The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Green New Deal? A Green New Deal? Whatever it is, 2020 Democrats support it.

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)
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The Iowa voter asked Sen. Kamala D. Harris a yes-or-no question.

“Will you fully endorse the Green New Deal tonight?”

The California Democrat, at a CNN town hall, did not answer with a “yes” or a “no.”

“I support a Green New Deal,” Harris said.

Her careful word choice revealed the complication behind what seems like a straightforward question. At this point, after months of political chatter about it, no actual Green New Deal exists.

A search for the text of Green New Deal legislation won’t yield any. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) drafted a proposal for a committee to implement a Green New Deal — as she defined it, a detailed plan for addressing the threat of climate change, economic inequality and spurring job creation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) opted for a climate crisis committee instead.

A bill is expected to emerge soon, but its language has not been set, a congressional aide said. Nonetheless, the Green New Deal already has elbowed its way into Democratic dialogue — and, by extension, into a prominent place in 2020 campaign rhetoric. It is a way for Democrats angered at the Trump administration’s dismissal of environmental science to demonstrate their desire to attack climate change, with the explicit details left until later.

It is also an idea that divides potential Democratic blocs — appealing to the younger voters the party wants and seen more skeptically by the blue-collar voters the party needs.

The field of 2020 presidential contenders are up against a unique set of challenges, from standing out on the campaign trail to dealing with President Trump. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Harris and fellow Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) have offered support for the general idea. Former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro identified a Green New Deal as one of his top priorities when he announced his presidential bid last month. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, both possible 2020 candidates, have expressed support. The Sunrise Movement, the group that staged a sit-in outside Pelosi’s office in November, is planning protests at Democratic debates to ensure the Green New Deal becomes a major 2020 issue.

The term “Green New Deal” traces its roots to columnist Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times, who dedicated two 2007 pieces to American reliance on foreign oil — which he suggested was as much a national security issue as an environmental one. It recalls President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the widespread financial reforms and economic stimulus effort he instituted in the wake of the Great Depression, efforts that included job creation as a means of improving infrastructure.

The United Nations adopted the term in 2008 and published it in its Green Economy Initiative, a response to the global financial crises striking at that time. Green Party candidate Jill Stein used the Green New Deal as part of her presidential platforms in 2012 and 2016. Ocasio-Cortez considered alternatives to the term throughout her House campaign but decided to stick with it when it continued to generate support on Twitter.

Now, thanks in part to her prominence, the Democratic takeover of the House and growing alarm over climate change, the concept has found new life.

Think tanks and climate advocacy groups have compiled substantial proposals, some more detailed than others. Most proposals agree on one broad idea: a sweeping policy package aimed at decreasing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels within a set period and elevating efforts to combat climate change on a wider, more drastic scale. These initial proposals include large-scale investment in clean-energy technology, infrastructure, transportation and research — an effort some advocates have compared to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program, a massive mobilization of the workforce and U.S. resources.

Beyond escalating the country’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Green New Deal would pair job creation with the kind of social justice efforts that were not a part of FDR’s New Deal, which largely benefited white workers, excluding two classes of jobs dominated at the time by nonwhites: agriculture and domestic work. Proponents hope jobs created by the measure could benefit low-income or minority communities.

“I understand [the Green New Deal] to mean we must act with urgency to reduce carbon pollution, to make clean energy a pillar of our economy, to do it in a way that creates jobs and doesn’t leave anybody behind,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which will have the power to make recommendations on climate policy.

Her goal, Castor said, is to turn the general idea into specifics, “to get passed what we can pass immediately in the next year or so, then set the table for more dramatic action come 2020.”

Climate change advocates on both sides of the aisle see the emergence of the Green New Deal as a mainstream talking point as a good thing.

“The biggest win is it’s on the radar,” said Greg Carlock, one of the directors of the liberal think tank Data for Progress, which released its own proposal for a Green New Deal.

“The next win is we have a committee on which we can discuss it. . . . We now have a space we didn’t have three months ago. It is on the agenda. Presidential candidates are going to be asked if it is on their agenda. That is good.”

Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a conservative ­clean-energy think tank, agreed.

“We are definitely supportive of having a higher ambition when it comes to policies that advance clean energy to solve climate change,” Powell said. “Having a higher ambition than where we are is good, and it’s good that it’s injected that into the discourse. But now, we have to get really careful about how we proceed.”

A December poll conducted by Yale University and George Mason University revealed that 81 percent of Americans support a measure that would “accelerate the transition” to clean energy, while upgrading infrastructure and providing job training. The results indicated bipartisan support, although Democratic backing was more emphatic.

Liberals see a Green New Deal proceeding in two parts, with minor pieces of bipartisan legislation pushed during the Trump administration, followed by a bigger package if Democrats seize the White House in 2020.

“How could you [get it passed before 2020]?” said Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director, Corbin Trent. “I think we need to get this thing fixed up before we get it passed. Now we have to spend some time fleshing it out.”

Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) are working on a measure, his spokeswoman Giselle Barry said. The details and timing are not final, she said, “but it will be soon.”

The largest renewable-energy and energy-efficiency package in U.S. history was not passed as pure climate legislation, but rather as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. While the more traditional aspects of the stimulus, like job creation efforts, garnered the most attention, the package committed more than $27 billion to renewable energy technologies and research.

Major climate legislation has, at times, been a difficult sell. In 2009, with Democrats holding the White House and both houses of Congress, an environmentally focused bill — the American Clean Energy and Security Act — passed the House but did not earn a vote in the Senate, as Democrats argued it conceded too much to the fossil-fuel industry while Republicans argued against it on a variety of points. Less substantial legislation, however, seems better positioned to garner bipartisan support.

“Just getting green-energy and climate change legislation done has been hard enough,” Powell said. “It doesn’t get any easier if we attach all of this other, frankly very contentious social stuff to it.”

But that “very contentious social stuff” is a key part of the Green New Deal idea — particularly when it comes to economic inequality. For example, in ­Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, she suggested any legislation include ambitious liberal policies: a job-guarantee program, basic-income programs and universal health care.

Even without a detailed plan, Ocasio-Cortez has established a far-left baseline of what a Green New Deal might look like and shifted the conversation for presidential hopefuls who saw the enthusiasm her initial efforts generated, particularly among young voters. Like Harris, those hopefuls are being asked about the idea and discussing it.

“The debate we’re starting to see is between ideas on the left and ideas on the further left,” said Carlock, who said he believes that dialogue could pull Republicans to more centrist ideas such as money for research and development or a carbon tax.

Even if Democrats were to win unified control of Washington in 2020, passage of a full-throated Green New Deal package could be problematic because it would require massive government investment at a time of spiraling deficits. It also would affect jobs in politically critical areas such as the Midwest, risking backlash among Democratic members and voters.

Ocasio-Cortez earlier proposed paying for the Green New Deal with carbon and emission taxes, and a 70 percent marginal tax on incomes above $10 million, among other funding sources. Republicans have already criticized her tax plan.

“I think the cost of inaction is one way to sell it [to Republicans]. The economic opportunities are another,” said Castor.

“The old coal plants of the past, they’re retiring on their own because it doesn’t make financial sense,” she added. “Republicans are going to come along. We just don’t have time to waste.”