The Millennial Era of Climate Politics Has Arrived

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands at a bank of microphones in a green jacket.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat of New York, unveils her Green New Deal proposal on Capitol Hill.JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS
Long ago, in a distant geological era—when Donald Trump hosted a reality show, when Senator Barack Obama doubted whether Hillary Clinton could be president, when the Earth was one-third of a degree Celsius cooler—Al Gore made a prediction.
When Americans understood what climate change would mean for their children and grandchildren, the former vice president warned, “they will demand that whoever is running for office, whoever is elected to serve, will have to respond.”

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, 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.”


By , The Atlantic, Nov 28, 2018

The federal government released a devastating report last week documenting the immense economic and human cost that the U.S. will incur as a result of climate change. It warns that the damage to roads alone will add up to $21 billion by the end of the century. In certain parts of the Midwest, farms will produce 75 percent less corn than today, while ocean acidification could result in $230 billion in financial losses. More people will die from extreme temperatures and mosquito-borne diseases. Wildfire seasons will become more frequent and more destructive. Tens of millions of people living near rising oceans will be forced to resettle. The findings put the country on notice, once again, that doing nothing is a recipe for disaster.

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.

Why does America so often play catch-up?  The problem, I submit, is America’s system of government.The separation of powers, which ensures that no single part of the government can ever achieve unified control of the policymaking process, has been a blessing and a curse. It prevents tyranny but creates veto points for politicians who, for whatever reason, wish to stop federal solutions to long-term challenges. Opponents driven by the desire to defend the status quo can always find different bases in the government from which to pursue their agenda and block forward-looking legislation.Even when there is substantial majority support for tackling big problems, such as gun violence and climate change today, political minorities who disagree with their neighbors can count on the system to help them. There are a lot more people in California (where climate legislation is popular) than West Virginia (where the coal industry still dominates government), but both states send two representatives to the U.S. Senate. Smaller, rural states—whose residents may be less likely to endorse regulation of industry— are disproportionately powerful in the Electoral College.Not only is the American government separated and fragmented, but private interest groups hold tremendous sway. Through lobbying and campaign contributions, outside actors like the Koch brothers can make it painful for politicians to support beneficial, even popular policies—including climate change regulation— that would hurt their private interests. When President Carter pushed for a bold energy conservation program in the late 1970s, he ran directly into fossil fuel industry representatives who had little appetite for what he was selling.

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 Exceptionalismthe 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.

JULIAN E. ZELIZER is a historian at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst. He is the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Societyand, along with Kevin M. Kruse, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.
Trump's advantage: partisan polarization in Washington has greatly intensified since the 1960s. The distance that separates the parties on most issues has vastly increased. The ideological homogeneity of each party has solidified. In other words, centrists faded as a major force in politics and policy making. The second and related trend is that the phenomenon has been much more pronounced within the Republican Party. The GOP has moved further to the right than Democrats have moved to the left. Republicans are more ideologically cohesive as a party than are Democrats, who still exhibit greater division and fragmentation relative to their counterparts (although not as much as they did in the 1950s and ’60s, when Democrats were fundamentally divided between southern and northern wings).

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.