For 12 years, politicians did not, and now Americans’ “children” have themselves been elected to serve. When Gore made that remark, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a teenager, a legal minor, one of a million kids living in New York.
Now she is an influential member of Congress.
On Thursday, Representative Ocasio-Cortez debuted a blueprint for a Green New Deal, an ambitious plan that aims to transform the American economic juggernaut into a massive weapon to combat climate change. In four dense pages, the blueprint commits the federal government to a “10-year national mobilization” on par with the effort made during World War II. She was joined by dozens of environmental-activist groups, a handful of fellow House members—and by Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts who led a failed push to pass an ambitious climate bill in 2010
“Climate change and our environmental challenges are one of the biggest existential threats to our way of life, not just as a nation, but as a world,” Ocasio-Cortez said at a press conference. “In order for us to combat that threat, we must be as ambitious and innovative as possible.”
The blueprint takes the form of a nonbinding resolution, which Ocasio-Cortez said was “a first step to define the problem.” Even in its vague and broad language, it remains the most detailed guide to a Green New Deal yet. It is the first such plan endorsed by environmental organizations across the left, from the old-guard Sierra Club to the upstart Sunrise Movement, a youth-led activism corps that brought national notoriety to the Green New Deal plan last November.
Yet even in broad language, the resolution clearly describes a transformation that would leave virtually no sector of the economy untouched. A Green New Deal would direct new solar farms to bloom in the desert, new high-speed rail lines to crisscross the Plains, and squadrons of construction workers to insulate and weatherize buildings from Florida to Alaska. It would guarantee every American a job that pays a “family-sustaining wage,” codify paid family leave, and strengthen union law nationwide. The resolution’s ambitions stretch beyond purely economic concerns, too, with a promise to honor all prior treaties with indigenous nations and to require their “free, prior, and informed consent” for decisions affecting their territory.
For now, the resolution will remain relatively ethereal. While Democrats might vote on the measure in the House, the plan will almost certainly not even receive debate in the Senate, where Republicans hold a comfortable majority. Eventually passing anything that even resembles a Green New Deal will require Democrats to wrest a number of surprising victories. They must win the Senate and the White House in next year’s election, and then they will likely have to kill the legislative filibuster, a nonconstitutional requirement that every new law needs 60 votes. Despite co-sponsoring the resolution, Senator Markey gave conflicting answers Thursday when asked whether he supported ending that rule.
Yet that doesn’t mean the Green New Deal should be counted out. The policy only received mainstream attention for the first time three months ago, when the Sunrise Movement demonstrated in Nancy Pelosi’s office. Since then, it has become the biggest idea in U.S. climate policy, and four Democratic presidential contenders have spoken in support of it (if tepidly). In practical terms, today’s plan matters most for the 2020 election. It shows that the broad left is on board with a policy; activist groups can now send detailed questionnaires to candidates and prepare report cards on the depth of their Green New Deal support.
“Millennials have been hearing for 20 years” that climate change would be an issue for their generation to deal with, he told me. “And I would say, thanks, we’re here now. This is us taking over the issue that, decades ago, people said would be ours to deal with. This is what the next generation of the issue looks like.”
“The world right now is watching what a bunch of American Millennials do in Congress,” he added.
The Green New Deal approach is already notably different from paths taken by other countries. For years, economists have advocated for a carbon tax, a type of tax meant to factor the dangerous costs of heat-trapping emissions into the price of goods. While eventual Green New Deal legislation could involve a small carbon price, Ocasio-Cortez seemed to reject the wholesale approach in remarks. She instead cast climate policy as a sort of mega-infrastructure bill.
“This is an investment,” she said. “For every dollar we spend on infrastructure, we get more than a dollar back for that investment. For every dollar we collect in taxes, we get less than a dollar back.”
This resolution also marks the first step in fights over the Green New Deal to come. Its main text does not weigh in on divisive questions about the use of nuclear energy, a power-generation technology that does not emit carbon dioxide, or carbon capture and storage, a still-fledgling technology that could suck CO2 out of smokestack fumes or the atmosphere. “We are open to whatever works,” Markey said Thursday.
“The Green New Deal is kind of like the Cardi B of American politics right now,” Julian NoiseCat, an activist at the climate group 350.org, told me. “It’s fresh. It knows its roots in hardworking communities. And it’s really tapped into the culture in a different way from old approaches.”
“And like Cardi B,” he added, “I personally hope it sticks around for a while.”
Yet odds are that the federal government will, in fact, do nothing. It’s tempting to blame inaction on current political conditions, like having a climate change denier in the White House or intense partisan polarization in Washington. But the unfortunate reality is that American politicians have never been good at dealing with big, long-term problems. Lawmakers have tended to act only when they had no other choice.
It took a brutal Civil War to end slavery. Bankers avoided regulation until the financial system totally collapsed in the early 1930s. Americans saw southern police brutality on their television sets before civil-rights legislation could get through Congress. Widespread dissatisfaction with the health-care system has resulted in only a patchwork solution (the Affordable Care Act). Mass shootings have still not yielded effective gun control.
American anti-intellectualism stands in the way of change, too. The historian Richard Hofstadter famously accused Americans of harboring “resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it.” The cultural suspicion of expertise has only become worse since 1963, when Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life; politicians now, including the president, feel no shame at all about dismissing expert opinion.
Perhaps as influential as anti-intellectualism is anti-statism: the resistance to strong government, and accompanying confidence in the private marketplace, which hampers lawmakers’ ability to mobilize support for the large-scale regulations or programs needed to tackle big challenges.
One last obstacle is American Exceptionalism—the notion that the U.S. is immune from the same kinds of problems that face other comparable countries. There is a misplaced sense of confidence that the scariest predictions just won’t come to pass here; the U.S. will always finds a way to avoid the disasters other nations face. Somehow America’s scientists and business leaders will figure a way out. The belief in American Exceptionalism also pushes many American leaders to resist the kind of international agreements—such as the Kyoto Pact on Global Warming and the Paris Climate Agreement—that are the path to real progress. Those who feel that America is different and superior than the rest of the world are reluctant to concede that it can’t do whatever it wants, on its own.
None of these features of American politics will disappear; they are deeply rooted in the country’s Constitution and its history. Freshman Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can call for a “Green New Deal”—but she will encounter the same intense resistance that President Obama encountered when he lobbied for the same, and with the power of the presidency behind him.
The way out is through grassroots activism. Civil-rights legislation seemed impossible until it wasn’t. Health care legislation seemed impossible until it wasn’t. Activists keep up pressure on media organizations to cover climate change, and on wavering politicians to rethink their opposition to desperately needed reforms and regulations. Of course the problem with climate change is that there is such a thing as too late. If lawmakers don’t act until the environment degrades perceptibly, then they’ve passed the point of no return.
Trump’s theory of politics has also been crucial to his success on Capitol Hill. The president has depended on the Republican Congress to protect him from investigation and to send key legislative items—such as the corporate tax cut—to his desk for a signature. Though there have been a handful of Republicans, such as Senator Jeff Flake, who enjoy criticizing the president on television, by and large Republicans have voted in unison.
Trump has not left this to chance. He has been extremely aggressive staying on the campaign trail, holding rallies to build his own support and to make sure that candidates in key states understand the risk of opposing him. Many Republican candidates have declared their allegiance to the president as the head of the party. With Trump counting on the fact that Republican legislators will always come home, he has been able to employ a parliamentary governing style, in which the White House and the congressional majority act with a degree of unity that even the late President Woodrow Wilson would have admired.