AOC’s Green New Deal Starts Strong

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution channels the fire of the climate movement and popular support for truly bold environmental action. Only the Left is offering climate solutions that could actually work.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks during a news conference at the East Front of the U.S. Capitol February 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty Images

Since she took office in November, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said she’ll make a Green New Deal a priority. The GND quickly lifted off, scoring huge numbers in polls. It sounded good, but what did it mean?

This morning, AOC and Massachusetts senator Ed Markey released a much-anticipated proposed resolution outlining what they have in mind. It was a pleasant surprise: bolder and better than anything that’s ever been on the table.

The starkest evidence that AOC gets it like no one before, and that mass mobilization outside the Democratic Party is necessary to make it happen? Nancy Pelosi is already quoted in Politico (and happily echoed on Fox) smearing the effort: “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?”

In fact, the resolution says exactly what it is and what it’s for — it’s just that Pelosi doesn’t like it. She either doesn’t get — or care — that this is the first serious effort to safeguard a future for her beloved grandkids, who in 2008 swore her in as speaker.

At least Pelosi’s being honest. What of all the presidential aspirants announcing that they support the “idea” of a Green New Deal? Would they only support the “concept” of ending the Great Depression? All of the major presidential hopefuls have co-sponsored the resolution — it’s a good sign that they know which way the wind is blowing, but will they actually fight for it? Or will they use it as cover while settling for much less, as they’re already doing with health care?

Moderate Democrats will go on and on about pragmatism, when the only pragmatic approach to climate change is to formulate, fight for, and implement a political and economic program whose ambition matches the scale of the catastrophe that climate science tells us is coming — and has already started. You can’t generate clean power by holding sheafs of lobbyist-written carbon tax proposals up to the wind.

But if Pelosi’s stuck in the past, at least some other politicians, like Senator Markey, and the bill’s dozens of co-sponsors, are channeling the fire of the climate movement and the growing popular support for genuinely left-wing policies. We have no doubt that the recent working-class revolts led by striking teachers, racial justice organizers, indigenous peoples, women, and others have created the political conditions where only ambitious policy counts.

It’s amazing that just over a decade ago Markey was co-sponsoring the American Clean Energy and Security Act, better known as the Waxman-Markey bill. That bill — the closest we’ve gotten to actual climate policy in the United States — gave away free emissions permits to the energy industry, focused narrowly on using market tools to incentivize clean energy development, had only a paltry worker-training program, and was backed by the likes of Shell. It was the epitome of tepid Third Way climate policy — and it still didn’t get beyond the House.

But times have changed, and this vision couldn’t be more different. It describes the coming climate catastrophe in detail, from the exposure of 350 million people to increased heat stress to the loss of nearly all the world’s coral reefs. It calls for keeping temperature rise to 1.5º C — the standard endorsed by October’s IPCC report with its calls for linking climate and social ambition — and getting to net zero global emissions by 2050.

It acknowledges that the United States is responsible for a disproportionate amount of emissions, and calls for the United States to be a world leader in climate action rather than just the number one green tech producer. It hits the Green New Deal touchstones: meeting power demands with renewable and zero-emission energy by massively building out renewable energy capacity.

But it also explicitly connects those climate questions to economic ones that often don’t enter the conversation — decades of wage stagnation, lack of access to health care and clean water for millions, astonishing levels of inequality, the decimation of workers’ bargaining power. It calls for everyone to have access to good, high-wage jobs, clean air and water, healthy food, and nature. It calls for investing in a more sustainable farming system and affordable public transit. It endorses international exchange of technology and funding. It’s a genuinely transformative vision of the economy and the state’s role in it.

The Ocasio-Cortez-Markey resolution is the only proposal that’s come close to the scale of ambition we need to face scientific reality. It’s clear from latest IPCC report that our best shot of keeping warming near 1.5 C is to prioritize not only green technology development but feminist and egalitarian social policies and increasing global cooperation.

It will make some people nervous, for sure — including the many Democrats who have signaled support for the GND but likely had something tamer in mind. The Right, meanwhile, is already denouncing socialism at every turn. But their decades of red-baiting may finally be coming back to bite them with the GND. It’s clear that this is going to be denounced as socialist no matter what — so it might as well actually be pretty socialist. Donald Trump’s climate denying anti-socialism is the best propaganda a radical GND could possibly have.

Still, Trump won’t win us the GND all by himself. Nor will AOC. Actual legislation taking the kinds of action outlined in this resolution isn’t going to pass anytime soon. But that’s okay — it’s not meant to. It’s setting a bar for attempts to jump on the Green New Deal bandwagon — and it’s setting it high. It will make it harder for politicians to water it down. (In fact, the resolution looks a lot like a platform for candidates in 2020.)

