The Green New Deal, explained
An insurgent movement is pushing Democrats to back an ambitious climate change solution.
By David Roberts
Jan 7 2019
If the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to be believed, humanity has just over a decade to get carbon emissions under control before catastrophic climate change impacts become unavoidable.
The Republican Party generally ignores or denies that problem. But the Democratic Party claims to accept and understand it.
It is odd, then, that Democrats do not have a plan to address climate change.
Their last big plan — the American Clean Energy and Security Act — passed the House in 2009 but went on to die an unceremonious death before reaching the Senate floor. Since then, there’s been nothing to replace it.
Plenty of Democratic politicians support policies that would reduce climate pollution — renewable energy tax credits, fuel economy standards, and the like — but those policies do not add up to a comprehensive solution, certainly nothing like what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests is necessary.
Young activists, who will be forced to live with the ravages of climate change, find this upsetting. So they have proposed a plan of their own. It’s called the Green New Deal (GND) — a term purposefully reminiscent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original New Deal in the 1930s — and it has become the talk of the town. Here are Google searches from the past few months:
For this story, I talked to wonks and political activists who are working on the GND, and without exception, they expressed surprise at the speed and intensity with which both media attention and activist energy have centered on it. There is a sense among those involved that they have caught a tiger by the tail.
The GND push has thrust climate change into the national conversation, put House Democrats on notice, and created an intense and escalating bandwagon effect. Politicians (most recently 2020 presidential aspirant Cory Booker), advocates (most recently Al Gore), wonks, and activists — everyone involved in green politics is talking about the GND.
But … WTF is it?
As we will see, the exact details of the GND remain to be worked out, but the broad thrust is fairly simple. It refers, in the loosest sense, to a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. It is meant both to decarbonize the economy and to make it fairer and more just.
But the policy is only part of the picture. Just as striking are the politics, which seem to have tapped into an enormous, untapped demand for climate ambition.
When I think about the social status of the GND, I am struck by an analogy: It’s a bit like concentrated solar power. (I’m an energy nerd. Sue me.) In a concentrated solar power plant, large arrays of mirrors reflect sunlight onto a single tower, heating the fluid inside it. The fluid transfers heat to water, the steam from the boiling fluid drives a turbine, and the turbine generates electrical power.
The GND is the tower, and all the sudden, all the mirrors are aligned, focused on it. The heat is building, the water is rapidly reaching a boil. Meanwhile, its owners are racing to build a turbine.
There is immense potential energy in the GND, a concentration of social attention and intensity. But converting that heat to power — to real results on the ground — will involve a great deal of political and policy engineering, almost all of which lies ahead.
The GND has great potential, but then, American political history is a long story of wasted potential, of waves of progressive enthusiasm breaking on the rocky shores of Washington, DC, to no lasting effect. Whether that fate awaits the GND depends on many things, among them whether President Donald Trump — the culmination of a history of total Republican intransigence and ugliness the stretches over young activists’ entire adult lives — has changed the political landscape enough that Democrats might leave behind their long defensive crouch and voice some ambition.
Before jumping in, it’s worth noting that a number of great journalists have blazed the trail on this story already. See, in particular: Kate Aronoff’s work, here and herebut especially, for the big picture, here; Hannah Northey and the crew at E&E are all over the daily developments; Alexander Kaufman at Huffington Post keeps track of the politics; and Rob Meyer at the Atlantic always has good thoughts. (There are no doubt many others I’m forgetting.)
To get a handle on the GND, let’s take a spin through its history, the role it’s playing in current politics, the effort to back it up with a real policy program, and the many, many challenges facing it before it can become legislation.