First off, Happy Holidays to all my fellow Kossacks. Apologies for not being as prolific as I normally am with my diaries. Once the New Year begins, you can sure bet that I will have a ton of new diaries out on the upcoming races in 2019 and 2020. But for now, I’d like to focus on a policy issue in Congress and that’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s push for a Green New Deal. For those of you unfamiliar with the Green New Deal, here’s a rundown:
The phrase “Green New Deal” has existed in U.S. political discourse for at least a decade after New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman used it in a 2007 column calling for a plan to transition the American energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources. The name harkens back to a series of efforts to build public works and overhaul financial rules under Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed the New Deal.
Soon after that, Van Jones, the CNN commentator who once served as President Obama’s “green jobs czar,” adopted the phrase in his 2008 book “The Green Collar Economy” to describe a plan to create thousands of low- and medium-skill jobs installing solar panels and insulating homes.
A year later, the United Nations Environment Programme picked up on the phrase when outlining a “Global Green New Deal” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions without sacrificing economic development.
But the current version was perhaps outlined best by Ocasio-Cortez. Shortly after the election, she called for the creation of a so-called “Select Committee For A Green New Deal” in the House that would develop a plan to “dramatically expand” renewable power to meet 100 percent of the nation’s needs while creating a job guarantee program to facilitate that transition.
Since the election, young activists part of groups like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats have staged sit-ins in the offices of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democratic leaders, demanding their endorsement of the committee. So far, at least 40 members of Congress have endorsed the idea of a Green New Deal.
So Ocasio-Cortez is calling for a select committee to flesh out and get this plan up and running. So why are Democratic leaders aren’t on board with even having a committee formed?
Democratic leaders on Thursday tapped Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) to head a revived U.S. House panel on climate change, all but ending a dramatic monthlong effort to establish a select committee on a Green New Deal.
Castor’s appointment came as a surprise to proponents of a Green New Deal. The move also kicked off a controversy as the six-term congresswoman dismissed calls to bar members who accept money from fossil fuel companies from serving on the committee, arguing it would violate free speech rights.
Despite weeks of protests demanding House Democrats focus efforts next year on drafting a Green New Deal, the sort of sweeping economic policy that scientists say matches the scale of the climate crisis, Castor told E&E News the plan was “not going to be our sole focus.”
She then suggested that barring members who have accepted donations from the oil, gas and coal industries from serving on the committee could be unconstitutional.
“I don’t think you can do that under the First Amendment, really,” she said.
That reasoning echoed arguments Exxon Mobil Corp. made in court as recently as this year to defend its funding of right-wing think tanks that deliberately produced misinformation about climate science to stymie government action on global warming.
Soon after the remarks were published, Castor walked back the statement in an interview with HuffPost, calling it an “inartful answer.”
But she said she did not know whether, as chairperson, she could bar members on the committee from serving if they accepted fossil fuel donations.
“Maybe that’s a discussion we need to have in the caucus,” Castor said.
The Sunrise Movement said it has reached out to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) office for an explanation and vowed to keep fighting for a Green New Deal as if the planet depends on it—because it does.
“Achieving the goals outlined in the resolution for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal are the bare minimum we need to preserve life as we know it for our generation—anything less from our political leaders is a betrayal of young people around the world,” the Sunrise Movement declared.
“Failing to advocate for the solutions on the scale we need to give our generation a livable future shows a deep lack of moral clarity and courage from our Democratic leadership,” the group concluded on Twitter.
In an interview with E&E News—which first reported that the Democratic leadership chose Castor to head the revived panel—the Florida congresswoman quickly got off to an inauspicious start.
Echoing a talking point deployed by the likes of the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil, Castor suggested that it would be a violation of free speech to bar members who have accepted fossil fuel donations from serving on the climate committee.
“I don't think you can do that under the First Amendment, really,” Castor said.
Though she later conceded in an interview with the Huffington Post that her comment was “inartful,” the remark sparked fury from progressives, who viewed it as another sign that much of the Democratic Party and its leadership is woefully unprepared to take the ambitious steps science says are necessary to confront the climate crisis.
In These Times is sounding the alarm on this move:
The setback threatens to derail one of the more hopeful and fast-rising progressive initiatives in the new Congress—and comes as scientists worldwide warn we have 12 years to stem the climate crisis from yet more catastrophic and irreversible disaster. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal would have created a select committee to craft a full Green New Deal plan by 2020. Pelosi’s move, at minimum, significantly stalls that effort, even as the climate-crisis clock ticks away.
