Congressional Green New Deal resolution released

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) came to Congress with the promise to create an economic plan to dramatically reduce—and later, to eliminate—the US’s share of climate change-driving greenhouse gas emissions.

On Thursday (Feb. 7), the newly-sworn-in Democratic representative from New York, along with Senator Ed Markey, the Democrat from Massachusetts, finally unveiled the plan, laying out the Green New Deal in 14 pages in the form of a House Resolution.  You can read the Green New Deal here, thanks to NPR.

The document is a 10-year plan to eliminate the US’s carbon footprint by 2030 through a massive mobilization of renewable energy and energy-saving projects; It posits, among other things, to:

  • Lift the share of power generated by wind and solar energy from the 10 percent it produces today, to nearly 100 percent within 10 years.
  • It advocates dramatically upgrading local infrastructure, including upgrading all existing buildings in the US to “achieve maximal energy efficiency.”
  • It proposes to “work collaboratively with farmers” to reduce the share of US emissions that come from agriculture.

The bill/resolution is the only one put forth from the US Congress that is in keeping with the scientific consensus of what must be done to avoid global climate catastrophe.  The plan is broad in its approach by design; it is meant to spur specific legislation to achieve each of the goals it lays out. “Each of the national projects we lay out might be their own bills,” Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti told Vox.

Enacting the Green New Deal would require massive federal investment, much like what has been done in other moments of national emergency. “The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan,” she told the Huffington Post back in June.

It acknowledges that climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the US, which is also the position of the US Military. Considering that the US is responsible for roughly one-fifth of global emissions, and also has the capacity for developing high-tech solutions, it declares that the “the United States must take a leading role in reducing emissions through economic transformation.”

As promised, it is an economic plan, with the intention to “create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States.”

Green New Deal: news and updates about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s climate plan: It’s a sweeping proposal to make the US carbon neutral by 2030.

After much anticipation, the Green New Deal is here. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) are introducing a sweeping plan to make the United States carbon neutral by 2030, invest in the sustainability of national infrastructure and industry, and create “millions” of jobs in the process.

The plan is wildly more ambitious than anything Democrats were talking about even two years ago. Its goals — achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, providing for a just transition, securing clean air and water — are broadly popular. And the proposal avoids fights over carbon pricing, clean versus renewable energy, and concerns over a balanced budget — for now.

Politically, the Green New Deal is fundamentally about making climate change a central Democratic priority in 2020 — without shoving aside health care and the economy. Democrats have talked about climate change as an important issue for some time, but there has been little urgency in Congress to take action. The Green New Deal could mark a shift.

The resolution already has around 60 House co-sponsors and nine Senate co-sponsors, per the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein, but another goal of Ocasio-Cortez and climate organizers is to get support from 2020 Democrats.

There’s now an official Green New Deal. Here’s what’s in it.  A close look at the fights it picks and the fights it avoids.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez walks the halls of Congress.

On Thursday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced a Green New Deal resolution that lays out the goals, aspirations, and specifics of the Green New Deal program in a more definitive way. This is as close as there is to an “official” Green New Deal — at last, something to argue about.

There will be lots to say in the days to come about the politics of all this. (In the meantime, read Ella Nilsen’s piece.) For instance, it is interesting that Markey, a living symbol of 2008-era Democratic thinking on climate change (and the leader of the old climate committee), is lending his imprimatur to this more urgent and radical iteration. Read: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey’s Green New Deal Resolution

But for now, I just want to share a few initial impressions after reading through the short document a few times.

It’s worth noting just what a high-wire act the authors of this resolution are attempting. It has to offer enough specifics to give it real shape and ambition, without overprescribing solutions or prejudging differences over secondary questions. It has to please a diverse range of interest groups, from environmental justice to labor to climate, without alienating any of them. It has to stand up to intense scrutiny (much of it sure to be bad faith), with lots of people gunning for it from both the right and center.

And of course, it eventually has to give birth to real legislation.

Given all those demands, the resolution does a remarkably good job of threading the needle. It is bold and unmistakably progressive, matched to the problem as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while avoiding a few needless fights and leaving room for plenty of debate over priorities and policy tools.

