As you may be aware, the planet on which you live has entered a perpetual state of being more or less on fire. And over the next few decades, scientists warn, the planet will somehow become even more on fire, unless we—the United States, sure, but also the other 194 countries in the world, all of whom must constantly renegotiate the precise terms of their ever-more-fragile earthly coexistence—do something drastic. Fast.
One such proposed intervention is a so-called Green New Deal, championed of late most prominently—but certainly not solely—by congresswoman-elect and living right-wing nightmare Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. "This is going to be the Great Society, the moonshot, the civil rights movement of our generation," she said during a town hall convened by Bernie Sanders on Monday. "That is the scale of the ambition that this movement is going to require."
What Ocasio-Cortez's version of a Green New Deal is and what it might become are two very different things. The long-term goal is to deliver the comprehensive piece of environmental and economic legislation in American history: an unholy mash-up of Roosevelt's Great Depression-era New Deal, an An Inconvenient Truth fever dream, and the Great Recession stimulus, infused with trillions of federal dollars and unleashed on an unsuspecting, carbon-belching nation. The short-term goal is...to form a congressional committee to study the possibility of doing those things someday. The Green New Deal, in other words, is an idea for an idea, and Ocasio-Cortez and company want to spend the 116th Congress fleshing it out.
According to that recent terrifying UN report, avoiding the most catastrophic consequences of global warming requires reducing 2010-level greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. Ocasio-Cortez's proposal is even more ambitious, aiming for the complete decarbonization of the American economy, including the energy production sector, within 10 years. To that end, she wants a House select committee to study the issue, hear from experts, investigate potential interventions, and then distill their findings into a concrete plan by January 1, 2020. And unlike previous big-picture climate change initiatives that have gone exactly nowhere, this committee would also be required to author an honest-to-God bill—something on which the House and Senate could vote—no more than 90 days after that.
About that bill, though: the committee wouldn't be responsible for passing it during this session of Congress. (In fact, the Ocasio-Cortez proposal actually prohibits the committee from taking action on this or any other piece of legislation.) This stipulation reflects the committee's exploratory fact-finding mission, as well as the political reality that no matter what the House does, a climate science-denying Republican senate and White House would almost certainly preclude its passage.
The strategy, instead, is to have a specific, substantive, and empirically-backed proposal on which Democratic candidates could campaign in 2020. (After three years of watching party leadership fail spectacularly to come up with a hashtaggable slogan on par with "Make America Great Again" or "Build That Wall," "Green New Deal" would be, like, eight gigantic steps in the right direction.) And if voters respond by delivering the White House and the Senate to Democrats, the party could waste no time implementing the plan when the new Congress begins in January 2021.
The Green New Deal includes one other gigantic feature that previous climate change-adjacent initiatives did not: a jobs guarantee. (That's the "New Deal" part of the title.) The committee's mandate requires that the plan—and the legislation—provide for full equality of opportunity, in the form of "a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to everyone who wants one." It also encourages the committee to incorporate into its recommendations policies like universal basic income and single-payer healthcare, if it finds that they would serve its purpose.
If the Green New Deal succeeds where its predecessors have failed, this s how it will do so: by framing badly-needed but decidedly unsexy environmental legislation as the biggest, best "jobs bill" imaginable. People may have grown weary of the latest, shrillest warnings about rising sea levels; if you're worried about stagnating wages, the consequences of climate change can feel impossibly distant. But if the task of addressing global warming means that they get a job, and training, and health insurance along the way? Suddenly, everyone has a personal and vested interest in saving the planet.
A Green New Deal bill could solve one of the most vexing problems that plagues the efforts of climate change activists: Schemes to reduce reliance on fossil fuels inevitably imperil a certain set of jobs, which are backed by powerful labor unions that work to preserve their future. President Trump is physically unable to set foot in Pennsylvania without screaming about "clean coal," an oxymoronic rallying cry embraced by those who depend on the mining industry. By focusing throughout on the legislation's economic impact—and creating new jobs to replace the ones it may kill—the Green New Deal committee might be able to mitigate this concern.
The second problem the Green New Deal targets is the prevailing conservative argument against global warming legislation that isn't outright science denial: The idea that the problem is simply too complex, and that since no consensus solution exists, it is prudent to sit on our hands and wait for Waterworld to become real life. Having a tangible bill that everyone could debate and judge on the merits would eliminate this cynical appeal to abstraction and/or helplessness. And there's buy-in: More than a dozen Democrats, from elder statesman John Lewis to freshmen representatives Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, have already declared their support.
There is some opposition from within the party, but it basically centers on the possibility that a select committee could undermine the existing Congressional committees that Democrats will soon inherit. "We've got people who are in charge of these committees who are very progressive, and I just don't see the need for the select committee," says Frank Pallone, the incoming chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. "We can have grand goals," adds Peter DeFazio, who will head the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, "but let's be realistic about how we get there."
Pallone and DeFazio boast solid progressive voting records of their own, and there's little reason to doubt that they care about this issue, too. But only in Congress could a group of 435 people entrusted with the fate of this country look at a looming global catastrophe and decide that addressing it isn't worth the trouble of rejiggering entrenched responsibilities. The whole point of select committees is to "examine emerging issues" that "cut across jurisdictional boundaries"; frankly, the fact that no committee has the clear authority to draft a Green New Deal-esque bill sounds like a good argument for creating one.
Speaking of which: Both Pallone and DeFazio have served in Congress for longer than Ocasio-Cortez has been alive, and despite their best efforts during periods of both Democratic and Republican leadership, the planet's prognosis has failed to improve. These results constitute pretty compelling evidence that it is time for legislators to consider taking a different approach. No one, including Ocasio-Cortez, knows if the plan will yield anything better than the status quo. But it's hard to imagine how it could be worse.