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The Energy 202: Ocasio-Cortez, Markey unveil Green New Deal with backing of four presidential candidates

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By Dino Grandoni and Jeff Stein

An ambitious platform seeking to combat climate change is being championed by progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.). (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

For months, the term Green New Deal has been bandied about by Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail for president as their catchall phrase for a sweeping effort to halt runaway climate change.

On Thursday, the slogan got some meat on its bones as Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) prepared to introduce a framework outlining the goals of a sweeping climate pact going forward — and stop other Democrats from defining the Green New Deal however they wanted.

Their measure already has the backing of four Democratic senators who have launched bids for the 2020 presidential nomination. But it is already being lampooned by Republicans — though embraced by progressives — for its broad aims on things unrelated to climate, including increased access to housing, health care and education for lower-income communities.

“This is really about providing justice for communities and just transitions for communities,” Ocasio-Cortez told NPR in an interview Thursday morning. “So really the heart of the Green New Deal is about social justice.”

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey form a notable pairing: The former leveraged her political stardom to galvanize progressives around a demand for a comprehensive climate plan while the latter brings gravitas to the proposal as one of the original sponsors of Barack Obama's ultimately unsuccessful cap-and-trade plan

The proposal is a nonbinding resolution, but its aims are ambitious. The Democratic resolution calls for the United States to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within ten years by “dramatically expanding and upgrading renewable power sources.” It stands as a stark counterpoint to the Trump administration's downplaying of the scientific consensus behind climate change, as it has rolled back rules designed to contain global warming and withdrawn from the Paris climate accord aimed at reducing global pollution.

The five-page resolution is not confined to climate change, however. It promotes a plethora of progressive ideals — like housing, health care, education, unions and indigenous rights, which are only indirectly related to Democratic climate desires.

“The resolution is clear: We need to move to renewable energy as fast as possible,” said Stephen O'Hanlon, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement that has agitated for such a strategy.

That youth climate advocacy organization brought the idea of a Green New Deal to the fore in Washington by staging sit-in protests in the offices of a number of high-ranking Democrats, including then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Sunrise, which endorsed Ocasio-Cortez before her victory over then-Rep. Joe Crowley (D) in the New York primary last summer, worked with both the congresswoman's and Markey's offices to craft the resolution.

“If we’re moving to 100 percent clean and renewable energy in 10 years,” O'Hanlon added, “there won’t be the incentive to build new coal or fossil fuel infrastructure.”

At least four Senate Democrats currently running for president — Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — will co-sponsor the plan, spokespeople for the senators confirmed.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is considering another run for president, is also backing the plan. All five senators had previously endorsed the concept of the Green New Deal. 

In total, nine senators and 60 House members are on board, according to Markey's office. The supporters include Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders Mark Pocan (Wis.) and Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), as well as Ocasio-Cortez allies Ro Khanna (Calif.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), and Joe Neguse (Colo.).

Markey and Ocasio-Cortez are expected to formally introduce their resolution on Thursday afternoon with “dozens” of supporters among congressional Democrats, according to a source with knowledge of the rollout who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Their proposal stipulates that any infrastructure deal struck with President Trump and other Republicans must address climate change, such as by building resilience to extreme weather events. It gives progressives something many of them have been itching for: The promise of a guaranteed high-paying job for every American. Among its demands are new trade rules to “stop the transfer of jobs and pollution overseas.”

The proposal also calls for a sweeping overhaul of the transportation sector “as much as is technologically possible,” with investments in zero-emissions vehicles along with high-speed rail and other public transit.

“We have something very ambitious in mind, something akin to what we undertook in the Second World War,” said Robert Hockett, a professor at Cornell University who provided input on the plan. “It gives us a document around which to galvanize planning and action, and gives political figures running for office something they can sign onto or repudiate. There won’t be room anymore for just supporting 'the concept.' ”

But one crucial thing the proposal does not spell out: How the federal government is expected to pay for or achieve these broad aims.

The Green New Deal would be paid for “the same way we paid for the original New Deal, World War II, the bank bailouts, tax cuts for the rich and decades of war — with public money appropriated by Congress,” Ocasio-Cortez said, according to the Associated Press.

That gave Republicans on Capitol Hill an opening to attack the plan as an ill-conceived wishlist — even before it was formally unveiled.

“Wealth transfer schemes suggested in the radical policies like the Green New Deal may not be the best path to community prosperity,” said Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on climate change and other environmental issues.

That House panel was one of two — along with the Natural Resources Committee — to hold hearings on climate change on Wednesday.

After two years out of power in Congress and the White House, Democrat are sending a message that the planet's warming will finally once again be a priority in Washington by scheduling that pair of hearings as among the first held in the new Congress.

“Today we turn the page on this committee from climate change denial to climate action,” Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz) said.

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s proposal does not include an outright ban on fossil fuels, which some close to the bill see as a concession to moderates and labor groups. Some environmental activists defended that decision, saying the investments in green energy would make the ban unnecessary.

"There's some bold and visionary pieces in the Green New Deal resolution," said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, a climate advocacy group. "But the failure to mention and explicitly state that we have to end the era of fossil fuels is just a huge missed opportunity to be real about where we are and where we need to go."

