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Why Democrats must embrace Ocasio-Cortez's "Green New Deal" proposal

Building a major green jobs project is clearly good politics. Far more important, it's necessary to our future


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Paul Rosenberg
November 25, 2018 5:25PM (UTC)

As the mythical caravan threat magically disappeared two weeks after the election, with the announcement that troops deployed would start to come home, a genuine existential threat has increasingly come into focus—the threat of climate change, heralded by a wave of wildfires in California, most notably the Camp Fire, the most deadly U.S. wildfire in almost a century.

Since a Nov. 13 protest at Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill first drew attention to it, organizing to push Democrats to commit to a New Green Deal has continued to mount. “We need a Green New Deal and we need to get to 100 percent renewables because our lives depend on it,” Rep.-elect Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez told reporters, as 51 protesters with the Sunrise Movement were arrested (and later released). Since then 13 members of Congress have signed on to support her proposal to establish a select committee tasked with developing a plan to transition to a carbon-neutral economy and beyond, with the ultimate goal of “economic and environmental justice and equality.”

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But the political world still seems disastrously disconnected from the real world around it, even as smoke from California’s wildfires reached all the way to the East Coast:

CA Fire Smoke Reaches East Coast

The Camp Fire has an official death toll of 77, with 15,850 structures destroyed, but it’s hardly alone. According a Nov. 19 Cal Fire factsheet, five of the 10 most destructive wildfires in California history occurred in the last two years, with a sixth in 2015. All but one have happened since 2003.

The result is “Making Some California Homes Uninsurable,” as the New York Times reported:

“We’re not in a crisis yet, but all of the trends are in a bad direction,” said Dave Jones, who is completing his eighth and final year as California’s insurance commissioner. “We’re slowly marching toward a world that’s uninsurable.”

And it’s not just wildfires. A paper published Nov. 19 in Nature Climate Change found a broad threat to humanity from the cumulative impacts of global warming:

We found traceable evidence for 467 pathways by which human health, water, food, economy, infrastructure and security have been recently impacted by climate hazards such as warming, heatwaves, precipitation, drought, floods, fires, storms, sea-level rise and changes in natural land cover and ocean chemistry.

As the New York Times reported, by the end of this century "some parts of the world could face as many as six climate-related crises at the same time.” The headline called it a “Terror Movie” — and that was right, as everyone watching the Camp Fire could already see.

Politicians and pundits may still be sleepwalking, but the insurance industry is wide awake. The entire world might become uninsurable by the end of the century, with a four-degree rise in global temperatures, according to Australian insurance giant IAG, as reported by The Australian Financial Review. 

Popular and desperately needed

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It’s not just that drastic action is needed. The basic idea of a New Green Deal is wildly popular. There was 70 percent support for “Green New Deal — Millions Of Clean-Energy Jobs” in the “Big Ideas” poll commissioned by the Progressive Change Institute in January 2015. This year, Data for Progress advanced its own, more detailed Green New Deal Plan, with polling showing related political appeal: In Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — key to Trump’s 2016 election — voters were more, rather than less, likely to support a candidate "who supports moving the United States to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030" by  32, 27 and 26 points, respectively.

“Green New Deal combines two things voters love: the environment and jobs,” Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee told Salon. “Pundits are trapped in a framework in which the environment is pitted against jobs, which is silly,” he said. 

Silly, but extremely popular with the GOP business class, which has dominated the framing of most political discourse over the past half-century. Plenty of “business-friendly” Democrats have joined in as well, even as climate change has increasingly emerged as a profound threat to the business community itself. This is epitomized by the reinsurance industry, tasked with trying to manage the enormous and increasingly unpredictable unpaid, externalized costs of climate change.

The problem of skyrocketing global warming insurance costs was highlighted in the late 1990s by Ross Gelspan in his book, “The Heat Is On.” Five years ago, the Geneva Association, a global insurance think tank, issued a report, "Warming of the Oceans and Implications for the (Re)insurance Industry," warning that traditional underwriting methods could no longer cope with the unpredictable nature of climate change, which was threatening to make some regions uninsurable.

