Democrats are divided over the Green New Deal

Can newly elected progressives convince party leaders to embrace a bold climate agenda?

 

Last fall, on Nov. 13, more than 200 activists protested on Capitol Hill, demanding a Green New Deal — a massive economic stimulus package designed to create jobs, remake the U.S. energy system and fight climate change. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., waded into their midst, vaulting the movement to national prominence. As determined young protesters in matching brown T-shirts hunkered in front of the unoccupied desk of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holding signs reading “Step Up or Step Aside” and “Green Jobs for All,” Ocasio-Cortez addressed them.  

“I just want to let you all know how proud I am of each and every single one of you for putting yourselves and your bodies and everything on the line to save our planet, our generation and our future,” she said, as cameras rolled. Indeed, by day’s end, many protesters were arrested.

The Green New Deal is popular: According to a recent poll by Yale University and George Mason University, more than 80 percent of registered voters support the concept. But it’s also vague about details, and Democratic leaders are divided on how to respond. Even as newly elected progressives and activists push for sweeping policy change, the party’s established powerbrokers favor caution. How the party resolves this discord could determine whether climate change becomes a prominent issue in the 2020 elections — and what action Democrats are prepared to take on it, should their power expand. 

In early December, hundreds of young people occupy representatives’ offices, pressuring them to support a committee for a Green New Deal.
Rachael Warriner

BEFORE TAKING OFFICE, Ocasio-Cortez pressed Pelosi to create a Green New Deal select committee, which would have one year to design a job-creating solution to climate change. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal — crafted in partnership with the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee working to get corporate money out of politics — calls the transition away from fossil fuels “a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States.” A Green New Deal would include job training programs in renewable energy and guaranteed employment for all Americans.

“Climate change is an urgent issue,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., who campaigned on getting the country to 100 percent renewable energy and was an early supporter of the Green New Deal. “We have to do something now.” 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who introduced the Green New Deal, and early supporter of the bill, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., walk together outside the Capitol.
Tom Williams/AP Images

The Green New Deal’s massive scope and ambition — to wean the entire country from fossil fuels in just over a decade — comes in response to scientists’ ever more urgent warnings. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nations must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, or face increasingly catastrophic consequences. Yet the politics of climate change remain fraught — even among Democrats.

Democratic House leaders firmly rejected Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a select committee. According to E&E News, the Democratic chairs of existing committees bristled at the possibility of a new select committee usurping some of their own powers. Instead, House Speaker Pelosi reinstated the defunct Climate Crisis Select Committee, which is charged with investigating and recommending climate change solutions. However, it lacks authority to craft legislation, and its members will be allowed to accept campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry, something Ocasio-Cortez wanted to ban.

“The title is the only thing about the committee that begins to acknowledge the magnitude and urgency of the crisis we are in,” said Benjamin Finegan, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement.

In the office of Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-M.D., Benjamin Finegan expresses his anger at fossil fuel executives and politicians, while asserting optimism for the future.
Ken Schles

University of Oregon law professor Greg Dotson, who worked on climate policy for former Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., believes the party’s internal disagreement is a symptom of the growing pains it's experiencing as it regains power. “We are in an interesting situation where the Democratic Party agrees on the most important things, which are climate change is happening, it’s caused by humans, and we have to take action to address it,” Dotson said. “Because they’re coming out of the minority, how exactly to do that, they’re still working on.”

Although the Green New Deal select committee would have a new and specific mission, there are other ways to advance its goals. Democrats on House committees like Transportation and Energy and Environment have expertise on key climate issues, and could do similar work. “Advocates should understand that there’s a tremendous amount of institutional history and expertise on all the committees,” for even the most far-reaching goals of a Green New Deal, Dotson said.

But a new generation of climate change activists, including Finegan, dismisses the idea that the existing power structure can address the climate crisis. “I think that argument is politicians being politicians,” Finegan said. After all, for decades, politicians have known climate change was happening, but they’ve done little to stop it. It’s a frustration with the old guard that some early-career Democrats, like Ocasio-Cortez and Haaland, seem to share. “We should have done something decades ago,” Haaland said.

To be clear, even if a new committee were created, Green New Deal legislation would have a snowball’s chance in Phoenix of passing the Republican-controlled Senate, never mind being signed into law by President Donald J. Trump. Still, the debate matters: “For the next two years, the most successful outcome would be for the Democratic Party to come to a view on how to address climate change and the equity issues that the Green New Deal points to,” Dotson said.

The sooner that happens, the better. Leadership has never been more needed: In 2018, after years of decline, carbon dioxide emissions again surged in the United States, even as climate change’s impacts became harder to ignore.

Maya Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News, overseeing California, the American Southwest, the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands and the Southern Rockies. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • CORPORATE & GRANTS PARTNER MANAGER
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation Corporate Partnerships Manager February 2020 www.ForeverOurRivers.org Forever Our Rivers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed in late 2016 with the mission...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.