An ambitious package of legislative goals dubbed the “Green New Deal” has picked up remarkable momentum on Capitol Hill in the past few weeks.
Forty members of the incoming U.S. House of Representatives have signed on in support of the creation of a select committee to its lead advocacy organization, Sunrise Movement. That includes Katherine Clark of Melrose, Massachusetts, the House Democrats’ new caucus vice-chair, who recently told me that “climate change … has risen to the top of the agenda.”
Not bad for a policy initiative that not even its most ardent supporters believe has any chance of passage in the coming session. “We’re not holding out hope for any miracles,” says Steve O’Hanlon, Sunrise Movement spokesperson and national field director.
There’s also no real agreement about what it means.
The term Green New Deal has been around for 10 years or so, used variously by the United Nations, Van Jones, and Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein, among others, prior to the Sunrise Movement—a collection of 20-somethings who burst into popular view last month thanks to the support of 29-year-old congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Now, following a post-midterms blitz of attention-getting protests and more than 250 House member office visits—plus new U.S. and United Nations reports on the climate threat—Sunrise claims 40 U.S. House members supporting the creation of a Select Committee on a Green New Deal. That includes seven of the nine from Massachusetts.
“We need to look at thisNational Climate Assessmentfor what it is: putting lives in danger and impeding our economic growth,” says Lori Trahan, congresswoman-elect from Lowell. “I signed onto the Green New Deal because I think it has ambitious goals. We need to accelerate the conversation around climate change.”
There is increasing likelihood that it will be included in the House rules adopted in early January. “Frankly, Nancy Pelosi needs to decide that she wants it,” O’Hanlon says.
But what does it mean, exactly?
Think of Green New Deal as the environmental equivalent of energy-thirsty conservatives’ “all of the above” strategy, so termed during the 2008 Presidential campaign — mixed with a big dose of social justice.
For years, climate change policy has focused primarily on market-based solutions: seeking to juice the market for new clean-power technologies, by incentivizing the move from carbon-based to carbon-neutral power. Whether through a carbon tax, cap-and-trade markets, research and development subsidies, or a combination of these and other ideas, the idea was to let the prospect of trillions of dollars in sales opportunities drive suppliers to find the best solutions.
Green New Deal advocates support all of that, but argue that it’s now too late to rely on the market alone. With the effects of climate change already apparent, and new reports suggesting a 12-year window to prevent catastrophic consequences, they say substantial government-driven investment is also required.
“We need massive transformation of our economy over the next 12 years,” O’Hanlon says.
Sunrise Movement envisions an electrical grid using 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2030, and a zero carbon U.S. economy by 2050.
To get there, proponents call for a massive upgrade to the energy grid, wholesale retrofitting of existing buildings, a many-fold increase in public investment into green technologies, and training to prepare workers for green-economy jobs.
These steps will, in theory, all take place under market-driven plans — including those currently moving forward at the local, state, and regional level as the federal government dawdles. The latest effort, announced this week, is a so-called “cap-and-invest” agreement among nine Northeast states, including Massachusetts, which aims to do for transportation emissions what the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is doing for power plants.
All well and good, according to Green New Deal proponents, except for two things. First, as noted above, they doubt that even the most optimistic and aggressive market-based efforts won’t accomplish the goals fast enough to prevent disaster.
But also, they argue, existing strategies will do nothing to redress the inequities of the fossil fuel economy—and will in fact only exacerbate those inequities.
It’s no coincidence that young adults, whose notions of capitalism and markets were formed in large part by the economic crisis of 2008, aren’t ready to put their full trust in market-driven solutions.
But the message has a broader potential audience. Poor and working-class Americans have always borne the brunt of pollution, and will likewise take the worst of climate-change effects. Meanwhile, it’s the miners and manufacturing-line workers most likely to lose their jobs under massive green economic transformation, who will struggle while waiting for market incentives to get around to retraining them for new work.
Conservatives will scoff at the Green New Deal idea of guaranteeing a living-wage job for anybody and everybody to work on the transition from fossil fuels to zero-carbon; or insistence on a “holistic response” ensuring that “communities of color equitably share the benefits of this transition,” as 350 Mass Action executive director Craig S. Altemose put it in a recent Commonwealth Magazine op-ed. Those elements, however — perhaps stripped of the social justice language — are not only morally imperative; they might be the politically smart way to finally build the coalition of interests needed to propel Congress to take action.
Here We Go Again
The goal, O’Hanlon says, is for the new Select Committee to draft Green New Deal legislation, which will go through existing committees and finally pass in the full U.S. House of Representatives by March of 2020 — just as the Democratic presidential primaries heat up. That will inject the topic into the Presidential and Senate races, and provide both a template, and momentum, for action in 2021.
It’s a good idea in theory. So good, in fact, that it almost worked last time Democrats took control of the House in midterm elections during a Republican Presidential administration.
“It has a little bit of a Back To The Future quality to it,” admits Senator Ed Markey, who chaired the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming created by new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in early 2007.
That committee released a climate bill in 2008, in advance of the Presidential election. “We went through the entire exercise, to show what a comprehensive bill would look like,” Markey says. After the election of Barack Obama, the House pushed forward in 2009 and passed the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act in June.
The momentum didn’t last, however. After passage of the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act, and the Tea Party backlash, Obama and Senate Democrats lost their will and let the bill die. Republicans eliminated the Select Committee when they took control of the House after the 2010 midterm elections.
Yet Markey, who co-chairs the Senate Climate Change Task Force, is backing the Green New Deal and the creation of a select committee. “To me, the Green New Deal is this moment’s climate manifesto,” he says. “It captures what FDR did, putting people to work doing good things.”
He had lunch with Ocasio-Cortez last Monday; “I said to AOC, it’s brilliant branding. Keep focusing on jobs, and environmental justice. I feel very good about this,” he says.
He also offered advice from his own experience—for instance, the need to reassure territorial veterans that the select committee won’t usurp the jurisdiction of their existing committees. (That concern might partly explain why Massachusetts congressman Richard Neal, slated to chair the Ways & Means Committee next session, has not yet supported the plan.)
Markey argues that a Select Committee can do more than prepare full-scale legislation for a possible future Democratic Presidency and Congress. It can draw attention to, and build popular support for, a number of different needs—including the upcoming expiration of tax breaks for wind and solar energy development. Markey wants Democrats to insist on adding extensions into any tax bills proposed by Republicans, and to insert funding for climate studies and international cooperative into appropriations bills.
“A select committee can draw attention, and pull a common story together,” to build popular support for those elements, Markey says. He held select committee hearings in the White Mountains, and in Greenland. (He also infamously posted a live video feed of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the select committee’s web site, which hastened the response as millions watched in horror.)
The biggest short-term target, Trahan says, will be the infrastructure bill desired by President Donald Trump. She wants to see a new select committee generate draft proposals that can be incorporated into that legislation. Markey, who sits on the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — along with at least four likely Democratic Presidential candidates — couldn’t agree more.
Ultimately, though, the large-scale, urgent national transformation envisioned by the Green New Deal will require electoral success. Millennial voter turnout in this year’s midterm elections has some optimistic for that — and probably accounts for some of the issue’s current momentum on the Hill.