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“Traditional approaches ... solely based on analysing historical data, increasingly fail to estimate today’s hazard  probabilities," it said. "In some high-risk areas, ocean warming and climate change threaten the insurability of catastrophe risk more generally." A story about that report noted that the number of weather catastrophes had risen “from around 300 a year in 1980 to around 900 in 2012, according to figures from reinsurer, Munich Re.”

“The American public is thirsty for bold climate action because the drumbeat of news just keeps getting worse,” RL Miller, founder of the Climate Hawks Vote superPAC told Salon. “And the Democrats' plans to date — mild carbon taxes, small tax credits, rebates, etc. — don't inspire people the way the Green New Deal does. Polls show that the Green New Deal is very politically popular, far more so than a carbon tax.”

Part of the reason is a universal one — that bold, easy-to-grasp proposals are more inspiring than convoluted wonky ones — and part is quite specific. “The Green New Deal is, by design, centered around jobs, and thus it makes a lot more sense to working-class families than other carbon plans attacked by the right as ‘increasing your utility bills," Miller said.

Green New Deal goals

The core of the proposal from Ocasio-Cortez is directed beyond just getting to a carbon-neutral economy. The list of 10-year goals includes:

  1. 100 percent of national power generation from renewable sources;
  2. Building a national, energy-efficient “smart” grid;
  3. Upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety;
  4. Decarbonizing the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries;
  5. Decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure;
  6. Funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases;
  7. Making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to carbon-neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.
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There’s other language that broadens the scope, addressing “climate change, pollution and other environmental harm” and recognizing “that a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” It also outlines specific areas to address, including education, training and “a job guarantee program to assure every person who wants one, a living wage job;” as well as “additional measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs and any others as the select committee may deem appropriate to promote economic security, labor market flexibility and entrepreneurism” and “innovative public and other financing structures.”

While dealing with climate change is the key component, the Data for Progress plan more specifically highlights a broader range of environmental and environmental justice needs. It cites lead exposure and asthma as prime concerns. It notes that “there are at least 4 million children living in households exposed to high levels of lead and half a million children with high blood lead levels,” with disproportionately high levels of exposure for black and low-income children. In addition, one in 13 Americans have asthma, while black Americans are "nearly twice as likely to suffer from asthma, and three times as likely to endure hospitalization,” with air pollution as a significant environmental trigger for symptoms.

This broader environmental scope makes the plan both more comprehensive and more popular, McElwee noted. “Climate change is an abstract concern people don't fully grasp,” he said. “They grasp how pollution poisons their water and gives their kids asthma.”

Both versions aren’t just a New Deal-style jobs program that happens to be green. They are carefully put together to reflect lessons from the past, redressing mistakes and building on principles of justice. “The racial exclusion of the New Deal was a great failing,” McElwee said. “We need to ensure that the Green New Deal is equitable because the communities that suffer most from pollution are disproportionately poor communities of color.” 

Ocasio-Cortez may have been a bartender before running for Congress, but she’s not ignorant of how Congress works. Her select committee proposal is a detailed blueprint for getting something truly massive done, with the full knowledge that Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump would never sign off on it. It’s intended to guide the development of fully-fleshed out legislation to be ready to go in the first months of the next administration, with the plan completed by Jan. 1, 2020.

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It’s also intended to appeal to a broad constituency within the Democratic coalition — as well as working-class voters that neoliberal Democrats have long alienated. In addition to the basic green job-creation appeal, the proposal goes further, saying that the plan will "provide all members of our society, across all regions and all communities, the opportunity, training and education to be a full and equal participant in the transition, including through a job guarantee program to assure every person who wants one, a living wage job."