The plan also does not explicitly exclude some major forms of low-emissions electricity — mainly, nuclear energy and hydropower — as some observers worried it would.

While environmentalists have previously protested both forms of power over concerns like the risk of meltdown or the fragmentation of river habitat, climate analysts — including those with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — say both are necessary today to reduce emissions enough to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

An IPCC report in October describing how the world has just over a decade to hold global warming to moderate levels proved to be a big motivating factor in the recent wave of climate activism. Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s resolution cites those findings.


— The toll extreme weather takes: Last year’s disastrous series of hurricanes, wildfires and extreme weather events killed at least 247 people and cost the nation about $91 billion. Of the 14 separate events noted in the data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, $73 billion of the damage was attributed to Hurricanes Michael and Florence and the spate of wildfires in the West, The Post’s Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney report. While 2018 did not eclipse the $306 billion in damage caused by devastating natural catastrophes in 2017, “the most recent numbers continue what some experts call an alarming trend toward an increasing number of billion-dollar disasters, fueled, at least in part, by the warming climate.”

Put in perspective: “Since 1980, the United States has experienced 241 weather and climate disasters where the overall damage reached or exceeded $1 billion, when adjusted for inflation,” Dennis and Mooney write. “Between 1980 and 2013, according to NOAA, the nation averaged roughly half a dozen such disasters a year. Over the most recent five years, that number has jumped to more than 12.” Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring branch at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, told reporters the nation had “about twice the number of billion dollar disasters than we have in an average year over the last 40 years or so.”

Man, it’s a hot one: To boot, NASA and NOAA scientists made a separate announcement Wednesday that the Earth’s average surface temperature last year was officially the fourth highest in nearly 140 years of data. The past four years have been the warmest on record, according to the data, and nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2005. And in most or all of those years, the temperature on Earth was at least 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above the average 19th century temperature. Gavin Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, said it was “quite clearly the fourth-warmest year in our record, which goes back to 1880, and probably was warmer than many hundreds of years before that.”

— Earth is looking a lot like it did during an ancient warming period: The planet is paralleling some of the conditions from the most recent major warm period 115,000 years ago. One clue for researchers was the discovery of ancient plants that emerged from retreating mountain glaciers in northeastern Canada, The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. The plants they found were “very old indeed, and had probably last grown in these spots some 115,000 years ago,” he writes. “That’s the last time the areas were actually not covered by ice, the scientists believe.”

But there’s a major (and troubling) discrepancy between current and ancient conditions: Sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher back then. “Scientists are now intensely debating precisely which processes could have played out then — and how soon they’ll play out again. After all, West Antarctica has already been shown, once again, to be beginning a retreat.”


— Senate Democrat trolls Chamber of Commerce: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) entered a tongue-in-cheek submission in a $25,000-prize contest being held by the business lobbying group for the "best, most viable ideas for a long-term sustainable funding source for infrastructure." The liberal senator recommended eliminating fossil-fuel subsidies and placing a price on carbon. "One would expect a business organization whose members can’t grow or thrive in the absence of an expanding economy or reliable infrastructure to be on the front lines of this fight," he wrote. "Unfortunately... the U.S. Chamber of Commerce [has] not supported climate action."

Not the first time he has taken aim at the chamber: Whitehouse recently challenged claims made by the trade group in support of the oil industry in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in a lawsuit between four California local governments and major oil companies.

— Park Service won’t use visitor fees for park operations: The National Park Service has reportedly decided to use congressionally appropriated funds to pay for maintenance and staffing during the partial government shutdown, reversing an earlier move to use park visitor entrance fees, the Hill reports, citing an internal Park Service memo. “We have confirmed with the [White House] Office of Management and Budget that the NPS can move obligations made during the appropriations lapse from the FLREA fee account and apply those obligations to the National Park Service annual operating account,” NPS deputy director Dan Smith said in the memo, per the report.

Meanwhile: Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Park Service, called for an investigation of the Trump administration’s initial move to use entrance fees. “It is evident that NPS and DOI allowed national parks sites to remain open without adequate staff and services to protect the parks and their visitors,” she wrote in a letter to the Government Accountability Office.

During a hearing Wednesday, McCollum said she’s “more than convinced, sadly, that the administration has ignored the law and the policies that the agencies have had in place for years to protect our citizens and our public lands,” per the Hill.

— Schumer recommends FERC replacement: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has recommended energy lawyer Allison Clements to replace Cheryl LaFleur on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, E&E News reports. LaFleur announced last week that she would not seek a third term and plans to stay on the commission until her term expires on June 30. “Clements, currently the director of clean energy markets at the Energy Foundation, has a long history of providing clarity to clean energy groups and the public on complicated policies and rulemakings at FERC,” per the report. In a memo, Capital Alpha suggested Clements could succeed FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee if a Democratic president takes the White House in 2020. Though it is tradition for the president to defer to Senate leaders on picks for the commission, Trump is not required to accept Schumer’s recommendation.



  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the status and outlook of energy innovation.

— A mammoth snow pile on the Golden State: More than 10 feet of snow clobbered California's mountains over the past week, The Post's Ian Livingston writes, and even brought snow to nearby coastal regions.