With Extra Calories, Please
The Green New Deal’s meaty focus on economic and racial justice makes it a political liability for no one but a narrow elite.
Like everything Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez touches, the long-anticipated joint resolution for a Green New Deal has sparked a media firestorm in Washington. Less than twenty-four hours after the resolution text was released and a press conference held, the proposal had already been castigated on the op-ed pages of Very Serious beltway outlets, dismissed by Democratic Party leadership, and met with cackling glee from Republicans in small, fossil fuel-rich states. While criticism from these groups varies, there is one notable common thread: each claims the Green New Deal proposes things that simply don’t belong in the realm of “climate policy”—things like a federal job guarantee, the right to unionize, liberal trade and monopoly policies, and universal housing and health care. Trying to stuff all these lefty goals into a single piece of legislation directed at a particular problem, the argument goes, invites political defeat by asking for pipe-dream accessories that will hemorrhage popular support.
Rhiana Gunn-Wright—the mastermind behind nascent think tank New Consensus—and others have done an excellent job of explaining why these arguments are bunk morally. The whole point of avoiding climate change, after all, is to protect the most destitute, so a climate program that offers nothing but endless austerity is not one worth pursuing. But there are also reasons to think that centering a jobs guarantee and massive public investment also make sense strategically.
Let’s start with the obvious. By any measure of public opinion, the Green New Deal is massively, massively popular. Two of its key elements—a jobs guarantee and a carbon tax levied on polluters—both enjoy two-thirds of the public’s support. More recent surveys have found even greater enthusiasm: eighty-one percent of registered voters say they favor a “Green New Deal...[that would] generate 100% of the nation’s electricity from clean, renewable sources within the next 10 years; upgrade the nation’s energy grid, buildings, and transportation infrastructure; increase energy efficiency; invest in green technology research and development; and provide training for jobs in the new green economy.” This includes fifty-seven per cent of self-described conservative Republicans. (Contrast this with the Republican tax bill, which passed while polling in the 30s). With polling numbers like these, it’s hard not to suspect that West Wing-happy Politico writers declaring the GND politically dead on arrival might be projecting their own beliefs, just a little.
But maybe I’m being too cynical. Maybe there are some center-left folks out there who genuinely believe in good faith that support for the Green New Deal will crater once it becomes defined along party lines, that there is an incremental alternative the public will favor more, that a House Republican caucus which previously thrice rejected a carbon tax by a ninety-point margin will spring for a compromise like the Citizen Climate Lobby’s proposal, which makes barely half of the emissions cuts scientists say are needed by 2030 to avert collapse. Maybe the good Pod Save America listeners of our time are worried that voters will see provisions geared towards poverty, housing, and health care, and buy the GOP’s argument that the whole thing is a trojan horse for statism: that it’s best to stick to “real” climate policy that draws down emissions with laser-like focus without “getting lost in a partisan and ideological war over capitalism and the economy,” as a beltway think-tanker recently put it.
Picking up on liberal nervousness around the Green New Deal, fossil fuel advocates are attempting to lure them back to the center with the siren song of a potential compromise. Take Rich Powell, for example. The executive director of ClearPath, a right-wing think tank dedicated to grifting public money for inefficient carbon capture projects, Powell has been quoted all over the place in Hill coverage of the GND rollout, hinting that the fossil fuel industry may finally be ready to come to the table. “The Green New Deal is not an ideal name if you want to attract bipartisan support,” he told Politico last month. “There’s a lot of distrust of these home-run giga-packages. It’s been a lot more effective to try to hit some singles and doubles.” This month, the flirting intensified: Powell hinted to Politico after Ocasio-Cortez’s press conference that “there appears to be enough of a political middle to strike bipartisan deals...It seems like a lot of folks are tacking toward a more moderate position on this.” If only Democrats could reign their base in—then we could make some progress.
If you think that Rich Powell isn’t full of shit, you simply haven’t been paying attention to American climate politics over the past fifteen years. Powell’s quotes could have been taken word-for-word from the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), a coalition of environmental non-profits, fossil fuel companies, petrochemical firms, and other energy-intensive giants. Back then, the thinking among climate-conscious Democrats was this: if potential adversaries were approached before any legislation was introduced, a plan could be negotiated and worked out behind the scenes in order to avoid unexpected drama later. Statements by industry representatives ostensibly supporting a marked-based cap-and-trade approach further buoyed confidence among congressional Dems that they had achieved a major political breakthrough by identifying common ground.