I’ve written before about the crucial importance of a just transition provision. In early 2017, writing specifically about the coal industry, I cited a just transition plan developed by Robert Pollin and Brian Callaci “that would ensure a just transition away from a polluting economy for fossil fuel workers.” In an article describing the plan they argued: “A combination of better jobs and pensions will remove one political obstacle to a green transition — and it’s the right thing to do.” Given the understandable — and well-justified — political resistance if nothing is done, they wrote:

It follows that the global climate stabilization project must unequivocally commit to providing generous transitional support for workers and communities tied to the fossil fuel industry. The late U.S. labor leader and environmental visionary Tony Mazzocchi pioneered thinking on what is now termed a “Just Transition” for these workers and communities. As Mazzocchi wrote as early as 1993, “Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy to another is not welfare. Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis … in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life.”

The cost of this is trivial, an estimated $500 million per year. That's about "1 percent of the annual $50 billion in new public investment that will be needed to advance a successful overall U.S. climate stabilization program," which "would pay for income, retraining, and relocation support for workers facing retrenchments as well as effective transition programs for what are now fossil fuel–dependent communities."

I can’t think of anything remotely comparable that any neoliberal, centrist or conservative Democrat has come up with in the way of rebuilding trust and support for the Democratic Party with those mythical voters they pretend to care about so much more than progressives do. At the same time, a related logic of equity connects with core Democratic Party communities — especially communities of color that have been disproportionately subject to fossil fuel pollution.

Broader lessons

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There’s also a broader political lesson involved in the Green New Deal. In their book, “Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats,” Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins do a lot to explain why it’s so hard to advance a coherent progressive agenda, despite the fact that individual elements of it — non-discrimination, a livable wage, universal health care, etc. — enjoy significant support. The Green New Deal solves that ancient problem in a concrete, practical way, because it fuses all those different elements into a unified policy whole, where the different facets synergistically reinforce each other.  Without that, the default tendency is for progressive ideas to be judged one-by-one, by conservative standards, without people even realizing what they are doing.

The unified whole is stronger than the sum of its parts, McElwee noted. “In the places where Green New Deal-style programs have worked it has been due to a collaboration between environmental, labor and racial justice groups,” he said. “That's a key component of success.” 

As things stand now, the odds still seem stacked against Ocasio-Cortez getting her select committee established. The inside politics response has been predictable. Politico played up resistance inside the Democratic Party, while failing to mention that the opponents it cited all had received fossil fuel donations. (The DNC banned such donations earlier this year, passing a resolution drafted by Pelosi’s daughter, Christine Pelosi, before reversing itself two months later.) But Ocasio-Cortez has beaten long odds before. And as before, the outside world realities are in her favor.

"With people being burned alive in California right now, it's time for members of Congress to stop making excuses and start showing the leadership required of them in this moment,” Sunrise Movement founder Varshini Prakash said in a statement on Nov. 21, following another day of mass lobbying. "Now is the time to come together to develop a plan to get us out of this crisis. Ocasio-Cortez's proposed Select Committee on a Green New Deal is currently the only proposal on the table that matches the scale and urgency of what is required in this moment, and we encourage all members of Congress to join us and the 73 other organizations who have come out in support of it."

Meanwhile, in Long Beach, California, RL Miller of Climate Hawks Vote was at the California Democratic Party convention this past weekend. She’s chair of the state party’s Environmental Caucus, and she addressed the general assembly, about 200 people from across the state. “I asked everyone to stand up if they'd been directly affected by wildfire — and nearly half the room stood,” she said. “Then I asked everyone to stand if they knew someone who had — and virtually the entire room stood.”

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It was that kind of universal recognition moment. Miller herself had flames come within 500 feet of her home and was evacuated for 72 hours.

“This is an epidemic, like gun violence, where ‘everyone knows someone who's been hurt.’ Every single person in California, all 40 million of us, is on the front lines of climate change,” she said. Elsewhere it's hurricanes, heatwaves, floods or droughts, but the number of those on the front lines are swelling dramatically everywhere.

But there’s another side as well, McElwee suggested. We’re not just facing climate threat, we’re longing for something positive. “I think there is a real, true sense in which humans feel uncomfortable with the environment in which they live,” he said. “There is a desire to go back to our roots -- that's why people love hikes. We need to use that in our politics.”


Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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