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Sen. Ed Markey: “We are now in the era of the Green New Deal”

The resolution’s co-sponsor explains his new approach to climate policy.

Senate Democrats Announce New Special Committee On Climate Change
Sen. Ed Markey.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

When it comes to the Green New Deal, most media attention has focused on first-term New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’s leading a leftist insurgency in the Democratic Party. But when she introduced the resolution to Congress last month — a resolution calling for a total, rapid, and equitable decarbonization of the US economy — it was with a co-sponsor by her side: Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey.

Democratic Lawmakers Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez And Sen. Ed Markey Unveil Their Green New Deal Resolution
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey introduce the Green New Deal.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Markey is no insurgent; he is a consummate Democratic insider. He has been in Congress for more than four decades, first elected to the House in 1976, then to the Senate in 2013. He’s got a long legislative record, famously including the 2008 Waxman-Markey climate bill, which passed the House before dying in the Senate in 2010.

That bill was later criticized — most notably by political scientist Theda Skocpol — for relying too heavily on insider, elite consensus and too little on a base of intense public support.

So it’s notable that Markey is now backing a very different kind of effort, in the form of the Green New Deal: an outside-in strategy relying on organization and people power.

Markey’s involvement doesn’t fit the media’s favored narrative that the GND is unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky socialism, so it doesn’t get discussed much. But I was curious about his take on exactly what’s in the resolution, what people have said about it, and how it might evolve — so I got in touch.

The senator says the resolution has sparked a wave of education and interest, drawing in other members of Congress (he cites Ron Wyden, raking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee) and shifting poll numbers among Democratic primary voters. He is undaunted by the criticism the resolution has received and believes that “we are now in the era of the Green New Deal.”

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Roberts

All right. I want to start with a few specific questions about the Green New Deal resolution, since there’s been a lot of fuzzy and inaccurate reporting. People have said a lot of strange things about it.

First, one of the things almost every story says is that the Green New Deal sets a target of completely decarbonizing the US economy within 10 years. Does the Green New Deal say that?

Ed Markey

The answer to your question, succinctly, is no.

[Markey then walks me through the resolution language. It establishes “zero net greenhouse gas emissions” as one of five primary goals. Then it says that the primary goals “should be accomplished within a 10-year national mobilization” involving various sub-goals and projects. But if you look at the sub-goals and projects, they say over and over again, “to the extent technologically feasible.” In other words, the goal is to do what is technologically feasible over the next 10 years — to get moving and get as far as possible.]

Imagine what we can accomplish if these are our goals! It is about being bold, following the science, and getting started now. That’s how the resolution should be read, very simply.

David Roberts

My understanding is that the zero net carbon goal [meaning the US emits only the carbon emissions that it can capture or reabsorb] is in line with what the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says, which is by midcentury or sooner.

Ed Markey

That is correct. That is what we are responding to: what the IPCC said is necessary. We put the IPCC finding in the resolution.

David Roberts

And the 10-year thing is not a deadline, just a crash program set up to get started.

Ed Markey

That is correct. The mobilization should be viewed in the same way that JFK said we were going to have a mission to the moon within 10 years. If we’d finished in 15 years, people would still be very proud of what the United States did. Or if it took 16 years.

It’s a goal, a vision for what the country should try to accomplish with a 10-year mobilization knowing that even then, more work will have to be done.

Activists have a request.
Sunrise Movement

David Roberts

Another thing I frequently see said about the Green New Deal is that it excludes nuclear power, or carbon pricing, or various other technologies or policies. The language [of the resolution] doesn’t mention those technologies or policies, but people seem to have read exclusion into that silence.

Ed Markey

As you correctly point out, the resolution does not mention nuclear power, it does not mention carbon capture and sequestration, it does not mention banning air travel, it does not mention banning beef in the United States. It does not mention any of those things.

The Republicans are doing what they did to the Affordable Care Act in 2009 by saying that there were death panels. They’re very good at telling the big lie. That’s what we’re confronted with here.