The resolution consists of a preamble, five goals, 14 projects, and 15 requirements. The preamble establishes that there are two crises, a climate crisis and an economic crisis of wage stagnation and growing inequality, and that the GND can address both.

The goals — achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, providing for a just transition, securing clean air and water — are broadly popular. The projects — things like decarbonizing electricity, transportation, and industry, restoring ecosystems, upgrading buildings and electricity grids — are necessary and sensible (if also extremely ambitious).

There are a few items down in the requirements that might raise red flags (more on those later), but given the long road ahead, there will be plenty of time to sort them out. Overall, this is about as strong an opening bid as anyone could have asked for.

Now let’s take a closer look.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., questions Andrew Wheeler as he testifies at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.
Sen. Ed Markey
 Andrew Harnik/AP

The Green New Deal resolution features 2 big progressive priorities

From a progressive point of view, the discussion over climate change in the US has always been overly skewed toward technologies and markets. (The term of art is “neoliberalism.”)

I have been guilty of this myself. Economics and technology are considered serious topics in the US, a ticket to being heard and acknowledged by the political mainstream, and there is a subtle, tidal pressure to hew to those subjects, at risk of being relegated to the status of activist or, worse yet, ideologue. (As though neoliberalism is not an ideology.)

The resurgent left is done with all that.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with technologies or markets, as long as they remain servants, not masters. It’s just that, in the US, those subjects have tended to occlude deeper and more urgent considerations (like justice) and exclude a wide range of policy instruments (like public investment).

It is for the progressive movement to stand up for those priorities, and that’s what the GND resolution does. We’ll take them in turn.

1) Justice

Ordinary people matter. Emissions matter, yes. Costs and money matter. Technologies and policies matter. But they all matter secondarily, via their effects on ordinary people. The role of progressive politics, if it amounts to anything, is to center the safety, health, and dignity of ordinary people.

That means that justice — or as it’s often called, “environmental justice,” as though it’s some boutique subgenre — must be at the heart of any plan to address climate change. The simple fact is that climate change will hit what the resolution calls “frontline and vulnerable communities” (who have contributed least to the problem) hardest. And attempts to transition away from fossil fuels threaten communities that remain tied to the fossil fuel economy.

Frontline and vulnerable communities stand to get it coming and going, from the problem and from the solutions. And unlike big energy companies pursuing growth, unlike idle billionaires fascinated with new tech, unlike banks and financial institutions seeking out new income streams, unlike incumbent industries fat from decades of subsidies, frontline and vulnerable communities do not have the means to fund campaigns and hire expensive lobbyists. They do not have the means to make their voice heard in the scrum of politics.

That’s why progressives exist: to amplify the voices of those without power (a class that includes future generations).

Accordingly, in the resolution’s preamble — the part with all the whereas this and whereas that — there are three statements focused on climate damages and emissions and four focused, in one way or another, on justice.

Of the resolution’s five goals, three are focused on justice. (For example: “promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression to frontline and vulnerable communities.”)

Of the 12 GND projects, three, including the very first, are focused on community-level resilience and development. And something like two-thirds of the GND requirements, depending on how you count, direct political power and public investment down to the state, local, and worker level, safeguarding environmental and labor standards and prioritizing family-wage jobs.

The resolution makes clear that justice is a top progressive priority. It is fashionable for centrists and some climate wonks to dismiss things like wage standards as tertiary, a way of piggybacking liberal goals onto the climate fight. But progressives don’t see it that way. In a period of massive, rapid disruption, the welfare of the people involved is not tertiary.

Demonstrators march in Washington, DC in 2017 demanding action on climate change. Polls show that Americans are more worried about climate change.
After some justice.
 Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

2) Investment

Neoliberalism has also made old-fashioned public investment something of a taboo. The GND goes directly at it — public investment aimed at creating jobs is central to the project.

The preamble notes that “the Federal Government-led mobilizations during World War II and the New Deal era created the greatest middle class that the US has ever seen” and frames the GND as “a historic opportunity to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States.”

