A close look at the fights it picks and the fights it avoids.
by David Roberts Vox Feb 7, 2019
And for now, to share a few initial impressions after reading through the short document a few times:
What a high-wire act the authors of this resolution are attempting! It has to offer enough specifics to give it real shape and ambition, without overprescribing solutions or prejudging differences over secondary questions. It has to please a diverse range of interest groups, from environmental justice to labor to climate, without alienating any of them. It has to stand up to intense scrutiny, much of which is sure to be bad faith, with many people gunning for it from both the right and center.
And, of course, it eventually has to give birth to real legislation.
Given all those demands, the resolution does a remarkably good job of threading the needle. It is bold and unmistakably progressive, matched to the problem as defined by theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while avoiding a few needless fights and leaving room for plenty of debate over priorities and policy tools.
The resolution consists of a preamble, five goals, 14 projects, and 15 requirements. The preamble establishes there are two crises: a climate crisis and an economic crisis of wage stagnation and growing inequality. The Green New Deal (GND) can and will address both.
The goals — achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, providing for a just transition, securing clean air and water — are broadly popular. The projects — decarbonizing electricity, transportation, and industry, restoring ecosystems, upgrading buildings, and electricity grids — are necessary and sensible, and yes, ambitious).
There are a few items in the requirements which might raise red flags (more on those later), but given the long road ahead, there will be plenty of time to sort them out. Overall, this is as strong an opening bid as we should ask for.
Now let’s take a closer look.
The Green New Deal resolution features 2 big progressive priorities
From a progressive point of view, the discussion over climate change in the US is overly skewed toward technologies and markets. The term of art is “neoliberalism.
Economics and technology are considered serious topics in the US, a ticket to being heard and acknowledged by the political mainstream. There is a subtle, tidal pressure to hew to those subjects, at risk of being relegated to the status of an activist or, worse yet, an ideologue. (It’s as if neoliberalism is not an ideology.)
The resurgent left is done with all that.
It’s not that we must abolish technologies or markets, as long as they remain servants, not masters. It is that in their US versions, these subjects occlude deeper and more urgent considerations (like justice and fairness), and exclude a wide range of policy instruments (like public investment).
The progressive movement should stand up for those priorities, and the GND resolution does. We’ll take them in turn.
Ordinary people matter. Emissions matter, yes. Costs and money matter. Technologies and policies matter. But they all matter secondarily, via their effects on ordinary people. The role of progressive politics, if it amounts to anything, is to center the safety, health, and dignity of ordinary people.
This means justice — or as it’s often called, “environmental justice,” as though it’s some boutique subgenre — must be at the heart of any plan to address climate change. The simple fact is climate change will hit what the resolution calls “frontline and vulnerable communities” (who contibute least to the problem) the hardest. And attempts to transition away from fossil fuels threaten communities who remain tied to the fossil fuel economy.
Frontline and vulnerable communities stand to get it coming and going, from the problem and from the solutions. And unlike big energy companies pursuing growth, unlike idle billionaires fascinated with new tech, unlike banks and financial institutions seeking out new income streams, unlike incumbent industries fat from decades of subsidies, frontline and vulnerable communities do not have the means to fund campaigns and hire expensive lobbyists. They do not have the means to make their voices heard in the scrum of politics, in which he who has the most cash screams the loudest.
This is why progressives exist: to amplify the voices of those without power, a class which includes the voices of our future generations.
Accordingly, in the resolution’s preamble — the part with all the whereas this and whereas that — three statements focus on climate damages and emissions, while four focus on fairness and justice.
Of the resolution’s five goals, three focus on justice. For example: “promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression to frontline and vulnerable communities.”
Of the 12 GND projects, three, including the very first, are focused on community-level resilience and development. And something like two-thirds of the GND requirements (depending on how we count) direct political power and public investment down to the state, local, and worker levels, safeguarding environmental and labor standards and prioritizing family-wage jobs.
The resolution makes clear bringing justice and fairness is a top progressive priority. It is fashionable for centrists and some climate wonks to dismiss things like wage standards as tertiary, a way of piggybacking “liberal” goals onto the climate fight. But progressives do not see it that way. In a period of massive, rapid disruption, the welfare of the people involved is primary rather than tertiary.
Neoliberalism made good old-fashioned public investment something of a political taboo. The GND goes directly at it — public investment aimed at creating jobs is central to the project.
The preamble notes “the Federal Government-led mobilizations during World War II and the New Deal era created the greatest middle class the US has ever seen” and frames the GND as “a historic opportunity to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States.”
Creating jobs is the second of the five goals; investment in “US infrastructure and industry” is the third. Of the GND projects, investment in “community-defined projects and strategies” to increase resilience is the first; repairing and upgrading infrastructure is the second.
Of the GND requirements, the very first is “providing and leveraging, in a way that ensures the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and returns on investment, adequate capital (including through community grants, public banks, and other public financing), technical expertise, supporting policies, and other forms of assistance to communities, organizations, Federal, State, and local government agencies, and businesses working on the Green New Deal mobilization.”
