The Green New Deal Is Indeed a Big Deal

February 2019, national

Environmental activists and supporters of the Green New Deal occupied the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Washington, D.C., in December.
(J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

By Sonali Kolhatkar


The most visionary resolution to emerge from Congress in recent years, encompassing both the climate crisis and economic inequality, has captured the imagination of many Americans. In less than a year we went from having never heard the name Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to watching the impressive, young rookie congresswoman achieve more in a month than most of our representatives do in a year as she rolled out the Green New Deal (GND) resolution along with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). While the resolution is not yet a full-fledged piece of legislation, it does lay out a blueprint for future bills.

First, it is critical to understand that Ocasio-Cortez did not create the GND—rather, the idea was borne out of the same movement that birthed the Democratic lawmaker’s candidacy. An account of the proposal in Politico details how Justice Democrats, the organization that recruited Ocasio-Cortez and ran her campaign, was founded by young organizers who cut their teeth on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Another organization, Sunrise Movement—also created in 2016—crafted the GND proposal together with Justice Democrats. Just days after Ocasio-Cortez won her New York congressional seat last November, she addressed Sunrise Movement activists during their sit-in of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and effectively endorsed the GND that they were demanding.

Varshini Prakash, the founder of the Sunrise Movement, explained to me in an interview that the GND “would tackle the twin crises of our lifetimes—the climate crisis and also the rampant and nauseating levels of wealth inequality in this country, and would really center racial justice, which was something that the original New Deal failed to do.” She described the resolution as a “blueprint,” which could, if passed, yield new legislation on a variety of climate and economic issues.

Just as there has been strong resistance to the idea of Medicare-for-All from centrist Democrats and Republicans, the GND is garnering similar censure from many sides. Republicans have deemed it “loony,” and at a political rally in El Paso, Texas, President Donald Trump predictably lied about what it would entail, saying, “I really don’t like their policy of taking away your car, of taking away your airplane rights, of ‘let’s hop a train to California,’ of ‘you’re not allowed to own cows anymore!’” He even claimed that “[i]t would shut down a little thing called air travel. How do you take a train to Europe?” (It hasn’t helped that a document about the proposal’s details distributed by Ocasio-Cortez’s staff was initially the wrong one—it was an earlier draft containing some provisions that Republicans have seized on but that were not present in the actual proposal.)

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the Senate would vote on it, saying, “it will give everybody an opportunity to go on record and see how they feel about the Green New Deal.” In truth, McConnell likely is attempting to use the vote to crush Democratic chances in 2020. Markey countered on Twitter, “this isn’t a new Republican trick,” and speculated that, “By rushing a vote on the #GreenNewDeal resolution, Republicans want to avoid a true national debate & kill our efforts to organize.”

The Democratic leadership has also balked at it, with Pelosi initially agreeing only to create a select committee to further study climate change when the idea was raised last year. Angered by her response, Sunrise Movement’s national political director Evan Weber said, “Basically all she wants it to do, from what we can tell, is convene people to talk about the science.” He added, “We’ve been talking about the science for the past few decades.” Then, just ahead of Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s early February press conference on the GND, Pelosi derisively told Politico, “It will be one of several, or maybe many, suggestions that we receive. The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” Ocasio-Cortez, in a testament to her effective communication skills, dismissed Pelosi’s words, saying, “I think itisa Green Dream. All great American programs—everything from the Great Society to the New Deal—started with a vision for our future.”

Just as in the case of “Medicare for all,” the public actually loves the idea. A poll conducted in December found that a whopping 92 percent of Democrats and even 64 percent of Republicans supported the idea of a GND, which is perhaps why so many Democratic presidential contenders say they support it.

There are some concerns from the left about the proposal, mostly along the lines of worries the legislation emerging from the resolution might not go far enough to tackle the climate and the jobs crises. The Climate Justice Alliance worried there had not been enough consultation with impacted communities before the resolution was drafted, saying in a press release, “The proposal for the GND was made public at the grasstops level. When we consulted with many of our own communities, they were neither aware of, nor had they been consulted about the launch of the GND.” The Alliance pointed to shortsighted legislation on the “cap and trade” approach to climate change that has not worked. An analysis in Mint Press News pointed out it was deeply problematic for the emergent legislation to be crafted by a committee appointed by the House speaker and minority leader. In an interview with In These Times Magazine, activist Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson said, “We need to critically analyze some of the shortfalls of the capitalist logic embedded in this plan. We have to push back and improve upon the Green New Deal.” He wisely added, “Dismissing it and not having a dialogue and talking just about how it’s imperfect is not good enough.”

Members of Congress have been handwringing over economic inequality for years and have yet to move beyond a tax-cutting approach to stimulating the economy. They have been worse on climate change, either refusing to acknowledge it is a reality, even while federal agencies plan for it, or accepting it is real but doing very little about it. As a result, American youth face a financially precarious present and an existentially uncertain future. It is no surprise then that among those pushing hardest for the GND are young people—and especially young people of color—who have poured great grassroots energy into it. Prakash explained that her organization plans to “build an army of young people big enough that we can stop the climate crisis and create millions of new jobs for our generation.”

The beauty of the GND resolution is that it is still an idea, but it is a bold and beautiful one. Relative to the grim political climate, it may be just the antidote to our collective despair.