Pelosi’s move must be approved by the House Rules Committee in January to be official. On Friday, Rules Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) announced he is already crafting a proposal for a climate committee which, according to Energy & Environment News, “will have no legislative or subpoena power, nor will it be specifically tasked with crafting a ‘Green New Deal’ bill.”
Further confirming the committee’s limited abilities, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) “said Wednesday that it was his understanding that the committee wouldn’t have the legal authority to demand documents,” The Hill reported. Hoyer told reporters, “My expectation [is] it will not have subpoena power. It will be a recommendatory committee to the Energy and Commerce Committee and the environmental committees.”
According to The Hill, “A Democratic leadership aide later confirmed the lack of subpoena power.”
Pelosi’s office did not immediately respond to calls and emails from In These Times requesting clarification. On the phone, one staffer cited “the government shutdown” as cause for their inability to reply.
Response came swiftly via Twitter from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the incoming Democratic representative for New York who is one of the chief advocates of the Green New Deal. “Our ultimate end goal,” she wrote, “isn’t a Select Committee. Our goal is to treat Climate Change like the serious, existential threat it is by drafting an ambitious solution on the scale necessary—aka a Green New Deal—to get it done. A weak committee misses the point & endangers people [sic.].”
Corbin Trent, an aide to Ocasio-Cortez, told The Hill that subpoena power is essential to the legislative process. “We think that the committee needs to have the authority and the capacity to develop a plan for a Green New Deal to transition our economy to a zero-carbon economy in a 10-year timeframe,” Trent said. “Without subpoena power, without the ability to draft legislation, without the commitment to not put members in seats that are taking money from the fossil fuel industry, then we don’t think we would have the capacity to do so.”
So it sounds like the Green New Deal is dead on arrival, right? Well, no, not exactly. It’s not even just about the Committee itself. Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s co-campaign manager, and Evan Weber, a co-founder of Sunrise, put some things in perspective:
Here’s a revealing fact about this clash.
Though Chakrabarti may consider it the “smallest possible thing,” anyone who glances at Ocasio-Cortez’s document will realize that it is far from small or easy. It doesn’t just call for a committee. It says that no one who receives any fossil fuel funding may serve on the committee (which would rule out a good swath of senior Democrats).
It requires that the committee produce a plan that fully decarbonizes the economy, invests trillions of dollars, and provides a federal job guarantee, while addressing and mitigating historical inequalities. (Oh, and it might also include such “additional measures such as basic income programs [or] universal health care programs.”)
In short, it charges the committee with developing a plan of vaulting ambition and complexity. If representatives were mainly focused on policy, some might have raised cautions along these lines.
But neither Chakrabarti and Weber has heard any policy objections. No one has asked about, say, the federal jobs guarantee. Rather, the objections have been almost entirely about turf.
As Weber says, “certain politicians who were not excited about any select committee” claimed that the committee’s jurisdiction would override the jurisdiction and authority of existing committees.
The proposal never meant to assign the select committee the power to introduce legislation, Weber says, but to make members more comfortable, language was added clarifying as much. The committee could only produce a plan, as draft legislation for other committees to take up or not as they see fit. “For us,” Weber says, “the more important thing for the draft legislation was always to have a platform for candidates to run on in 2020.”
But in the end, the dispute was less about concrete issues of jurisdiction than a message to newcomers. As E&E reports, “many Democratic lawmakers say the panel could be a landing place for many of the freshmen members who have said they’d like to be on Energy and Commerce.” The youngsters can have a committee to hold hearings and make headlines. As for legislation, we adults have got that covered.
Would Ocasio-Cortez accept a spot on the committee? “She doesn’t want to be on a committee just for the sake of being on a committee,” says Chakrabarti.
The push forced a sea change in climate politics, pushing the policy debate from stagnant, wonky and dubious solutions centered on market tweaks to sweeping, dramatic policies that scientists say could actually make a dent in surging greenhouse gas emissions.
For years, the Republican Party’s unabashed embrace of the oil, gas and coal industries established its outright denial of the near-universally accepted science that burning fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change.
