The Green New Deal Is Challenging This Old Myth About Fighting Climate Change

by Hannah Golden
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A startlingly ambitious proposal that could change the face of the climate change fight in the United States has been picking up steam among House Democrats. The Green New Deal, as it's called, is something of a legislative moonshot that, while still tentative, has become a goalpost for climate activists to create the kind of serious action that could stave off the worst effects of global warming. It's still far from certain if the Green New Deal will succeed, but experts offer some insights into what a deal like this could mean — and what it probably won't.

The excitement of the holidays has been all but doused by some gut-wrenching news about the condition of the climate, thanks to a massive 1,300-plus page report released by the government on Nov. 26 that laid out the catastrophic effects that climate change will have on the world in the coming years. Adding insult to injury, on Dec. 4, world leaders convened in Poland to come to grips with the fact that few countries are poised to meet their goals laid out in the Paris agreement that was meant to keep the globe on track for keeping the planet below the critical warming threshold. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency said in a report on Dec. 4 that carbon emissions had gone up for the first time in years. But the bright spot in all this is the Green New Deal — and its growing list of proponents in the incoming Congress.

The deal is the work of activist groups the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, has been spearheaded by incoming freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Among other things, it proposes a complete shift away from carbon-based fuel, investment in renewable energy, removing carbon from the atmosphere, and prioritizing job creation and protections for communities that would be most at risk to climate hazards. The draft had garnered the backing of 22 Congressional House Democrats as of Dec. 7, the Sunrise Movement told Elite Daily via email.

The political energy around the Green New Deal right now is unprecedented, says Ben Beachy, Sierra Club Living Economy Program director, in an interview for Elite Daily.

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The concept of a green New Deal (a nod to its mid-century predecessor) is hardly "new;" Beachy explains, but at the heart of all the various proposals is not just an aim to curb emissions, but to leverage the economic potential of green industries to both make progress on carbon reduction and stimulate financial growth and social benefits for communities at the same time.

"You cannot tackle climate change without addressing inequality and vice versa," he says. "The two are inextricably linked. Climate change hits first and worst many of the same communities that have been hardest hit under our current economy."

It's a played-out trope that we have to choose between clean air and water, and good jobs.

To that end, "The Green New Deal is a big economic transformation," Beachy adds. "Essentially it's the recognition that we've got to mobilize a large amount of public resources to tackle multiple crises at once."

Whereas the politically divisive issue of climate change has often pitted good economics and good environmentalism against each other, this deal shows that the opposite can be true.

"It's a played-out trope that we have to choose between clean air and water, and good jobs," Beachy says. On the contrary, "A green new deal would create millions of family-sustaining jobs. [Manufacturing employees] are the ones who'll be leading the way — they'll be manufacturing tomorrow's light rail system, improving buildings, replacing storm water systems ... there's a whole lot of work." More to the point, local-level communities have done this before, he notes: "This is not utopian." Another expert agrees.

Bella Tonkonogy, Associate Director of the the Climate Policy Initiative, echoes that solutions that benefit both economies and the planet aren't the stuff of science fiction.

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"We have seen record investment in renewable energy, driving growth in an number of regions," she says in an interview for Elite Daily. "It has not threatened economic growth — in fact, it really has supported economic growth in this country and around the world."

As a case in point: The Climate Lab, of which CPI is secretariat, has provided over $1.4 billion in financing for investable climate solutions, according to Tonkonogy, and some are so successful that they're continuing to attract private investment.

"[Economic] growth and climate action really should go hand in hand," she added.

Previous legislation under President Barack Obama made some headway to finance clean energy and tighten emissions standards, but an attempt to fold more serious financial infrastructure into the nation's fiscal dashboard failed around the Great Recession. Moreover, many of those Obama-era successes were rolled back under Trump and his administration. So the Green New Deal now, which takes a bold U-turn in climate policy that has been doing the backstrokes for nearly two years, faces an unlikely pathway to success — for now.

While the draft proposal, very much in its infancy, has picked up momentum among progressive Democrats, any such climate bill would need to get the approval of the Senate, which appears unlikely under current Republican majority (though Sen. Bernie Sanders has also reportedly started laying the groundwork for a similar bill for his chamber). Even if it passed this Congress, it's almost guaranteed that President Donald Trump would veto it, given that his administration has for the last two years systematically rolled back climate advances and denied the impact of climate change, even as laid out in his own government's report. Elite Daily reached out to the White House for comment on the deal and the president's stance on climate change, but did not hear back at time of publication.

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As of writing, the Green New Deal has a target date of January 2020 — when there is the chance of Democrats reclaiming the presidency and Senate — for a formal plan, with draft legislation to follow within 90 days. But before the 2020 target date, Tonkonogy says that if the Green New Deal itself can't pass this Congress, other measures could. "Better, cleaner infrastructure are areas that can move forward in the current political climate," she says, and adds that "continued local and state leadership are really driving this agenda."

I think we're on the cusp of something great.

Beachy says even if a bill doesn't pass, its very existence counts. "It helps us to lay the groundwork for bold policy change under a new administration," he says, and can inspire local-level efforts in the meantime. At the very least, it might start to change views among constituents — a paradigm shift that can take years to achieve.

I ask Tonkonogy if, given all the negative news around the fate of the planet, she still has hope. "Absolutely," she says without hesitation. "I wouldn't be working in this field if I weren't optimistic. There have been setbacks, but we are moving in the right direction."

"I'm really excited to see what happens in the next few years," she adds. "I think we're on the cusp of something great."