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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is already pressuring Nancy Pelosi on climate change

The struggle is on for control of the long-term Democratic climate agenda.

Sunrise Movement protest
Protesters have a simple question for Nancy Pelosi.
Nelson Klein, Sunrise

On Tuesday, close to 200 climate activists crowded into the Capitol Building offices of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who will re-assume the position of House speaker when the new Congress is sworn in come January.

The activists called on Pelosi to lead Democrats in developing an ambitious, comprehensive plan to address climate change — a Green New Deal. Halfway through the protest, rising Democratic star and Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visited to show her support, which drew a torrent of media coverage.

New Dem star protests speaker on first day of freshman orientation! The media loved it.

I’ll be honest, though. I’ve seen intra-left disputes on climate change reprise themselves over and over again, to no one’s benefit, and when I heard about this protest, I felt a twinge of dread. Why target Pelosi, who has always been a climate champion? And how is she supposed to have a comprehensive climate plan already when she hasn’t even taken the gavel? Aren’t there worse enemies of the climate to protest?

But I talked it out on Twitter, emailed with a few of the organizers, and now have a better handle on what’s going on. And it turns out to be quite a bit richer and more significant than what you might get from the headlines.

As I said in my Monday post on Democratic climate strategy in a polarized era, there are three basic prongs of a unilateral left strategy. The first is using House congressional committees to investigate and slow President Trump’s deregulatory agenda. The second is accelerating policy innovation in states that Democrats control.

And the third is defining a long-term, comprehensive federal climate agenda for when/if Democrats regain the power to implement one. That is why climate activists swarmed Pelosi’s office. The left is making an early bid to set the highest bar possible for the 2020 Democratic climate change agenda.

Here’s how it unfolded and what’s at stake.

Sunrise Pelosi protest with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
AOC thanks climate protesters.

A proposal to create a committee on steroids

Climate hawks received a few disconcerting signals in the wake of the midterm elections (which turned out to be a much bigger victory for Democrats than they appeared early on).

A piece in the Hill reported that House Democrats had no plans to move on climate change, which appeared nowhere in their list of priorities. Meanwhile, Pelosi, who is very much intent on keeping her speakership, started talking the day after the election about a “bipartisan marketplace of ideas,” which is not exactly what you’d call reading the room.

Pelosi had signaled that she planned to revive the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (2007-2011, RIP), but activists and the incoming class of social democrats wanted something much bolder. They needed something to rally around.

And here it is: AOC plans to introduce a draft resolution that would put parameters around the committee, its work, and its membership. It is ... bold, to say the least.

The resolution — supported by the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, two youth-led organizations pushing for a Green New Deal — has a number of interesting provisions, but two demands are central: that the committee be given a mandate to develop a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the US economy, and that no members be appointed who accept donations from the fossil fuel industry.

Specifically, the committee “shall have authority to develop a detailed, national, industrial, economic mobilization plan for the transition of the United States economy to become carbon neutral and to significantly draw down and capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and oceans and to promote economic and environmental justice and equality.” It would be required to produce a draft plan by January 1, 2020, and draft legislation by March 1, 2020.

In other words, the committee must produce a package of legislation ready to move if Democrats take power in the 2020 elections.

Here are the goals the resolution sets for the Green New Deal:

(1) 100% of national power generation from renewable sources;
(2) Building a national, energy-efficient, “smart” grid;
(3) Upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety;
(4) Decarbonizing the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries;
(5) Decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure;
(6) Funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases;
(7) Making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to completely carbon neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.

That ... pretty much covers it! It’s difficult to imagine how you could get any more ambitious than that.

Of course, every one of those bullet points represents dozens of policies and thousands of implementation challenges. Wonks like me look at this list and we wonder about the details. We wonder so hard, our hair tingles.

But that’s not really the point, at least for now. The point is this represents perhaps the first time in US history that a Democrat has proposed a plan for addressing climate change that actually scales to the problem and has some chance of influencing the party’s agenda.

House Holds Hearing On IPCC Climate Change Findings
Pelosi testifies at a House hearing on climate change — way back in 2007.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But there’s more. The resolution is equally ambitious on the subject of equity. It says that the Green New Deal “is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.”

To that end, it instructs the committee to develop a plan that would include a job guarantee, measures to combat income inequality and racial injustice, and maybe a universal basic income (UBI) for good measure.

Here’s the full list of equity provisions:

(i) provide all members of our society, across all regions and all communities, the opportunity, training and education to be a full and equal participant in the transition, including through a job guarantee program to assure every person who wants one, a living wage job;
(ii) take into account and be responsive to the historical and present-day experiences of low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, rural and urban communities and the front-line communities most affected by climate change, pollution and other environmental harm;
(iii) mitigate deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth (including, without limitation, ensuring that federal and other investment will be equitably distributed to historically impoverished, low income, deindustrialized or other marginalized communities);
(iv) include additional measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs and any others as the select committee may deem appropriate to promote economic security, labor market flexibility and entrepreneurism; and
(v) deeply involve national and local labor unions to take a leadership role in the process of job training and worker deployment.