But the more people learn about [the Green New Deal], the more people understand that none of those things are, in fact, excluded. Nuclear power is not excluded, but it must compete with renewables. They are cheaper, but that’s the marketplace at work. We’re not excluding it.

David Roberts

There’s also the question of what to do about existing nuclear plants.

Ed Markey

And there’s nothing in the resolution about those nuclear power plants. To the extent they stay online, it helps to provide a long-term transition toward a fully renewable system. There’s no call for shutting down any existing nuclear power plant in the United States, with the exception of those found unsafe to operate.

But the resolution does not in any way say that nuclear cannot compete in the future, if there are economically and safely constructed new nuclear power plants.

David Roberts

The No. 1 source of opposition, or in some cases confusion, toward the Green New Deal has to do with its social, economic, and health policies — a job guarantee and universal health care and the rest. A lot of people want to know what the relationship is between carbon policy and those policies. What’s your take on that?

Ed Markey

When we were drafting the resolution, we looked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address, which he delivered in the form of one of his fireside chats. He laid out his plan to guarantee the third unalienable right: the pursuit of happiness. He said that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security.

So, because of the millions of veterans who were going to be returning after we finished winning World War II, he proposed the Second Bill of Rights, under which a new basis for security and prosperity can be established for all, regardless of station, race, or creed.

Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House, delivering a national radio address on January 11, 1944.
Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House, delivering a national radio address on January 11, 1944.
Wikimedia Commons

And he went through [the rights]. If they sound familiar, it’s because they’re in the Green New Deal: the right to a work in a job that pays enough to support a family, the right to earn enough to provide food and clothing and recreation, the right to a decent home, the right to medical care, the right to a good education, the right to do business in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition. He concluded by saying that all these rights spell security.

So that’s what we did [in the Green New Deal] — without saying Medicare-for-all, because that’s not in there; without saying free college for everyone, because that’s not in there. None of that’s in there.

David Roberts

What about the job guarantee? That seems pretty specific.

Ed Markey

We also have a guarantee for access to clean water. A jobs guarantee is in there in the same way a clean water access guarantee is in there, just saying: This should be something every American is entitled to.

The goal is to create these jobs by unleashing an incredible revolution. But we need to bring the full might of the federal government to bear in transforming our economy. We have to lift up all of our workers and protect those communities who have been most harmed by our fossil fuel addiction. That is why we mention frontline communities, why we mention minority communities.

When we reshape our energy system and our economy, we reshape our democracy, housing, health care, and jobs. These are not new principles. These are the Democratic Party’s core values, going back to FDR. Every president has used them in their acceptance speech, at every convention since 1944.

When you make a fundamental transformation in an economy, the big guys are going to do all right. It’s the job of the government to make sure that the little guys also get opportunities and protections. That’s the essence of the Green New Deal.

And if you don’t mind, they’ve now called a vote, and I have to run over ...

[20 minutes later, Markey calls back]

I just went over and voted on another bad judge.

David Roberts

Fair enough. Your name was on the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which was famously an inside-out effort, targeted at business and political elites, including moderate Republicans. The Green New Deal represents the opposite political strategy. What brought you from that strategy to this one?

Ed Markey and Henry Waxman, back in the day.
Ryan Kelly/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Ed Markey

Henry Waxman and I were the two most powerful environmental legislators in Congress. We had waited a generation to move on climate change. A moment arrived in January 2009 and we vowed that we would move on climate change, and do so in an expeditious, telescoped time frame.

There was no massive movement on the outside, but we had power on the inside, and we used it. The bill passed 219-212 on the House floor on June 26, 2009. [The bill then moved to the Senate, where it shed support and eventually died without ever receiving a vote.]

Today, the science is demanding that we be bold. The movement is demanding that we be bold. The marketplace is demanding that we be bold. And the Green New Deal has to be bold. We need to mobilize the outside to pressure the inside to move. I have the same goal I had in 2009, but the means to the end have to change to meet the political challenge of this era.