Creating jobs is the second of the five goals; investment in “US infrastructure and industry” is the third. Of the GND projects, investment in “community-defined projects and strategies” to increase resilience is the first; repairing and upgrading infrastructure is the second.

Of the GND requirements, the very first is “providing and leveraging, in a way that ensures that the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and returns on investment, adequate capital (including through community grants, public banks, and other public financing), technical expertise, supporting policies, and other forms of assistance to communities, organizations, Federal, State, and local government agencies, and businesses working on the Green New Deal mobilization.”

Also in the requirements: funding education and job training for frontline communities in transition; investing in research and development; and investing in community ownership and resilience.

The Hoover Dam from the air. Colorado river and Lake Mead. Significant water level decline is indicated by the white high water line.
The Hoover Dam, completed in 1936, back when lawmakers knew what public investment meant.

Public investment with the returns going back to the public — it’s not a GND without that.

The Green New Deal resolution smartly avoids a few fights

There some internecine fights within the broad community of climate hawks that are best left to other venues, in order to keep the coalition behind a GND as broad and small-c catholic as possible. This resolution deftly avoids several of those fights.

1) Paying for it

The question of how to pay for the many public investments called for in the GND is still a bit of a political minefield. There are centrist Democrats who still believe in the old PAYGO rules, keeping a “balanced budget” within a 10-year window. There are Democrats who think deficit fears have been exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with running a deficit to drive an economic transition. And there are Democrats who have gone full Modern Monetary Theory, which is way too complicated to explain here, but amounts to the notion that, short of inflation, the level of the deficit is effectively irrelevant, as long as we’re getting the economy we want.

That discussion is just getting underway, and the better part of valor is to do what the GND resolution does: say nothing about it. Leave it for later.

2) Clean versus renewable energy

Many, probably most climate hawks would prefer a future in which all electricity is provided by renewable energy. (I am among them.) But there is good-faith disagreement about whether 100 percent renewables is realistic or economical in the 10-year time frame.

Many, probably most energy analysts believe that renewables will need to be supplemented with nuclear power or fossil fuels with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), but some lefty environmental groups pushed for the GND to explicitly prohibit them.

As I argued earlier, that would have caused a completely unnecessary fight. The resolution wisely avoids taking that route.

Instead, it calls for the US to “meet 100 percent of our power demand through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.”

Clinton Nuclear Generating Station
Lots of old nuclear plants are still generating carbon-free power.

Easy. Now renewables advocates can go right on advocating for renewables, nuclear fans can go right on advocating for nuclear, and they can continue fighting it out on Twitter. But their fight doesn’t need to muck up the GND. The GND targets carbon emissions, which is the right target for a broad programmatic outline.

3) Carbon pricing

Carbon pricing — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems — is also the source of much agita within the climate hawk community. The need to price carbon has practically been climate orthodoxy for the last few decades, but lately, there’s been something of a lefty backlash.

Some have taken the (sensible) position that climate pricing has been rather fetishized, that it may not be the smartest political priority in all cases, and that other policy instruments with more proven records are equally important. Some have taken the (silly) position that carbon pricing is bad or counterproductive in and of itself and pushed to have it excluded from the GND.

The resolution doesn’t take a position. It merely says that the GND must involve “accounting for the true cost of emissions.” If you’re a carbon pricing fan (as I am), you can read pricing into that. But there are other ways to read it too.

Pricing advocates probably would have liked something a little more muscular there, but in the end, I think the instinct — to avoid the fight entirely — is the right one. The struggle over how or whether to prioritize pricing instruments can come later; it doesn’t need to be settled in advance of getting people on board with the GND.

4) Supply-side policy

Lately, lots of climate activists have been pushing to directly restrict the supply and distribution of fossil fuels — at the mine, well, or import terminal — with an eye toward phasing fossil fuels out entirely. “Keep it in the ground,” as the slogan goes.

This is the leading edge of the climate fight, out ahead of where labor and most moderates are. Including it in the GND probably would have sparked some defections.

The GND resolution doesn’t touch the subject, other than calling for transition assistance for communities losing fossil fuel jobs. And it calls on the US to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions,” which theoretically allows for some fossil fuel combustion coupled with carbon removal.

