Why the Green New Deal Isn’t Right for 2019’s America

The Green New Deal, a splashy new resolution proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, delineates a general, non-binding path forward to address climate change. The Resolution sets forth broad goals to guide future climate policy and legislation, in a plan referred to as a “10 year national mobilization.” With ambitious objectives such as reducing emissions by 40-60% below 2010 levels by 2030 and attaining net-zero emissions status by 2050, the resolution quickly made waves in the political arena. Sub-components of these objectives include retrofitting existing buildings to be maximally efficient, stringent standards for new construction, and overhauling the current public transportation infrastructure to be less emissions-intensive. The Green New Deal is unique in that it seeks not only to address the environmental and economic impacts of climate change, but to also offset the social harms that climate change could cause as vulnerable populations grapple with a changing environment. By integrating universal health care, a federal job guarantee, and a living wage into broader climate goals, the resolution shows support for groups such as low-income families,  minorities, and the elderly, many of whom have been historically ignored in proposed climate legislation. While the goals of the Green New Deal lay out a path to sustainability grounded in accurate science and economics, the resolution lacks political solvency and ultimately deepens partisan fissures that impede modern day climate action. By incorporating extensive social policy into its proposals, the Green New Deal gives right-wing and right-centrist groups a way to further regard climate action as a trojan horse for progressivism.

Proponents of the Green New Deal raise valid points regarding its strengths. For one, by proposing a resolution that so explicitly addresses climate change and all of its impacts, the authors of the Green New Deal are illustrating that climate change is no longer just a scientific question but a tangible threat to future political and economic stability. Furthermore, it is the first proposed policy that addresses not only the causes of climate change (i.e. emissions) but also the potential negative externalities of inaction which threaten to impact those the least equipped to deal with it. Groups historically left out of politics––especially low-income families, minority communities, the elderly, and disabled people––are being accounted for in this resolution—demonstrating an interpretation of sustainability that demands equal prioritization of the economy, the environment, and ethical treatment of people disproportionately affected.  The novel combination of environmental, economic, and social policy has united and energized Democrats around addressing climate change while also demonstrating the ambitious goals needed to tackle what is arguably the biggest challenge of our time. Over the past several weeks, concerned citizens have been staging sit-ins in senators’ and congresspeople’s offices in an attempt to pressure them to vote for the resolution. While this does not guarantee that the resolution will pass, it imparts a symbolic value to the resolution. Non-binding as it is, the Green New Deal represents a congressional commitment to addressing climate change. Even if it fails to pass in the Senate, each individual vote speaks to the priorities of the given representative and holds significance to his/her constituents. As such, even if the Green New Deal fails to pass (which it likely will), there is still merit in it having been introduced.

That being said, the proposal is problematic in two key capacities: political solvency and its impact on polarization of climate politics. Regarding the latter, if the resolution fails to pass, it threatens to deepen partisan fissures that already prevent effective climate action. While the unique combination of stringent social, economic, and environmental policies appeals to left-wing politics, it is unlikely to appeal to right-centrists and very unlikely to appeal to right-wing political actors, making the resolution politically infeasible. While this on its own is not detrimental (what’s another failed piece of climate legislation?), by incorporating popular liberal social policies such as universal healthcare and a federal job guarantee, Ocasio-Cortez has given right-wing politicians the chance to view climate action as a disguise for progressive politics—a belief which they can in turn impress upon the public. This conviction further alienates key political actors from effectively participating in climate policy and in some cases, even acknowledging climate change is happening in the first place. In doing so, the Green New Deal contributes to the continued politicization of climate change and environmental welfare, harming the solvency of future proposals related to climate action by worsening the severity of gridlock in climate politics. Regardless of the differences between political actors, effective climate policy simply will not happen without support from both ends of the political spectrum, and the cost of inaction in this scenario is too steep to justify an uncompromising approach.

The more complicated question arises from how to precipitate a compromise from such fiercely oppositional groups. To do so, it is necessary to reframe the issue of climate change. The reality is that climate change hurts everyone— from oil giants to students to small farmers. It creates risk for businesses, fosters global instability, and threatens the United States’ status as a world superpower. In the Worldwide Threat Assessment of 2018, the US Intelligence Community pointed to climate change as a major future source of global instability and political upheaval. Reframing climate change as a threat to national security and the United States’ position at the forefront of technological innovation would be a more effective strategy in garnering support for climate action, especially considering that national security is of high priority in right-wing politics. Look to the space race as an example: within ten years of Russia having sent the first human into space, the United States landed an astronaut on the moon. This was not a product of good fortune––it was the result of viewing foreign technological advancement as a threat to U.S. national security and taking aggressive policy measures to encourage domestic innovation. This same initiative should apply to  climate change. As foreign powers make huge strides in renewable technologies, the U.S. straggles behind. China far outperforms the U.S. in terms of spending on clean energy research and is expected to be a leader in the transition to a vastly different energy economy in the decades to come. For the United States to ignore the mounting issue of climate change would be to deny itself the opportunity to excel in an unfamiliar, innovative geopolitical arena. This disadvantage in turn would make the United States vulnerable as it lags behind in innovation and struggles to cope with the higher incidence of disease, weakening infrastructure, and economic volatility associated with inaction in the face of climate change. Politically reframing climate action as an effective method of addressing national security threats could better engage the concerns of right-wing and centrist groups historically invested in maintaining national power and security in times of global instability.

While this reframing may incite action from those with political power, it may still fail to reach many working class Americans who will be hit hardest by the costs of both climate change and climate action. However, the people most likely to change their minds are people within their own in-groups. Research has shown that people are more likely to support policy proposed by their own party, and devalue policy proposed by the opposite party. Essentially, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is never going to convince a coal mining town in West Virginia that climate action is needed. As such, stronger bipartisan support for climate action could incite more support from working class conservatives. In turn, these groups could see better representation in future climate solutions. If representatives of regions in the United States with low support for climate action demonstrated more engagement in developing effective climate policy, then the needs and wishes of their constituents would be better reflected in proposed legislation, ultimately making for a more democratic system.

Ultimately, the Green New Deal is not a bad plan in and of itself. Its goals are ambitious but rooted in science and economics. It succeeds in energizing people around climate activism. It contains measures that account for people likely to experience the impacts of climate change disproportionately from the rest of the population. However, by including many of these social policy provisions, the Green New Deal subsequently allows for the demonization of climate action by right-wing groups, which deepens the partisan divide seen in climate politics today. The worsened polarization in turn further impedes future climate action, preventing effective policy and prolonging the state of inaction. While ensuring that equity is not forgotten in climate policy is essential, large programs like the one set forth in the Green New Deal are unlikely to garner enough bipartisan support for implementation. As such, a more ideologically neutral policy like increased funding for basic research regarding clean technology is a more feasible first step in the fight against climate change. While it certainly will not be enough, incremental action is preferable to inaction when tackling one of the most staggering challenges of our time.