Eighty years after U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created a raft of public-works programs to address the Great Depression, some present-day members of his political party say measures no less grand in scope are needed to address the existential threat of global warming. A band of self-described progressives in the Democratic Party, energized by the party’s successes in the 2018 congressional elections and aching to unseat Republican President Donald Trump in 2020, have put forth a wish list of government initiatives they’ve packaged as the “Green New Deal.” It’s long on ambition but short on details.
1. What is the Green New Deal?
It’s a term that’s been kicked around for more than a decade among advocates of a concerted government effort to turn environmentalism into an economic engine. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in a 2007 column, called for “a Green New Deal — one in which government’s role is not funding projects, as in the original New Deal, but seeding basic research, providing loan guarantees where needed and setting standards, taxes and incentives” to promote clean sources of energy. Democrats led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey adopted the name for their legislative initiative to shift the U.S. away from fossil fuels and other sources of the emissions that cause global warming.
2. What would it do?
The group’s manifesto, in the form of a non-binding resolution offered in both chambers of the U.S. Congress, calls for a “10-year national mobilization” to shift the nation to 100% “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” — a high bar, given that fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas and coal) accounted for 80% of U.S. energy consumption in 2018. Weaving together what had been a hodgepodge of progressive proposals and aspirations, the plan calls for upgrading “all existing buildings” for maximum energy efficiency and removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions “as much as is technologically feasible” from manufacturing, agriculture and transportation. For good measure, the program calls for steps to expand educational opportunities, increase “high-quality union jobs” and provide health care and housing for all Americans -- a progressive wish list not directly connected to renewable energy.
3. How would the plan accomplish all that?
That was left largely unaddressed in the resolution offered in Congress. Green New Deal proponents said their immediate goal was to inject a greater sense of urgency and ambition into discussions about the world’s climate. Until now, efforts to combat climate change typically have been market-based, such as assessing a tax on carbon emissions.
4. How much would the Green New Deal cost?
That’s another question left unanswered by proponents. Michael Liebreich, a senior contributor at BloombergNEF, estimates that a transformation of this scale might require $1 trillion a year for 10 years in capital spending, not counting funding for affordable housing, education and the like. Congressional advocates of the Green New Deal tend to be supporters of Modern Monetary Theory, which holds that the U.S. can safely run much bigger deficits when, as now, there’s little inflation in the economy.
5. What’s been the reception?
Mixed, and passionately so. Former Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat and early champion of action to address global warming, praised the document as “the beginning of a crucial dialogue.” But Ernest Moniz, who was U.S. energy secretary under Democratic President Barack Obama called the plan “impracticable” and “unrealizable.” The Economist called it “a deeply unserious proposal.” Trump mocked the plan as seeking “to permanently eliminate all planes, cars, cows, oil, gas & the military.” Yet the plan may have succeeded in shifting the politics of climate change. After its release, a number of Republicans began preparing responses of their own to global warming.
6. How much support does it have?
About two-fifths of Democrats in Congress signed on as co-sponsors of the resolution, including several who are seeking the party’s nomination to challenge Trump. But it received a lukewarm response from more moderate Democrats, along with strong opposition from Republicans and industry leaders who say it’s technologically impossible and would cost tens of trillions of dollars. Some Republicans think their party will benefit politically from any such hard turn to the left on climate issues by the Democratic Party as a whole. “It’s a socialist manifesto that lays out a laundry list of government giveaways, including guaranteed food, housing, college, and economic security even for those who refuse to work,” said Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming.
7. What are its chances?
Broad legislation based on the Green New Deal would certainly never pass in today’s Senate, where Republicans hold a majority (and have a leader, Mitch McConnell, from a coal state, Kentucky), or be signed into law by Trump. McConnell already tried scoring a political point by forcing a procedural Senate vote on the Green New Deal resolution; all Republicans and a handful of Democrats voted it down, while 43 other Democrats merely voted“present” as a protest. Backers are looking further down the road. “We ought to have strong legislation on climate change ready to go so when we have the right president they can sign it,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat.
--With assistance from Jennifer A. Dlouhy.
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