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The ABCs of the Green New Deal

If climate change is the fulcrum propping up the plan, economic inequality is the foot stomping down on the raised end of the seesaw

For supporters of the Green New Deal resolution — sponsored by Sen. Edward J. Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the threat of climate change is a fulcrum to tackle the country’s social, economic, racial and historical ills. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
For supporters of the Green New Deal resolution — sponsored by Sen. Edward J. Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the threat of climate change is a fulcrum to tackle the country’s social, economic, racial and historical ills. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Since the dangers of greenhouse gases became clear, American politicians have whittled away at climate change in incremental steps: energy-efficiency policies, U.N. climate treaties, basic research, fuel-consumption standards.

But they have not enacted a comprehensive plan to address climate change at the scale and with the speed climate scientists say is required to insulate humanity from what is to come.

The Green New Deal resolution, which faces a vote in the Senate as soon as this week, would upend that pattern in the unlikely event that it overcomes solid Republican opposition. It is the first U.S. climate plan in the country’s recent history with significant support — at least among Democrats — to acknowledge the dire threat posed by climate change and suggests a massive, economy-altering response.

At its core, the Green New Deal is an economic stimulus plan designed to use climate change, as it accelerates and its effects come into sharper view, as a springboard to confront issues such as income inequality that a warming world will likely aggravate. The resolution takes its name from a set of policy goals advocated by various progressive groups.

Watch: Myths of the Green New Deal debunked

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For authors of the resolution, the existential threat of climate change is a fulcrum to tackle dozens of the country’s social, economic, racial and historical ills while staving off climate destruction.

To opponents, it is an attempt to socialize the U.S. government and damage the domestic economy while other nations prosper.

Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York sponsored the resolution in the House, and Democrat Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts is leading the Senate version.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has lined up a vote for the resolution, which he reintroduced as SJ Res 8 under his name. Senate Democrats running for president, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, support the resolution goals. But Republicans hope to use their votes on the resolution to portray them as socialists.

[Mitch McConnell sets up Senate vote on a Green New Deal resolution]

The votes on the resolution would give Republicans a tool to use against Democrats as the 2020 elections draw closer, including those facing difficult re-election bids in swing states with less apparent exposure to climate risk.

Neither of the resolutions would have the force of law, but they would require lawmakers to record their positions on broad policy goals.

It’s still unclear how the plan would be turned into action. Its authors describe the resolution, which is vague and largely written in general terms, as aspirational. Despite those gaps, the Green New Deal is driving the climate conversation in Washington.

Some of those conversations include myths or inaccuracies partly drawn from a factsheet posted prematurely on Ocasio-Cortez’s website around the time she rolled out the resolution. Her staff quickly retracted it, calling the post a mistake, but Republicans continue to use some of its components to beat down the plan and its backers.

Contrary to GOP talking points, the Green New Deal resolution does not propose wages for those unwilling to work. Nor does it eliminate livestock, hamburgers or air travel.

Some moderate Democrats have remained uncertain over concerns regarding the agenda’s potential costs and fear it is not politically possible to pursue that scale of change.

Here are 10 elements, listed alphabetically, that the deal would address, according to goals set out in the resolution. Though the resolution calls for a “10-year mobilization,” it doesn’t specify how to achieve those goals, and no policy proposal has been filed in Congress.

1. Agriculture

The agriculture sector is the fourth-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, according to EPA data. Under the Green New Deal, the government would work with farmers and ranchers to cut as much pollution and greenhouse gas “as is technologically feasible.” It also calls for “sustainable farming and land use” practices.

2. Environmental stewardship

The plan takes a holistic look at environmental protection, stating that the government is obligated to “secure” clean air and water for every U.S. resident and generations to come. Ecosystems are generally healthier when they have more species, a fact not lost on the authors. It is vital to restore and protect species and ecosystems that are threatened and to increase biodiversity, the authors say. They also call for the cleanup of toxic waste and derelict sites.

3. Education

In its title alone, the Green New Deal invokes the New Deal of the 1930s, a jobs program President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed to put citizens back to work during the Great Depression. But minority groups did not reap the benefits of those programs, and the authors of the green version want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

The resolution calls for the government to provide “resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States,” with a focus on the so-called “frontline communities” that face the greatest exposure to industrial pollution and to historically marginalized people.

The goal: Ensure everyone in the country benefits from an improved economy.

4. Energy creation and use

The resolution calls for a swift transition to carbon-free energy generation, a goal that aligns with what climate scientists say is necessary.

To meet the objectives of the resolution, the U.S. would get all of its power through “clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources” through a 10-year national mobilization, while boosting its use of renewables, energy-efficient buildings and low-carbon vehicles.

5. Health care and food security

Since the resolution is an amalgam of progressive Democrats’ policy goals, it groups together related themes, including health care and access to healthful food.

The government is duty-bound to reverse the trend of decreasing life expectancy nationwide, according to the plan, which states that every citizen should have “high-quality health care” and “clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food and access to nature.”

6. Housing and real estate

The resolution calls for the government to provide safe and affordable housing for all U.S. residents. It also requires the government to upgrade all buildings in the country to make them energy- and water-efficient, including through electrification.

The resolution warns that a planetary warming of 2 degrees Celsius or more beyond preindustrial levels places at risk $1 trillion in public works and coastal real estate.

7. Social and environmental justice

Environmental justice is a particularly consistent motif in the resolution. When natural disasters strike, the most vulnerable communities, including the poor, communities of color and indigenous groups often bear the brunt.

As the world girds for the perils of climate change, the Green New Deal authors are trying to protect at-risk communities. The resolution calls for the government to consider “the complete environmental and social costs and impacts of emissions” in its decisions, including by “ensuring that frontline and vulnerable communities” will not be hurt.

8. Trade

Mentions of trade are rare in the resolution. They hew to a fair-trade and populist line, but also talk of exporting low-carbon technology to foreign nations so that they might curb their emissions too.

The resolution calls for the U.S. to promote the “international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve” their own Green New Deal.

9. Transportation and public works

The description of transportation policy under this deal is clear but limited.

The resolution urges the overhaul of transportation systems in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector as much as is “technically possible.”

And it demands an increase in investment for zero-emission infrastructure and access to public transit and high-speed rail.

10. Work and economic inequality

If climate change is the fulcrum propping up the Green New Deal, economic inequality is the foot stomping down on the raised end of the teeter-totter.

The economic gulf between the wealthiest and least wealthy Americans is the largest it has been since the 1920s, according to the authors. Compounding that economic disparity is the fact that while workers have become more efficient, their wages have stagnated in recent decades.

Those conditions have primed the country for an economic stimulus plan that rights what Green New Deal authors call systemic injustices — “racial, regional, social, environmental and economic” wrongs.

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