The Green New Deal Lands in Congress

Rapid transformation to clean energy seizes center stage and wins over some Democratic presidential hopefuls.

The non-binding Green New Deal resolution, initially sponsored by House newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senate veteran Edward Markey of Massachusetts, sets out to transform the economy to carbon-free energy. (Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

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The backers of a Green New Deal introduced a resolution in Congress on Wednesday to launch an all-out, decade-long mobilization aimed at transforming the economy to carbon-free energy.

They said their radically ambitious goal would restore America’s global leadership on climate change, build national prosperity and protect the most vulnerable.

The non-binding joint resolution, initially sponsored by Democratic House newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Democratic Senate veteran Edward Markey of Massachusetts, has already become an instant political sensation.

Embraced by a coalition of environmental and social justice activists, the idea is also questioned by many in the energy and climate policy establishment. Scorned by influential Republicans and powerful industry lobbyists, it has been endorsed by several early Democratic presidential candidates, including co-sponsors Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren(D-Mass.). Ocasio-Cortez’s political mentor, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has not yet announced whether he will make another presidential run, also is a co-sponsor.

“This is an incredible moment,” said Markey at a news conference. “Never have the interests of all Americans been as united on a single issue. From the air we breathe, to the jobs that employ us, to the neighborhoods we live in, to the economy we operate in, climate change defines our existence.”

In an era when global warming and financial inequality are both setting records, Markey said the Green New Deal was an effort to address not only “the erosion of our coastlines,” but also “the erosion of the earning power of workers.”

Ocasio-Cortez seemed to respond to critics who have called the plan unworkable or unrealistic. “Climate change and our environmental challenges are one of the biggest existential threats to our way of life—not just as a nation, but as a world. In order for us to combat that threat, we have to be as ambitious and  innovative as possible,” she said.

‘The Green Dream’

Ocasio-Cortez seized on the Green New Deal while campaigning last year. Days after her election, she participated in a sit-in during the lame duck session of Congress, when she joined activists who crowded the office of Nancy Pelosi, then still the minority leader.

On Monday, House Speaker Pelosi appointed Democratic members to a new climate advisory committee, and said this resolution is just one among many ideas the committee might ponder.

“The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is but they’re for it, right?” she said in an interview with Politico.

At a press conference, the sponsors shrugged that off. “I think it is a green dream,” said Ocasio-Cortez with a smile. Markey said there was “no bigger champion” on climate than Pelosi, who helped him pass a landmark bill in 2009. (It died in the Senate.)

In one sense, Pelosi was right: The new resolution’s teeth aren’t yet visible.

But that hasn’t stopped the Green New Deal from grabbing headlines.

Its real power is as an organizing mechanism around debates and elections yet to come.

As written, it would have Congress declare that it is the “duty” of the federal government “to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.”

The latest science, as the resolution notes, establishes that to stay within a safe carbon budget, the whole world needs to cut emissions roughly in half in about a dozen years and eliminate them by about mid-century. The United States, the resolution asserts, ought to move even faster.

If total decarbonization sounds impossible, backers say, think of the Apollo moon shot or the mobilization of World War II.

If success seems prohibitively expensive, think of the costs of failure, they urge.

Their selling points include creating jobs, meeting infrastructure needs, improving health, redressing injustice—and yes, heading off a climate calamity under laissez-faire capitalism.

A Set of Principles, Not Prescriptions

The Green New Deal has been pushed by a wide array of activists, including the youthful Sunrise Movement and the well-established network.

Jesse Meisenhelter, a Sunrise Movement activist from Oregon, has been visiting offices of members of Congress for more than a year to call for climate action. Last summer, when she last visited the office of Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, there were 40 wildfires underway in their home state. Watching him appear as a co-sponsor on Monday, she called the resolution the most important thing she had seen political leaders do in her lifetime.

“Where I live, people are riding bikes and doing all sorts of things to lower their carbon footprints,” she said, as she gathered with activists on the lawn outside the Capitol to watch the announcement. “But this is something where more than individual action is needed. We need political action.”

Some heavy-hitters among the green groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, offered more cautious praise. “The Green New Deal points to the need for boldness and ambition at a time when they are sorely required—and it is generating thoughtful ideas and building real political momentum,” said Elizabeth Gore, the group’s political vice president. Her statement endorsed a 2050 deadline for decarbonization, and called for using “all available tools,” including carbon pricing and technology incentives.

Leaders of the Citizens Climate Lobby, which favors a carbon fee and dividend approach and enlists both Democrats and Republicans, said that “we need to take steps that can generate bipartisan support.” They praised the “passion and commitment” of the Green New Dealers and pledged to work for “many of the goals in the resolution.”

The resolution doesn’t mention a carbon tax. While sponsors don’t rule one out, they consider the approach too weak to stand alone. It’s also silent on the role of nuclear power and the carbon capture of emissions from fossil fuel plants, though the backers generally call these technologies unnecessary.

When asked about that, Markey said the resolution deliberately was written without mentioning any technology or approach—it was a set of principles, not prescriptions, he said. But he elicited cheers from the crowd of activists, who gathered behind the sponsors of the bill, when he spoke about renewable energy. “Our energy future will not be found in the dark of a mine, but in the light of the sun,” he said.

The top coal-state Senate Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, sees things differently. He spoke out against the Green New Deal on Monday morning as buzz of the impending Ocasio-Cortez/Markey announcement reverberated around a Senate energy hearing.

“In a perfect world, this is an ideological belief,” said Manchin, who, to the dismay of climate activists, recently became the ranking minority member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “But in the real world we’re living in, are we able to get there? And in what time frame, and how much are we going to have to invest, and is the rest of the world going to come with us?”

Green New Deal Legislation Next?

Markey and Ocasio-Cortez insisted that in addition to the non-binding resolution, they were pushing forward with an effort to write and pass Green New Deal legislation in this Congress, even though it would likely face insurmountable opposition in the Republican-held Senate.

If the ultimate objective is to enact laws carrying out the Green New Deal after the 2020 election, that political strategy is not without risk. The Green New Deal platform is well-suited for candidates who call themselves progressives, and these ideas served many winners in the midterms. But some in the Democratic Party may fear that trying to advance a sweeping new government-driven climate program will paint a target on the back of the whole party, thwarting its aspirations of ascendancy.

Ultimately, the central legislative challenge will likely come down to a pair of practical questions: How much will this cost, and who will pay for it?

Nobody can guess the cost. That’s one reason that this broad approach is presented as a “sense of the Congress” resolution, which doesn’t need a budget scorecard.

A fact sheet from Ocasio-Cortez’s office  posted by National Public Radio before the announcement addressed the “who will pay” question.

“The same way we paid for the New Deal, the 2008 bank bailout and extended quantitative easing programs,” it said. “The same way we paid for World War II and all our current wars.”

“At the end of the day, this is an investment in our economy that should grow our wealth as a nation,” the document said, “so the question isn’t how will we pay for it, but what will we do with our new shared prosperity.”