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The Trouble With the ‘Green New Deal’

It’s hard to recall a Washington idea that has rocketed to prominence as quickly as the Green New Deal, rookie Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s radical proposal to decarbonize the American economy. House Democratic leaders have created a new select committee on climate change to pursue a Green New Deal. Democratic candidates for president are racing to endorse a Green New Deal. The details are still up in the air, but a massive climate investment is suddenly emerging as tentpole of Democratic politics.

Although the idea sounds as radical and new as Ocasio-Cortez herself, it’s been done once before, and just a decade ago: President Barack Obama signed a prototype Green New Deal into law in February 2009, pouring an unprecedented $ 90 billion into clean electricity, renewable fuels, advanced batteries, energy efficiency, a smarter grid, and a slew of other green initiatives.

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If you haven’t heard of Obama’s green new deal, that’s because it was wrapped into an even larger and more controversial piece of legislation: The $ 800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the stimulus. The main goal of the stimulus was to save the economy from a depression in the short term, which is why its push to move the economy towards clean energy in the long term was largely overlooked.

“People don’t understand how forward-leaning the stimulus was on climate issues,” says Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who chairs the new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “It’s a road map for a Green New Deal.”

Now, Democrats of all political stripes are now studying the green stimulus as a potential inspiration for a Green New Deal, as well as a cautionary tale. It jump-started America’s gradual transition to a low-carbon economy, but it didn’t capture America’s imagination—and when it did get attention, it was mostly mocked for financing the failure of a solar manufacturer called Solyndra. Now establishment Democrats like Castor as well as insurgent Democrats aligned with Ocasio-Cortez are looking at it as a potential playbook for an even more ambitious package that could accelerate that transition away from the carbon emissions that heat up the planet—and hopefully avoid its political pitfalls.

Progressive activists like Sean McElwee, the co-founder of Data for Progress, have criticized the select committee from the left, complaining that it won’t have subpoena power and will accept members who take fossil-fuel money. But as his group draws up a “greenprint” for a Green New Deal designed to eliminate poverty as well as emissions, McElwee agrees with Castor that the stimulus should be a model.

“There was an incredible amount of green stuff in it that people didn’t see,” McElwee says. “Now we’re saying: ‘How about a second stimulus that’s more directly green?’”

This political, economic and environmental moment has little in common with the one in which the stimulus debate played out after Obama’s election. Democrats no longer control the White House or the Senate; the economy is no longer in the midst of a terrifying free-fall; clean energy has matured from infancy to adolescence. Obama grafted his green agenda onto a response to an economic emergency, while Ocasio-Cortez and other left-of-Obama activists are arguably trying to graft their economic agenda, including a government job guarantee and even universal health care, onto a response to a climate emergency. And since President Trump is as hostile to climate action as he is friendly to fossil fuels, the debate over the Green New Deal is likely to be an exercise in messaging rather than policymaking until 2021 at the earliest.

But the Green New Deal, like the green stimulus, is ultimately supposed to produce economic as well as environmental transformation, and it’s raising some of the same questions Democrats grappled with a decade ago. What should be the top priority, and how far should it go to wrap in other priorities? Should the green stuff focus on safe and proven strategies for cutting emissions, or riskier and more aspirational ideas as well? What’s the plan to deal with the inevitable attacks from fossil-fuel interests and the Republican Party? What kind of compromises would be acceptable to broaden support and perhaps even win over some moderate Republicans? And should there be tax hikes or spending cuts to pay for it?

Determining the substantive details of a Green New Deal is already exposing political divisions. Ocasio-Cortez and other lefty firebrands see it as a vehicle not only to address the climate emergency but to root out inequality and transform capitalism; she has described it as “the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil rights movement of our generation.” More mainstream Democrats would prefer to focus on cutting the emissions that threaten the planet, arguing that transforming energy use will be a heavy enough lift as it is. Meanwhile, few Republicans even acknowledge there is a climate emergency, and the ones who do are skeptical of an aggressive Big Government mobilization to address it.

“The Green New Deal is not an ideal name if you want to attract bipartisan support,” says Rich Powell, executive director of the group Clear Path, which pushes conservative solutions to climate change. “There’s a lot of distrust of these home-run giga-packages. It’s been a lot more effective to try to hit some singles and doubles.”

