Where Is the Green New Deal Headed in 2020?

Details are emerging for what this ‘moon shot’ federal program merging climate, jobs and economic security might look like. It’s a powerful force already.

Jan 2, 2020
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announce legislation to transform public housing as part of their Green New Deal plan. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced legislation in November to transform public housing. It's one part of a Green New Deal proposal that, after a year of promotion by activists, is now starting to take shape. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

To appreciate the power of the Green New Dealthe mobilization effort for clean energy and jobs that burst into the national conversation last yearlook at how forcefully the opponents of climate action moved to quash it.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky arranged a byzantine floor vote aimed at killing the concept soon after the non-binding Green New Deal resolution was introduced.

2019 Year in Review

Fox News anchors aired more than twice as many prime-time segments on the Green New Deal as rivals MSNBC and CNN combined last spring. And in California, the state's most powerful blue-collar union (which has a policy alliance with the oil industry) staged anti-Green New Deal protests at the state's Democratic Party convention last summer.

But the Green New Deal survived the battering to become an animating force in climate politics, with its advocates determined to make it the most important touchstone of the 2020 election.

For Democrats, support for the Green New Deal has become a central tenet. Nearly every major Democratic presidential candidate has endorsed it in some formeven moderates like Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar who are reluctant to give a fulsome embrace to the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. All Democratic presidential contenders now have goals aligned with the science to bring fossil fuel emissions to net zero by mid-century, far beyond the ambition of the Obama administration.

"Our top priority for [2020] is building the multiracial, cross-class youth movement that we need to elect leaders who will champion the Green New Deal," Stephen O'Hanlon, spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, said in an email. The youth-led advocacy group helped catapult the Green New Deal into the national discussion on climate with a sit-in outside the office of then-House Speaker-in-Waiting Nancy Pelosi right after the 2018 midterm election.

Public opinion on the Green New Deal has become politically polarized, with Democrats overwhelmingly in favor and Republicans opposed. But O'Hanlon said it is significant that polling shows it is popular among swing voters in pivotal states.

"Any candidate for office who wants to win the youth vote in 2020 should back it," O'Hanlon said.

Easier to Get Excited About than Carbon Taxes

The Green New Deal, at its core, is a marriage of two policy goals: getting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero and creating jobs and economic security for all. In a sense, it is an extension of the idea, dating back to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, that climate action must be bound up in the drive for poverty reduction and economic justice.

But charismatic leaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have helped supercharge the concept for American appealcalling for a 10-year mobilization akin to the moon shot, the industrial buildup for World War II, and of course, FDR's New Deal.

What has it meant to the climate movement? "In one word, 'hope,'" said RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote. It has allowed the discussion to move beyond "the only solution that had been on the horizon" taxing carbonwhich Miller said has divided climate activists "into 'Team Have To' and 'Team Don't Want To.'"

"Frankly, nobody has ever been excited about waking up in the morning and thinking, 'I'm going to be taxed for carbon!' What the Green New Deal has done is broken through that, with something you can genuinely get excited about," Miller said.

It's not just changing Democratic politics at the national level. Democrats in Virginia flipped the state legislature in 2019, with the help of candidates running on Green New Deal pledges. Seattle has begun to lay out an ambitious Green New Deal plan that includes free public transit, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors has endorsed the idea. And this past November, California's Democratic Party shook off concern about losing labor support and voted to make the Green New Deal part of its platform.

Conservatives Made the GND a Target

It's hard to imagine now, but only a year ago, the appeal of the Green New Deal crossed party lines. Support splintered after conservatives, amplified by Fox News, took it on as a bete noire.

In December 2018, soon after the Sunrise sit-in, 81 percent of registered voters, including 64 percent of all Republicans, were in favor of a Green New Deal, according to researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Communication. But by April 2019, support among Republicans had dropped 20 percent. It fell even more among those who identified themselves as conservative.

"Fox News viewing was a significant predictor of both familiarity with the GND and opposition to it, even when controlling for alternative explanations," the research team wrote in Nature Climate Change.

Conservative and fossil fuel industry-funded think tanks, such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Action Forum, claimed that the Green New Deal would trigger economic devastation, even though details of the plan have yet to be fleshed out.

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) encapsulated Republicans' critique in the competing nonbinding resolution he introduced. The Green New Deal "is simply a thinly veiled attempt to usher in policies that create a socialist society in America, and is impossible to fully implement," his resolution said.

Details Are Starting to Surface

Green New Deal advocates have begun putting together the policy nuts and bolts to bring their vision to life.

Ocasio-Cortez and her political mentor, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), unveiled a bill in November that would invest $180 billion over 10 years to retrofit the U.S. public housing stock with renewable energy and efficiency upgrades. The Green New Deal is also central to Sanders' presidential platform, which calls for investing $16.3 trillionmore than any other candidate has proposedin a 10-year program that he says "factors climate change into virtually every area of policy."

Sanders is just one of the longtime U.S. climate advocates who have shifted from talking about carbon taxes to talking Green New Deal as the path to addressing the climate crisis. That's not to say that a carbon tax is off the tableindeed, it would be an obvious source of revenue to fund the massive government spending that the Green New Deal envisions, and at the same time send a price signal to consumers and investors to propel the clean energy transition. But Sanders has also talked about wealth taxes to help fund his program, while Ocasio-Cortez has argued against the idea that a dedicated revenue source should be required for a government investment that will pay back dividends.

Charles Komanoff, co-founder of the Carbon Tax Center, who also is making the shift in his advocacy to the Green New Deal, says there's another reason to do so: a carbon tax is no longer enough. "Now, the situation, in my view, is so exigent, that more than just a carbon taxeven a robustly rising oneis needed."

Komanoff still thinks that the price signal of a carbon tax would be helpful, but that it should be a secondary goal.

"You can count me and the Carbon Tax Center in as adhering to the Green New Deal paradigmthat we need a massive federally guided shift in investment and infrastructure that will jump-start the project of eliminating fossil fuels," he said. "And I am quite ready, not with teeth clenched, but in a welcoming way, to have the carbon tax be a subsidiary to the larger project of the Green New Deal."

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