. But in the short-term, the coal is simply to form a committee to study the possibility of doing those things. That is, the Green New Deal is – for now – a big idea for a bigger idea, and Ocasio-Cortez and the Democrats want to spend the present congressional term fleshing it out.

According to the most recent UN report on climate change, avoiding the worst consequences of global warming means reducing 2010-level greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal goes even further, aiming for the complete decarbonization of the American economy, including the energy production sector, within 10 years.

To achieve that, the Democrats are forming a Congressional select committee to study the issue, hear from experts, investigate potential interventions, and then distill their findings into a concrete roadmap by January 1, 2020. And unlike previous big-picture climate change initiatives that have gone nowhere, this committee would also be required to author an honest-to-goodness bill that the House of Represenatives and Senate would vote on.

This approach builds in a certain amount of restraint. The congressional select committee wouldn’t be responsible for passing it during this legislative session. This stipulation reflects the political reality that no matter what Democrats vote for, a Republican senate that denies climate change even exists will torpedo its passage.

Instead, what this strategy hopes for is the production of  a bill on which Democrats can campaign in 2020 when they challenge Trump’s reelection. If they win the White House, Democrats would then waste no time in implementing the bill as law when the new Congress is seated in 2021.

But there’s one other feature the Green New Deal includes that most US proposals for tackling climate change haven’t included in any meaningful way: A jobs guarantee. The committee’s mandate requires that the plan—and the legislation—provide for full equality of opportunity, in the form of “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to everyone who wants one.” It also encourages the committee to include a universal basic income and universal health insurance – something that, unlike nearly every other developed nation, America does not have.

And this is exactly where the Green New Deal could succeed where other US climate initiatives have failed. By casting urgently needed action on the climate as jobs guarantee, tedious-sounding emissions cuts figures and horror stories about melting ice no longer seem so tedious. Instead, addressing these issues – which are still abstract to most American voters – becomes an economic guarantee. If you’re worried about your job moving overseas, or if you will be able to afford health coverage if it does, melting Antarctic ice sheets can seem more than a world away. But if addressing the threats of climate change means you get a job, training and the right to see a doctor for little to no cost, suddenly more people have a vested interest in doing something about global warming.

But prepared for the Republicans to hail this initiative as the Second Coming of the Soviet Union on America’s shores. Ocasio-Cortez has already been compared to Stalin on Fox News.

But the Green New Deal doesn’t contain everything. For instance, it steers shy of calling for any carbon taxes. And the resolution also declines to call for public investment in carbon-capture technology. This position would have made sense 20 years ago, given the potential moral hazards and unintended consequences of building machines to suck carbon out of the air. But thanks to decades of monstrous inaction, humanity no longer has the luxury of leaving carbon capture out of its toolkit.

But the central genius of the Green New Deal is that it’s the first US climate initiative that recognizes combatting greenhouse gases and global warming means creating a new political reality. And for the moment the Green New Deal is the only realistic means we have for doing that.

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