The Green New Deal — summarized in a joint resolution introduced by charismatic first-year Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) — has unleashed gale-force winds in Washington. President Trump immediately incorporated it into his new “socialism” riffs about Democrats, telling a crowd in El Paso, “I don’t like their policies of taking away your car, taking away your airplane flights,” or “you’re not allowed to own cows anymore.”
Some Democrats were also aflutter. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) dismissed it as “the green dream or whatever they call it. Nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” Pelosi and key House committee chairs refused to back the notion of a special committee tasked with producing a comprehensive 10-year agenda. Across Capitol Hill, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced he would force a vote on the resolution in the Senate, certain that anyone supporting it would be in a boatload of trouble. In response, reports are that some Senate Democrats are considering just voting “present” to duck the question.
I’d say: Bring it on, Mitch. Let’s have a vote — preferably in both houses — that reveals the Republicans frozen in denial about climate change and unwilling to do anything serious to address it. Let’s see who on the Democratic side is prepared to stand up and who is not.
The naysayers get it wrong. Just as catastrophic climate events have savaged the United States, from California infernos to ever more destructive East Coast hurricanes, the issue of climate change is finally disrupting our politics. While not one question was asked about climate change in the 2016 general-election debates, in 2020, climate change and the Green New Deal (GND) will be at the center of the conversation. Leading Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala D. Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar have all endorsed the Green New Deal, and more will join. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee promises to center his campaign on climate change. And since money still talks in American politics, it doesn’t hurt that billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, has pledged to spend $500 million against Trump in the next election, while calling on the Democratic candidates to lay out their position on this issue.
Meanwhile, ecological disasters continue to wreak a rising toll. Last summer’s heat wave across the Northern Hemisphere killed hundreds from Japan to Canada. Brutal wildfires in California savaged over 1 million acres, forcing thousands to flee. In 2017 alone, the United States suffered a record 16 weather disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damages, costing a combined total of about $306 billion. As Adm. Philip S. Davidson, head of the U.S. military’s Pacific Command, testified, the intelligence community’s conclusion that climate change is a global threat is clearly justified by the “number of ecological disaster events that are happening.”
In October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — by its very nature a cautious body of experts — warned that the house was on fire. The IPCC said that if humanity stays on its current course — with carbon emissions still rising — we will see tens of millions of climate refugees fleeing extreme heat or spreading deserts, rising tides and flooding that will destabilize countries across the globe. The experts give the world 12 years to change things. As Debra Roberts, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, summarized, “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”
The GND resolution responds to this global call to action. It would establish a special committee of Congress tasked with detailing a 10-year plan to meet the threat posed by global warming. It requires a plan commensurate with the scope of the challenge — one that will inevitably transform our energy system, transport systems, agriculture and buildings.
GND supporters argue, correctly, that this is both a monumental challenge and a potential opportunity. Addressing climate change before it is too late will require a mobilization on the scope of World War II. That provides the opportunity to transform our economy and rebuild a broad middle class, this time including those who were largely locked out the last time.
This, of course, counters received wisdom across much of the spectrum. Conservatives remain largely in denial, apparently willing to pay the rising human and material costs of climate disruption rather than trying to meet the challenge. Too many established environmental groups tend to see the answer in constriction — e.g., the carbon tax — and sacrifice rather than investment and innovation. Many Democrats think the best way to beat Trump is to make him the issue rather than raise bold new issues that he can assail.
But the young organizers of the GND have this right. More and more Americans are experiencing the costs and perils of devastating climate events. Most, despite Trump’s boasts about the economy, are struggling to stay afloat, still watching plants close, health-care and college costs soar, and debts increase. To win, Democrats will have to offer more than simply an anti-Trump; they have to be agents of real change.
So let McConnell stage his vote. Let Trump issue his best adolescent gibes. Catastrophic climate events will continue to shatter complacency. Costs will continue to rise — in lives, in refugees, in property damage, in entire regions and countries destabilized. Across the world, citizen movements are rising to demand action. In this country, activists will challenge the deniers and demand that leaders get real about how they would address the threat. Just as Occupy Wall Street provided President Barack Obama the core of a new populist message, so the young organizers driving the GND may well help the next Democratic candidate create a message that will build a broad coalition for enduring change.