Amid raging California wildfires, rising sea levels, and a sudden wave of Democratic power in Congress, the idea of a Green New Deal to create millions of new jobs combating the climate crisis is surging.
In her first day of orientation as a new member of Congress, on November 13, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood with around 200 protesters in Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding just such a deal in the upcoming Congress. “This is about uplifting the voice and the message of the fact that we need a Green New Deal and we need to get to 100 percent renewables because our lives depend on it,” she told reporters outside Pelosi’s office.
As news of the protest proliferated, Pelosi soon backed the move via Twitter, albeit in general terms. “Deeply inspired by the young activists & advocates leading the way on confronting climate change. The climate crisis threatens the futures of communities nationwide,” wrote Pelosi. Despite Pelosi’s friendly words, 51 young Sunrise Movement activists were arrested and later released.
Since then, Sunrise Movement, which has been waging feisty actions to propel the Green New Deal forward, has kept up the momentum—and the pressure. On November 19, Sunrise activists in Rhode Island disrupted a speech by Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez, demanding that party leaders “pledge and adopt a #GreenNewDeal into the party platform.” Today, hundreds of young people will be fanning out across the country, protesting at congressional representatives’ offices, as part of a national day of action.
Support for a Green New Deal is building, both on the streets and inside Congress. In the past week, nearly a dozen members of the House—mostly newcomers like Representative Rashida Tlaib, but also a handful of sitting representatives like Ro Khanna, John Lewis, and Jared Huffman—have backed a proposal by Ocasio-Cortez for a select committee for a Green New Deal. This committee would be tasked with drafting a 10-year green jobs and infrastructure plan to radically reduce carbon emissions while expanding living-wage jobs. As detailed on Ocasio-Cortez’s website, “The select 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.”
It’s an ambitious plan and an inspiring one, even as questions abound: What exactly would this Green New Deal look like? Will Democrats and their leadership make this blend of environmental salvation and economic justice a top priority and lend it all their political will? Or will they remain far behind the climate-change curve, soft-pedaling moderate reforms? And even if they push it forward, what’s Plan B when the Republicans stifle it in the Senate?
As the Green New Deal hoopla builds, it’s important to understand what it actually means. More than a decade in the making, the Green New Deal has many iterations, spanning from technocratic to transformational. It’s a giant policy bucket that includes “clean tech” job incentives and credits, energy-system overhaul, massive expansion of renewable energy, green urban public works, agroforestry, and more.
The immense potential of green jobs is well-documented. According to a 2018 report by Data for Progress, an expansive plan could generate “10 million new jobs over 10 years” through a mix of employment and training programs. In fact, one study, by the International Trade Union Confederation, estimates that “spending 2 percent of annual GDP on the green economy could create over 15 million green jobs in 5 years.”
For sheer job creation, green economy and clean energy production far outflank fossil fuels, the report found that “In 2017, there were 800,000 Americans employed in low-carbon emission generation technologies, and 2.25 million employed in energy efficiency. This compares to only 92,000 for coal-fired generation.” Solar industry jobs “have grown 168 percent over the past seven years.”
These jobs run the gamut from “entry-level” to highly trained work and include everything from tree planting and building weatherization to wetlands restoration, sustainable agriculture and soil restoration and modernizing and expanding renewable energy grids. Refuting facile stereotypes of green jobs as an elite privilege, a 2016 Brookings Institution report concluded, “The clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low- and middle-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a Green New Deal committee builds on these ideas. While she is not the first to put forward the notion—in 2007, Pelosi established a select committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming that covered some similar terrain (until it was killed by Republicans in 2011)—her proposed committee offers considerably more muscle, including legislative authority and investigative powers.
The goals laid out by Ocasio-Cortez’s plan are bold and expansive: generating 100 percent of the nation’s power from renewable sources, building a national, energy-efficient “smart” grid, and “upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety.”
True to her democratic-socialist roots, she also infuses the plan with a call to “mitigate deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth”—a dictum that was not lost on Emma Bouton, co-coordinator of Sunrise Rhode Island. “The focus on equity within the resolution is particularly exciting,” Bouton said in a press release. “By explicitly addressing racial and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth and connecting the ‘Green New Deal’ to other policies such as a federal jobs guarantee and universal healthcare, the plan has the potential to be transformative.”
Yet, for all the promise of Ocasio-Cortez’s plan—and of a Green New Deal more broadly—it remains to be seen whether Democrats will rise to the opportunity. Along with the support, there has been some pushback, even among progressives in Congress, like Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), who told HuffPost, “The resolution is a wonderful statement of urgency, you’ve got to take this seriously and you’ve only got 10 years to do it…. I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is the mechanisms of how you’re going to get this done. A select committee? Great. Now what?”
At the same time, competing priorities (to say nothing of raw political calculation) have a way of crowding out even the most promising ideas. In September, for instance, Pelosi “[p]reemptively boxed in any potential left-populist agenda on Capitol Hill by backing reinstatement of a ‘pay-go’ rule to offset all new spending with tax increases or budget cuts,” according to a “Democratic Autopsy” report. This austerity-minded agenda, along with the Democrats’ chronic support for bloated military spending, threatens to hamstring a Green New Deal along with other essential domestic progress toward economic equality and ecological sustainability.
No less ominous: Earlier this year the Democratic National Committee dropped its ban on fossil fuel–industry campaign contributions earlier—clogging the political path to a Green New Deal and climate-related reforms with yet more energy-industry dollars.
Still, Democrats would be smart to embrace Ocasio-Cortez’s Select Committee proposal—and with it, the kind of Green New Deal that would deliver both massive carbon reduction and nationwide jobs stimulus. It’s not only vitally important, it’s also smart politics. For one thing, surveys show strong majorities of Americans support investments to create green jobs that address the climate crisis.
More important, a Green New Deal could create living-wage jobs in states that are especially dependent on (or prolific in) fossil-fuel extraction—such as top coal-producers Wyoming, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and oil and gas behemoths Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska, and North Dakota. Most of these top energy-producing states also lead the way in per capita energy consumption, meaning they are locations of environmentally destructive production and consumption.
Creating environmentally beneficial living-wage jobs in fossil-fuel states where so many industrial workers are struggling should be a no-brainer.
One way to pay for this green, job-generating stimulus would be a carbon tax, as has been proposed in the recent past by Representative Jim McDermott and Senator Bernie Sanders, among others. As the Carbon Tax Center explains, taxing America’s 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year could raise $250 billion—a heap of cash that could be spent on a range of ecological public works, renewable energy grid expansion, and more.
As climate chaos bears down on us, and as millions of Americans struggle with economic insecurity and precariousness, despite some glittery top-level job numbers, Democrats need to offer a bold vision, not just defensive postures. The Green New Deal may seem a dazzling political mirage, but it’s utterly essential, and politically wise. President Trump and the Republican Senate will reject anything the Democrats put forward. So why not try to save the planet, and create millions of living-wage jobs in the process?Student activists with the Sunrise Movement occupy Nancy Pelosi's office to demand that she and the Democrats act on climate change on November 13, 2018, in Washington, DC. (Shutterstock / Rachael Warriner)