The fault lines, in other words, resemble the fault lines of 2009. That debate produced a bill that was substantively groundbreaking for clean energy but politically debilitating for Democrats.

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Obama’s top priority when he took office after the 2008 financial crisis was to resuscitate an economy that was losing nearly 800,000 jobs per month. The kind of fiscal stimulus that props up the economy in the short term requires a boost in government spending, so Obama figured he might as well use it to boost his long-term domestic policy agenda as well. Clean energy was high on that agenda, both to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil.

The stimulus that Obama worked out with a Democratic-controlled Congress would end up increasing U.S. clean energy spending more than twenty-fold, producing the world’s largest wind farm, a half dozen of the world’s largest solar arrays, America’s first refineries for advanced biofuels, new projects to capture carbon, and order-of-magnitude increases in programs to help cities, towns and individual homeowners improve their energy efficiency. It also created ARPA-E, a cutting-edge energy research agency modeled on the Pentagon incubator that created the Internet. And there were manufacturing incentives to build all that green stuff in the United States.

But the stimulus was an unprecedented exercise in deficit spending, as big in inflation-adjusted dollars as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s entire New Deal, and from the start it had two related political problems. Republicans savaged it in unison as a Porkulus boondoggle, while Democrats mostly quibbled about it as either too small or too big, excessively or insufficiently focused on long-term priorities, with too much money for this or not enough money for that. The result was a cacophony of he-said-she-said coverage in which both sides sounded negative. The public’s reaction to the idea of economic recovery legislation, which had started out positive, turned sour within weeks. “We tried to put out facts, but the Republicans hijacked the narrative so quickly,” recalled Sanjay Wagle, a clean energy adviser in Obama’s Department of Energy.

The Democrats passed the stimulus in the House without a single Republican vote, but in the Senate they needed support from three Republicans to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s filibuster. This was the second problem, because Obama had to address every concern of those three Republicans, as well as several wavering Democrats, if he wanted the stimulus to pass. For example, Obama’s draft included $ 10 billion for a nationwide effort to upgrade the energy efficiency of public schools, but GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine didn’t want it. So the legislation ended up with nothing for green schools.

The stimulus still took a pioneering swing at the clean-energy issue, and if the green part had been its own law, it would have been the most sweeping climate bill any president had ever passed. But Democrats didn’t do much to call attention to it at the time, and even New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who coined the phrase “Green New Deal” back in 2007, recently wrote that “the idea just never took off” until now.

Today Democrats are gaming out the politics of a less surreptitious Green New Deal that would proudly go by that name, and wouldn’t necessarily be bundled into anything else—although they’re mostly imagining this happening in a post-2020 world where they’ve reclaimed the White House and Senate. For starters, McElwee hopes a Democratic Senate would avoid ambition-constraining compromises by passing a Green New Deal with only 50 votes through a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill, just as Republicans passed their $ 2 trillion tax cut. And just as Obama often talked about “green jobs” during the stimulus debate, McElwee envisions Democratic politicians using a Green New Deal as a politically attractive source of jobs they can steer to their states, bringing home solar projects and weatherization programs the way they currently boast about military contracts and farm subsidies.

But Stephen O’Hanlon, spokesman for the youth-oriented Sunrise Movement that has pressured Democratic leaders to make climate action a top priority, says the experience of the stimulus offers some bracing political lessons to Green New Deal supporters: that they won’t be able to take Democrats for granted no matter how many jobs the policy produces, and that Republicans might be a lost cause entirely.

Rifts are already emerging within the Democratic coalition. For example, some labor unions resent liberal opposition to pipelines and “clean coal” projects that create jobs for their members. Meanwhile, some energy wonks have raised objections to Ocacio-Cortez’s proposed mandate for 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, arguing that zero-carbon nuclear energy should count, too, and that even some natural gas can improve the climate when it replaces dirtier coal. There’s also the question of how to pay for a Green New Deal; Ocasio-Cortez has suggested raising marginal tax rates for the rich to 70 percent, while more moderate Democrats want to look for areas to reduce spending, and some liberals would be happy to put the entire initiative on the national credit card.

