The idea that climate action must be bound up in the drive for economic justice is at least as old as the pledges nations made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. But young U.S. activists have supercharged that concept in the campaign for a Green New Deal, hoping to blow past political barriers that have thwarted more timid proposals of the past.
"This is going to be the Great Society, the moon shot, the Civil Rights Movement of our generation," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the 29-year-old freshman lawmaker who has helped force the Green New Deal into the political spotlight.
As Democrats take control of the House today, it remains to be seen whether they will embrace the vision for 100 percent clean energy within 10 years, a public-works program with good-paying federal jobs and a just transition for workers and polluted communities. Still more uncertain is whether they can forge the Green New Dealers' lofty goals into viable federal policy. One challenge that is sure to command attention is how to pay for it, with some arguing it's too costly, others maintaining the costs of inaction will be worse, and still others pointing to carbon pricing as a logical revenue source.
Advocates are girding for a legislative process of at least two years, given the implacable foes they face in President Donald Trump and the GOP-led Senate. But when they launched their fight with a surprise sit-in at the office of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) just one week after the election, Green New Deal advocates announced they intend to stay on the offensive.
Veterans of Washington's past climate battles think the appeal of the Green New Deal platform and the determination of young advocates like those in the Sunrise Movement, a grassroots youth climate action group that formed after Trump's election, could be the jump-start the climate policy debate has needed.
"I think the energy of the activists and the new members is actually crucial for us to pass meaningful climate legislation," said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic advisor to the Progressive Policy Institute. "We can't pretend that somehow they're not important or that their ideas are fanciful—they're not."
"The question," Bledsoe said, "is how to channel that vision into popular and politically powerful messages, policies and, ultimately, actionable legislation."
Young Activists, New Lawmakers Push Pelosi
The activists suffered an apparent setback in their first Capitol Hill skirmish—a demand that Pelosi establish a Select Committee on a Green New Deal that would be tasked with coming up with a climate-and-jobs legislative proposal by the start of 2020.
Instead, the Democratic leadership chose to move forward with a plan for a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis that would have no specific mandate or subpoena power. Pelosi's team did not want to step on the toes of veteran lawmakers in leadership posts, like Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, by giving the select committee the legislative authority the activists wanted.
Especially galling to activists, Pelosi has not agreed to their demand that she appoint to the committee only lawmakers who had taken no fossil fuel industry donations. (About 14 percent of the $17.8 million that the oil, gas, and coal industries spent on the 2018 elections went to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)
"Without a mandate to create a plan and a requirement that its members don't take fossil fuel money, we are deeply concerned that this committee will be just another of the many committees we've seen failing our generation our entire lives," Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash said.
The lawmaker chosen to head the panel, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), is not a major recipient of fossil fuel money. She received about $6,500, less than 1 percent of her total contributions, in the last election cycle from electric utility industry donors who have coal and natural gas assets. But Castor riled Green New Dealers with her assertion that such a restriction on committee members would violate the First Amendment, a claim that echoed ExxonMobil's defense against climate fraud allegations and the argument that underpinned the Supreme Court's Citizens' United decision on campaign spending.
In an interview with InsideClimate News, Castor praised the Green New Deal activists and said she anticipates their ideas will be part of the committee's work.
"They are right on," she said. "We need their passion and energy now to help get this Congress moving. This now will be a good platform to flesh out what they believe is most important and get down to the specifics of how we take action."
Castor noted that her constituents already pay the costs of climate change in the form of higher insurance rates, property taxes, flood repairs and more. "We're in dire straits now, and we don't have time to sit on our hands," she said. Although she said she would prefer that the committee have both legislative and subpoena power, if it does not, it will bolster the work of other committees in writing legislation.
Avoiding the Missteps of Waxman-Markey
Capitol Hill veterans note that even if the climate change committee lacks legislative power, it can craft policy recommendations that any member of Congress can introduce as legislation.
That's exactly what happened in 2008 when Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), then in the House, introduced a bill based on a report developed by the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which he chaired. That became the starting point for the last serious legislative action to address climate change: cap-and-trade legislation Markey co-sponsored with former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that passed the House in 2009 but never came to a vote in the Senate.
Of course, the Green New Dealers want to avoid not only the fate of Waxman-Markey, but also what they see as missteps made on the way to its demise.
Chief among those missteps, the activists say, was setting the bar too low and using terms only policy wonks could fathom—a carbon emissions target of 20 percent below 2005 levels.
