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.