THE FIRST HAND of the Green New Deal has been dealt. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., on Thursday unveiled a five-page, non-binding resolution that frames a 10-year “national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization” to confront the climate crisis.
The plan envisions the creation of millions of “good, high-wage jobs” and will serve to “counteract systemic injustices.”
The resolution sets a framework for legislation to be hashed out over the next two years, and gives Ocasio-Cortez, Markey, and climate groups something to organize around.
Their goal is to meet 100 percent of the demand for power in the U.S. with “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources,” in line with the scientific consensus on climate change, as well as to provide “all people of the United States” with clean air and water, “healthy and affordable food,” high-quality health care, “affordable, safe, and adequate housing,” and economic security.
As part and parcel of this transition, the resolution calls for a federal jobs guarantee, a massive infrastructure build-out, building efficiency upgrades and robust investment in public transit, to name just a few of the measures listed. It would ensure a dignified quality of life for workers and communities that rely on coal, oil, and natural gas jobs (“a fair and just transition”), and says that steps toward reaching zero-emissions — such as building new wind turbines — should not impose on indigenous peoples’ land rights or abuse the power of eminent domain. A full plan, the resolution states, will be developed “in transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses.”
The resolution provides the most detail yet of what Ocasio-Cortez and company mean by a Green New Deal, but it does not map out precisely what a Green New Deal will entail. If the House had created a Select Committee on a Green New Deal, per Ocasio-Cortez’s original resolution, that would have been the two-yearlong mandate of a team of policymakers and experts. In laying the groundwork for an eventual legislative package, the document will create pressure on the select panel created by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in lieu of the one called for by Ocasio-Cortez. Dubbed the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, it will be chaired by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla.
Pelosi on Thursday morning announced Ocasio-Cortez would not be on that select committee, though she was approached for a seat and declined to join. In a separate interview with Politico, Pelosi mocked the notion of a Green New Deal. “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” she said. “The green dream or whatever they call it — nobody knows what it is but they’re for it right?”
Ocasio-Cortez, at a press conference unveiling the resolution, was asked repeatedly about Pelosi’s dig, but declined to hit back, saying that Pelosi has long been a climate champion and the term “dream” is a compliment, accurately capturing the scale of the vision, which she compared to the New Deal and Great Society.
The resolution makes clear that the phrase isn’t just a talking point, but connected to a specific set of policy priorities.
A number of powerful Democrats were on hand for the resolution’s announcement, including the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden of Oregon, whose committee has jurisdiction over swaths of a Green New Deal. He pledged to “throw the dirty energy tax relics of yesteryear into the garbage can.”
Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., was also there to show support. The Rules Committee controls what legislation hits the House floor.
Over the last few months, support for the Green New Deal has become a litmus test for 2020 Democratic hopefuls, and the resolution serves dual purposes: to unite lawmakers around the idea of a Green New Deal, and to offer a basic definition of what that means. For 2020 contenders who have conceptually supported the Green New Deal, the resolution makes clear that the phrase isn’t just a talking point, but connected to a specific set of policy priorities. Confirmed and rumored presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders will be among the nine senators co-sponsoring the resolution. Sixty-four House Democrats will also be co-sponsoring the legislation, including Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Joe Neguse, D-Colo.
“We’re going to be pressuring all of the 2020 contenders to back this resolution,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, which helped launched the Green New Deal into the national spotlight with its sit-in at Pelosi’s office last November. “That’ll make it clear who’s using the Green New Deal as a buzzword and who’s actually serious about what it entails. For our generation, the difference between the Green New Deal as a buzzword and substantive policy is life and death.” Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year that if massive changes to limit global warming are not undertaken by 2030, the planet will face widespread, catastrophic changes.
On Tuesday, the Sunrise Movement hosted some 500 watch parties around the country for a livestream laying out its next steps to support the resolution. As of Wednesday, the group was in the process of organizing visits to 600 congressional offices nationwide, for constituents to demand that their representatives co-sponsor Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s measure. Supported by Justice Democrats — the group that backed Ocasio-Cortez’s primary run — Sunrise will also be launching a 15-city campaign tour through early primary states.
THE RESOLUTION’S PREAMBLE lays out both the existential threat and expected cost in dollars and lives to the U.S. posed by climate change, as well as “several related crises” facing the United States, including “a 4-decade trend of wage stagnation, deindustrialization” and “a large racial wealth divide amounting to a difference of 20 times more wealth between the average white family and the average black family.”
Unlike the original resolution calling for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal — which called for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 — this one calls for the U.S. to reach net-zero emissions by 2030. The difference is more than semantic, and energy wonks have hotly debated it since Ocasio-Cortez, Sunrise, and other groups began pushing the call for the latter in November. While full reliance on renewables would have all energy come from sources such as wind and solar, net-zero entails an openness to so-called negative emissions technologies, a suite of measures ranging from the experimental — like carbon capture and storage, machines to extract carbon from industrial processes and put it underground — to the conventional, like afforestation, or planting trees that suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The phrasing is also a recognition of the fact that certain “hard-to-abate” industries, including steel, transportation, and agriculture, are more difficult to decarbonize than others. Negative emissions are ubiquitous in pathways to capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius created by climate modelers and compiled in the IPCC’s report from last year on reaching that goal. While many negative emissions technologies remain unproven at scale, the resolution states that a Green New Deal will pursue negative emissions “through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such as land preservation and afforestation.” The resolution further refers broadly to greenhouse gas emissions, not just carbon.
