Green New Deal Proposes Sweeping Economic Transformation

February 13, 2019

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Participants at a Green New Deal-related sit-in outside Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office on Dec. 10, 2018. The protestors are pushing a far-reaching proposal for the United States to reach a zero-carbon economy within ten years, among other major changes. Photo: Sunrise Movement. Click to enlarge.

Issue Backgrounder: Green New Deal Proposes Sweeping Economic Transformation

By Joseph A. Davis

Even though it may be ignoring the lessons of history, the ambitious climate action agenda known as the “Green New Deal” may very well make history — and remake the Democratic Party.

It’s certainly likely to shake things up in this Congress, the next Congress and even the race for the White House in 2020.

The 2018 election was barely over when a group of demonstrators, joined by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, staged a sit-in in House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi’s office, demanding something about a “Green New Deal.”

You had to give them credit for timing, showmanship and instincts for getting news media attention. They were mostly young and they had matching T-shirts.

But what were they protesting? Pelosi, a few still remember, was and is the only political leader who has ever gotten a serious climate bill through the U.S. House of Representatives.

Some puzzled over why she was picked as the enemy of climate action — instead of, say, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who represents the coal state of Kentucky.


Don’t think the Green New Deal is

simply about climate. It’s also

about reshaping the Democratic Party.


So don’t think the Green New Deal is simply about climate. It’s also about reshaping the Democratic Party, even as the 2020 race for the White House gets underway.

It is an effort to push the party in a progressive, or leftward direction, much as the Tea Party transformed the GOP. Pelosi was not merely keeper of the House agenda, but now also the de facto leader of the Democratic Party.

[Editor’s Note: See recent developments on a Green New Deal resolution in Congress in TipSheet.]


Maneuvering in House over climate

The protesters in Pelosi’s office were demanding not just a Green New Deal, but establishment of a special new House committee on climate, composed of members who pledged not to take fossil fuel money.

None of this flew especially well with all House Dems. For one thing, the committee chairmen who had jurisdiction over most things carbon-emitting did not want to give up that turf. For another, many did not want to lose industry contributions.

So when a new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis was created, with Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) as chair, it had no subpoena power or actual legislative authority. And while demands had been for a committee to flesh out the plan for a Green New Deal — that was left out of the panel’s charter.  

Also, when Dems were appointed to the Select Committee, Ocasio-Cortez was not among them. Asked at a press conference if she had been snubbed, she said that, on the contrary, she had been invited but had declined.

Meanwhile, the panel has been a little slow off the starting line, since GOPers at this writing have yet to appoint any members. At the same time, both the House Energy Committee, chaired by Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and the Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), have already held aggressive and well-televised hearings on climate.


Movement aims to push Dems to left

The months-long saga shows how political the Green New Deal will likely be, and how skillful both Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez are as politicians.

Pelosi has not disavowed it, and has in fact praised its overarching goal of climate action. And Ocasio-Cortez has deftly sidestepped the mischievous questions of reporters, saying she will not let the climate issue divide Democrats.

But Republicans may be more than happy to divide Democrats. The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative muckraking publication, promptly came up with numbers on how much money the Select Committee’s members had taken from energy interests (quite a bit).

Climate is also only one of the issues that threatens to divide Democrats (for instance, it is not yet clear that the party has recovered from the Bernie-vs-Hillary split of 2016).


What is clear is that the

Green New Deal movement

is an effort to capture the party

for a profoundly progressive agenda.


What is clear is that the Green New Deal movement is an effort to capture the party for a profoundly progressive agenda  — to push it left.

This is pretty obvious from the “final” resolution embodying the Green New Deal ambitions. There is a lot more to it than zero carbon, clean energy and jobs. It’s about “economic transformation.” It’s about reversing a four-decade “trend of economic stagnation, deindustrialization, and antilabor policies.” It also calls up the Bernie-esque one percent meme, the large racial wealth divide and the gender earnings gap.

As written, the GND outline is every bit as much about social justice as about climate. Citing “frontline and vulnerable communities,” it declares:

“Climate change, pollution, and environmental destruction have exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental, and economic injustices ... by disproportionately affecting indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”

As if fixing climate change would be hard enough, addressing these problems, according to the resolution, requires Congress to:

ensure economic prosperity for everyone in the United States; end oppression of indigenous, migrant and minority people; build accessible public transportation; restore ecosystems; clean up waste sites; give the public ownership of public works; guarantee higher education to all; create high-paying union jobs; end job discrimination; protect public lands; guarantee health care to all; guarantee housing to all; and provide access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food and nature.

That’s a tall order.

Of course, there is also much practical stuff as well. The resolution proposes more:

  • meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources
  • investing public money in research on clean and renewable energy, zero-emission vehicles and transportation, and high-speed rail
  • removing atmospheric carbon via afforestation and soil-building
  • identifying and eliminating emissions
  • dramatically expanding and upgrading existing renewable power sources
  • upgrading the electricity distribution grid
  • upgrading the energy efficiency of all buildings in the United States
  • promoting clean manufacturing, and so on.


For 2020, will Green New Deal unite or divide?

Yes, it’s messaging (branding? positioning?). And no, it has no chance of going through this Congress. Remember Mitch McConnell? Still there.

What it’s really about is 2020. If Democrats take the Senate and the White House, and keep the House, they might have a chance of passing something like this in the next Congress.


One important question is whether

the Green New Deal can help or hinder

a Dem takeover. The answer is not yet obvious.


So one important question is whether the Green New Deal can help or hinder a Dem takeover. The answer is not yet obvious. The Green New Deal people have two years to hammer out actual legislation that has a chance to pass in the next Congress.

One piece of evidence is the growing list of resolution cosponsors, now said to be over 60 (although the official bill-tracking system is not yet showing it). That is better than average, even if continued growth would augur well. A few GOP names would help.

From the start, activists publicized each added cosponsor as they came. They are pretty good at building a picture of support. Just don’t ask: “Support for what?”

Go back a minute to the Pelosi sit-in. The activists who mounted it were from groups like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, not particularly mainstream or well-known. The sit-in tactic, which you might consider oppositional, came just at the moment when Pelosi was working to consolidate her support for the speakership within the Democratic caucus.

The Green New Deal could also drive a wedge in the environmental movement itself. A letter of support from more than 600 environmental groups was publicized in early January, even before there was a finalized description of their agenda.

When some of the big mainstream environmental groups with large memberships did not sign on, activists used this letter to pressure members of Congress to support the Green New Deal.


A donation litmus test

The no-fossil-money pledge that was part of the initial Green New Deal demands was a reprise of a controversy that had racked the Democratic party as a whole during the 2018 mid-term election cycle.

The Democratic National Committee had in June pledged not to take fossil fuel company donations. By August, after protests, the DNC mostly walked that back. But a coalition of progressive environmentalists, led by the youthful Oil Change USA, continued seeking the no-fossil-money pledge (eventually cutting Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke from its approved list).

After the election, the ultra-conservative Daily Caller gloated over how few of the clean-money candidates actually won.

Already four of the declared Democrat 2020 presidential candidates have come out endorsing the Green New Deal: Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

So in practical terms, whatever legislation it eventually produces, the Green New Deal has become a litmus test.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's Issue Backgrounders and TipSheet columns, directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet and also compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 7. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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