It’s an impressive outline that we should debate, clarify, flesh out, press politicians on. This plan looks more like eco-socialism than the morbid capitalism we know so well. But whatever you want to call it, this much is clear: achieving any of its aims will require putting massive pressure on our allies, striking fear into our enemies, and building the mass power to shut down business as usual.

Fortunately, the resolution also suggests where that power might come from. It points out that climate change, pollution, and other environmental harms have been dumped on “indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.” That’s a lot of people — it sounds like a pretty good start to a new left-wing coalition.

Fight to the Death

Speaking of our enemies: the resolution’s soft spot is its failure to take a truly hard line on fossil fuel companies. Leaving them out of it may be politically necessary for another year or two. But as Kate Aronoff argues, fossil executives should be arraigned at the Hague for crimes against humanity. The Koch Brothers don’t give a shit what is and isn’t in this resolution. The fossil fuel industry is unbelievably rich and it will fight to the death to survive.

The resolution also understandably glosses over tensions and issues that may seem technocratic but are writhing with politics. The issue of infrastructure build-out is emblematic: at present, there are nearly two hundred anti-wind groups in the United States, and countless campaigns — many successful — to stop the construction of new high-voltage transmission lines. But we’ll need to build countless new wind farms and roughly double the length of current power lines to sustain an almost all-renewables grid.

Most of the opposition is in Trump country. Either we crumble in the NIMBY trenches, or finally organize rural workers and communities around new infrastructure models which are genuinely democratic and win broad support.

There are many more questions that a resolution can’t be expected to answer, but that we’ll have to. How should public financial institutions actually be set up, and how will workers, movements, and communities truly help steer public investment? How will we ensure that “clean technology” is actually clean — that California’s solar panels don’t leak toxins into the rivers that flow past the factories they’re built in, and don’t end their thirty-year lives in toxic waste heaps in Ghanaian slums? Greening foreign aid, as the resolution calls for, is necessary — but so are pro-labor and green fair-trade agreements with countries like Bolivia, where the lithium for huge rechargeable batteries will be mined.

Other clearly political issues get short shrift. Housing is just a bullet point in the resolution—yet 17 percent of American tenant households pay over half their income in rent; meanwhile buildings consume nearly 40 percent of the country’s energy. A housing guarantee should be the center of a GND alongside a job guarantee. Similarly, indigenous issues are reduced to granting tribes veto power over projects that could harm them. That’s a good start, but a GND has so much more to offer. Our GND series will dig into these and related issues, connecting the politics to the policies.

Nothing Less

The resolution is framed as a ten-year plan. But the original New Deal wasn’t built — or imagined — in a decade, never mind a day. The New Deal wasn’t a congressional resolution. It was a broad suite of policies imposed by militant social movements and some leftist politicians and operatives, and others who had no choice but to go along. A Green New Deal can do even better — not just through law-making and campaigning, but by utterly transforming the country’s politics and economy for decades.

Radical change is a bumpy road. In 1932, FDR campaigned on a fiscally conservative platform, even promising to cut government spending by 25 percent. A combination of pressures from within the administration and below, especially an upsurge of union militancy and a populist national campaign demanding social insurance, forced FDR’s hand. Under pressure, the New Deal lay the foundations for the postwar American welfare state and rolled out the provision of government-led and cooperatively managed electric power to new swathes of the country.

The Green New Deal vision laid out by AOC and her allies is an extraordinary start. It isn’t just tacking a social justice program onto a clean energy program — it understands that the declining power of workers, astronomical inequality, enduring patriarchy and white supremacy, and looming climate chaos are all part of the same system. Unlike condescending climate “champions” like billionaire Michael Bloomberg, it sees people not as an obstacle to climate action, but as the engine of a just and democratic transition. While the original New Deal compromised on racial and gender inequalities, this GND proposal puts their eradication at its very core — making possible a coalition of today’s multiracial working class that can go beyond the New Deal’s limitations.

The world’s best climate scientists view 2020-2030 is a crucial decade, one where “Herculean efforts” will be required to further warming to a bare minimum. We’re already way behind schedule. We need to move.

In a very best-case scenario, it will take at least a decade to eradicate carbon from the economy. It will take decades more to suck carbon out of the sky, most likely through a combination of reforestation and intelligent, socially just agriculture. Meanwhile, the extreme weather that’s already locked-in will be hammering us all over the world. It won’t be easy.

The new stage of climate denialism won’t deny that climate change is happening, but will deny the urgency of acting too hastily, or too ambitiously. The elites who squandered their chance at a smoother, more gradual plan of action will scream that we must slow down. Nancy Pelosi is leading that chorus.

But it’s too late for moderation. Being serious about climate means being serious about making this “green dream” into reality.