The Green New Deal Isn’t New
Exploring the history of the latest effort for radical climate change focused infrastructural reform.

illustration by Jake Johnson

Trump vs environment / climate change policy
Last March, President Donald Trump spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. In an unscripted speech, laced with sarcasm in true Trumpian fashion, the president ridiculed Democrats for supporting the Green New Deal. “I encourage it! I think the Green New Deal—or whatever the hell they call it,” pausing to let the crowd boo, “I think it’s really something that they should promote.” The crowd laughed and Trump jeered on, “It’s something our country needs desperately…No planes! No energy! When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric!” More laughter. “Darling?” Trump pretended to look up at the sky, “Darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.”

Trump disputes and dismisses the science of climate change, so it’s no surprise that he mocks ambitious environmental policy. As a candidate, he called climate change a “Chinese hoax.” Five months into his presidency, Trump followed through on his campaign promise to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement, also known as the Paris Climate Accord, making the nation one of just three in the world to abstain from the international agreement to curb global warming (the other two are Venezuela and Syria). Trump defended the decision, famously saying he “was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” 

Science of climate change
The U.S. experienced a slew of unprecedented natural disasters over the past year while the Trump administration continues to roll back many Obama-era policies that aimed to curb climate change and pollution. . Scientists say these devastating events—fatal hurricanes, Arctic blasts, flooding, and tornadoes, unusual in magnitude, geography, and/or regularity—indicate a new norm and point to a destabilizing climate.

Studies show that at this rate, catastrophic repercussions from climate change will soon become irreversible without dramatic action. In October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a dire report written by some of the world’s top climate scientists: if Earth’s temperature rises more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, catastrophic floods, droughts, and poverty will likely occur (meaning the goal set by the Paris Agreement to cap temperature rises at 2 degrees Celsius would actually be too tepid to prevent irreversible catastrophe). The report estimates that human civilization has about 12 years to drastically cut carbon emissions to keep Earth’s temperature from rising above that 1.5-degree threshold. 

The report also focuses on equity, and emphasizes the disparity between how the poor and rich of the world  experience climate change. The report states, “Ethical considerations, and the principle of equity in particular, are central to this report, recognizing that many of the impacts of warming up to and beyond 1.5°C, and some potential impacts of mitigation actions required to limit warming to 1.5°C, fall disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable.” 

A Call for Ambitious Change
The Green New Deal in 2007: An Idea
The term “Green New Deal” was first used back in 2007 by Thomas Friedman, a Pulitzer-prize winning columnist, in two articles written for the New York Times and New York Times Magazine. At that time, public awareness about climate change was growing: In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept New Orleans in flooding; in 2006 Al Gore sounded the alarm for impending environmental catastrophe in his documentary and lecture-circuit, An Inconvenient Truth; in 2007, the summer melt on the ice sheets of Greenland reportedly increased by 30% and the melt has outpaced its accumulation ever since; ; in 2008, Barack Obama, running on a platform that espoused climate reform, was elected president; in 2009, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as the Copenhagen Summit, failed to come to a legally binding agreement toward tangible climate action. However, the resulting Copenhagen Accord marked a shift in global politics where a majority of countries acknowledged that climate change was a real issue that affected the world and needed to be looked at. 

Climate change, at least in concept, had finally made it to mainstream media and public awareness, but Friedman’s call for a Green New Deal did not. In his article, Friedman outlined the roots of America’s fossil-fuel addiction: following World War II (1939–45), the United States was locked in an intense rivalry with communist Soviet Union. The Cold War was brewing and hysteria over communist infiltration swept the U.S. To unify the country—and to transport weapons quickly in the event of war—President Eisenhower ramped up funding for the Interstate Highway System. The highway, wrote Friedman, helped “to enshrine America’s car culture…and to lock in suburban sprawl and low-density housing, which all combined to get America addicted to cheap fossil fuels,” setting a model that other countries followed. 

To truly curb America’s oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions, Friedman argued that the necessary “rallying call … is for a ‘Green New Deal.’” The name is a nod to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” a broad range of programs and projects that helped pull the country out of the Great Depression by stabilizing the American workforce and economy. Friedman wrote, “like the New Deal, if we undertake the green version, it has the potential to create a whole new clean power industry to spur our economy into the 21st century.” 

The Green New Deal, as conceived by Friedman, was a proposal to revolutionize the energy-industry by playing the free-market system. Friedman’s vision fell on two general requirements: government regulations “to drive innovation and efficiency,” and competitive prices to “drive more and cleaner energy choices.” Friedman, a self-described centrist and “free-market guy,” outlined the costs, energy standards, and projects the United States would need to “change the very nature of the electricity grid” and replace dirty coal and oil with alternative energy sources. “And that is a huge industrial project—much bigger than anyone has told you.” 

That was over 10 years ago, when Friedman believed that rallying behind energy efficiency could be a means to unify the country. His motto? “Green is the new red, white, and blue.” But today, politics in the U.S. are more polarized than ever. 

In the late 1990s, when climate change began to receive a lot of media coverage, the issue wasn’t very polarizing. In 2001, according to a Gallup survey, 49 percent of republicans and 60 percent of Democrats said they believed global warming was already in effect. By 2010, the proportion of republicans dropped to 29 percent while the proportion of Democrats rose to 70 percent. To regard the environment as a partisan issue is the product of well oiled media machines (fed by political agendas) seeking to sway and tap into an increasingly polarized voting base. One side calls regulations common sense, while the other calls it government overreach. As voters don’t agree on the fundamental reality of climate change, it’s difficult to imagine bipartisan environmental action any time soon. 

