Green New Deal rollout renews battle over climate change in Congress

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke about environmental issues at the January Women’s March in New York. Now the Green New Deal resolution shows that she means business.

Nearly every week brings news of another scientific study about the devastating effects of climate change and the critical importance of doing something to counteract it. With their new majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats now have a way to bring the issue to the forefront, and they’re going big. Because they’re not going home.

A joint resolution for a Green New Deal now has been released by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey. While it still doesn’t offer any actual legislative proposals, the resolution outlines more substantive details about the plan, which is a framework on how the country can move forward on climate action.

The overall aims of the Green New Deal, a jobs plan as well as an environmental one, are ambitious, to say the least. They include a plan to phase out fossil fuels and expand renewable energy by 2030, hoping for 100 percent use within 10 years; to build a national energy-efficient smart energy grid; and to create and guarantee millions of jobs at a living wage. A story on NPR said that “the Green New Deal framework combines big climate-change-related ideas with a wish list of progressive economic proposals that, taken together, would touch nearly every American and overhaul the economy.”

The nonbinding joint resolution is still more of an outline. The complete details of the proposal can be found online. These details are from the summary portion of the Green New Deal:

  • Five goals in 10 years, including net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
  • National mobilization of the U.S. economy through 14 infrastructure and industrial projects, including upgrading and/or replacing every building in the U.S. for state-of-the-art energy efficiency.
  • Social and economic justice through 15 requirements, including job guarantees and “massive” federal investments to groups and businesses participating in the project.

Currently, the plan has backing from more than 65 House members and nine senators, including several 2020 Democratic hopefuls. Here’s a preliminary review from Vox:

It’s worth noting just what a high-wire act the authors of this resolution are attempting. It has to offer enough specifics to give it real shape and ambition, without overprescribing solutions or prejudging differences over secondary questions. It has to please a diverse range of interest groups, from environmental justice to labor to climate, without alienating any of them. It has to stand up to intense scrutiny (much of it sure to be bad faith), with lots of people gunning for it from both the right and center.

And of course, it eventually has to give birth to real legislation. …

The goals — achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, providing for a just transition, securing clean air and water — are broadly popular. The projects — things like decarbonizing electricity, transportation, and industry, restoring ecosystems, upgrading buildings and electricity grids — are necessary and sensible (if also extremely ambitious). …

Overall, this is about as strong an opening bid as anyone could have asked for.

The Sunrise Movement, the grassroots organization backing the Green New Deal, is asking voters to contact representatives and senators to be co-sponsors of the resolution. To build support and to show that they mean business, Sunrise Movement members plan to visit and even occupy congressional offices personally in mid-February in an action described as “Operation Green New Deal Blitz.”

Democrats began the environmental salvo by holding three House hearings on climate issues, concentrating on topics ranging from climate change itself to actions by the Interior Department during the partial government shutdown that kept oil drilling open. A story from Think Progress described the new focus:

“[This is] the issue of our time, the challenge of our time, the opportunity of our time,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), who chairs the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment.

Testimony followed from scientists and economic experts, who helped to lay out a “green transition” — an eventual decarbonization of the economy coupled with the creation of new jobs in sectors like renewable energy.

At the same time, a second hearing on Capitol Hill, chaired by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), also took aim at climate change. “In 2018, there were 14 weather and climate disasters, each with damages over $1 billion, total cost $91 billion,” Grijalva said.

The response from most Republicans was predictable. A few, such as Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden, described the need for bipartisan climate action. But Walden never bothered to hold a hearing devoted to climate chance when he was chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Most of the GOP representatives who bothered to show up at the hearings attacked the new emphasis on climate action as a form of “socialism,” “too expensive,” and an ill-thought-out proposal from new members Congress who are “too young” to know any better. From another Think Progress report:

Words and phrases like “socialism” and “top down” and “Soviet-style” are beginning to be used by Republicans to describe the Green New Deal, a major policy proposal to rapidly reduce emissions. The proposal has quickly gained momentum since the midterm elections in November through the popularity of one of its primary boosters, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and the youth-led nonprofit, the Sunrise Movement.

Republicans like Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado cited the 10-year-old proposal from the U.S. Green Party, not the new plan, in focusing his criticisms. Lamborn said the U.S. military would have to “close all overseas bases.” Not to be outdone, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas claimed that the environmental plan would make America less safe. “We will not be able to protect ourselves properly from the threat of Russia, China, and even ISIS,” Gohmert said. (The always fact-challenged Gohmert didn’t provide specifics.)

It’s hard to fathom how cutting greenhouse gas emissions would embolden ISIS. So instead of Gohmert’s imaginary threats, here are reports of actual new environmental threats, including the fact that 2018 was the fourth hottest year on record. But the fact that it was fourth warmest means only that it barely got beat by the three years that preceded it.

Two new analyses from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave the data about 2018.

Global temperatures in 2018 were 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.83 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 1951 to 1980 mean, according to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. Globally, 2018’s temperatures rank behind those of 2016, 2017 and 2015. The past five years are, collectively, the warmest years in the modern record.

Rising temperatures also play havoc with the oceans. Climate change will subtly alter the color of the world’s oceans, intensifying its blue and green regions, by the end of the 21st century. This isn’t a cosmetic change; it reflects significant changes to marine phytoplankton, or algae, which makes up the foundation of the marine food web. In other words, the less phytoplankton, the less life. The researchers who developed a model to measure the loss of phytoplankton published their results in Nature Communications. Their predictions said these color changes signal “early warning of wide-scale changes to marine ecosystems.”

Of course there was no mention of climate change in Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, only braggadocio about fossil fuel dominance (a claim that wasn’t even true). There was no mention of the increased number of extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change. Nor did he talk about the two new major reports (including one from his own government) warning that the world has 12 years to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Trump always is derisive about climate change and climate action, as his tweets showed during the recent polar vortex cold snap. But one thing that the election of Trump has accomplished: A lot more Americans are now more worried about the issue. According to a piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker at FiveThirtyEight:

Americans are just more interested in climate change, in general, than they used to be. Polls suggest that in the past two years, the American public started to believe more in climate change — and worry more about its impacts.

So what gives? Big natural disasters probably have something to do with it, but both the journalists and the sociologists I spoke to think there’s another factor at play. As Slate’s science editor, Susan Matthews, put it: The urgency of climate change was one thing before President Trump’s election and something else entirely after. …

Ultimately, it would probably take both public support and presidential support to reduce the threat of climate change. And, for the last 40 years, those two things haven’t lined up very well.

Given that last year gave us 14 weather and climate disasters, according to NOAA, totaling around $91 billion in damages and killing at least 247 people, it’s way past time for presidential support.

Since many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have announced support of a Green New Deal, the time for action could be January 2021. The question is: How long will Republican senators hold out?

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Feb. 10, 2019.

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