Update 2/25/2019: The Senate is expected to hold a vote on the Green New Deal on Tuesday, March 26. Read more about the vote here. The following post, which has been lightly updated, was originally published on March 6.
The introduction of the Green New Deal resolution in Congress by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) has unleashed a cascade of events that have left Democrats poised on the edge of some fateful decisions, decisions that could determine how the Green New Deal and the larger effort to decarbonize the US economy are viewed in the coming election cycle.
Just after the resolution was introduced, a rush of Democrats endorsed it, including, at last count, at least six presidential candidates, 89 members of the House, and 12 senators. It surged on a wave of initial momentum.
This has made “moderate” Dems nervous. The natural inclination of “moderate” Democrats is to shy away from anything that conservatives decry as “extreme” or “socialist” and that the media thus portrays as “controversial” (i.e., almost everything).
And they are itching to flee again. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, with an unerring ability to smell weakness among his opponents, has scheduled a floor vote on the GND, hoping to draw differences among Democrats to the surface.
To his credit, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer has not backed down, instead challenging McConnell to affirm the reality of climate change. And Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) have called on McConnell to hold a full day of floor debate on the subject.
Into this clash of wills came Sen. Dianne Feinstein, newly reelected by the extremely climate-progressive state of California.
First there was a bunch of viral outrage about a February video showing Feinstein addressing some kids who had come to her office to ask her to endorse the GND. She told them, among other things, that the GND would not pass the Senate, the situation would not be turned around in 10 years, and they hadn’t voted for her anyway, what with being children.
(Here’s the longer version of the video; you can decide whether it’s exculpatory.)
But the more revealing move came later, when Feinstein released an alternate climate change resolution. The obvious goal was to give “moderate” Democrats a way out, something climate-related to support that is less offensive to the Washington pundit class of which they are so terrified. (Meanwhile, polling has found that the GND is broadly supported by majorities in both parties.)
The alternative resolution was first leaked, then posted to Feinstein’s site; then there was enormous backlash as activists flooded her office with letters, and then the resolution was taken down. Now Feinstein says it was never meant to be posted at all. (This botched rollout, oddly, received a tiny fraction of the media attention given to the GND’s errant FAQ.)
“I’m trying to draft another one, which might be more acceptable,” Feinstein told E&E News, “but it’s not done yet.” She hasn’t yet explained why an alternate resolution is necessary at all, given that hers is no more “paid for” than the GND, does not seem to be supported by leadership, and has no more prospects in Congress than any other climate plan. The only effect could be to divide Democrats.
Democrats face some fateful decisions on climate
Schumer and the Democrats must now decide what to do about McConnell’s vote and Feinstein’s potential alternate resolution. More to the point, they must decide what to do about climate change, and about the GND. Their choices in the months ahead will shape how the subject is seen in the 2020 election cycle and beyond.
They could stick together and show Republicans, and the public, that there is a new, stronger consensus behind reducing emissions. Or they could demonstrate that the party remains divided, weak, and hesitant — and that the GOP has plenty of room to continue cynically slow-walking the issue.
As a stopgap measure, last week Schumer introduced a joint resolution stating simply that climate change is real, it’s caused by humans, and Congress needs to do something about it. All 47 members of the caucus endorsed it.
“It’s not just that climate change is real and caused by humans. I think that was five years ago,” Schatz said to E&E News. “Congressional action is required, and that’s the key here.”
With respect to Schatz, who is a top-five senator on climate issues, I think this is wrong. “Climate change is real” and “caused by humans” were about 30 years ago. And that was also when Congress should have acted. The consensus Democrats are unanimously supporting is perilously behind the times, something that should have been settled decades ago.
What’s new is that activists have pushed the ultimate goal — total decarbonization of the US economy by midcentury — onto the political agenda.
That’s what the GND debate is about — not whether Congress needs to act, or particular policies, but whether the Democratic Party will clearly unite behind, and take seriously, the goal of fair and equitable economy-wide decarbonization by midcentury. Anyone who supports that goal — and every Democrat should — ought to unite behind and amplify the GND.
Democrats must heed the context
To understand the import of the decision, contemplate the context. I’ve already had my say about what I think GND critics are missing. It comes down to three key facts:
- Climate change is an extremely urgent, fast-moving catastrophe and the time left to adequately deal with it is rapidly diminishing. The status quo — a world with tepid-to-no US leadership — leads to disaster.
