What Is This Green New Deal Anyway?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a plan to tackle climate change

By Heather Smith

November 28, 2018


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the sit-in | Photo courtesy of Sunrise Movement

Earlier this month, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat, participated in a sit-in at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's Capitol Hill office organized by a group of young people with the Sunrise Movement. Ocasio-Cortez didn’t high-five protesters because she’s against Pelosi—she says she is backing Pelosi to become the next Speaker of the House—as much as she was there to advocate for what the sit-in was demanding.

Those protestors were demanding something called the Green New Deal—a proposal, most prominently backed by Ocasio-Cortez, for Congress to comprehensively tackle climate change and, at the same time, the country’s income inequality, which is the worst it’s been since the years before the Roosevelt administration implemented the original New Deal.

Add your name if you support a Green New Deal to create good union jobs and a way to help jumpstart the transition to clean energy!

Climate change and income inequality might seem unrelated. But it’s important that any nationwide economy-boosting program boost the right kind of economy—that is, one that doesn’t depend on polluting the air and water. It’s also going to be hard to persuade the average American that climate change is our most urgent nationwide priority if their social media feed is a constant stream of GoFundMe campaigns for their friends’ medical bills, or they have to sit down and breathe into a paper bag every time they think about whether they can retire before dying first.

So, what specifically is in Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal?

Ocasio-Cortez has a draft proposal posted on her website that offers some basics, though it’s clear that the plan is still very much an outline.

The draft says that within 10 years from “the start of execution of the Plan,” the country will be fully powered by renewable energy sources. The proposal also gives a shout-out to that nationwide energy-efficient smart grid that so many renewable energy wonks (and also the actual Department of Energy) have been salivating about for years.

A grid like this could allow thousands of clean energy start-ups to bloom across the country and pay out some major cheddar to the workers who actually build it. The draft proposal also mentions upgrading every residential and industrial building across the country for state-of-the-art energy efficiency and decarbonizing (as in probably electrifying) manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture.

The draft also imagines “funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases” (possibly straight-up carbon capture technology, possibly incentives to manage land in ways that store carbon). And it envisions green technologies becoming a major export sector for the United States (which would theoretically involve research funding and support for clean energy start-ups).  

Ocasio-Cortez also proposes providing all Americans with the opportunity, training, and education to be a full and equal participant in the country’s clean energy transition; universal health care programs that would help green energy start-ups get off the ground; and a jobs guarantee program that would assure a living-wage job to every person who wants one.

And how would this happen?

Ocasio-Cortez proposes that the House of Representatives establish a “Select Committee for a Green New Deal” made up of 15 members, Republicans as well as Democrat. The committee would have one year to have draft legislation to present to Congress, and finalized draft legislation would have be ready no later than March 1, 2020.

The draft also contains a stipulation that no one on the special committee would be allowed to take campaign donations from oil and gas companies, to prevent the legislation from being watered down before it reaches the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote.

Is this deal really so new?

Sort of. The term “Green New Deal” has been making the rounds for at least a decade, and many policy wonks in the USthe UK, and other countries around the world have developed their own proposals for what that might look like during that time. The Sierra Club’s Living Economy program has a detailed overview of various Green New Deal ideas here.

In the US, legislation like Waxman-Markey, contained some of the same support for infrastructure and technology, but minus the jobs guarantee and health insurance benefits. In 2003, a group called the Apollo Alliance announced a climate change plan that was sort of a New Deal/clean energy space race hybrid (hence the “Apollo,” after the Kennedy administration’s moon shoot project). The alliance had some heavy hitters backing it—and some bipartisan support—but it never achieved its ambitious goals.

Then there was Van Jones, whose 2008 book The Green Collar Economy raised a lot of excitement around living-wage jobs and renewable energy and launched Jones to the White House as President Obama’s green jobs advisor. The green collar economy was stymied, in part, by China’s ardent support for its own solar industry, but when the Obama administration passed the 2009 economic stimulus bill, it contained about $90 billion of financing for clean energy projects. While that money did do some important things, including funding risky but promising renewable technology, it was overshadowed by the larger economic collapse and the Wall Street bailout of firms like AIG.

This history of partially implemented green economy dreams illustrates how the New Deal aspect of the Green New Deal could come in handy. If we’re in a recession by the time 2020 rolls around, the “jobs” component of the New Deal could provide leverage against legislators who might want to use any financial crisis as an excuse to delay acting on the climate crisis.

Several state and local initiatives also resemble the Green New Deal, but on a smaller scale. A month after the 2016 election, the Illinois legislature passed the Future Energy Jobs Act, which combined ambitious renewable energy goals with jobs-training programs and other policies to steer renewable energy benefits to low-income communities.

Is a Green New Deal politically viable?

This is all heady stuff, and it’s important to remember that Ocasio-Cortez's proposal is really just a draft resolution for the House to create a special committee to work out the specifics—specifics that could change a lot over the next two years. Actually making sure that the Green New Deal lives up to its promise of saving our troposphere, and our economy, will require grassroots pressure on senators and representatives from every corner. In other words, soon enough there will be sit-ins outside a lot of offices on Capitol Hill—not just Pelosi’s.  

This article has been modified since its original posting to add more information about prior and current Green New Deal programs and to include the Sierra Club’s broader view of the Green New Deal.