The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: How the hamburger became the GOP's rallying cry against the Green New Deal

with Paulina Firozi


Dozens of Democrats are demanding all sectors of the U.S. economy drive down greenhouse gas emissions with their Green New Deal resolution.

The nearly overwhelming response so far from Republicans in Congress: Where's the beef? 

Republicans are insisting that their Democratic colleagues want to take away that American classic -- the hamburger -- as part of their resolution to prepare for the effects of climate change. 

Whether on Capitol Hill, on social media, or at political conferences, Republicans have made meat a central part of their messaging against the resolution introduced last month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). 

Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, held up a hamburger during a news conference Wednesday railing against the Green New Deal. "If this goes through," Bishop said before taking a bite, "this will be outlawed.”

And Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who chairs of the powerful Freedom Caucus, joked Thursday during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland that “Chick-fil-A stock will go way up” because Democrats are "trying to get rid of all the cows."

Freshman Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee warned in an op-ed in Nashville's daily newspaper, the Tennessean, that if “the Green New Dealers have their way, cows would be effectively banned.”

Her GOP colleague, John Barrasso of Wyoming, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, similarly went to the stake for cattlemen in his state during a speech last month on the floor of the Senate.“Say goodbye to dairy, to beef, to family farms, to ranches,” the senator said.

 “American favorites like cheeseburgers and milkshakes would become a thing of the past. Millions of American workers will lose their jobs.”

And of course, there is President Trump, who claimed on Twitter that the Green New Deal would “permanently eliminate” cows.

The Green New Deal's supporters have pointed out that there is no meat on the bone to that criticism: The resolution itself does not mention beef, burgers or anything similar. 

The rhetoric is among the latest instances of those on the political right fixating on Ocasio-Cortez as they search for a winning message in 2020 by casting the Green New Deal as a socialist fantasy. Every Democratic senator running for president has so far supported the freshman representative's climate resolution. 

Republicans are latching onto a comment made by Ocasio-Cortez during an interview on Showtime’s “Desus & Mero” last week, which during which she explained that she wants to “address factory farming.”

“It’s not to say you get rid of agriculture,” she said. “It’s not to say we’re going to force everybody to go vegan or anything crazy like that. But it’s to say, listen, we’ve got to address factory farming. Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Democrats say the they're-taking-away-your-hamburgers argument is a stretch. 

“This whole 'Chicken Little' approach, I don't think it's going to work,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who co-sponsored the Green New Deal and leads the Natural Resources panel, said of the GOP talking point. “The sky is not falling. There is serious legislation to be put together here that is going to require some balance.”

Right now, the Green New Deal is just a nonbinding resolution — not a bill that would have legal teeth if passed — that sets out a series of goals for the United States so that the nation can achieve “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The resolution's aim for the electricity sector, for example, is relatively clear even if it would be very hard to achieve: Get 100 percent of the nation's power from “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” within a decade. For agriculture, the goal is a little vaguer: Work with farmers to drive down emissions from farms “as much as is technologically feasible.” 

To win broad support among Democrats, the Green New Deal resolution was designed to not explicitly ban anything in particular — whether it be burgers, ice cream, airplanes or even coal. 

“I'm surprised that Republicans have left out apple pie,” Robert Hockett, a Cornell University professor who was as an outside adviser to Ocasio-Cortez on the resolution, wrote by email. “What it does do is to lay out goals to make alternatives to carbon-based energy so affordable that they simply out-compete carbon and thereby become more attractive to consumers than carbon. "

Yet Republicans are still pointing to an erroneous fact sheet published — but later withdrawn — by Ocasio-Cortez's office that tried to make a subtle point about the difference between bringing emissions of climate-warming gases down to zero from all sources and bringing the overall net emissions down to zero.

“We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast,” it read.

Even after Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats disavowed that document, the “farting cows” line took on a life of its own among conservatives such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who tried turning it into a punchline. 

In reality, agriculture does account for a significant portion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — about 9 percent in 2016, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And while much of those climate-warming emissions do come from gassy cattle, both Republicans and Democrats are focusing on the wrong end of the animal.

Most of those emissions come not from cows' flatulence, but from their burps.

Correction: The original version of this story stated Marsha Blackburn represents Missouri in the Senate. She is from Tennessee.


— Officially official: The Senate confirmed Andrew Wheeler in a 52-to-47 vote to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was the only Republican to vote against Wheeler, in the confirmation vote that had the most recorded “no” votes of any EPA chief in history, according to E&E News.

Wheeler, who had been acting head of the agency since former EPA chief Scott Pruitt stepped down in July, has been praised by Republicans for his deregulatory agenda. Though Democrats “initially viewed Wheeler as a pragmatic technocrat with whom they could forge a handful of policy compromises, they expressed disappointment over key decisions he has made at the agency,” The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin write. They add Democrats used the Thursday vote as a chance to call for climate action, “with more than half-a-dozen senators speaking to a nearly empty chamber about why the federal government should press for steeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.”