- The US political system is a dumpster fire; there’s no prospect of any cooperation from the right on any climate response of any remotely appropriate scale; “moderate” Democrats have found the balance of incentives and they lean toward slow, incremental action. The Venn diagram of adequate climate solutions and politically possible climate solutions is currently empty in America. The status quo leads to disaster.
- The only way to change the status quo is through power, and the only power available to progressives on this issue is people power — bodies in the streets, in congressional offices, and in voting booths. Any plan to address climate change must involve not just policy but the question of how to build people power around it and thus change the status quo.
This is the context that activists are pressing members of Congress to acknowledge, pushing on all fronts. They noticed that Feinstein had accepted a few donations from oil PACs that violate her “no fossil money” policy and wrote her a letter asking her to return them, which she subsequently did.
And on February 25, 250 high school activists from Kentucky flooded McConnell’s office to protest his plan for a show vote. He has since said he’ll delay it, perhaps getting to it sometime before August recess.
Take note: For all the scolding they are receiving from pundits, it is the activists with energy behind them. They are the ones pushing this story forward, holding Democrats to account and leaving them with fewer and fewer excuses, which is the whole point.
Schumer is in a familiar bind
Schumer is now trapped in a familiar bind: He has to decide whether to vote on something bold and ambitious, which could divide his caucus, or to continue dodging clear votes and rallying behind nonthreatening statements of purpose that will receive the full backing of his caucus but won’t excite anyone.
This is just another version of the trap Democrats have been in since 2010. Since there is zero prospect of Republican cooperation, being “realistic” about legislative goals means crafting them so they are acceptable to the rightmost member of the Democratic caucus. (Recall when Joe Lieberman single-handedly killed the public option in Obamacare.)
Currently, that’s Sen. Joe Manchin, the great champion of coal from West Virginia and, mysteriously, ranking member on the Senate Energy Committee. Here’s what he told E&E News:
“Everybody’s going to have to find out where they’re comfortable on [the Green New Deal],” Manchin told reporters yesterday. “It’s basically just messaging, which is strictly political posturing.”
Manchin reiterated his own view that technology should be developed to allow for continued and cleaner use of fossil fuels.
Yes, more fossil fuels! “That’s where we should be going to reduce our carbon footprint,” Manchin said, “and also hopefully developing more clean energy.”
It doesn’t seem like “and also hopefully developing more clean energy” is a slogan that will rally the troops. More bluntly, there is no adequate climate change solution, a plan bold enough to shake up US politics, that will get Manchin’s signature.
Moderate Democratic solutions have failed
Democrats, forced to either rally behind ambitious solutions that will fail in their own caucus or lower their sights enough to get the votes of “moderates,” have typically pursued the latter strategy. It is, according to conventional Washington wisdom, the savvy, realistic, and pragmatic strategy.
Except it’s been a total failure. The last large-scale advance in social welfare signed into law was Obamacare in 2010, and that passed the Senate (initially) with 60 Democratic votes and zero Republican votes. Republicans have vowed total zero-sum political warfare and followed through with remarkable consistency. It has benefited them enormously. They face little incentive to change course, even if Democrats win all three branches in November 2020.
A few Democrats of that era have come to grips with the failure of their theory of change, UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong among them. In his conversation with Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, he says:
Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy. He’s all these things not because the technocrats in his administration think they’re the best possible policies, but because [White House adviser] David Axelrod and company say they poll well.
Those were the moderate, pragmatic options, meant to harvest broad bipartisan support. Instead, once Democrats adopted them in earnest, they ran headlong into a wall of united opposition and ceaseless attack by the conservative media apparatus. They were all polarized down to the root; they all became “socialism.”
“We were certainly wrong, 100 percent, on the politics,” DeLong says.
Nothing has changed since then. Indeed, all the American right’s worst tendencies have been unleashed by President Trump, all its petty cruelty and lurid conspiracy theorizing. Republicans have never been less likely to give a major Democratic legislative push a fair hearing.
Nonetheless, older Democrats, especially, palpably wish for a return to Obama-era politics, normal politics, which they understand and know how to operate in. (They are not the only ones in the US political establishment with this fervent wish.)