We need a movement to rise up to demand that the system — top to bottom, federal, state, local government, private sector — respond. We need a response equal to the magnitude of the crisis. That is what we are trying to create with the Green New Deal.

And the response is now manifesting itself in the polling in Iowa, in the polling the League of Conservation Voters did in the five earliest primary states, in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll of three weeks ago, where 63 percent of voters think Republicans are out of the mainstream on the issue of climate change. Voters actually think Republicans are more out of the mainstream on climate than on the issues of immigration, health care, and abortion.

That’s why now you’re seeing Republicans feel like they can no longer simply hide on climate at the behest of their fossil fuel backers. That’s what we saw on the Senate floor. When asked, each of these Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, say, “Yes, the planet is warming, and yes, it’s human activity causing it.”

Well, that’s all new in the last seven weeks! [laughs] And it’s in response to the incredible national conversation that has erupted since the day we introduced the Green New Deal. It’s only going to continue.

Polling on the Green New Deal from Data For Progress.
Polling on the Green New Deal from Data For Progress.
Data for Progress

David Roberts

Since the Green New Deal resolution was introduced, a flood of “moderates” have scolded it and thrown cold water on it from op-ed pages. [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi took a jab at it. [California Sen. Dianne] Feinstein attempted her alternate resolution. The center-left establishment seems almost as defensive and dismissive as Republicans. What do you make of your own colleagues’ reaction?

Ed Markey

All issues go through three phases: political education, political activation, political implementation. The Green New Deal is educating the whole country on what has already happened and what is technologically feasible and implementable if we put the right policies in place. So from my perspective, I think it’s a healthy process that we are going through.

Ultimately, the question isn’t whether every Democrat supports every aspect of the Green New Deal. It’s whether any Republican supports any action that’s meaningful on climate. That’s the real question.

David Roberts

The resolution lays out a broad set of goals and principles. What is the process of translating those goals and principles into an actual legislative package? Who’s doing it? Who’s in charge? How’s it going to work?

Ed Markey

Already, across Capitol Hill, proposals are being developed. Ron Wyden, the lead Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, came to the rollout of the Green New Deal with Alexandria and me. He made it quite clear that his top priority is to begin repeal of fossil fuel tax breaks and to substitute clean energy tax breaks. That would go a long way toward changing our energy future.

We’ve also made it quite clear that if there is an infrastructure bill, we’re going to make it a green energy bill. We’re going to be submitting amendments that ensure that bill has aggressive renewable energy resource and energy efficiency standards, and that there are higher and stronger standards for federal renewable energy procurement. The federal government plays a big role, the Defense Department plays a big role, and they should be purchasing much higher percentages of electricity from renewable sources.

And in the appropriations process, in each one of the individual areas of concern, we are going to have amendments that ensure that Republicans are put on record on this issue. It’s going to happen in the House; it’s going to happen in the Senate.

David Roberts

What is the role of New Consensus [the think tank, spun off from the group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez, that is now developing GND policy]? Are you working with them? How do they fit into the picture?

Ed Markey

Ideas are going to come in from all sorts of places, including New Consensus. All of it is going to be there for public debate as to which of the ideas are best to advance the Green New Deal agenda. We welcome ideas from every sector.

The beauty of what’s happened is that there are now people everywhere who are talking about how we can meet these goals: Professors from MIT and Harvard are calling in, private sector companies are calling in. Examples in Europe and other countries that we might be able to adapt for our own purposes are finally being heard in our country. It’s just a very exciting time, and New Consensus is part of it.

Again, every issue goes through the same education, activation, and implementation. You can’t short-circuit any part of it.

But I think the era of incrementalism on climate change is over. We are now in the era of the Green New Deal. It’s not going away. It is creating an incentive for governors to do more, for mayors to do more, for companies to do more. The polling says it has political legs that will drive it right into the election of 2020, and when that cycle is done, I think we’re going to see a much greater capacity for us to take the kind of action that we need.

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