The keep-it-in-the-ground crowd is in the same position as the all-renewables crowd: They may feel some initial disappointment that their perspective was not reflected in the resolution, but they can take comfort in the fact that it was not excluded either. The resolution simply slates that fight as something to take place within the broad GND coalition, rather than making it part of the price of membership.

Sen. Jeff Merkley has sponsored a Keep It In the Ground Act.
Sen. Jeff Merkley has sponsored a Keep It In the Ground Act.
 Sen. Jeff Merkley

All four of these omissions or elisions — these fights postponed — signal, to me, a movement that is capable of reining in its more vigorous ideological impulses in the name of building the broadest possible left coalition behind an ambitious climate solution. That bodes well.

The Green New Deal resolution omits a few key, wonky policies

There are a few things I would have liked to see feature more prominently in the resolution. They are somewhat nerdy, but important in climate policy.

1) Density and public space

Just about the only urban-focused element of the GND resolution is tucked in the transportation section, calling for “investment in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing, clean, affordable, and accessible public transit, and high-speed rail.”

That’s it. Boo.

Creating dense urban areas with ample public spaces and multimodal transportation options — deprioritizing private automobiles and reducing overall automobile traffic — serves multiple progressive goals.

It tackles the next big climate challenge, which is cars. It reduces urban air pollution, urban noise, and the urban heat island effect, while increasing physical activity and social contact, all of which improves the physical and psychological health of urban communities.

It addresses the housing crisis that is crippling many growing cities, pricing young people, poor people, students, and longtime residents out of walkable urban cores.

And, if you will forgive some dreamy speculation, a little more public space might just generate a sense of community and social solidarity to counteract the segregation, atomization, isolation, and mutual distrust that cars and suburbs have exacerbated.

I get that GND proponents are spooked about being seen as anti-rural, which is why these kinds of plans from the left always include education, training, and transition assistance for rural communities hurt by decarbonization.

And that’s great. But they should also remember that their core demographics live in cities and are engaged in urban issues. Cities are central to any vision of 21st century sustainability. They deserve pride of place in a GND.

Placa Reial (Royal Plaza), in Barcelona, Spain.
Placa Reial, in Barcelona, Spain — a nice public space.

2) Electrification

It is widely acknowledged in the climate policy community that deep decarbonization will involve rapid and substantial electrification. We know how to decarbonize electricity grids — so we need to get everything we can onto the grid.

That means two big things in particular.

First, the US vehicle fleet needs to be electrified as fast as practicably possible. The resolution’s “investment in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure” hints at this, but scarcely conveys the needed scale and speed.

Second, the millions upon millions of buildings in the US that use natural gas for heat need to find a zero-carbon alternative, and quickly. There are some zero-carbon liquid substitute fuels on the horizon, but for the time being, the best way we know to decarbonize HVAC (heating, ventilation, and cooling) is to rip out all those millions of furnaces and replace them with electric heat pumps. That’s a big, big job that will create a ton of work and directly involve millions of people’s homes and businesses.

Bruce Nilles@brucenilles

From the good folks at @EIAgov — the electricity in our homes is getting cleaner (almost on 1.5 degree trajectory), we are using less fuel oil for heating, but….we haven’t made progress on reducing gas use. We have efficient electric appliances – let’s get busy.

The GND resolution would “upgrade all existing U.S. buildings and build new buildings, to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability.” Theoretically that could imply electrification, but I’d like to see it called out.

[UPDATE February 7, 2019: In between the leaked copy and the final resolution, a single phrase was added to the sentence quoted above: “including through electrification.” They’re reading my mind!]

The Green New Deal resolution has a few, er, aspirational inclusions

As I said, most of the resolution consists of goals and policies that anyone who takes climate change seriously will find necessary. But down toward the bottom of the list of requirements, the resolution really lets its hair down and gets funky. Readers who make it that far into the document will find some eyebrow-raising doozies.

Like No. 8: “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and disability leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all members of our society.” Heyo! There’s that job guarantee.

Or No. 9: “recognizing the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment.” A full-on right to unionize, okay.