If that happens, there will be no adequate climate change policy at the federal level. Period.
Without seriously bold moves from Democrats, climate legislation will go nowhere
Say a Dem wins the presidency, Dems keep the House, and Dems win, oh, a 51-vote majority in the Senate — which won’t be easy, even in 2020.
Any climate change legislation will either get nine Republican votes in the Senate (ha ha) or be filibustered and die. Done. That’s it for a real climate agenda.
That’s what Democrats who support the filibuster are implicitly promising: a return to Obama-era politics, in which Democrats propose things, Republicans block them, and in the subsequent void of accomplishment, political life is filled with impotent, symbolic partisan jousting, grievances and counter-grievances.
As for getting things done on climate change, that will leave executive action, the only real tool available to Obama for six of his eight years, and a thoroughly inadequate one.
Say Schumer scraps or seriously reforms the filibuster and Dems make Puerto Rico and DC into states, gaining four reliable Senate votes — which also won’t be easy.
Then you’re getting somewhere. But even then, something truly ambitious won’t get 50-plus votes in the Senate unless there is an organized, nationwide, people-powered movement behind it, putting bodies in the offices of lawmakers in every state and district, including the red ones, rallying constituents around a hopeful vision of transformation and renewal.
None of that is normal politics; all of it sounds risky and a little wild. But again: The status quo leads to disaster. Normal politics leads to disaster.
Schumer may be able to wriggle out of the trap this time with a banal resolution, but Democrats can’t play this game forever. They can’t say they take climate change seriously and then make “doing something” their metric of success. It’s two-faced.
Activists are forcing them to confront the contradiction. That, not particular policies, is what the GND is all about: forcing Democrats to take their own words, and the science, seriously.
The GND is not a policy blueprint
Among the many misunderstandings of the GND resolution upon its release was the notion that it was just another policy white paper. That’s how critic after critic approached it, as though it were a peculiarly vague and lofty policy proposal.
On those grounds, it’s terrible. It barely mentions any policies. It leaves out whole areas of important policy. It lacks concrete goals and timelines.
But the thing is, it’s not a policy proposal. It doesn’t ban cars or cows or planes, it doesn’t prohibit (or include) nuclear power, it doesn’t exclude (or include) a carbon tax. It contains no urban density policies, no R&D policies, no international policies. It contains no job guarantee or health care or housing or trade policies either. It contains no policies at all.
One more time, for the cheap seats: It is not, and was not meant to be, a policy blueprint.
All the pundits with “better” policy blueprints are shadowboxing, comparing apples and oranges.
The GND is, thus far, a nonbinding resolution, explicitly meant as a prelude to two years of intense policy development. It kicks off that development with a statement of intent: the goals that policies must achieve and the principles that policies must abide by.
When it comes to climate change, this is no small thing. If you acknowledge the basic imperative — to reduce the US economy to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner, in a fair and equitable way — a great deal follows about how you must make policy. For one thing, as the GND says, you must make it comprehensive and fast. Completely decarbonizing the US economy by 2050 is a gargantuan task. For any hope of success, progress must begin immediately.
Feinstein’s resolution reveals the contradiction at the heart of Democratic climate policy
Feinstein’s aborted resolution is an odd beast, neither fish nor fowl, replacing some of the GND resolution’s goals and principles with an unwieldy mix of goals and specific policies, again as though this were a matter of competing white papers.
If you squint at it just right, it’s not that different from the GND resolution. It stresses a just and equitable transition for all communities. It stresses the creation of good-paying jobs. And above all, it targets net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner.
The difference is in the urgency, or lack thereof. The GND is specifically meant to establish a 10-year crash program, starting in 2020. It does not, contra a million pieces of careless journalism on this, target economy-wide net-zero emissions within 10 years. (That would be impossible.) It establishes the goal of net-zero emissions in all economic sectors, but it does not set timetables — because, again, it is not policy. The point of the whole thing is to develop a 10-year program to get started on all of this.
In place of any kind of crash program, Feinstein has a list of what are, effectively, Obama climate policies: rejoin the Paris agreement, reinstate the Clean Power Plan, reinstate fuel economy standards, reinstate methane emissions standards for oil and gas drilling, etc.