In contrast, the Green New Deal's goal is ambitious, easy to understand, and in line with science: 100 percent of electricity from renewable sources within 10 years. (One detailed roadmap developed by the movement's supporters at the think tank Data for Progress includes other carbon-free sources like nuclear power and fossil fuel with carbon capture; Green New Dealers say the details need to be worked out. The key, they say, is setting a goal to completely eliminate carbon emissions.)
At the start of the Obama administration, "Democrats were proposing the kind of ideas that in that context were inadequate given what the science demands," said Stephen O'Hanlon, 22, a co-founder and national field director of the Sunrise Movement. "Ten years later, it would be recklessly out of touch with what we need to do."
Powerful Senators Add Their Support
Capitol Hill's battle-scarred climate warriors agree. In an important show of support, Markey became one of the first Senate Democrats to endorse the call for a Green New Deal.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also has taken up the call. While not using the term Green New Deal, Schumer said that Trump will only gain Democratic support for an infrastructure bill if it includes policy to transition to a clean energy economy.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) signaled her support for the idea of a Green New Deal as she became the first major presidential candidate to officially enter the 2020 race. Ocasio-Cortez thanked her on Twitter, adding, "If your 2020 platform doesn't include a Green New Deal, are you really running for President?"
The activists' most important Senate supporter may be Ocasio-Cortez' political mentor, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose economic ideas suffuse the Green New Deal platform. The federal job guarantee proposal he rolled out last spring would be realized in the plan, which foresees a public works program to upgrade water systems, build mass transit, deploy smart grid technology, and protect or move communities facing sea level rise.
"There is no shortage of work to do," Ocasio-Cortez said at a recent town hall on climate change hosted by Sanders. "But we need to decide to do it."
A Big Question: How to Pay for It
How to pay for a climate-focused federal jobs guarantee—the kind of sweeping federal intervention not seen since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's original New Deal—is sure to stir debate, even within the Democratic party.
Sanders' former chief economist, Stephanie Kelton, who has long been an advocate for federal spending on social programs unrestrained by deficit concerns, argues it would be a mistake to establish a program paid for with revenue cuts or tax increases.
Ocasio-Cortez and fellow Green New Dealer, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) were taking an early stand on the issue by urging colleagues to vote against the House rules package that the Democratic leadership planned to put up for a vote on Thursday. The package included the same kind of "pay-as-you-go" provision that the GOP had in place since 2010, requiring that spending increases be offset with tax increases or spending cuts.
Austerity isn't the only reason that some supporters of the Green New Deal vision are wary of a heavy government hand in its implementation. Edward Barbier, an economist at Colorado State University, argues the private sector also must do its part in the clean energy transition.
Barbier was commissioned by the United Nations Environment Program to develop a climate actions-and-jobs template called the "Global Green New Deal" in 2009 to help guide nations in environmental investments to help lift them out of the deepest recession since the 1930s. Some of those ideas were implemented; about 12 percent of Obama's economic stimulus—$118 billion—went to energy efficiency, renewable energy and other green investments, according to Barbier's research.
But Barbier doesn't support the idea of a massive federal jobs program. "The government would end up doing more and more of what the private sector and industry should be doing," he said.
A Role for Carbon Pricing?
Instead, Barbier said the government should address distortions in the economy that are holding back private sector innovation and investments in clean energy. In his view, that means eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and incorporating the costs of the environmental damages we are facing in the price of carbon fuels.
That means a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, and although Kelton and her economist peers don't like using taxes to raise revenue for a Green New Deal, they are fine with using them to punish polluters, change economic incentives and pay for the costs of climate damages. The revenue that a U.S. carbon tax would raise is just a side benefit—albeit a multi-billion-dollar one that could help fund a climate-jobs-and-justice initiative.
That's why the Green New Deal movement has given hope to longtime climate activists like George Frampton, co-founder of the Partnership for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit bipartisan coalition that has been working to build support for carbon pricing.
Frampton, a former Clinton administration official, has come to feel that one of the biggest obstacles the movement faces is a lack of public understanding of how the economy could benefit from higher prices for fossil fuels. The Green New Deal proposal explains how that might gain traction.
"All of a sudden Nancy Pelosi's office is raided by a hundred kids insisting that [lawmakers] instruct themselves to put together a plan," Frampton said. "That could be the vehicle for the next generation of climate legislation right there. There could be opportunities here for public education we didn't exactly figure on."