That freed the Democratic Party, beholden to its own donors in the industry, to take a wishy-washy stance, righteously assuming the mantle of “the party that believes in science” without having to advocate for policies that would seriously affect deep-pocketed interests.
In 2009, when Barack Obama was president and the party controlled both houses of Congress, Democrats’ big legislative push on climate was a cap-and-trade bill, a relatively conservative greenhouse gas policy first devised by Republican economists.
When the bill failed in the Senate ― reportedly because the White House urged party leaders to prioritize health care reform and retreat ― Democrats went adrift on the issue. Climate change barely came up during the 2016 presidential election, despite huge difference between the Democratic primary opponents and a gaping chasm between nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, who dismisses climate change as “a hoax.”
Trump’s election during one of the hottest years on record helped ignite a new political fury over runaway greenhouse gas emissions. The Trump administration’s aggressive rollback of regulations to curb climate change and decision to install fossil fuel executives and industry allies in key environmental posts hardened the Republican Party’s stance on the issue and gave Democrats an easy avatar around which to rally.
Ill-fated proposals to deal with climate change started to roll in.
In April 2017, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced a bill to effectively end fossil fuel use by 2050. In July of that year, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) proposed a carbon tax bill alongside companion legislation by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.).
The following September, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) introduced the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, mandating 100 percent renewable energy throughout the country by 2035, ending all subsidies to drilling, mining and refining companies, and providing funding to workers to transition into new industries.
Then came Ocasio-Cortez.
In June, the avowed democratic socialist won a shocking primary victory against Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), one of the most senior Democrats in the House and a powerful deputy of Pelosi. Her campaign platform called for a Green New Deal, at the time described vaguely as 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 and 1940s-style economy-wide mobilization. It was essentially a clarion call to go to war against fossil fuel emissions.
Adding to the urgency of her plan was the report in October from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found that, to avoid cataclysmic warming beyond 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, world governments needed to halve global emissions in just 12 years. When the Democratic National Committee’s decision to backtrack on a ban on fossil-fuel corporate donations in August, the party’s rift on climate change became apparent.
The 28-year-old former bartender from the Bronx became an overnight celebrity. She cultivated allies.
By the time Ocasio-Cortez cruised to an easy victory in the Nov. 6 general election, roughly half a dozen other insurgent Democrats who won were campaigning on a Green New Deal.
Their campaigns served as rallying points for the Sunrise Movement, a progressive climate justice group focused on young people. After Pelosi made it clear that Democrats’ primary plan to address climate change was to revive a defunct select committee to study the issue, the group ― buttressed by the left-wing group Justice Democrats ― planned sit-ins in the party leader’s office.
Late Thursday, the Sunrise Movement vowed to continue pushing for a Green New Deal committee.
Varshini Prakash, one of the co-founders of Sunrise, is already preparing for the next steps:
“Our strategy for 2019 is going to be continuing this momentum to build the people power and the political power to make a Green New Deal a political inevitability in America,” Prakash told me. “In 2020, we, along with our partners, are going to be attempting to build the largest youth political force this country has ever seen.” The movement has received support from established environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and 350.org, but a spokesperson for Sunrise, Stephen O’Hanlon, said the assistance has been primarily non-financial. He added that the organization has raised less than a million dollars since it was started, from a mix of grants from foundations and grassroots donors.
Staffers from the Ocasio-Cortez campaign first met with Sunrise at a dinner last summer. Immediately after the November demonstration, Ocasio-Cortez put forward her resolution, drafted in partnership with Sunrise and Justice Democrats, to form a select committee on a Green New Deal in the House of Representatives.
The resolution calls for a transition to a hundred per cent renewable energy by 2030, the upgrade of residential and industrial buildings to greater energy efficiency, the decarbonization of manufacturing and agriculture, and investment in technology that would reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If put forward, it would be the most ambitious climate policy the Democratic Party has ever endorsed. For Sunrise, it is the only policy initiative that matches the scope of the crisis.
“We know, from looking at history, that transformation of the scale demanded by science has only happened under two conditions in our history,” one activist told me, at the gathering in the church. “First, when the public has united to address a clear and present threat, and, second, when political leaders have put forward solutions that clearly address that threat and that are clear answers to the crisis.” In its statements, Sunrise makes patriotic appeals to ambitious mobilizations in America’s past, from the Public Works Administration to the moon landing—contrasting a vision of technological innovation and ambition with one of a kleptocratic petro state.