Those are all worthy policies, but we know where Obama’s policies were heading. They would not have met America’s 2020 carbon emissions goal (17 percent below 2005 levels), much less the much more aggressive targets required for full decarbonization. And that was before Trump squandered four years. At this point, even repairing those policies could take a full presidential term.
So the overall effect of Feinstein’s resolution is jarring: a wildly ambitious goal alongside a list of incrementalist policies that manifestly will not achieve it.
And that has basically been the mainstream Democratic position on climate change, almost since the beginning. They acknowledge the lofty midcentury goal in their rhetoric and do nothing to support the kinds of policies that would make it achievable.
Why? Because the Joe Manchins of the party wouldn’t vote for those policies, and neither would a single Republican.
The GND resolution is an attempt to force Democrats’ hands, to bind the party to this goal once and for all.
Now is the moment for unanimity of intent; policy will come after
Critics on the right have imagined a bizarro-world GND into existence, and they are attacking that, as is their wont.
Spoiler alert: Critics on the right will do the same to literally any Democratic proposal. (And if lovers of the supposedly bipartisan carbon tax think the right can’t do the exact same thing to carbon taxes if they need to, they haven’t been paying attention.)
But critics on the left, broadly speaking, have done something not so different, reading all sorts of policies into the GND and descending into policy-ranking debates that put the cart before the horse.
The GND establishes aspirations: rapidly decarbonize the economy, invest in jobs and infrastructure, and manage the transition in a way that protects workers and especially vulnerable communities from the inevitable disruptions.
Feinstein’s resolution shares all these goals. Most Democrats share those goals. They should say so!
What about something like the job guarantee? When I talked to Rhiana Gunn-Wright, at the New Consensus think tank where GND policy is being hammered out, for this piece, she said the job guarantee could start as expansions of existing programs, or with regional pilots, or pilots focused on particular industries, and a national program could be bricolaged together over time. She is approaching the goal pragmatically.
In that and in the other GND aspirations, there is plenty of room for debate about which policies, how fast, how to prioritize, and so on. The GND does not bind Democrats to any particular answers to those questions. It is, explicitly, a nonbinding resolution.
It will all go through the policymaking sausage grinder eventually. But the differences over policy are not as large as the left’s (characteristic) infighting makes it seem. Everyone roughly agrees that climate policy will involve some sort of carbon pricing, a whole bunch nitty-gritty regulations (like performance standards), a large investment in RD&D, and a bunch of industrial policy — public investments in infrastructure, public works, and particular communities and industries, meant to guide private capital and innovation and address historic inequalities.
That’s what the GND will be, more or less what the 2008 climate bill was, and what climate policy almost always looks like in the real world. What differs is the scale, speed, priorities, and balance of elements — the distribution of pains and gains, who wins and who loses. That stuff remains to be determined.
The focus now should be on uniting around the goals.
Schumer would be wise to not to back down. Right now this is much more about dominance displays than it is about policy.
Tell McConnell to hold the vote any time. Issue a statement: “While we have plenty of disagreements over policy, we are united behind the Green New Deal’s goal of fully decarbonizing the US economy by midcentury, in a fair and equitable way. We understand that to achieve that goal, Congress must take action immediately.”
That leaves Democrats all the room in the world to argue over policy, when the time comes to actually make some. But it would also, for once, show Democratic unity and confidence in the face of Republican gaslighting.
That’s what this is all about. McConnell is still out attacking his imagined version of the GND, but he has also delayed the vote on it, which is telling.
Though Democrats seem constitutionally incapable of recognizing it, they have the political advantage on climate change. They are on the right side of history. They own the issue, and it’s not going away. Polls show a steady surge of opinion toward concern over climate change and support for clean energy (to say nothing of anger over income inequality and wage stagnation). Polls repeatedly show that the elements of the Green New Deal are wildly popular with the public, across parties.
The GOP position on climate policy is “they’re taking your cows!” because they’ve got nothing else to say about it. Even many Republicans are realizing that’s an untenable position.
For once, instead of tiptoeing hesitantly with their eyes over their shoulders on the latest polls, Democrats should show some confidence and leadership. They have science on their side and an exciting story to tell about economic renewal, jobs, and common purpose. It’s not Dems who should be scared of a serious debate on these subjects.
McConnell’s vote is entirely symbolic. Schumer should make it the right kind of symbol.