After winning the Democratic nomination for president in the summer of 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised to end the economic suffering of the Great Depression: “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”
As president, FDR enacted a series of executive acts and policy decisions that took government involvement in the economy to never-before-seen levels. The New Deal had mixed results — experts disagree about its economic success— but it fundamentally shifted the relationship between the government, the U.S. labor pool, and linchpin industries like food and automotive.
Nearly 90 years later, a group of Democrats led by progressive darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is hoping to pass legislation with a similarly wide-reaching impact. Officially unveiled as a House resolution on February 7, the Green New Deal would impact almost every sector of America, from housing to social justice to manufacturing.
So, what exactly is the Green New Deal?
1. Most people don’t know what it is
If you felt guilty clicking on this article with no idea what the Green New Deal is, don’t feel bad: you’ve got plenty of company. A December 2018 study by Yale and George Mason University found that 82% of registered American voters had heard “nothing at all” about the Green New Deal. When more than eight out of ten voters have zero details on a piece of legislation, it’s essentially a blank slate in the court of public opinion. Republicans are hoping to use the Green New Deal as a battering ram to paint the left as naive socialists, while Democrats plan to make it a unifying proposal that can rally the party’s progressive base as much as its blue-collar moderate faction.
2. Right now it’s just broad ideas
The policy, which is available as a Google Doc, is essentially a plan to make a plan. The document outlines eight outcomes that should be accomplished in the next ten years. Some are relatively specific, like achieving 100% reliance on renewable energy and building a national “smart” power grid. But many of its other points could mean almost anything, such as “upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety,” or “funding massive investment in the drawdown of greenhouse gases.”
These are all-encompassing concepts that will likely have to be achieved incrementally. Many of them are moonshot targets that would be difficult even with a unified government. Experts have been particularly critical of the ten-year goal for 100% renewable energy — the state of California is only aiming to reach 60% renewable by 2030, for example. Others are dismayed at the inclusion of universal basic income, which has long been considered a left-wing pipe dream.
3. It’s not new
The idea of the “Green New Deal” likely originated in a 2007 New York Times column by Thomas Friedman. Years later, newly-elected President Barack Obama made spending on renewable energy part of a larger $800-billion stimulus package to pull the country out of the late 2000s recession. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein included a policy called the Green New Deal in her campaign platforms when she ran in 2012 and 2016.
The latest iteration of the Green New Deal, championed by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, returned to prominence this past winter. The Sunrise Movement, a youth political advocacy organization, staged two sit-ins in Nancy Pelosi’s congressional office to call for action on climate change, drawing attention to the proposal. The combination of public protest and whipping from party heavyweights like Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders cemented the Green New Deal as part of the Democratic vision for 2020, but it remains to be seen how large of a part it will be (see point 5).
4. It’s much more than just climate change
While the first word denotes environmental issues, the Green New Deal covers much more than climate change: It calls for a fundamental transformation in the way industry, labor and the economy interact. Of particular note are the “job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one,” and “additional measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs and any others as the select committee may deem appropriate to promote economic security.”
Considering the knock-down, drag-out fight the government had over just one of those measures (universal healthcare under the Affordable Care Act), it’s unlikely that any of these ideas will move quickly through a Congress that will be divided until at least January 2021. Supporters of the Green New Deal point out that by keeping the plan broad and including issues like jobs and livable wages, they can attract voters more concerned about putting food on their tables than the environment.
5. Democrats are divided on it
The Green New Deal is one of the most prominent fault lines dividing moderates and progressives in the Democratic party. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, arguably the most powerful Democrat in the government, was dismissive when asked about it: “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”
And while Democrats did establish a new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis this past December, there is no official mention of the Green New Deal. Progressives were also disappointed by the selection of Rep. Kathy Castor from Florida as committee chair. Castor is serving her seventh term in Congress and has been on the House Energy and Commerce Committee since 2009 — not exactly a fresh-faced star like Ocasio-Cortez, who was in high school during Castor’s first term.
Many also point out that the new committee does not have subpoena power or legislative authority, hampering its ability to have an impact on climate issues. The Sunrise Movement called it “a big disappointment.”
The Green New Deal’s Future
In a move of political theater, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he intends to bring the Green New Deal to a Senate vote soon. There’s no chance it will pass in a chamber where Republicans control 53 of 100 seats — instead, McConnell is using the vote to force Senate Democrats to take sides on a debate that has already divided the party.
If supporters want the Green New Deal to become actual law one day, it’s going to need Rocky Balboa-level endurance to withstand all the punches conservatives will throw its way. A brand new report by the American Action Network, an advocacy group with Republican roots, indicates that the Green New Deal may cost the country up to $93 trillion.
The release of the Green New Deal was one of the biggest early salvos in the political battle for climate change. Soon, Democrats – and then the voting public – must decide where to dig their trenches for the rest of the fight.