Between 2007 and 2019, many policy makers attempted to address the mounting issue of climate change. There was the aforementioned Copenhagen Summit, which failed; there was the Paris Agreement, which Trump pulled the US out of; there was the prospect of electing another candidate running for president on a platform of bold climate reform, such as Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein. And while there have been little successes (such as?), there has been no bold, overarching policy that would make the US a carbon-neutral economy — a necessity for combating climate change. That is, until now, with the Green New Deal.

In the 2018 Midterm Elections, Democrats regained control of the House. In January 2019, then Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) came across a protest in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. The youth-led “Sunrise Movement” was imploring Congress to support a Green New Deal. Ocasio-Cortez, aka AOC, is the youngest member ever elected to the House. She is a rising star with a progressive agenda, social media savvy and vast millennial support. Once AOC got on board, the Green New Deal was catapulted into mainstream media overnight.

illustration by Jake Johnson

The Green New Deal in 2019: a Non Binding Agreement
In February, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the Green New Deal with the ultimate goal to make the United States a net-zero carbon economy. The resolution was cosponsored by 89 House members and 11 senators. The proposals include sweeping climate, social, and economic reform, with regulations and projects that put the nation on track to use 100% renewable energy sources by 2030. 

The propositions are broad and ambitious. Some of its proposals include, “meeting 100% of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources,” to “[p]roviding all people of the United States with —  “(i) high quality healthcare; (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.” On top of Medicare for All, guaranteed housing, food, and nature, the resolution also includes proposals that would reconstruct American agriculture system and begin plans to build a nation wide high speed light rail.

What is a non-binding agreement?
 The Green New Deal was introduced as a non-binding agreement. If Congress votes to pass a non-binding resolution, the proposals do not become law. So what’s the point? Think of it more like a political dare to state representatives to vote on record: “Will you show the American people that they stand firmly behind this issue?” It’s intended to spark a debate, gauge support and elucidate a brave path forward in a meaner world. It also gets how politicians vote on record which is important for future elections. 

Political response
Republicans unanimously reject the Green New Deal. Many smear it as a socialist agenda masquerading as climate reform.  “Democrats sugarcoat this form of socialism by dubbing it Medicare for All,” wrote Steve Forbes, Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Magazine and two-time former presidential candidate. He described the Green New Deal  as “a comic book collection of absurdist ideas to combat global warming.” 

There is also a lot of pushback over how much the Green New Deal in action would cost (the estimates range from 51 to 93 trillion dollars over the next ten years) and whether its proposals could be implemented without undermining the fabric of American democracy have been widespread. 

Shortly after the Green New Deal resolution was introduced, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought it to vote on the Senate floor on March 25th. He eyed an opportunity to expose holes in democrat support for the resolution, which indeed failed (57-0), but nearly every Democrat—including those in favor—voted “present,” criticizing the vote as a political sham.

In that vote, the resolution failed 57-0. Nearly every Democrat voted ‘present,’ looking to dodge controversy on an issue that hadn’t had time to be discussed. McConnell received a lot of criticism from Democrats, who say that he wasn’t serious about having a debate on climate reform. Many of the Green New Deal’s avid supporters in the senate voted ‘present’ on the resolution, saying the vote was a “sham.” It is unclear whether ot not the Green New Deal will be put up for another vote in the future; but, as it stands, what matters to policy makers who support it is the principle of its proposals and ideas.

For Democrats, a big question facing competitive elections is whether the Green New Deal could garner enough support in such a polarized political climate. However, many eye the emerging largest demographic of voters: millennials. Millennials approach climate change as one of the most important issues the world faces today and Democrats noticed. Millenials and those coming after them in generation Z, on both sides of the aisle, are more concerned with climate change than older voters. A Pew Research Poll found that Gen Z Republicans are “much more likely than Republicans in older generations to say government should do more to solve problems,” and are less likely to call global warming a natural phenomenon. 

Many presidential candidates are in fact betting that their support for the Green New Deal will appeal to voters. It may be a litmus test for democratic presidential candidates running in 2020. All five Senate Democrats running for president in 2020 co-sponsored the resolution.  Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Beto O’Rourke have all voiced their support for broad climate reform that addresses both the environment and the importance of including marginalized communities as part of the discussion. Even though the Green New Deal didn’t necessarily “pass” in congress, its existence has clearly influenced proposals have altered the political landscape by bringing climate and economic reform to the forefront of the left’s 2020 platform. 

The economic benefits of radical climate action and infrastructure overhaul deserve a close look for the potential to extend appeal across the political aisle. Megan Horst, assistant professor of Urban Studies and Planning at PSU, touched on this by pointing to the success of the New Deal:

The scale of intervention, in terms of policy direction and financial implications suggested by the Green New Deal, is not unprecedented. There are a number of examples of major government intervention in the past, including the original New Deal programs of the 1930s, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program of 2009. There is a lot to learn from the social and economic impacts of each of those examples. This Green New Deal offers the chance for another ambitious intervention that is responsive to the ecological and social crises of our time.”

The Green New Deal might sound idealistic and general–maybe even far fetched–but the aging infrastructure in the United States warrants a [New Deal?] revision. Last November, Portlanders voted to enact the Portland Clean Energy Initiative, which CNN commentator Van Jones referred to as “the most important ballot initiative in the country.” Unlike the Green New Deal, the PCEI is quite specific and may offer insights about how “green infrastructure” overhaul projects could look nationwide. 

Next month, come back for part two to get a closer look at the Green New Deal and The Portland Clean Energy Initiative. We will discuss how they are similar, different, and potential paths forward for climate action in the United States. (Click this link to view the second installment of this two part series)

Margo Craig contributed reporting.

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