The Green New Deal Is the Only Realistic Option

Liberals and conservatives alike love to decry AOC's Green New Deal as "unrealistic." But what's really unrealistic is continuing on the path of denial and incrementalism we're on now.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks as Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) (R) listens during a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol February 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty Images

What’s scarier: an impending apocalypse, or the attempt to stop it? Before you answer that question, let’s have a look at some recent headlines.

A new study just released has found that global insect numbers are in free fall, with more than a third of insect species endangered, with the current course leading to the extinction of all insects by the end of the century, all of which would lead to the collapse of the natural world that we rely on to eat, drink, and live. The cause of this mass extinction is both climate change and the industrial agricultural practices that help drive it, including the use of fertilizers.

Another recent study has found that a third of the Himalayan ice cap, on which more than a billion people rely for water, is guaranteed to melt by the end of the century. This will contribute to the displacement and starvation of untold numbers of people.

Meanwhile, in Russia, a small town in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago has been invaded by more than fifty polar bears, displaced from their natural habitats. The town declared a state of emergency, put fences up around children’s playgrounds, and started driving workers to their jobs in military vehicles.

And just this month, the left-wing think tank IPRR released a report warning that the human impact on the environment has reached a “critical stage,” and that the current rapid environmental breakdown threatens to interact with our ongoing social and political crises to create a new “domain of risk” that could lead to “the collapse of key social and economic systems” around the world.

Pretty grim stuff. But the point here isn’t to fall into self-defeating hopelessness; rather, this should steel our collective resolve to enact the kinds of radical measures needed to mitigate and, hopefully, halt this crisis.

Yet it’s not this litany of alarming studies and developments that have some liberals and centrists terrified. Rather, since the unveiling of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey’s Green New Deal resolution, they’ve been more worried about the potential solution.

Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), accused the lawmakers of “attaching a laundry list of laudable proposals” to “the sails of fantasy,” and called the resolution an “unrealistic manifesto.” He warned that it “threatens to destroy workers’ livelihoods, increase divisions and inequality, and undermine the very goals it seeks to reach,” concluding that “it is a bad deal.” (The pro-fossil fuel LIUNA, like a number of other unions, fears the job losses that could come as a result of the Green New Deal, despite the fact that the resolution features a federal job guarantee and universal basic income for that very reason).

Preeminent liberal columnist Jonathan Chait echoed these words, calling it a “bad idea” filled with “empty sloganeering,” and chiding the lawmakers for putting in “unrelated proposals” for free college and a job guarantee. Chait argues that the resolution was simply thought up by “people who believe capitalism is the root of all problems,” and urges the Democrats to “com[e] up with some better climate change plans, fast.” Chait’s solution is to “look at building on and scaling up Obama’s successful green reforms,” a solution that falls far short of what scientists say needs to be done.

Slate‘s Mike Pesca was similarly scathing, calling Ocasio-Cortez, and by extension her policy, an example of “Trumpian, big swing, mega-MAGA hashtag, nonconstrained by literalism, post–reality-to-accuracy politics age.” He points to experts who point to 2050 as a more feasible target for getting to 100 percent renewable energy, and makes clear that his opposition is based on the fact that “having impossible goals might dissuade the public and discredit those proposing them.” He claims that FDR’s New Deal was never deemed “unrealistic” by experts.

This follows a legion of fact-checkers, politicians, and others who jumped on the proposal to declare it unrealistic and impossible from the get-go. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who invests in fossil fuels, declared he was “tired of listening to things that are pie in the sky, that we never are going to pass, are never going to afford.” Obama’s former energy secretary Ernest Moniz — the man behind Obama’s disastrous “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, and who is now a proud member of the board of Southern Company, one of the country’s largest carbon emitters — called it “unrealistic” and charged it “may impede our progress if it starts to leave behind key constituencies.” And everyone at this point remembers Nancy Pelosi derisively referring to it as the “green dream.”

With liberals like these, who needs the Right?

Here’s the thing: the resolution worked. Leave aside its fumbled rollout and the fact that the Right is now dishonestly peddling fear-mongering claims that the plan would abolish air travel and cows; the US right, which serves as the political arm of polluters and other moneyed interests that prefer to let humanity go extinct than curb their profit-hoarding, was always going to turn any attempt to deal with climate change into the latest culture war, regardless of the plan’s actual substance.

