The Millennial Era of Climate Politics Has Arrived

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outlines the fuzzy edges of a new “green dream.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands at a bank of microphones in a green jacket.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat of New York, unveils her Green New Deal proposal on Capitol Hill. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Long ago, in a distant geological era—when Donald Trump hosted a reality show, when Senator Barack Obama doubted whether Hillary Clinton could be president, when the Earth was one-third of a degree Celsius cooler—Al Gore made a prediction.

When Americans understood what climate change would mean for their children and grandchildren, the former vice president warned, “they will demand that whoever is running for office, whoever is elected to serve, will have to respond.”

For 12 years, politicians did not, and now Americans’ “children” have themselves been elected to serve. When Gore made that remark, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a teenager, a legal minor, one of a million kids living in New York.

Now she is an influential member of Congress.

On Thursday, Representative Ocasio-Cortez debuted a blueprint for a Green New Deal, an ambitious plan that aims to transform the American economic juggernaut into a massive weapon to combat climate change. In four dense pages, the blueprint commits the federal government to a “10-year national mobilization” on par with the effort made during World War II. She was joined by dozens of environmental-activist groups, a handful of fellow House members—and by Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts who led a failed push to pass an ambitious climate bill in 2010.

“Climate change and our environmental challenges are one of the biggest existential threats to our way of life, not just as a nation, but as a world,” Ocasio-Cortez said at a press conference. “In order for us to combat that threat, we must be as ambitious and innovative as possible.”

The blueprint takes the form of a nonbinding resolution, which Ocasio-Cortez said was “a first step to define the problem.” Even in its vague and broad language, it remains the most detailed guide to a Green New Deal yet. It is the first such plan endorsed by environmental organizations across the left, from the old-guard Sierra Club to the upstart Sunrise Movement, a youth-led activism corps that brought national notoriety to the Green New Deal plan last November.

Yet even in broad language, the resolution clearly describes a transformation that would leave virtually no sector of the economy untouched. A Green New Deal would direct new solar farms to bloom in the desert, new high-speed rail lines to crisscross the Plains, and squadrons of construction workers to insulate and weatherize buildings from Florida to Alaska. It would guarantee every American a job that pays a “family-sustaining wage,” codify paid family leave, and strengthen union law nationwide. The resolution’s ambitions stretch beyond purely economic concerns, too, with a promise to honor all prior treaties with indigenous nations and to require their “free, prior, and informed consent” for decisions affecting their territory.

When asked whether she was offended that Nancy Pelosi had, a day earlier, referred to the new plan as “the green dream, or whatever they call it,” Ocasio-Cortez just smiled. “No, I think it is a green dream,” she replied. She added that the original New Deal had seemed pretty dreamy itself.

For now, the resolution will remain relatively ethereal. While Democrats might vote on the measure in the House, the plan will almost certainly not even receive debate in the Senate, where Republicans hold a comfortable majority. Eventually passing anything that even resembles a Green New Deal will require Democrats to wrest a number of surprising victories. They must win the Senate and the White House in next year’s election, and then they will likely have to kill the legislative filibuster, a nonconstitutional requirement that every new law needs 60 votes. Despite co-sponsoring the resolution, Senator Markey gave conflicting answers Thursday when asked whether he supported ending that rule.

Yet that doesn’t mean the Green New Deal should be counted out. The policy only received mainstream attention for the first time three months ago, when the Sunrise Movement demonstrated in Nancy Pelosi’s office. Since then, it has become the biggest idea in U.S. climate policy, and four Democratic presidential contenders have spoken in support of it (if tepidly). In practical terms, today’s plan matters most for the 2020 election. It shows that the broad left is on board with a policy; activist groups can now send detailed questionnaires to candidates and prepare report cards on the depth of their Green New Deal support.

The resolution also suggests that a Green New Deal is now a centerpiece climate policy for the Democratic Party. Because Markey led the last push to pass emissions-cutting legislation, his endorsement of this resolution signaled “a passing of the torch,” says Greg Carlock, a policy adviser to the leftist group Data for Progress and an early supporter of the Green New Deal.

“Millennials have been hearing for 20 years” that climate change would be an issue for their generation to deal with, he told me. “And I would say, thanks, we’re here now. This is us taking over the issue that, decades ago, people said would be ours to deal with. This is what the next generation of the issue looks like.”

“The world right now is watching what a bunch of American Millennials do in Congress,” he added.

The Green New Deal approach is already notably different from paths taken by other countries. For years, economists have advocated for a carbon tax, a type of tax meant to factor the dangerous costs of heat-trapping emissions into the price of goods. While eventual Green New Deal legislation could involve a small carbon price, Ocasio-Cortez seemed to reject the wholesale approach in remarks. She instead cast climate policy as a sort of mega-infrastructure bill.

“This is an investment,” she said. “For every dollar we spend on infrastructure, we get more than a dollar back for that investment. For every dollar we collect in taxes, we get less than a dollar back.”

This resolution also marks the first step in fights over the Green New Deal to come. Its main text does not weigh in on divisive questions about the use of nuclear energy, a power-generation technology that does not emit carbon dioxide, or carbon capture and storage, a still-fledgling technology that could suck CO2 out of smokestack fumes or the atmosphere. “We are open to whatever works,” Markey said Thursday.

The left might not be as amenable. Many environmental-justice groups worry that carbon-capture technology will allow fossil-fuel plants to keep polluting their neighborhoods. Yet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that the world can keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius only by deploying carbon capture.

This can make for difficult politics. On Thursday morning, Ocasio-Cortez’s office published an FAQ about a Green New Deal that seemed to oppose carbon capture specifically. “We believe the right way to capture carbon is to plant trees and restore our natural ecosystems,” it read. By late afternoon, the FAQ had vanished from the congresswoman’s website.

Many progressives would consider themselves lucky if they ever get to talk seriously about carbon-capture policy. For now, they have the same goal: making its mix of climate and labor policy as much a part of the mainstream Democratic agenda as health care is.

“The Green New Deal is kind of like the Cardi B of American politics right now,” Julian NoiseCat, an activist at the climate group, told me. “It’s fresh. It knows its roots in hardworking communities. And it’s really tapped into the culture in a different way from old approaches.”

“And like Cardi B,” he added, “I personally hope it sticks around for a while.”