Political News

What's the Green New Deal? Depends who you ask

Posted January 31, 2019 1:28 p.m. EST

— A month ago, almost nobody had heard of the Green New Deal, but the phrase is suddenly everywhere.

The call to fight climate change through a massive jobs plan aimed at eliminating fossil fuels started with freshman New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been name-checked by Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and now has the apparent endorsement from an unlikely source: billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

But what is the Green New Deal, exactly?

The idea has been around for years. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman mentioned the concept in 2007, and Barack Obama campaigned on "green jobs" and elements of his stimulus packages were meant to both alleviate unemployment while building low-carbon infrastructure. Even the United Nations put out a plan for a global green new deal in 2009, as the world ground its way through the crippling financial crisis.

The current iteration has no official definition, leaving room for advocacy groups and prospective presidential candidates to endorse the implied dual mission — stopping global warming and mitigating economic inequality — without getting into details. Its sudden ubiquity comes as Democrats look for a positive message that has nothing to do with opposition to President Donald Trump heading into the 2020 campaign.

"While the Green New Deal is going in the right direction, it means slightly different things to different people at this point," says Bill Snape, senior counsel at the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity, which is collaborating on efforts to create a common platform. "I think we're all committed to tying those loops together, but it's going to take some work."

Some of that ambiguity will be resolved next week, when Ocasio-Cortez plans to introduce a resolution with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey that more clearly outlines a legislative definition of the Green New Deal, after weeks of consulting with other groups who are planning to sign on.

According to the Sunrise Movement, the group that staged sit-ins with Ocasio-Cortez in Nancy Pelosi's office in November and December in a failed bid to demand a select House committee on climate change, the plan will have three essential parts: Transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2030, guaranteeing jobs fighting climate change to everyone who wants one, and funneling much of the money that will be required to do the first two things into communities of color and those that will be most impacted by the ravages of global warming.

The resolution will be mostly symbolic, given that its proponents profess no hope that any part of it could become law under Trump. But it could be a powerful commitment device, as something other legislators can sign on to, and as a set of principles that activists can demand that candidates live up to.

"There's something powerful about the vagueness, and it creates a lot of alignment," says Varshini Prakash, the group's director. "The hard work is in defining it and ensuring that people are not just paying lip service and actually understand the substance behind it."

The key way in which Sunrise's vision differs from most others — and by which most other plans will fall short, in their estimation — is in the sheer scale of the effort.

While the group doesn't identify as socialist per se, part of its aim is to rehabilitate the image and role of government, so as to muster and deploy the kind of capital and intervene in the economy with the degree of forcefulness that will be needed to meaningfully affect the climate.

"If you look at all the major moments in American history that are on par with what we're talking about, it was a more activist government that cared about the interests of all people," Prakash says.

And how do they plan to pay for it? Nobody asks that when America has faced other national emergencies, they say, such as war and economic collapse. A carbon tax might help, as would a higher top marginal tax rate, but neither of those would be enough — the real answer is to print money, under the philosophy that inflation hasn't been a serious threat for decades and isn't going to start now.

That's the kind of approach that people like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg likely aren't going to include in whatever plan they might come up with and label a "Green New Deal."

"I'm a little bit tired about listening to things that are pie in the sky, that we never are gonna pass, that we never are gonna afford," Bloomberg said while promoting his book at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. "I think it's just disingenuous to promote those things. You gotta do something that's practical."

Bloomberg didn't elaborate on what proposals he saw as "pie in the sky," and said he was working on a more fleshed-out plan for a Green New Deal.

Former Reps. Beto O'Rourke and Julian Castro, as well as Harris, Warren and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand have also all supported the idea of a Green New Deal. But none of them have put out specific plans explaining what they mean.

Those who have put out plans share the goals of transitioning to 100% renewable energy and creating lots of jobs, but differ on how they get there, and how quickly.

One very detailed report from the think tank Data for Progress would make the shift by 2035, through a combination of policies such as phasing out oil exports and internal combustion engines and public investments in electrified mass transit and reforestation. Another, from the Peoples' Policy Project, would massively scale up the Tennessee Valley Authority, essentially handing energy production over to the federal government.

A letter organized by the Center Biological Diversity and signed by 650 mostly environmental groups focuses on full enforcement of the Clean Air Act in order to regulate fossil fuels out of existence. A group called Elected Officials to Protect America has endorsed the basic Green New Deal goals, but plans to start with a campaign to prevent Saudi Arabia from buying up US water rights in order to ensure enough remains to fight climate change-fueled wildfires.

And groups that have traditionally worked at the intersection of climate and labor are staying quiet, given that several unions in the construction, oil, gas and coal sectors are having a hard time with the idea of giving up fossil fuels entirely.

"We have not endorsed the Green New Deal, and it's because it sounds to me that it's still something that's evolving," says Kim Glas, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership of labor and environmental groups. "I think everybody is liking this conversation, and is waiting to see what the policy prescriptions are."