Also in the requirements: funding education and job training for frontline communities in transition; investing in research and development; and investing in community ownership and resilience.
Public investment with the returns going back to the public — it’s not a GND without public benefit.
The Green New Deal resolution smartly avoids a few fights
There some internecine fights within the broad community of climate hawks best left to other venues, in order to keep the coalition behind a GND as broad and small-c catholic as possible. This resolution deftly avoids several of those fights.
1) Paying for it
The question of how to pay for the many public investments called for in the GND is still a bit of a political minefield. There are centrist Democrats who still believe in the old PAYGO rules, keeping a “balanced budget” within a 10-year window. There are Democrats who think deficit fears are exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with running a deficit to drive an economic transition. And there are Democrats who have gone full Modern Monetary Theory, which is way too complicated to explain here but amounts to the notion, short of inflation, the level of the deficit is effectively irrelevant, as long as we’re getting the economy we want.
That discussion is just getting underway, and the better part of valor is to do what the GND resolution does: say nothing about it. Leave it for later.
2) Clean versus renewable energy
Probably most climate hawks prefer a future in which all electricity is provided by renewable energy. Yet there is good-faith disagreement about whether a 100 percent renewables goal is realistic or economical within the 10-year time frame alloted.
Probably most energy analysts believe renewables will need to be supplemented with nuclear power or with fossil fuels augmented by carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Some environmental groups pushed for the GND to explicitly prohibit these sources.
That argument causes a completely unnecessary fight. The GND resolution wisely avoids taking that route.
Instead, it calls for the US to “meet 100 percent of our power demand through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.”
Easy. Now renewables advocates can go right on advocating for renewable sources of energy, and nuclear advocates can go right on advocating for nuclear power, and they can continue fighting it out in another forum. But their fight doesn’t need to muck up the GND. The GND targets carbon emissions, which is the correct target for a broad programmatic outline.
3) Carbon pricing
Carbon pricing — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems — is also the source of much agitation within the climate hawk community. The need to price carbon has been climate orthodoxy for the past few decades, but lately there is something of a backlash.
Some take the (sensible) position climate pricing has been rather fetishized, it may not be the smartest political priority in all cases, and other policy instruments with more proven records are equally important. Some take the (silly) position carbon pricing is bad or counterproductive in and of itself, and have pushed to have it excluded from the GND.
The GND resolution doesn’t take a position on this issue. Instead, it merely states the GND must involve “accounting for the true cost of emissions.” If you’re a carbon pricing advocate, you can read pricing into this. There are other ways to read it too.
Pricing advocates probably would have liked something a little more muscular here, but in the end, the instinct to avoid the fight entirely at this stage is the right one. The struggle over how or whether to prioritize pricing instruments can come later; it doesn’t need to be settled in advance to get people on board with the GND.
4) Supply-side policy
Most climate activists push to directly restrict the supply and distribution of fossil fuels — at the mine, well, or import terminal — with an eye toward phasing out fossil fuels entirely. “Keep it in the ground,” as the slogan goes.
This is the leading edge of the climate fight, out ahead of where labor and most moderates stand. Including it in the GND probably would have sparked some defections.
Hence, the GND resolution doesn’t touch the subject, other than calling for transition assistance for communities losing fossil fuel jobs. And it calls on the US to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions,” which theoretically allows for some fossil fuel combustion coupled with carbon removal.
The keep-it-in-the-ground crowd is in the same position as the all-renewables crowd: WE may feel some initial disappointment if our perspective is not championed in this resolution, yet we can take comfort in the fact that it is not excluded either. The resolution simply slates this fight is to take place within the broad GND coalition, rather than making it part of the price of entry into membership.
All four of these omissions or elisions — these fights postponed — signal a movement capable of reining in its more vigorous ideological impulses in the name of building the broadest possible coalition behind an ambitious climate solution. This bodes well.
The Green New Deal resolution omits a few key, wonky policies
There are a few things I would have liked to see featured more prominently in the resolution. They are somewhat nerdy, yet still important in climate policy.
1) Density and public space
Just about the only urban-focused element of the GND resolution is tucked into the transportation section, calling for “investment in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing, clean, affordable, and accessible public transit, and high-speed rail.”
That’s it. Boo!
Creating dense urban areas with ample public spaces and multimodal transportation options — deprioritizing private automobiles and reducing overall automobile traffic — serves multiple progressive goals.
It tackles the next big climate challenge, which is cars. It reduces urban air pollution, urban noise, and the urban heat island effect, while increasing physical activity and social contact, all of which improves the physical and psychological health of urban communities.
It addresses the housing crisis crippling many growing cities, pricing young people, poor people, students, and longtime residents out of walkable urban cores.
And, if you will forgive some dreamy speculation, a little more public space might just generate a sense of community and social solidarity to counteract the segregation, atomization, isolation, and mutual distrust cars and suburbs exacerbate.
