On Wednesday, Nancy Pelosi summarized the left’s hot new idea for cooling the planet in a single sentence: “The green dream or whatever they call it — nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?”
The House Speaker’s failure to recall the name of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s signature policy was surely intentional. But her confusion about precisely what the Green New Deal entails likely wasn’t.
Ever since AOC arrived in Washington (and her activist friends arrived at Pelosi’s office) the Green New Deal has been both one of the most widely discussed policy ideas in Democratic politics — and also, one of the least well-defined.
To moderate Democrats, the “Green New Deal” sounded like a fancy name for an infrastructure bill that included significant investments in renewable energy, and/or a carbon tax. To the progressive think tank Data for Progress, it was a comprehensive plan for America to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, through a combination of massive public investment in renewable-energy technology, transformative changes to land-use policy, and turbocharged environmental regulations.
But to Ocasio-Cortez, the phrase appeared to imply a vision even more sweeping. In her telling, the Green New Deal wasn’t just a plan for transforming America’s energy infrastructure, but also, for radically reforming its political economy: Just as the New Deal–era mobilization against the the Great Depression and Axis powers facilitated a democratic transition from laissez-faire to Keynesian liberalism, so the fight for climate sustainability could shepherd America out of neoliberalism, and into ecofriendly, intersectional, democratic socialism.
On Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez confirmed that her Green New Deal does, in fact, entail nothing less than social democracy with green characteristics. In a nonbinding resolution co-authored by Massachusetts senator Ed Markey — and co-sponsored by 60 Democrats in the House and nine in the Senate — Ocasio-Cortez establishes her climate policy’s official rationale, five of its defining goals, 12 specific projects, and 15 additional requirements for any piece of legislation that wishes to call itself a Green New Deal.
Among those minimum requirements: Any GND bill must provide “all members of society with high-quality health care, affordable, safe and adequate housing, economic security, and access to clean water, air, healthy and affordable food, and nature”; recognize “the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment”; ensure “a commercial environment where every business person, large and small, is free from unfair competition and domination by monopolies domestically or internationally.”
In other words: At a bare minimum, a worthwhile climate bill must extend affordable health insurance to upward of 30 million people, radically reform American labor law, and (ostensibly) break up Amazon, the major Wall Street banks, Monsanto, and any other megafirm that stymies market competition.
One can pick many reasonable bones with both this ideological maximalism, and various other aspects of the GND resolution. AOC’s climate plan includes calls for universal health care and vigorous antitrust enforcement, but few detailed proposals for increasing urban density, discouraging the construction of new car-centric infrastructure, or combating emissions growth overseas (via carbon tariffs or some other means) — tasks much more central to the objective of averting ecological apocalypse than, say, promoting small-business formation.
Separately, both the resolution — and the FAQs that Ocasio-Cortez’s office released to summarize it — (arguably) evince inordinate concern with placating the environmental ultraleft. The resolution includes no explicit call for a carbon tax, an ostensible concession to a marginal socialist faction that (incoherently) regards carbon pricing as not merely inadequate to the challenge posed by climate change, but inherently “neoliberal” or regressive. And the resolution also declines to call for any public investment in carbon-capture technology. This position would have made eminent sense 20 years ago, given the potential moral hazards and unintended consequences of building machines to suck carbon out of the air. But thanks to decades of monstrous inaction, humanity no longer has the luxury of leaving carbon capture out of its toolkit.
Also in its FAQs, Ocasio-Cortez’s office apologetically concedes that “we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes” within the next decade. This is intended as a wry bit of understatement, gently explaining to an imaginary leftist interlocutor why the Green New Deal merely demands a transition to 100 percent zero-emission energy sources within ten years, rather than 100 percent renewable ones. But disaffected “degrowthers” are not a potent force in American political life, and pose no practical threat to the passage of ambitious climate legislation. The Republican Party, by contrast is and does. And casually suggesting that the Democratic Party would ideally like to ban beef and airplanes by 2029 will do more to excite GOP ad makers than to pacify lefter-than-thou environmentalists.
