So Has the Green New Deal Won Yet?

Since it debuted a year ago, the idea has lost, and won, and could lose again.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speak outside the United States Capitol
Erin Scott / Reuters

Maybe Jeff Bezos, of all people, put it best. Asked whether he supported the Green New Deal, the chief executive of one of the country’s most carbon-intensive technology companies waved the question off.

“There are a lot of different ideas for what the Green New Deal is,” he said, “and it’s probably too broad to say too much about that in particular.”

It was a dodge, of course, but not an inaccurate one. Because, really, who does know what the Green New Deal is? Yesterday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders announced what they said was the first part of that vision, a “Green New Deal for Housing.” Their $172 billion plan would retrofit a million public-housing units while eliminating 5 million tons of annual carbon pollution. Exactly a year earlier, dozens of young climate activists occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill, and Ocasio-Cortez, barely a week off her election, came to speak with them. Their demand: a special House committee to create something they called a Green New Deal.

For the climate movement, the protest seemed electrifying, the start of a new epoch. The Green New Deal, long on the hazy fringes of the policy debate, rocketed to its center. It marked a change for Pelosi, too, who could no longer count on playing the clenched-fist drum major of the Resistance. Now, back in power and with a majority to protect, she could once again be a target of protest.

The protest wasn’t against Pelosi per se, but a year on it’s clear that Pelosi won, and the Sunrise campaign lost. There isn’t a special House committee on the Green New Deal. (There is a new House committee, sure, and a Democrats-only Senate group, but they both focus on the more generic “climate crisis.”) Nor has the larger Green New Deal movement racked up obvious, substantive wins since. It has aimed for billionaires but felled “farting cows.” It has talked up, and then mostly talked down, the ideas of a federal jobs guarantee and Hamiltonian industrial policy. In March, a resolution praising it was decisively defeated, 57–0, during a show vote in the Senate.

And yet, a year later, the fact is unavoidable: The Green New Deal has won. Just as punk was dead by 1978, but every guitar-optional song since has been labeled “post-punk,” the Green New Deal has reshaped the terms of the endeavor. Its brand, you might say, is just too strong. That is because it named something real.

The Green New Deal is how Democrats talk about, and propose to address, a revelation that was already sweeping global politics: the truth that climate change is not an environmental issue in the same way as smog or acid rain. Carbon-based fuels, and thus heat-trapping carbon emissions, are not so much sewn into the fabric of our economic system as they are its warp and weft. And while that is slowly changing, any tactless attempt to rip out carbon risks rending the garment. The Green New Deal assumes that carbon is core to modern society, and it proceeds with decarbonization accordingly. As the global historian Adam Tooze put it during a recent lecture: The Green New Deal “turns the question from polar bears and icebergs to political economy.”

Or as a more surprising admirer says: It assumes that “our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected.” That idea—which also underpins, to some degree, the Paris Agreement—is too potent to perish. And if it is winning, it is because it is true.

It has had some effects on politics. In the United States, its first-order consequence is clear: It has increased the scope, and the price tag, of Democratic climate plans. Since June, primary candidates have increased the amount of proposed public investment in their plans by 59 percent, according to a new memo from the left-wing think tank Data for Progress.

But this expansion of scope has led politicians to make broader claims about how society ought to work. Seven candidates now have “strong” environmental-justice plans, and eight have “robust” job plans, according to the same memo. “Everyone, at least in our analysis, has moved in a Green New Deal direction over the past year,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, Data for Progress’s vice president of policy and strategy, told me.

There is some evidence that this approach may actually make climate policy more popular. In a new study, scholars at Yale and UC Santa Barbara argue that bundling climate policy with social and economic policies makes climate action more palatable to Americans.

After surveying 2,400 people, they found that some industrial policies—such as clean-energy union mandates and a federal jobs guarantee—boost national support for climate policy by as much as 14 points. Adding other Democratic priorities—such as affordable housing and a $15 minimum wage—also increases party members’ approval of climate action, particularly among African Americans, without reducing GOP approval for climate plans. The bundling strategy could “unlock coalitions,” says the study, which was posted to a database of draft social-science research and has not been peer-reviewed.

The Green New Deal has won in another way, too: It has created a network of progressives that share its underlying vision.

By far the largest of the groups to emerge is the Sunrise Movement, the corps of young adults who first protested in Pelosi’s office. Inspired in part by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the semiautonomous youth arm of the 1960s civil-rights movement, Sunrise has tried to keep its leadership young even as its membership has swollen. It now has 300 regional chapters, up from 15 last year. It also now has about 20 full-time employees in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Like virtually every other progressive group, it is focused on the 2020 election. Any future success will depend on electing people to Congress and the White House “who will take on the oil-and-gas lobby,” its spokesman, Stephen O’Hanlon, told me. “Following the election, we can engage in massive climate strikes and force the political establishment to stand up for our generation.”

The phalanx of scholars who can imagine climate action has also grown. Two years ago, the party had few new ideas about how it would tackle climate change when it next held power. Now it has reams of them. The presidential campaign of Jay Inslee of Washington State left behind a detailed, agency-by-agency playbook for decarbonization. Data for Progress, which published one of the first reports on the Green New Deal last year, has churned out research and model policy on the topic. A loosely organized cohort of historians, economists, political theorists, and international-relations scholars has published books and convened Green New Deal conferences. Even the Center for American Progress, the stalwart of Democratic moderation, now argues that the country should switch to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

Not every organization has met with total success. New Consensus, a small think tank that emerged earlier this year as the quarterback for a Green New Deal, has struggled to break into the climate conversation. It has done little to flesh out the Green New Deal for the public. But New Consensus is also the new home of Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s first chief of staff, who left that office in August, and it is on track to publish a report on national industrial policy early next year, Demond Drummer, its executive director, told me.

This has all happened before. In the late 1970s, the center-left believed it was on the verge of another generational victory. It had correctly diagnosed an economic ill, inflation, and prescribed a solution that seemed as radical as it was inevitable: “incomes policy,” or the political setting of wages. Thanks to a corrupt Republican president, Democrats held both Congress and the White House.

Incomes policy never came to pass, though. Paul Volcker was appointed to lead the Federal Reserve by President Jimmy Carter. Volcker chose Wall Street’s cure of choice for inflation: interest rates so high that they induced a recession. When the country emerged from that contraction, the reorganized economy boomed, ratifying the conservatism of the new president, Ronald Reagan. In the ensuing 39 years, the Democratic Party has held Congress and the White House again only twice, each for a total of four years.

The Green New Deal is winning today because it is a plausible prescription to an accurate diagnosis. But that means its supporters are now in a contest of speed and wits against anyone else who could come up with a more politically convenient cure. There are already signs that, in 2020, the financial sector will wake up to climate change and the political economy of carbon. Other powerful institutions in society, including the military and Silicon Valley, will keep developing their own decarbonization agendas. If the Green New Deal’s supporters hope to win in the years to come, they must do more than build the mass movement they imagine: They must co-opt, cajole, and convince some of the planet’s most powerful people that their survival, and the world’s, requires nothing less than the weaving of a new society.