The Democratic Party Wants to Make Climate Policy Exciting

After years of infighting, the Democrats may finally have found an environmental consensus in the Green New Deal.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Carlos Barria / Reuters

On Monday, speaking at a town hall led by Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez framed her chosen climate policy—the Green New Deal—through the lens of gallant American exceptionalism. “This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation,” she said.

The Green New Deal aspires to cut U.S. carbon emissions fast enough to reach the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious climate goal: preventing the world from warming no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. In a blockbuster report released in October, an international group of scientists said that meeting this goal could skirt the worst climate effects, such as massive floods, expansive droughts, and irreversible sea-level rise.

To actually make the target, though, the world must start reducing its carbon pollution immediately, and cut it in half by 2030. And we’re nowhere close. Global emissions levels just hit a record high, and even the Barack Obama administration’s most breakneck climate policy did not put the United States close to making its part of the goal.

The Green New Deal aims to get us there—and remake the country in the process. It promises to give every American a job in that new economy: installing solar panels, retrofitting coastal  infrastructure, manufacturing electric vehicles. In the 1960s, the U.S. pointed the full power of its military-technological industry at going to the moon. Ocasio-Cortez wants to do the same thing, except to save the planet.

I have no idea whether the Green New Deal will result in a federal climate law two or five or 10 years from now. The proposal clearly has momentum on the left. Since early November, I’ve seen the Green New Deal talked about as a story of Democrats in disarray, or as another example of the party’s turn toward socialism. Both analyses miss the mark. The Green New Deal is one of the most interesting—and strategic—left-wing policy interventions from the Democratic Party in years.

As I wrote last year, the Democrats have a problem: They are the only major political party that cares about climate change, but they don’t have a national strategy to address it. Party elites know that they want to fight climate change, of course, but after that the specifics get hazy, and almost no one agrees on what new laws should get passed.

For the past two years, this lack of agenda hasn’t really hampered them, because they could unite around blocking Donald Trump’s deregulation extravaganza. But as Democrats consider the possibility of controlling Congress and the White House in 2020, they will feel more pressure to zero in on a strategy.

For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats can approach climate policy with a sense of imagination. They can also approach it with a sense of humility, because their last two strategies didn’t work particularly well. When the party last controlled Congress, in 2009, Democrats tried to pass a national cap-and-trade bill, a type of policy that allows polluters to bid on the right to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It failed to pass in the Senate. Starting in 2011, President Obama tried to use the EPA’s powers under the Clean Air Act to fight carbon-dioxide emissions. After President Trump was elected, he terminated that effort by executive order.

Since then, Democrats in Congress have proposed no shortage of climate bills. A few of them even picked up Republican support. Some blue states have also tried to pass climate policy of their own, though the most ambitious of those efforts have failed. And as I wrote last year, the party has encountered new problems in its coalition. Some environmental groups have focused on closing coal plants and blocking pipeline projects, frustrating the labor movement, which appreciates the jobs that those projects bring.

From the successes, a pattern has emerged. Economists tend to prefer policies that work across the entire economy at once by integrating the costs of climate change into the price of gas, food, and other consumer goods. But voters—who have more quotidian concerns than optimally elegant economic policy—don’t always feel the same way. They don’t want gas prices to go up. And that means they support policies that remake one sector of the economy at a time, usually by mandating the use of technology. Economists like to disparage these policies as “kludges” or “command and control.” But Americans like them.

Recently, a bipartisan group of 17 governors decided that they needed to fight President Trump on climate change. In September, a few of them got onstage in San Francisco to announce new programs to rival the president’s deregulation.

Republican and Democratic governors, fighting Trump, on climate! The story had conflict, personalities, global stakes: Everything you’d want for a CNN-ready brawl. Everything except excitement. Only one of the programs—a pledge to spend $1.4 billion on new electric-car infrastructure—was compelling and easy to explain. The others rapidly strayed into the technical or the vague. The governors said they would overcome Trump’s tariffs on cheap solar panels. They promised to reduce “short-lived climate pollutants,” such as methane and soot. And—I will never forget this—they pledged to research how carbon can stay stored in plants and soil on state parkland.

In other words: The governors leered and growled at Trump, talked about climate change’s epic consequences, and then, with much fanfare, announced new state rules for dirt.

And what should they have done? Governors, like presidents, are constrained; they can’t do much without the support of state legislatures. And dirt is a worthy topic for climate regulation. As it happens, a large amount of carbon sits in American dirt. If that carbon escapes into the atmosphere, it will worsen climate change. Should a small nation ever appoint you despot of all climate laws, please do something about dirt. But generally and politically speaking, dirt does not get the people going. Upon hearing the slogan “Dirt: Now More Than Ever,” most voters will not picture overflowing cornucopias of prosperity. They will picture bath time.

I have come to think of this tension as climate policy’s Boring as Dirt problem: the BAD problem. The BAD problem recognizes that climate change is an interesting challenge. It is scary and massive and apocalyptic, and its attendant disasters (especially hurricanes, wildfires, and floods) make for good TV. But the policies that will address climate change do not pack the same punch. They are technical and technocratic and quite often dull. At the very least, they will never be as immediate as climate change itself. Floods are powerful, but stormwater management is arcane. Wildfires are ravenous, but electrical-grid upgrades are tedious. Climate change is frightening, but dirt is boring. That’s the BAD problem.

