What to Do Before the Green New Deal

Bold action on climate change can start at the state level.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

When I left Congress after four decades of service, my greatest regret was that we failed to address climate change. As the most pressing and critical challenge of our generation threatens species and civilization with unimaginable upheaval, our inability to legislate a federal solution is a national shame. We got as close as we ever have in 2009 when the American Clean Energy and Security Act was approved by the House of Representatives—in large part due to artful maneuvering by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But the bill never cleared the Senate or reached President Barack Obama’s desk for signature.

A decade later, I’m encouraged that young progressives are joining with many of my longtime colleagues in Congress to renew the fight against climate change. Their call for a Green New Deal is smart, politically and substantively.

The frame is right—both economic and historic—and gets to the heart of what we were trying to do a decade ago: use the mechanisms of government to build a cleaner economy. A few small reforms won’t limit the rise of global temperatures; we need a massive movement on multiple fronts.

By definition, a Green New Deal must place green jobs and transformative innovation at its core. Policy makers will need to look at the industries that drove the 20th-century economy and reshape them for the 21st. They must show that sustainability is not just the right thing to do for the fate of our planet, but an unparalleled opportunity to ensure the prosperity of future generations. That is a hopeful message in a time when hope can sometimes feel out of reach.

But in the short term, the passage of even moderate climate legislation, much less something as bold as the Green New Deal, seems unlikely. So what can we do now?

Progressives can work in states where climate legislation is possible to showcase what a Green New Deal might look like. Already, California and Hawaii, among others, have invested heavily in renewable energy and committed to a carbon-free future. As the clean-energy economy in these states grows, a model for change on a national and global scale will emerge.

Progressives should also exert pressure on industries to help them recognize that sustainability is not only feasible but also smart business. As the price for wind and solar energy falls, and as international markets adapt to meet their obligations under the Paris accord, companies that source renewable energy will find themselves with a competitive advantage.

Even in traditionally “dirty” industries, like steel, it’s possible to see what the Green New Deal might look like. Most U.S. steel is produced by using enormous amounts of electricity to melt down scrap; a commitment by steel producers to power facilities with renewable energy would not only decrease their costs and make their products more attractive to international buyers—it would also boost markets for one of steel’s leading customers, wind-turbine manufacturers. It’s a virtuous circle.

Concurrently, investors and institutions must double down on funding the technologies that will make a green economy more viable—from renewable power to more sustainable agriculture to advances in capturing and storing carbon that’s in the atmosphere. Climate change is here, and we will need these tools to mitigate the damage already done.

Lastly, congressional Democrats can use the powers they do have—control of one chamber and the ability to conduct investigations—to show Americans what an alternative path might look like: one in which green jobs are created across the country, where we commit to cleaner, renewable power, and where we invest in the next generation of American industries, all while holding accountable those who seek to profit from practices that jeopardize the future of our species.

And perhaps it goes without saying, but we must assess what’s working and what’s not. We’ve made missteps in the past, perhaps most notably with federal mandates for food-based biofuels. Ethanol and biodiesel seemed cleaner than fossil fuel, but it is now clear that their production is driving the destruction of carbon-rich ecosystems in the United States and abroad.

While the American Clean Energy and Security Act never found its way into law, a decade later, I see its spirit alive and well in a new generation’s call for climate progress.