All this said, to harp on these arguable flaws would be to miss the reforestation for the trees. The Green New Deal resolution might show undue deference to ultraleftists, but it still doesn’t defer to them much at all: The resolution does not call for decommissioning existing nuclear plants (as Bernie Sanders’s 2016 climate plan did), or insist on 100 percent reliance on renewable energy within a decade, or rule out expansions of hydroelectric power (as a coalition of environmental groups recently demanded in a letter to Congress). The Green New Deal doesn’t give an inch to the center’s hallucinatory conception of climate realism; it insists on the necessity of massive, state-directed investments in transforming our nation’s energy infrastructure. But it also evinces a pragmatic openness to reducing the carbon intensity of American energy use by (almost) all available means, renewable or otherwise.
More critically, the most legislatively unrealistic aspect of the GND — its inclusion of damn near every item on progressives’ policy wish list — is actually one of its most politically pragmatic features; so long as you take the Green New Deal seriously, but not literally.
One of the biggest obstacles to major congressional action on climate change has been that, while virtually every Democratic interest group sees climate change as a problem, relatively few see it as their top problem. The AFL-CIO wants Democrats to prioritize card-check and various other labor-law reforms. Health-care activists want the party to prioritize universal coverage. Immigrant-rights groups want relief for the undocumented; racial-justice advocates want housing desegregation, criminal justice reform, and new voting rights protections. Environmental groups exist, of course, and they’re better funded than many other progressive organizations. But they don’t command all that large an army. Climate remains a much more abstract concern for rank-and-file Democrats than wages or health-care costs. For this reason, climate took a backseat to the Affordable Care Act in 2009 — and had been largely ignored by the party’s 2020 candidates until AOC forced Green New Deal onto their agenda. (Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris had collectively put forward ambitious policies on health care, housing, criminal justice, the racial wealth gap, child care, wage stagnation, corporate governance reform, and legal ganja — but virtually nothing on the small issue of how to ensure that human civilization outlives Barron Trump.)
Given this reality, AOC’s decision to append a wide variety of progressive goals — each with its own influential constituency — to her climate plan is tactically sound: If the entire Democratic agenda is rebranded as the “Green New Deal,” a future Democratic government will be less likely to ignore the central importance of climate sustainability to all of its other policy goals; which is to say, a future Democratic government will be less likely to de-prioritize preventing ecological catastrophe.
In other words: If one understands the Green New Deal as a device for maximizing the prospects for congressional action on climate in the near term, then its ideological maximalism is actually pragmatic. And I think that this is how one should understand it. Ed Markey and AOC know that they are not co-emperors of the United States. They understand that whatever they demand will inevitably get filtered through House committees, Senate negotiations, Joe Manchin’s cerebral cortex, and emerge in radically altered form. And they surely know that said form will not be an omnibus bill that enacts single-payer health care, a jobs guarantee, public housing for all, and a comprehensive transformation of America’s energy, agricultural, and transit infrastructure.
As a mechanism for raising expectations for what qualifies as a progressive climate policy — and increasing the probability that Congress passes such a policy within the next decade — the Green New Deal is politically realistic. As a blueprint for a climate bill that is both legislatively viable, and commensurate with the scale of the ecological threat humanity faces, it is not.
But neither is anything else.
Last month, a bipartisan group of esteemed economists, including four former chairs of the Federal Reserve, unveiled the Establishment’s consensus answer to the riddle of climate change. The technocrats called on the U.S. to establish a carbon tax and dividend program in which the tax on carbon would “increase every year until emissions reductions goals are met.”
This was a laudable proposal in many respects. But it was hardly a realistic one: According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to meet the Paris Agreement’s emissions-reduction goals primarily through carbon taxes would require raising the price of carbon “20 times higher than current levels in Europe.” Carbon dividends notwithstanding, it seems safe to say that the U.S. Congress will not be passing a bill that makes filling up your car many times less affordable than it is for Europeans any time soon.
There is simply no way to mount a realistic response to climate change without changing political reality. And for now, the Green New Deal is the most realistic plan we’ve got for doing the latter.