Some version of the BAD problem probably exists for every issue. Paying for exorbitant cancer drugs is an outrage, but advocating for state-level insurance laws that could reduce their cost is onerous. In a way, addressing the BAD problem is part of what elected officials are supposed to do in a republic. But it’s a special problem for climate change, with its all-encompassing cause and countless diffuse harms. To fix climate change, you have to pass laws about dirt. Then you have to keep them passed.

The Green New Deal, first and foremost, can be understood as trying to fix the BAD problem. In the long term, it’s an ambitious package of laws that will touch every sector of the economy. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led activism group that has pushed for the policy, has listed seven demands that any Green New Deal must satisfy. They range from requiring the U.S. to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources to “decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure.” They also call for a massive investment in technology that could directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

These are enormous demands that would require either many small pieces of technical legislation or a new executive climate-change agency. Yet they do not alone make the Green New Deal. The single most crucial aspect of the Green New Deal is its proposed job guarantee, a controversial policy that says that every American can have a job with the government if they want one. Data for Progress, a leftist advocacy group, claims that the Green New Deal could generate 10 million new jobs across the country over 10 years.

This policy—a job for every American who wants one—reflects what the party learned from fighting Obamacare’s repeal. Obamacare provides a revealing view into how economists think about policy versus how people experience it. That is, as far as policy makers are concerned, Obamacare comprises a set of clever tweaks and rules meant to change how insurance markets work and lower the cost of health care. Before the law passed, Democratic lawmakers cared deeply about getting those tweaks right.

Yet Obamacare didn’t survive because those new rules worked. They did work, but, in fact, voters hate them. Instead, Obamacare survived because it gave two new superpowers to voters. The first was the power never to be denied health insurance for preexisting conditions, and the second was free or cheap health insurance through Medicaid. The reason Americans jammed the Capitol Hill switchboards last year to protest the repeal—and pulled the lever for Democrats in November—wasn’t that they valued Obamacare’s elegant cost-control mechanism. They wanted to keep their superpowers.

“People who are receiving benefits, they’re going to react pretty strongly to that being taken away from them,” said the political scientist and UC Berkeley professor Paul Pierson in a conversation with Vox last year. “A taxpayer is paying for a lot of stuff and cares a little bit about each thing, but the person who’s receiving the benefits is going to care enormously about that.”

Fixing climate change will include lots of technocratic tweaks, lots of bills about dirt. They will be hard to defend against later repeal. So it would be nice if lawmakers could wed them to a new benefit, a superpower that people will fight for years after passage. Hence the job guarantee—a universal promise of employment meant to win over Americans in general and create more union jobs in particular.

In the near term, though, the Green New Deal isn’t doing that. It’s only a demand for more procedure. At least 17 members of the next House of Representatives, and three Democratic senators, currently support the idea of forming a select committee on a Green New Deal. The idea is partly to take back Congress as a place for policy making. Supporters want the committee to draft legislation over the next two years, build expertise—and then present a near-finished bill to the next Democratic president.

The policy aligns with emerging Democratic strategy, too. The Green New Deal is policy-by-slogan, like “Medicare for All” or “Free Community College” or “Abolish ICE.” Those phrases capture a worldview, a promise, and a vision of how life would be different after their passage. They mirror the pungency, if not the politics, of Trump’s promise to “Build the wall.”

The Green New Deal also looks like an economic stimulus plan, which isn’t nothing. The last two Democratic presidents took power during an economic downturn or its immediate aftermath. Most climate bills look like new taxes—and new taxes are not easy to pass in the middle of a recession. But Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was not a tax, even if it included taxes; it’s remembered instead as the greatest of all stimulus and jobs bills. If Democrats take the White House during a recession, they will have a far easier time passing a Green New Deal than a carbon tax.

Many Americans first heard of the Green New Deal early last month, after Ocasio-Cortez made a surprise appearance at a demonstration in Nancy Pelosi’s office. Just a few days had passed since the midterm election, and Pelosi had yet to lock down the speakership. Hundreds of activists in yellow T-shirts—all bearing the logo of the Sunrise Movement—piled into Pelosi’s office to demand that Democrats support a Green New Deal.

“For me, as a member, I want to thank you all, for giving us as a party the strength to push,” Ocasio-Cortez told the group. “Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen.”

For her first day on Capitol Hill, and her first public act as a representative-elect, Ocasio-Cortez chose to focus on climate change. The decision is notable all by itself. Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, is also the first member of Congress who was born during the George H. W. Bush administration. And the Bush administration is when the modern era of stagnant climate politics began: It’s when Exxon and other oil companies began publicly advocating climate denialism, when the United States blocked a treaty that would have restricted global carbon emissions, when the Senate ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Almost exactly a month after Ocasio-Cortez turned 1, Congress approved the Global Change Research Act, a law requiring regular federal reports on climate science. It hasn’t passed a major climate bill since. Ocasio-Cortez has spent her entire life watching climate change not get fixed. Now she’s getting her shot at addressing it.