11: “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental protections to stop the transfer of jobs and pollution overseas and grow our domestic manufacturing.” And there’s a liberal trade regime.

14: “ensuring a commercial environment where every business person, large and small, is free from unfair competition and domination by monopolies domestically or internationally.” All right, we’re going after monopolies too.

And just to fill in the remaining gaps, 15: “providing all members of society with high-quality health care, affordable, safe and adequate housing, economic security, and access to clean water, air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.” That is quite the addendum!

If you’re keeping score at home, the Green New Deal now involves a federal job guarantee, the right to unionize, liberal trade and monopoly policies, and universal housing and health care.


Starting strong, bargaining down

This is just a resolution, not legislation. (I’m pretty sure providing universal housing and health care would require a couple of bills at least.) So I’m not really sure how literally these latter requirements are meant to be read, or how literally those who sign on to the GND will take them.

If they’re taken literally, then everyone who signs on should get a welcome letter from the Democratic Socialists of America. If they are taken as an aspirational list of Good Things, as I suspect they will be (especially given Markey’s involvement), then many arguments will remain to be had about just what a GND endorsement means.

But it definitely means something.

“The Green New Deal is what it means to be progressive. Clean air, clean water, decarbonizing, green jobs, a just transition, and environmental justice are what it means to a progressive,” Sean McElwee said. He’s the director of Data Progress, a young think tank whose work has substantially informed the GND. “By definition that means politicians who don’t support those goals aren’t progressive. We need to hold that line. Get on the GND train or choo-choo, motherfucker, we’re going to go right past you.”

Choo-choo indeed. As I said in my first post on the Sunrise Movement protest that got the GND train rolling, I think it is all to the good that a muscular progressive movement is rallying behind a program shaped by the problem at hand rather than speculation about what is politically possible. It is good to start from a position of strength.

And just to be clear, I’m a big fan of universal housing and health care. But at some point, we have to grapple with the fact that a solution to climate change will require the support of people who may not be ready to join the democratic socialist revolution.

Given the two-year time window to get legislation ready and the 10-year time window to kickstart multiple decarbonization revolutions, the chances of pulling off a full-scale political revolution beforehand seem remote.

So there will be a lot of bargaining ahead and some of the dreamier GND requirements will go overboard for the time being. Perhaps universal health care will have to be tackled separately.

A whole other thing.
 Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

But take a step back and appreciate: the progressive movement has, in rather short order, thrust into mainstream US politics a program to address climate change that is wildly more ambitious than anything the Democratic Party was talking about even two years ago. One-hundred percent clean energy, investment in new jobs, and a just transition have gone from activist dreams to the core of the Democratic agenda in the blink of a political eye. There’s a long way to go, but the GND train has come farther, faster than anyone could have predicted.

With Trump and his attendant chaos, US politics is more disrupted, uncertain, and malleable than it’s been in my adult lifetime. Everything is up for grabs. The forces of ethno-nationalism and fossil fuel myopia sense this malleability and are organizing to drag the country backward. But the malleability can serve a humane progressive agenda as well; progressives just have to organize better.

The map has been drawn, the path laid out. Now it’s on.

Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, Dec. 5, 2018

On Monday, speaking at a town hall led by Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez framed her chosen climate policy—the Green New Deal—, saying, “This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation,” she said.The Green New Deal aspires to cut U.S. carbon emissions fast enough to reach the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious climate goal: preventing the world from warming no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100In a blockbuster report released in October, an international group of scientists said that meeting this goal could skirt the worst climate effects, such as massive floods, expansive droughts, and irreversible sea-level rise. (Read: How to understand the UN’s dire new climate report)

To actually make the target, though, the world must start reducing its carbon pollution immediately, and cut it in half by 2030. (Make that “at least” and likely “much more” for the U.S., which has caused around 25% of the heating thus far with just 4-5% of the world’s populace.  The U.S. also has the technology and the economic strength to act and invest now).

Currently we’re nowhere close to on track. Global emissions levels just hit a record high, and even the Barack Obama administration’s climate policy did not put the United States close to making its part of the goal.

