The “Green New Deal” – Part 1: What Exactly Is It?

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

This past February, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the “Green New Deal,” a proposed package of programs and goals that aims to directly address climate change as well as economic inequality. It is named after and inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” of the 1930s, a host or regulatory and financial reforms, public works projects, and programs enacted to spur and guide the country’s recovery from the Great Depression. The concept of a “Green New Deal” isn’t new. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman first called for one in a 2007 column, and prior to that many others made similar calls for large-scale, systemic overhauls of the economy to combat climate change and protect the environment. Several progressive think tanks starting with the 1970s Club of Rome and continuing with the London-based New Economics Foundation (NEF) have developed blue prints for changing the ways market economies value and tax natural capital and societal goods. Even the European Commission has proposed changes to value-added taxation to focus on environmental damages and sustainability.

The ambitious “Green New Deal” is significant, not least because efforts to impose a price on carbon and other economy-wide measures to address global warming have so far faltered in the U.S. However, gaining traction amongst congressional lawmakers and the greater public will also be particularly challenging because of how press coverage has largely situated the Green New Deal in the narratives of other political questions—whether it be how the Resolution affects Democrats’ strategy in Congress, how candidates navigate through the issue going into the 2020 election cycle, etc.

So, in a three-part series, I will (1) explain what exactly the “Green New Deal” is, (2) analyze if and how the goals laid out in the proposal can be achieved, and (3) if it has any realistic chance of passing as a Resolution and manifesting in various pieces of legislation going forward. And so in this piece, I will lay out what the “Green New Deal” includes and proposes.

What is the “Green New Deal?”

The “Green New Deal” as presented is not legislation or a series of bills set to be deliberated in Congress. Rather, it is a Resolution that lays out the strategy and context by which Congress should legislate around the issues addressed in the Resolution over the next decade. Congressional Resolutions are non-binding (except in cases of war declarations or constitutional amendments), but if passed, they signal agreement on behalf of the body as it pertains to certain stances on legislation, acts of government, or approval/disapproval for an issue that cannot otherwise be voted upon.

If the Resolution were brought to the floor and passed in the House of Representatives, it would signal agreement or intent on behalf of the House to legislate on the issues therein. Of course, a Resolution is still not a Bill, so even if passed, it does not obligate either house of Congress to act. However, it is hard to imagine the House voting to pass this Resolution and not following up accordingly with legislation.

What exactly is it proposing?

The “Green New Deal” Resolution starts by setting the context on climate change, referring directly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C” from October 2018 and the federal government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment from November of the year. The Resolution states explicitly that “human activity is the dominant cause of observed climate change over the past century” and discusses that climate change presents serious threats to human life, health and infrastructure. It offers some specific numbers in regard to the impact of climate change should warming meet or exceed 2°C above pre-industrial levels and emphasizes that the United States must take a leading role on the issue since the country has been responsible for a “disproportionate amount” of global greenhouse gas emissions historically.

The Resolution then sets the context for related crises, including public health and economic inequality. It states that life expectancy is declining and that various resources (i.e., clean air, clean water, healthy food, health care, housing, transportation, education) are not accessible for much of the U.S. population. It points to wage stagnation, socioeconomic immobility, income inequality, gender earnings gaps, the racial wealth divide, and more as systemic injustices that are not only being exacerbated by climate change and other environmental issues, but also disproportionately affect certain communities.

It is at this point that the Resolution emphasizes how the federal government should act, stating that it is the government’s duty to create a “Green New Deal” with the following goals:

  1. To achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions fairly and justly;
  2. To create millions of “good, high-wage jobs”;
  3. To invest in infrastructure;
  4. To secure “clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; and a sustainable environment” for the American people; and
  5. To “promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression” of various communities.

After laying out the goals, we hit the crux of the Green New Deal, which is that the aforementioned goals “should be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization” whereby the country:

  1. “builds resiliency” against the consequences of climate change (e.g., extreme weather) through investments and community projects;
  2. Repairs and upgrades to infrastructure that entail the elimination of GHG emissions and pollution, the provision of universal access to clean water, and the assurance that “any infrastructure bill considered by Congress addresses climate change;”
  3. Completely meets nationwide power demand through “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources;”
  4. Upgrades existing energy and building infrastructure, as build more sustainable energy and building infrastructure going forward;
  5. Creates growth in “clean manufacturing” and removes pollution and emissions from industry as much as possible;
  6. Removes emissions and pollution from the agricultural sector by investing in and promoting more sustainable farming practices and food systems,
  7. Removes emissions and pollution from the transportation sector by investing in “zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing,” clean and accessible public transit, and high-speed rail;
  8. Creates “low-tech solutions” to GHG emissions removal and pollution reduction that keep carbon in the ground;
  9. Supports local and science-based projects that protect and restore “threatened, endangered, and fragile” ecosystems and species;
  10. “Clean[s] up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites;” and
  11. Exchanges technologies, products, expertise, and more internationally to support climate efforts around the world.

And lastly, the Resolution emphasizes that to successfully mobilize around and address the “Green New Deal” goals, legislation must be developed and deliberated democratically and comprehensively, accounting for the communities it will impact and the costs that it will incur. It also emphasizes the need for continued investment in research and development around clean and renewable energy as well as other environmental issues. It concludes with a list of other important goals that the “Green New Deal mobilization” should meet:

  • Providing relevant resources and education around these issues to the entire U.S. population;
  • Creating “high-quality union jobs,” as well as guaranteeing jobs to people with “family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security” to everyone in the U.S.;
  • Implementing strong labor and environmental protections when enacting and enforcing trade rules;
  • “Obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples” as it pertains to all decisions that may impact them and their sovereignty.

The “Green New Deal” covers a lot of ground but is built on the premise that climate change and widening socioeconomic disparities are critical threats to American prosperity and security. And while the Resolution itself doesn’t delve specifically into any particular issue, it provides Congress with a list of issues that it can meaningfully address through legislation going forward. In the next post, I will dive more into these goals in detail, and evaluate if these goals would indeed be feasible in the time frame proposed.