As the Senate is expected to vote today to scuttle the much-hyped Green New Deal that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has championed, other elected officials from both sides of the aisle are teeing up their own climate plans.
One Republican senator, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, is calling for a “new Manhattan Project for clean energy.” Another Democratic representative, Paul Tonko of New York, is outlining a framework for climate legislation that is “doable.” And a third lawmaker, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is drafting his own resolution dubbed the "Green Real Deal."
The flurry of proposals — each of them, like the Green New Deal itself, sweeping if vague in their plans for action — comes as polling shows that Americans increasingly recognize the conspicuous effects of climate change in their own backyards after being battered by a series of intense wildfires and hurricanes in recent years.
“We can't try and fail at this effort,” Tonko said in an interview Monday. “We have to get this right.”
The Green New Deal resolution, which calls for the United States to dramatically reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions, has energized progressives in ways few if any climate proposals have in the past. But its sweeping proposals, which include guaranteeing every American a high-paying job and high-quality health care, makes it unlikely to pass.
After the vote on Tuesday, there will likely an opening for other proposals to gain traction in the national discussion.
“We should let a thousand climate proposals bloom,” Tonko said.
Republicans, in particular, are grappling for a way to respond to progressive firebrand Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal without being dismissed as knuckle-dragging climate-change deniers.
Alexander, one of the Senate’s more moderate Republicans, on Monday outlined a 10-point proposal for boosting research and development into new energy technologies, comparing his plan to the federal government’s 1940s effort to build a nuclear bomb before the Nazis.
“The Green New Deal is so far out of left field that not many are going to take it seriously,” Alexander said in a Senate floor speech. “So as one Republican I’m here today to propose this response to climate change.”
Alexander instead outlined a five-year, Manhattan Project-style plan for finding “breakthroughs” in a number of energy technologies, including those that can capture carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants and store electricity from wind and solar generators so they can be useful even when the weather does not cooperate. The plan is similar to one he put forward a decade ago.
He also emphasized putting more federal dollars toward research into developing electric vehicles, harnessing natural gas and inventing new types of nuclear reactors. In total Alexander, who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy development, called for doubling federal energy research funding.
The Green New Deal's supporters suggested that principles espoused in these alternative plans fit well within their own resolution, which was designed to be inclusive.
Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, responded:
A running theme among the alternative proposals is an emphasis on innovation.
Gaetz's “Green Real Deal," according to a draft of the resolution first obtained by Politico, will emphasize creating “more clean energy options through a commitment to innovation.”
In the draft, he also turns to a theme many Republicans mention when talking about climate change: the need to prepare the U.S. military for a warmer world as the Pentagon reports of bases being threatened by floods, fires, droughts and other climate-related risks.
Spokesman Luke Ball said that Gaetz “acknowledges climate change represents a growing threat to the United States and must be addressed.” He added that the proposal is “still being drafted at this time” and subject to change.
Yet perhaps the most consequential Green New Deal alternative comes from Tonko.
Last week, Tonko put forward a “framework” for climate-related legislation he would like to see before the House.
His proposal, like the Green New Deal, calls for an economic transition to cleaner energy sources that is fair to working-class people who are often employed in carbon-polluting industries. The plan called Congress to “set certain and enforceable targets” to get the United States to net-zero emissions by at least 2050.
Tonko’s opinion matters because the six-term congressman, unlike freshman Ocasio-Cortez, is the head of a key climate change subcommittee in the House through which much climate-related legislation will flow.
But the chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on climate change and the environment says he is not looking to pick a fight. Though Tonko has not officially sponsored Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution, he says his plan “complements the Green New Deal.”
Tonko envisions “a two-track approach” to climate legislation.
First, he wants House Democrats to work with Republicans to build a “consensus” and pass legislation that has a chance of being taken up by the GOP-led Senate. Areas of potential compromise include, according to Tonko, improving the energy efficiency of buildings and building out the electric grid to better support wind turbines and solar arrays.
Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee, including ranking Republican Greg Walden (Ore.), have supported similar efforts when they were in the majority in the House — and are signaling they want to again this term. “Republicans in Congress have pursued these common-sense initiatives to protect our environment and our economy, and we will work with Democrats that want to find practical and achievable solutions,” an aide to Republicans on the committee said.
The second part of Tonko's two-track approach — which he acknowledges may need to wait until Democrats can win the Senate, White House or both — involves passing more comprehensive legislation, such as placing a price on emitting carbon into the atmosphere.
Though the Green New Deal does not mention pricing carbon, many economists say it is the most cost-effective way of reducing climate-warming emissions.
Tonko is keen on finding a way to do that, though he was noncommittal about exactly what form a price on carbon would take.
“We think carbon pricing can be a powerful tool,” Tonko said, “but it in and of itself is not sufficient.”
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