The Green New Deal aims to get us there—and remake the country in the process. It promises to give every American a job in that new economy: installing solar panels, retrofitting coastal  infrastructure, manufacturing electric vehicles. In the 1960s, the U.S. pointed the full power of its military-technological industry at going to the moon. Ocasio-Cortez wants to do the same thing, except to save the planet.

I have no idea whether the Green New Deal will result in a federal climate law two or five or 10 years from now. The proposal clearly has momentum on the left. Since early November, I’ve seen the Green New Deal talked about as a story of Democrats in disarray, or as another example of the party’s turn toward socialism. Both analyses miss the mark. The Green New Deal is one of the most interesting—and strategic—left-wing policy interventions from the Democratic Party in years.  As I wrote last year, the Democrats have a problem: They are the only major political party that cares about climate change, but they don’t have a national strategy to address it. Party elites know that they want to fight climate change, of course, but after that the specifics get hazy, and almost no one agrees on what new laws should get passed.  For the past two years, this lack of agenda hasn’t really hampered them, because they could unite around blocking Donald Trump’s deregulation extravaganza. But as Democrats consider the possibility of controlling Congress and the White House in 2020, they will feel more pressure to zero in on a strategy.  Read: Democrats are shockingly unprepared to fight climate change

For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats can approach climate policy with a sense of imagination. They can also approach it with a sense of humility, because their last two strategies didn’t work particularly well. When the party last controlled Congress, in 2009, Democrats tried to pass a national cap-and-trade bill, a type of policy that allows polluters to bid on the right to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It failed to pass in the Senate. Starting in 2011, President Obama tried to use the EPA’s powers under the Clean Air Act to fight carbon-dioxide emissions. After President Trump was elected, he terminated that effort by executive order.

Since then, Democrats in Congress have proposed no shortage of climate bills. A few of them even picked up Republican support. Some blue states have also tried to pass climate policy of their own, though the most ambitious of those efforts have failed. And as I wrote last year, the party has encountered new problems in its coalition. Some environmental groups have focused on closing coal plants and blocking pipeline projects, frustrating the labor movement, which appreciates the jobs that those projects bring.

From the successes, a pattern has emerged. Economists tend to prefer policies that work across the entire economy at once by integrating the costs of climate change into the price of gas, food, and other consumer goods. But voters—who have more quotidian concerns than optimally elegant economic policy—don’t always feel the same way. They don’t want gas prices to go up. And that means voters support policies that remake one sector of the economy at a time, usually by mandating the use of technology. Economists like to disparage these policies as “kludges” or “command and control.” But Americans like them.

Recently, a bipartisan group of 17 governors decided that they needed to fight President Trump on climate change. In September, a few of them got onstage in San Francisco to announce new programs to rival the president’s deregulation.Republican and Democratic governors, fighting Trump, on climate! The story had conflict, personalities, global stakes: Everything you’d want for a CNN-ready brawl. Everything except excitement. Only one of the programs—a pledge to spend $1.4 billion on new electric-car infrastructure—was compelling and easy to explain. The others rapidly strayed into the technical or the vague. The governors said they would overcome Trump’s tariffs on cheap solar panels. They promised to reduce “short-lived climate pollutants,” such as methane and soot. And—I will never forget this—they pledged to research how carbon can stay stored in plants and soil on state parkland.  In other words: The governors leered and growled at Trump, talked about climate change’s epic consequences, and then, with much fanfare, announced new state rules for dirt.

And what should they have done? Governors, like presidents, are constrained; they can’t do much without the support of state legislatures. And dirt is a worthy topic for climate regulation. As it happens, a large amount of carbon sits in American dirt. If that carbon escapes into the atmosphere, it will worsen climate change. Should a small nation ever appoint you despot of all climate laws, please do something about dirt. But generally and politically speaking, dirt does not get the people going. Upon hearing the slogan “Dirt: Now More Than Ever,” most voters will not picture overflowing cornucopias of prosperity. They will picture bath time.