The way to win, O’Hanlon said, will be to draw another lesson from the stimulus: Legislation won’t make the case for itself. Supporters need to make the case for it. A recent Yale University poll found that 81 percent of Americans support the idea of a Green New Deal, including 64 percent of Republicans—but then again, the idea of an economic recovery bill was also popular before Fox News and GOP leaders began trashing it. Obama only had a month to sell the stimulus, and O’Hanlon says Green New Deal backers are already preparing to pre-empt the coming backlash by holding rallies around the country highlighting rising seas, intensifying storms, and other byproducts of the climate crisis. Castor said her committee also intends to hold hearings around the country, to emphasize how climate change is creating wildfires in California as well as floods in Miami. The goal is to persuade the public that an extreme emergency justifies extreme actions.

“We saw how the conservative media and the Republican Party painted a strong economic recovery plan as something that was just about wasting tons of money,” O’Hanlon says. “This time, we’re trying to get ahead of that.”

The Green New Deal’s popularity will depend at least in part on its content. But here, too, the stimulus offers a dose of cold water. The content of the stimulus seemed tailor-made for popularity: tax cuts and spending goodies for almost all Americans, the biggest infrastructure investments since the interstate highways, and an all-of-the-above energy strategy supporting a variety of green experiments so that the winners and losers would be chosen by the free market, not by Washington. Some of the experiments—notably clean coal plants, subsidies for biofuels, and a loan for a new nuclear plant—did not work well. But some worked extraordinarily well, helping formerly expensive technologies work their way down the cost curve. U.S. wind capacity has more than tripled since 2008, while solar capacity is up more than six-fold. LED’s were 1 percent of the lighting market in 2008; now they’re more than half the market. There were almost no plug-in electric vehicles in 2008; now there are more than 1 million on U.S. roads.

Still, the only news most Americans heard about the green stimulus was the failure of Solyndra, the notorious California solar company that defaulted on a $ 535 million Energy Department loan. The Obama administration never claimed that every high-risk investment would pay out, and a slew of investigations never uncovered anything untoward about the Solyndra deal, but Republicans instantly turned Solyndra into a symbol of government incompetence and corruption. Overall, the loan programs had a failure rate of only 2 percent, turning a profit for taxpayers and boosting innovative firms like Tesla, but Obama aides who tried to highlight green successes ran into a narrative wall of Solyndra-Solyndra-Solyndra.

“A big part of politics is storytelling, and we didn’t tell our story very well,” says Cathy Zoi, a former assistant energy secretary under Obama. “Our investments really catalyzed market transformation, but that message didn’t get out.”

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There’s a tendency among experts to assume that their preferred climate policy approach would also be the optimal political approach. For instance, many economists argue that assessing a tax or some other market-based price on carbon would be much more popular than subsidizing green technologies, even though a “cap-and-trade” bill failed in the Democratic Congress in 2009, and a fairly modest carbon tax in France has inspired riots. Really, it’s hard to predict what will be popular. Polls suggest broad support for more deployment of wind, solar, and electric-vehicle charging infrastructure, as well as mandates and incentives to improve energy efficiency. But Republican attacks portrayed stimulus programs to weatherize low-income homes in order to increase their energy efficiency as welfare handouts, and President Trump has gone after Obama’s fuel-efficiency mandates as anti-business, so it may be folly to expect consensus on anything.

There’s plenty of time to work out Green New Deal details. Data for Progress is looking into everything from restoring agricultural wetlands to subsidizing electricity storage to removing lead paint from low-income communities. Castor says her committee will try to inject the climate issue into just about everything Congress does, not only energy, transportation and infrastructure bills, but military spending, tax legislation, and even disaster aid.

But some climate hawks are already nervous that the bold environmental goals could become cannon fodder in a war over even bolder economic proposals like “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job for everyone.” Ocasio-Cortez’s website casually mentions in Section 6.B.iv of her plan that the Green New Deal “should include universal health care and any other measure the committee deems appropriate for economic security.”