The Green New Deal resolution was an opening gambit, intended both to kickstart a debate about curbing ecological collapse, one that our entire society was avoiding, and to create an expansive, ambitious starting vision that would finally force specifics on the issue into the political discourse. Some individuals at least understood this.

And that’s exactly what it did: its release was immediately followed by a flood of columns about the resolution, evaluating its merits, discussing where it falls short, how it can be improved, and what areas future legislation will need to focus on. It’s sparked constructive criticism from the Left, taking issue with its pragmatic refusal to insist on keeping fossil fuels in the ground and continuing reliance on nuclear power, and from the Right, with Bloomberg’s Noah Smith injecting an international dimension to his own vision of the Green New Deal and grudgingly accepting that some social democratic policies were necessary to help it succeed politically.

Meanwhile, it’s instructive to look at what industry shills are writing. In the Hill, Merrill Matthews of the Institute for Policy Innovation — part of the Koch-backed right-wing State Policy Network, which is associated with the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council and has been funded by Exxon Mobil in the past — calls the 2030 target “an impossible goal” before outlining in strict policy terms his reasons for thinking so. “It will take decades to reach a 100 percent renewable electricity generation, if we ever do,” he concludes.

It should be little surprise that even the mouthpieces of the Kochs are sounding indistinguishable from the liberal voices highlighted above. Outright climate denialism in the style of Trump is now increasingly gauche, not to mention untenable. After using it to run out the clock for decades, denialists have become the sober and serious realists who say it’s unfortunately now too late to deal with the crisis properly. Prominent liberal voices who wring their hands about the resolution’s ambition should ask themselves if this is really who they want to sound like.

The fact is that Ocasio-Cortez’s and Markey’s Green New Deal follows closely in the footsteps of FDR. Roosevelt’s New Deal was far vaguer than this resolution when he campaigned for the presidency in 1932, though he did call for “bold persistent experimentation” to get the United States out of the Depression, as well as “a larger measure of social planning.”

True to form, his New Deal was a hodgepodge of disparate, sometimes contradictory and self-defeating, programs, of which the greatest and most lasting accomplishments — establishing Social Security, empowering unions with the Wagner Act, creating the minimum wage — had nothing directly to do with solving the immediate crisis at hand. Sound familiar?

Roosevelt’s program, too, had its detractors. One of his Republican opponents, Walter Edge, called it “economically unsound and financially impossible of perpetuation.” Industrialist and world-class antisemite Henry Ford derided Roosevelt for making “impossible promises” to workers. The US Chamber of Commerce, while pledging to fight every facet of the New Deal not directly related to economic recovery, labeled the various existing and proposed programs of the New Deal (then only two years old) “bungling,” “futile,” and “extreme.” The liberals who claim Roosevelt’s legacy while deriding the Green New Deal should be aware their arguments have a long, conservative pedigree.

Is the Green New Deal overly ambitious? Maybe so. But given that it’s addressing a crisis in which every year we fall short of the scientific timetable means displacement and death for millions, that is hardly a sin. Prominent liberals who find the resolution distasteful should be honest and admit that — incubated through decades of neoliberal consensus — they simply don’t like the idea of any expansive government action (unless, of course, it’s to destroy a Middle Eastern country). But they should also be honest about the gross human and environmental cost of their meek acceptance of right-wing supremacy and rigid faith in incrementalism.

If the Green New Deal really is “unrealistic,” then it’s a vision fit for its time. What is more unrealistic than the decades we’ve spent treating the natural world on which our lives depend as a bottomless garbage dump? Or the way we’ve siloed the issue of the environment, on which our entire economic system rests, from issues of economy and society? Is it more unrealistic than the idea, widely accepted for years by sober, serious experts, that we can base our entire economic system on digging up and consuming more and more of the Earth’s finite resources forever?

For as long as I, and probably most anyone else reading this, can remember, we’ve been living in a haze of denial, fully aware of the crisis we were heading towards but unwilling to change course. Now, at the eleventh hour, Ocasio-Cortez’s and Markey’s Green New Deal has finally forced us to start confronting it. If your greatest fear at this point is that the Green New Deal is too ambitious, you’re not just on the wrong side of history; you’re on the wrong side of humanity.