I get GND proponents are spooked about being seen as “anti-rural,” which is why these kinds of plans always include education, training, and transition assistance for rural communities hurt by decarbonization.
And that’s great. But we also should remember their core demographics live in cities and are engaged in urban issues. Cities are central to any vision of 21st-century sustainability. They deserve a place of focus in a GND.
The climate policy community widely acknowledges deep decarbonization will involve rapid and substantial electrification. We know how to decarbonize electricity grids — so we need to get everything we can onto the grid.
That means two big things in particular:
First, the US vehicle fleet needs to be electrified as fast as practicably possible. The resolution’s “investment in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure” hints at this, but scarcely conveys the needed scale and speed.
Second, the millions upon millions of buildings in the US that use natural gas for heat need to find a zero-carbon alternative, and quickly. There are some zero-carbon liquid substitute fuels on the horizon, but for the time being, the best way we know to decarbonize HVAC (heating, ventilation, and cooling) is to rip out all those millions of furnaces and replace them with electric heat pumps. That’s a big, big job which will create a ton of work and directly involve millions of people’s homes and businesses.
The GND resolution would “upgrade all existing U.S. buildings and build new buildings, to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability.” Theoretically this could imply electrification, but I’d like to see it called out.
[UPDATE February 7, 2019: In between the leaked copy and the final resolution, a single phrase was added to the sentence quoted above: “including through electrification.” They’re reading my mind!]
The Green New Deal resolution has a few, er, aspirational inclusions
Most of the resolution consists of goals and policies anyone who takes climate change seriously will find necessary. But down toward the bottom of the list of projects, the resolution really lets its hair down and gets funky. Readers who make it that far into the document will find some eyebrow-raising doozies, such as:
No. 8: “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and disability leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.” There’s a job guarantee.
9: “strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment.” There’s a full-on right to unionize.
11: “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental protections to stop the transfer of jobs and pollution overseas and to grow domestic manufacturing in the United States.” There’s a liberal trade regime.
14: “ensuring a commercial environment where every businessperson is free from unfair competition and domination by domestic or international monopolies.” Here we’re going after monopolies too.
And just to fill in the remaining gaps, 15: “providing all members of society with high-quality health care, affordable, safe and adequate housing, economic security, and access to clean water, air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.” That is quite the addendum!
If you’re keeping score at home, the Green New Deal now involves a federal job guarantee, the right to unionize, liberal trade and monopoly policies, and universal housing and health care.
Start strong, bargain down
This is a resolution, not legislation. Providing universal housing and health care would require a couple of bills at least. How literally are these latter requirements meant to be read? How literally will those who sign on to the GND take them?
If we take these literally, then everyone who signs on should get a welcome letter from the Democratic Socialists of America. If we take these as an aspirational list of Good Things, as I suspect we will (especially given Markey’s involvement), then many arguments remain to be had about just what a GND endorsement means.
But it definitely means something concrete.
“The Green New Deal is what it means to be progressive. Clean air, clean water, decarbonizing, green jobs, a fair transition, and environmental justice are what it means to a progressive,” Sean McElwee said.
He’s the director of Data Progress, a young think tank whose work substantially informed the GND. “By definition, this means politicians who don’t support these goals aren’t progressive. We need to hold that line. Get on the GND train or choo-choo, motherfucker, we’re going to go right past you.”
Choo-choo, indeed. The Sunrise Movement protest got the GND train rolling, I think it is all to the good a muscular progressive movement rallies behind a program shaped by the problem at hand rather than by speculation about what might be politically possible. It is good to start from a position of strength.
And just to be clear, I’m a big fan of universal housing and health care. But at some point, we have to grapple with the fact a solution to climate change will require the support of people who may not be ready to join the democratic socialist revolution.
Given the two-year time window to get legislation ready, and the 10-year time window to kickstart multiple decarbonization revolutions, the chances of pulling off a full-scale political revolution beforehand seem remote.
So there will be much bargaining ahead, thus some of the dreamier GND requirements will go overboard for the time being. Perhaps universal health care will be tackled separately, and so on.
A whole other thing.
But take a step back and appreciate: The progressive movement has, in rather short order, thrust into mainstream US politics a program to address climate change wildly more ambitious than anything the Democratic Party was talking about even two years ago. One hundred percent clean energy, investment in new jobs, and a just transition have gone from activist dreams to the core of the Democratic agenda in the blink of a political eye. There’s a long way to go, but the GND train has come farther, faster than most predicted.
“We are going to transition this country into the future and we are not going to be dragged behind by our past,” Ocasio-Cortez said at the press conference Thursday.
With Trump and his attendant chaos, US politics is more disrupted, uncertain, and malleable than it’s been in my adult lifetime. Everything is up for grabs. The forces of ethnonationalism and fossil fuel myopia sense this malleability and are organizing to drag the country backwards. But this malleability can serve a humane progressive agenda as well; progressives just have to organize better than reactionaries.
The map has been drawn, the path laid out. Now it’s on.