Alex Tremblath, deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, worries that the vague and gauzy climate goals of a Green New Deal will get lost in a partisan and ideological war over capitalism and the economy. “I worry that the energy and climate stuff hasn’t been fleshed out, but it’s full speed ahead on a jobs guarantee,” he said. “I mean, the politics of this is already really hard. I’d be cautious about attaching free college to it, because that’s going to make it harder.”

But on the left, reducing emissions is seen as just one plank in a much broader progressive agenda. Data for Progress research director Greg Carlock says the Green New Deal isn’t just an environmental initiative that would happen to create jobs; it’s an economic justice initiative that would root out inequality by taking on the powerful interests who harm the earth as well as the poor.

“These problems are inherently tied together, and the solutions should be, too,” Carlock says.

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In some ways, current attitudes toward the Green New Deal seem to reflect lingering attitudes toward Obama and his stimulus.

The Obama stimulus succeeded in its main goal of averting a depression and ending a brutal recession; the U.S. economy, after contracting at an 8 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2008, was growing again by the summer of 2009. But some progressive activists who support a Green New Deal emphasize what Obama and the stimulus didn’t do, like dramatically boost wages, or reverse growing inequality. Similarly, while Obama and the stimulus did launch a clean-energy transition that simply didn’t exist before 2009, some elements of the left focus on the vast gap between the emissions reductions that have happened and the reductions that still need to happen to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

“The facts are, Obama accomplished more on climate than any president ever, and also he failed to go as far as was necessary to give our generation a livable future,” says O’Hanlon, the 23-year-old spokesman for the Sunrise Movement.

Of course, most Republicans don’t think much of Obama or his stimulus—and it’s hard to imagine that they’ll embrace something more ambitious pushed by more liberal politicians. But among Democratic activists, the debates over the Green New Deal tend to mirror long-running debates over the value of pragmatism and incrementalism versus idealism and radicalism. Establishment Democrats emphasize that unemployment fell from a high of 10 percent to less than 5 percent on Obama’s watch, while the cost of solar power, wind power, and battery storage have all plunged more than 70 percent since 2009. Rebels like Ocasio-Cortez are more likely to emphasize that most pre-tax gains in the Obama era went to top earners, and that the vast majority of the U.S. economy still relies on fossil fuels.

It can be hard to tell on Twitter, where Ocasio-Cortez is a rock star and glass-half-empty Bernie Sanders fans create noise disproportionate to their numbers, but most Democrats consider Obama to have been a good president, and that includes most Democrats in Congress. Congresswoman Castor pointed out to me that her website still has a button linking to the Recovery Act, where her constituents can see how the stimulus sent money to the Tampa area for home weatherization, solar panels on the county courthouse, and modernization of the electric grid. “I was just asking my staff: Do you think it’s time to take that down?” she told me in a recent interview. “But then I said, ‘Nah, let’s keep it up there. People should know how much it did.”

Castor hopes her climate committee will do even more to move the economy in greener directions. She even thinks some Republicans might cross the aisle to help, as climate science grows more overwhelming and the mainstream media feels less responsibility to air dissenting viewpoints. But she’s confident that Democrats will come together to support action, even if they squabble over the details.

“Look, cutting our emissions in half by 2030 is going to be a tall order for a Congress that can’t even fund the government,” Castor says. “But climate is an issue that unites Democrats.”

Ocasio-Cortez took a lot of flak for disloyalty when she stopped by the Sunrise Movement’s protest in Pelosi’s office; establishment Democrats complained that she should use her newfound celebrity to shame Republicans who don’t even admit there’s a problem, not a new speaker who’s been an ally on climate issues. But Ocasio-Cortez has already forced Pelosi and other Democratic leaders to move the climate issue to the top of their agenda, an impressive achievement for a new back-bencher. The first thing Democrats did when Obama took office was the stimulus; if Democrats take power in 2021, thanks to Ocasio-Cortez and the movement she’s inspiring, the first thing they do might be a Green New Deal.

“The big question for Democrats right now is: What’s going to be the top priority?” McElwee said. “Well, the most popular young progressive has staked an enormous amount of political capital to say: It’s going to be climate.”

Michael Grunwald is a senior staff writer for Politico Magazine.

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