— Trump’s fight over climate is escalating: Even as some in his own party are moving toward the center on the issue, the president continues to push against climate science. He views the climate debate as a mostly political messaging war, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Toluse Olorunnipa report in this extensive piece. “For a president who has yet to receive an extensive scientific briefing on climate change, the topic amounts to a political litmus test ahead of the 2020 elections,” they write, adding Trump has already started targeting potential presidential opponents. “Rather than accept the conclusions espoused by elites and loathed by many of his voters, Trump has opted to question the premise that global warming represents a major problem or, at times, if it even exists at all.” Trump has frequently said he believes the climate will begin cooling again, insisting there’s no reason to act.

“He knows his voters see it as bunk”: Even those in his administration who have tried to convince the president on the issue have come up short. “Gary, my voters don’t live on Park Avenue,” Trump told then-National Economic Council director Gary Cohn during a discussion before Trump announced he would exit the Paris accord, Juliet and Toluse report. “They don’t care about the same things you care about.”

— Ethics watchdog and Democratic senators call for probe of Interior chief's work on water policy: The group Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint calling on the Interior Department’s internal watchdog to probe David Bernhardt’s work, claiming he violated federal ethics rules because he previously lobbied for a client that could benefit from the policy changes. The complaint came on the same day Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called on Interior’s inspector general to look into the issue, The Post’s Eilperin reports.

What's the issue? The calls center on “Bernhardt’s role in Interior’s push to conduct an environmental analysis of proposed changes to federal and state water projects in California, a move that could free up more water for his former client, Westlands Water District,” Eilperin writes. “Bernhardt, whom President Trump has tapped to serve as his next Interior secretary, represented the water district at the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck before joining the administration a year and-a-half ago.” For his part, Bernhardt says he cleared his involvement with an Interior ethics official.

— 2020 watch: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has officially added his name to the list of Democrats running for president, declaring in an announcement video that he would be “the only candidate who will make defeating climate change our nation’s number one priority.” Inslee, 68, is the first governor to join the Democratic contenders and has the longest political resume of any in the race so far, The Post’s David Weigel and Chelsea Janes report.

— Six Republicans join the House select climate committee: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) named six GOP members, mostly from energy-producing states, to the fact-finding panel on climate change. Ths slate includes Reps. Garret Graves (La.), Morgan Griffith (Va.), Buddy Carter (Ga.), Gary Palmer (Ala.), Carol Miller (W.Va.) and Kelly Armstrong (N.D.), with Graves serving as the panel’s ranking member.

— “Everyone out here is not being paid”: A major government rebuilding program that’s meant to help the U.S. Virgin Islands recover from back-to-back hurricanes has been thrown into disarray. “The dispute over the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Program (STEP), a joint effort by the territorial government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair about 8,000 houses, has been dragging on for months but is now veering into a nasty legal showdown over who is responsible for paying the bills,” The Post’s Tim Craig reports. The subcontractors doing the repaid work say that AECOM, the contractor in charge of the project, owes them millions. AECOM says it’s waiting for the Virgin Islands government to pay its own unpaid bills, and the territory’s government says it’s waiting for FEMA to approve spending. Three major contractors have sent a letter to the federal government saying they are owned more than $60 million for completed work, saying some unpaid invoices are nearly a year old.


— PG&E’s wildfire woes: The company said its equipment probably caused the Camp Fire, the devastating California fire that claimed at least 86 lives and was the deadliest in the state’s history. The company said it “believes it is probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp Fire,” the Wall Street Journal reports, despite the fact that state officials are still investigating the cause of the fire. “PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy protection in January, said it had recorded a $10.5 billion charge in anticipation of damage claims for that fire,” per the report.

— The road ahead for Tesla: The automaker’s long-anticipated $35,000 electric sedan is now available. But to achieve the promised price tag, the company also announced it would close many of its stores across the country, lay off an undisclosed number of employees, and move to online car sales, The Post’s Drew Harwell reports. “The change will fulfill a pledge long regarded as dubious for the Model 3, America’s best-selling electric car, which was first introduced with a $35,000 price tag in 2016 but has been sold since then only at higher prices due to what Musk has called a ‘hellish’ series of financial struggles and manufacturing delays,” Harwell writes. “The cost-cutting and mass layoffs, however, show how the company has not fully moved past the financial doubts that have dogged its early years.”


— Pescatarians, beware: As the ocean warms because of human-caused climate change, populations of fish that are a major source of food are declining, according to the New York Times. New research appearing in the journal Science found the amount of fish that could be harvested sustainably by humans decreased 4.1 percent between 1930 and 2010, amounting to 1.4 million metric tons of fish.“Scientists have warned that global warming will put pressure on the world’s food supplies in coming decades,” per the report. “But the new findings — which separate the effects of warming waters from other factors, like overfishing — suggest that climate change is already having a serious impact on seafood.”  



  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on highlights of the IEA's World Energy Outlook 2018.

Coming Up

  • Politico hosts an event on environmental sustainability on March 5.  

— “I glanced up and saw the funnel cloud”: Perhaps the first ever documented “snow tornado” in the United States spun up in New Mexico last week, The Post’s Matthew Cappucci reports.

Video captured a tornado touching down in the Tinian, N.M., while winter weather hit the region on Feb. 17. (Video: Antonio Chiquito/Facebook)