The sheer scale of investment laid out by the Green New Deal also makes it possible to imagine eliminating emissions from those hard-to-abate industries altogether, which the Energy Transitions Commission predicts would cost just 0.5 percent of global GDP by 2050.
Though carefully worded, net-zero by 2030 is a hugely ambitious target — although still the only one remotely consistent with something known as equity pathways pursuant to the amount of carbon the world can continue to emit under a “carbon budget.” That is, the world only has so much carbon left to burn before we cross a certain threshold of warming. The U.S. is what’s called a historical emitter, meaning that we’ve both spewed more greenhouse gasses into the air over time, and as a result have developed more economic capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change. In equity pathways, historical emitters carry a responsibility to peak and drive down their emissions quicker than the rest of the world, effectively leaving room in the global carbon budget for countries that haven’t collected massive amounts of wealth off coal, oil, and natural gas room to develop — a process that, at least for now, means emitting more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. In the U.N. Framework Conventions on Climate Change, this is known as “common but differentiated responsibility,” although historical emitters — including the U.S. — have consistently tried to contest the meaning of that phrase.
“Global CO2 emissions need to go down about 10 percent per year to meet a 1.5 degree target,” said Peter Erickson, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environmental Institute. “If you take into account that the U.S. is more responsible than any other country for historic emissions, and also one of the wealthiest countries in the world, U.S. emissions need to go down even faster than that.”
The U.S. has a role to play in speeding along the transition off fossil fuels for the rest of the world.
The resolution also references the fact that the U.S. — because of its vast resources and contribution to the problem — has a role to play in speeding along the transition off fossil fuels for the rest of the world. Indeed, President Donald Trump bragged in his State of the Union address this week that the United States has become a net-exporter of oil and gas. Fossil fuel companies are continuing to explore for new reserves — mostly for export — in places like the Permian and Appalachian basins, which could have a catastrophic climate impact. Companies being able to exploit those reserves hinges on their ability to build new infrastructure like Liquid National Gas terminals that allow for exports and on continuing to receive generous subsidies. The resolution notes that any Green New Deal in the U.S. will promote “the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal.”
There’s room for interpretation as to what getting to net-zero could mean for a Green New Deal, and the resolution doesn’t reference any specific regulatory measures, like a ban on new oil and gas exploration or a renewable portfolio standard, a tool states like California have in order to bring down their emissions by requiring utilities to procure a certain amount of their power from renewable sources. Much of the action detailed in the resolution is focused on getting to net-zero by building up the country’s supply of renewable energy, with comparatively less focus on explicitly phasing out fossil fuels — a phrase that, to the chagrin of some environmental activists, does not appear in the resolution’s text.
“We already have an international climate agreement that fails to include the words ‘fossil fuels’; we can’t afford a Green New Deal that does the same,” Oil Change International’s David Turnbull wrote in a statement about the resolution Thursday morning, referencing the Paris Climate Agreement. While generally supportive of the resolution and its goals, Turnbull noted that “the science is clear: If the oil, gas, and coal in currently operating wells and mines is dug up and burned, we will blow well past our climate goals.” Erickson cautioned that any Green New Deal legislation that is eventually produced should seek to explicitly limit fossil fuel production and oversee a managed decline of the industry. “Even if the U.S. was successful at reducing its own emissions but still went on being a fossil fuel producer and exporter, that’s going to flood the global market with coal, oil, and gas. That’s going to undermine global targets and has real emissions consequences,” he said.
A list of frequently asked questions about the resolution provided by Ocasio-Cortez’s office clarified that it “calls for any infrastructure measures before Congress to address climate change and additionally calls for an end to the transfer of pollution overseas.” “This provision goes farther than just calling for a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure,” the document says, instead tackling “all greenhouse gas emitting and pollution emitting sources in our economy and global trade.”
However the details of legislation eventually shake out, the Green New Deal represents a massive departure from the landmark bill Markey introduced back in 2009 with former Sen. Henry Waxman to create an elaborate cap-and-trade system. That bill passed the House but not the Senate, and the version that was voted on ended up making several compromises to accommodate Republicans and fossil fuel interest groups — including dramatic limitations on the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority. With the clock running out to rein in emissions, Green New Deal advocates are eager not to repeat history.
“There’s pieces of the GND that are yet to be defined, and they’ll be defined as the policy is developed,” O’Hanlon said. “The way that we’re ensuring that the legislation is as science and justice demand is by building a grassroots movement all across the country that can make sure that we’re holding all politicians’ feet to the fire.”