Yet, while politically attractive, this thinking had one major flaw: it assumed that Exxon and their allies were coming to the table because they genuinely supported a cap-and-trade regime to the status quo. In reality, as political scientists such as Jake Grumbach note, oil and gas companies joined the USCAP not because they supported climate legislation, but because they felt that coming to the table would allow them to hedge their bets and water down any bills the Democrats were cooking up. Meanwhile, these same companies were secretly funding anti-climate policy front groups through the back door. When the cap-and-trade bill that became known as Waxman-Markey finally hit the floor of Congress in spring of 2009, these front groups pounced, exploiting the Tea Party backlash against the Obama administration to paint the bill as a socialist plot that would bankrupt ordinary Americans. Once it was clear that these groups had drawn blood and the bill was unlikely to pass the Senate, fossil giants no longer had any need to put up a facade: in February 2010, BP, Conoco-Phillips, and many other corporations ditched the USCAP, officially crossing sides to join the opposition. Waxman-Markey ultimately met an undignified end.
Grumbach is not alone in identifying the poverty of the USCAP’s oil-grubbing approach: many other longtime analysts have lambasted the strategy that just won’t go away. Grumbach’s colleague, legendary political scientist Theda Skocpol, similarly chastised greens involved in USCAP for failing to anticipate the magnitude and intensity of conservative opposition that would emerge in response to any climate bill, thanks to the fossil fuel industry’s ability to “leverage the institutional might of a political party.” As long as the Republican Party remains in the grip of the fossil fuel industry—as all evidence indicates it does—single-party efforts are the only game in town. Climate policy design at the very most, then, should gesture towards actual swing voters outside the Beltway: voters who are, as the evidence suggests, far from opposed to government intervention.
Another reason to stick with the GND-style approach is more simple: austerity climate policy doesn’t work. Countless attempts to build durable climate policy via a barebones approach have failed all over the world—see, for example, the repeal of Australia’s carbon tax in 2014 amid working-class backlash, the retrenchment of cap-and-trade in Ontario, and, most famously, the Gilets Jaunes civil resistance to a proposed gas tax in France amidst a harsh new regime of social service austerity imposed by Emmanuel Macron’s government. The track record of the type of climate policy that Citizens Climate Lobby and Rich Powell are advancing is questionable at best and feckless at worst.
All of this demands a new approach—one that doesn’t place the costs of the transition on people who drive delivery trucks or feed chickens for a living. Is the Green New Deal full of “goodies,” things that may not be absolutely necessary for cutting emissions, per se? Of course! That’s what will make it so popular among working-class voters—though maybe not so much among major donors to the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee. Those who worry that adding carrots to sticks—particularly among our most vulnerable—will kill the masses’ appetite for climate action have it perfectly backwards. If climate activists can convince de-industrialized places desperate for economic activity like Youngstown, OH and Janesville, WI to get on board, then we’re really in business.
That the GND has a strong political valence has not been entirely lost on some commentators, who see the proposal as an intentionally unrealistic starting offer in order to win more concessions at the bargaining table down the line. But screw those people too. We’re meant to be taken both seriously and literally. Instead of heading for a defensive crouch the next time someone tells you that polling support will only go down from here, remember this: the public shares our goals, not theirs. To the extent that public support might waver, it will be because the fossil fuel industry shrieks and bellows, sputters and lies in an attempt to win at all costs. They will buy off politicians, blanket the airwaves and Facebook pages with ads from groups named Energy Citizens, the Environmental Policy Alliance, and Institute for Energy Research. If climate change activists should worry about anything, it is a highly-organized, experienced, and well-funded opposition that will hit the pavement the minute an actual GND bill comes to the floor in 2021. If Grumbach, Skocpol, and history are any guide, this is right about the time when Exxon and Rich Powell will put away the flowers and bring out the knives.
If we fail, it won’t be because the public doesn’t like what’s in the Green New Deal. It will be because we lose vigilance and fail to get out ahead in defining the terms our vision, letting elites like Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), and Rich Powell, their lips dripping with oil, convince working people that the GND is something it’s not. It will be because the millions of people in this country who do support climate action and live a precarious existence stay home while the next Tea Party rages, unable to see anything in what The DemocratsTM cook up that is worth fighting for. Who do you think is more likely to let this nightmare come to pass: a Congressional leadership which invokes the language of freedom and common responsibility that previously led to Democratic political hegemony for nearly forty years, or Frank Pallone?