As iv demonstrates, this is about much more than carbon. It doesn’t separate out the climate problem from society’s other ills, as climate wonks have so often advocated. It sees environmental, economic, and social problems as intertwined, with a common set of solutions.

It’s a full-spectrum vision of a sustainable social democracy — a level of progressive ambition that most US citizens have likely never encountered.

As for how to pay for this, all the resolution says is that funding will primarily come from the federal government, “using a combination of the Federal Reserve, a new public bank or system of regional and specialized public banks, public venture funds and such other vehicles or structures that the select committee deems appropriate, in order to ensure that interest and other investment returns generated from public investments made in connection with the Plan will be returned to the treasury, reduce taxpayer burden and allow for more investment.”

So that’s AOC’s proposal: a committee on steroids, charged with developing the most ambitious national climate plan in history, with equity at its heart.

A Democratic alley-oop

Political media desperately want the story of this protest, and AOC’s participation in it, to be another chapter of “Dems in Disarray.” But the truth is close to the opposite: This was a case of the Democratic base and leadership working together for mutual benefit. It was one big alley-oop.

Here’s how it went down.

Sunrise and Justice Democrats were planning a protest to push Pelosi on climate. AOC and her staff, who are in close touch with the activist left, suggested that protesters need something concrete to rally around, some specific demands; that’s why they wrote this draft resolution.

So protesters go to Pelosi’s office — where the cameras will be — as a show of force, to demand that Dems stop taking fossil fuel money and start planning for a real climate solution. AOC then comes to visit and support the protest, thus bringing more attention and more cameras.

Together, they help thrust climate change into the news cycle and get the term “Green New Deal” published in most of the nation’s newspapers, a fairly adroit bit of agenda-setting in a hostile media environment.

As for Pelosi? It would not surprise me at all to find out that she knew it was coming — was maybe even in on it. At the very least, she welcomed it and gave it further publicity:

Of course, this falls far short of accepting the protesters’ demands. (There will be much more intra-Dem negotiation before anything like that happens.)

But Pelosi is signaling to Democrats on her right that she is being pressured from the left on climate change, that this is where the energy and enthusiasm is among the party’s most active young supporters, that Dems will get hounded endlessly if they don’t act on this. She and AOC are working together on this, not at odds.

Now the trick is to build more pressure. “Right after we left Pelosi’s office,” Evan Weber of Sunrise tells me, “we went to the offices of Raul Grijalva, Mark Pocan, Pramila Jayapal, and Ro Khanna to ask for their support for the resolution.”

So far, Reps. Khanna, Rashida Tlaib, and Deb Haaland have endorsed the resolution. The movement is pushing for more and believes, according to Weber, “there is actually an opening to have this resolution included in the rules for the new Congress.”

This is how activism is supposed to work. The climate left sent the signal it needed to send — that it is mobilized and fully willing to be a pain in the ass — and Pelosi was happy to amplify it. The political world heard.

It is an inverted mirror image of the Tea Party: Rather than trying to bring out the worst in Republicans, activists are trying to bring out the best in Democrats.

The future of Democratic climate policy

I admit, I have trouble envisioning the resolution passing in anything like its current form — it’s such a quantum leap from where the party currently stands. But I have proven an abysmal political prognosticator in recent years and no longer presume to predict anything. Maybe it will pass!

Regardless, it strikes me as a significant development in US politics that there is finally a constituency for full-scale mobilization on climate change — for making decarbonization a top national priority. At long last, there is an actual climate left! Perhaps that label will no longer be applied to a bunch of hapless wonks and economists.

Just as the Republican House climate caucus is shrinking, the Democratic House climate caucus is growing. And as it grows, its ambitions increase. The Overton window is shifting before our eyes.

In the long term, Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats tells me, the movement will focus on “repeating the success we had in recruiting, training, and helping elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” The idea, he says, is to “build a caucus of like-minded, mission-driven legislators who will fight tirelessly for solutions that match the urgency and scale necessary to tackle the systemic crises in our country.”

Suffice it to say, that won’t be easy. There are many among the 200-and-some House Democrats who are not going to look with delight on the prospect of supporting a huge, deficit-financed investment plan that includes a job guarantee and possibly a UBI. And that’s to say nothing of how Democratic senators might feel on the subject. Centrist and more conservative Democrats from purple states will not go gentle into this good night.

But now the 78 percent of Americans who say they support a clean energy transition have something to rally around. Now there is an actual left flank on climate change, a coalition of civic groups and elected officials who take the IPCC’s warning — that we have only 12 years left to take transformative action on climate change — seriously.

And like it or not, having a left flank will inevitably mean that Democrats in positions of power come under pressure and suffer criticism.

”Today’s Republican Party is an organized alliance between fossil fuel billionaires and white supremacists. They must be stopped, and we are not confused about this in the least,” says Weber. “Stopping the Republican Party does not mean unconditionally supporting everything that Democrats do; to the contrary, it means fighting for the party to lead vocally and unapologetically on issues that matter to the majority of Americans.”

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