Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) gives a thumbs-up while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) chats with colleagues ahead of President Trump's State of the Union address on Feb. 5. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Republicans are gleeful about the Green New Deal, which they see as a major political liability for Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is planning a vote on the GND on the theory that any Senate Democrat — a field that includes several 2020 presidential hopefuls — who votes for it will self-immolate on the spot.

Many commentators have scowled in agreement with McConnell’s theory. But what’s discussed far less often is the politics of the big-picture contrast that forms the backdrop of this debate: one pitting a Democratic Party that recognizes the scale of the global warming challenge and wants to do something about it, and a Republican Party that simply does not.

Democrats now hope to change that.

On Thursday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) will deliver a speech on the GND on the Senate floor, in which the minority leader will call on Republicans to acknowledge that climate change is a serious threat and is largely human-created, and to pledge that Congress will act to address it, according to a source familiar with his plan.

“I challenge Leader McConnell to say that climate change is real, that it’s caused by humans, and that Congress needs to act,” Schumer will say. “This is what two-thirds of the American people agree with. Two-thirds.”

“Since Leader McConnell became majority leader in 2014, there has not been a single Republican bill to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions on the floor of the Senate,” Schumer will add.

“We’re supposed to conduct the business of the nation,” Schumer will continue. “We’re supposed to tackle our country’s greatest challenges. Climate change is probably the number one threat to the planet. And yet not a single Republican bill that addresses climate change in a meaningful way. Not one.”

Schumer intends this floor speech, which will also list numerous examples of the GOP refusal to act, as an opening shot in a series of efforts by Democrats to highlight Republican climate denialism, which variously concerns the science, the scale of the problem and the need for legislative action against it.

The source says this will include more floor speeches and messaging on social media. If McConnell does push a GND vote, it will also include an effort to push amendments that highlight these themes.

President Trump, of course, has firmly installed this denialism in the White House. He has constantly dismissed the science and is aggressively dismantling his predecessor’s efforts to combat climate change in a way that threatens to substantially increase greenhouse-gas emissions. This, even though a massive study conducted by own administration determined that climate change poses a dire threat to our future, a conclusion Trump blithely dismissed by saying: “I don’t believe it.”

The Green New Deal is radical

Republicans believe they can put Democrats on the defensive over the Green New Deal because it really is quite radical. The resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) stakes out the ambitious goal of substantially reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030 and bringing them down to net-zero by 2050.

The document sketches out goals largely in keeping with the scientific consensus on how rapidly we must act to avoid long-term catastrophe, without settling definitively on solutions (it avoids emphasizing things like carbon pricing or an all-renewables future, for instance). The GND also calls for an extraordinarily ambitious overhaul of our political economy, proposing vast new public expenditures, a jobs guarantee and universal housing and health care.

The combination of the GND’s toweringly ambitious climate goals, its dramatic aspirations to economic justice and its policy vagueness are what render it so controversial, including among many Democrats and liberals. For some, such as Jonathan Chait and Mike Pesca, the GND sets unrealistic goals, avoids acknowledging necessary tough choices and forces lawmakers to pledge fealty to an economic vision well to the left of the median of the Democratic Party, complicating hopes for more realistic solutions in the immediate future.

But for others, such as David Roberts and Ryan Cooper, many of those things are features. The GND avoids making many specific choices that might immediately divide the progressive and climate coalitions. But, by laying out an aspirational framework suffused with massively juiced-up urgency, it challenges all progressives, liberals and Democrats to get cracking on the hard thinking necessary to fill in — and find consensus on — all those specifics.

Many on both sides agree on the GND’s capacity to divide Democrats, which is why Republicans are professing to be so gleeful. After all, numerous senators who are also running for president have generally endorsed the concept of the Green New Deal.

Those 2020 hopefuls want to preserve space to develop their own specific proposals that avoid its more controversial prescriptions. McConnell hopes to force them — and many other Senate Democrats — to take a stand on its specifics. It’s certainly possible that this will put many Democrats in an uncomfortable political position, but until we see how McConnell structures the votes, it’s hard to say for sure.

Turning the tables on GOP denialism

Still, one thing that all Democrats agree on is the general need for very ambitious action, which poses such a stark contrast with the GOP that itself puts Democrats on the right side of the politics of the issue. And it’s this contrast that Schumer is hoping to refocus the debate upon — one that unites Democrats and, hopefully, puts Republicans on the defensive.

The Green New Deal embodies two important aspects of the evolution of the climate movement: a belief that only a very bold, multi-faceted approach will now suffice; and an acknowledgement that the Republican Party is unlikely to play any serious role in mitigating what now poses a dire threat to humanity’s future. A decade ago, Democrats tried to pass a more GOP- and market-friendly cap-and-trade plan, but it ran into a wall of GOP intransigence and fossil-fuel-industry-funded denialism.

Now the problem has gotten much worse, but the denialism remains. The fact that Democrats will try to respond to GOP trolling of the GND by going on offense against that denialism — abandoning defensiveness or accommodation, and spotlighting the reality of today’s GOP — itself shows that the GND is having some of its intended impact.

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