I have come to think of this tension as climate policy’s Boring as Dirt problem: the bad problem. The bad problem recognizes that climate change is an interesting challenge. It is scary and massive and apocalyptic, and its attendant disasters (especially hurricanes, wildfires, and floods) make for good TV. But the policies that will address climate change do not pack the same punch. They are technical and technocratic and quite often dull. At the very least, they will never be as immediate as climate change itself. Floods are powerful, but stormwater management is arcane. Wildfires are ravenous, but electrical-grid upgrades are tedious. Climate change is frightening, but dirt is boring. That’s the bad problem.

Some version of the bad problem probably exists for every issue. Paying for exorbitant cancer drugs is an outrage, but advocating for state-level insurance laws that could reduce their cost is onerous. In a way, addressing the bad problem is part of what elected officials are supposed to do in a republic. But it’s a special problem for climate change, with its all-encompassing cause and countless diffuse harms. To fix climate change, you have to pass laws about dirt. Then you have to keep them passed.

The Green New Deal, first and foremost, can be understood as trying to fix the bad problem. In the long term, it’s an ambitious package of laws that will touch every sector of the economy. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led activism group that has pushed for the policy, has listed seven demands that any Green New Deal must satisfy. They range from requiring the U.S. to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources to “decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure.”These are enormous demands that would require either many small pieces of technical legislation or a new executive climate-change agency. Yet they do not alone make the Green New Deal. The single most crucial aspect of the Green New Deal is its proposed job guarantee, a controversial policy that says that every American can have a job with the government if they want one. Data for Progress claims that the Green New Deal could generate 10 million new jobs across the country over 10 years.

This policy—a job for every American who wants one—reflects what the party learned from fighting Obamacare’s repeal. Obamacare provides a revealing view into how economists think about policy versus how people experience it. That is, as far as policy makers are concerned, Obamacare comprises a set of clever tweaks and rules meant to change how insurance markets work and lower the cost of health care. Before the law passed, Democratic lawmakers cared deeply about getting those tweaks right.

Yet Obamacare didn’t survive because those new rules worked. They did work, but, in fact, voters hate them. Instead, Obamacare survived because it gave two new superpowers to voters. The first was the power never to be denied health insurance for preexisting conditions, and the second was free or cheap health insurance through Medicaid. The reason Americans jammed the Capitol Hill switchboards last year to protest the repeal—and pulled the lever for Democrats in November—wasn’t that they valued Obamacare’s elegant cost-control mechanism. They wanted to keep their superpowers.  Read: Did Obamacare repeal hurt the Republicans?

“People who are receiving benefits, they’re going to react pretty strongly to that being taken away from them,” said the political scientist and UC Berkeley professor Paul Pierson in a conversation with Vox last year. “A taxpayer is paying for a lot of stuff and cares a little bit about each thing, but the person who’s receiving the benefits is going to care enormously about that.”

Fixing climate change will include lots of technocratic tweaks, lots of bills about dirt. They will be hard to defend against later repeal. So it would be nice if lawmakers could wed them to a new benefit, a superpower that people will fight for years after passage. Hence the job guarantee—a universal promise of employment meant to win over Americans in general and create more union jobs in particular.

The Green New Deal also looks like an economic stimulus plan, which isn’t nothing. The last two Democratic presidents took power during an economic downturn or its immediate aftermath. Most climate bills look like new taxes—and new taxes are not easy to pass in the middle of a recession. But Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was not a tax, even if it included taxes; it’s remembered instead as the greatest of all stimulus and jobs bills. If Democrats take the White House during a recession, they will have a far easier time passing a Green New Deal than a carbon tax. For her first day on Capitol Hill, and her first public act as a representative-elect, Ocasio-Cortez chose to focus on climate change. The decision is notable all by itself. Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, is also the first member of Congress who was born during the George H. W. Bush administration. And the Bush administration is when the modern era of stagnant climate politics began: It’s when Exxon and other oil companies began publicly advocating climate denialism, when the United States blocked a treaty that would have restricted global carbon emissions, when the Senate ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Almost exactly a month after Ocasio-Cortez turned 1, Congress approved the Global Change Research Act, a law requiring regular federal reports on climate science. It hasn’t passed a major climate bill since. Ocasio-Cortez has spent her entire life watching climate change not get fixed. Now she’s getting her shot at addressing it.

ROBINSON MEYER is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers climate change and technology.