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Opinion

Editorial: AOC’s Green New Deal could finally force the U.S. to get serious about climate change

How the Green New Deal is shaping the race for president
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), joined by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), right, and other congressional Democrats, discusses the Green New Deal at a news conference in front of the Capitol on Feb. 7.
(Alex Wong / TNS)

The United States — and the world — face a reckoning. We have burned so much fossil fuel over nearly two centuries and emitted so much carbon into the atmosphere that our collective actions are warming the planet. The resulting changes to world climates threaten such vast and damaging upheaval that life as we know it is endangered. Species will be destroyed in unconscionable numbers, communities will be made uninhabitable, and human conflicts and migration will increase. And the damage is already underway, measured in disappearing species, more intense natural disasters, melting glaciers and ice caps and changes to the acidity, temperature and even currents of the oceans — all of it conspiring to make many of our existing ways of life untenable.

The Green New Deal legislation introduced in the House by rookie Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and in the Senate by veteran Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) acknowledge the freight train barreling down on us all, and, to its credit, does what has been missing in the debate. It bellows out a bold, transformational, no-more-baby-steps approach to a catastrophe that has been ignored for too long even by the non-climate deniers in Congress, where oil and gas interests have held sway for decades and where inaction is always easier than the alternative.

To that degree, we welcome the effort and endorse its sweeping calls for getting Americans out of their cars, for transforming our power sources from fossil fuels to renewables, for seeking to recalibrate the nation’s economy away from the things that may kill us, and for reorienting us toward more sustainable means of production, transportation and daily living. Good for Ocasio-Cortez and Markey for making a dramatic statement acknowledging honestly where we are and how far we need to go.

Good for Ocasio-Cortez and Markey for making a dramatic statement acknowledging honestly where we are and how far we need to go.
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On the other hand, we live in the real world, and if this potentially existential problem is going to be addressed, it is going to have to be addressed there. In that regard, this proposal — expressed in twin, nonbinding resolutions — suffers from overreach. It reminds us a bit of the talk about healthcare for all and a livable wage for all and free college for all. Who isn’t for those things? (Well, some people).

As a vision statement for the progressive left, the New Green Deal is admirable, but also largely unreachable. The difficult question is not “Do you support social justice?” or “Do you oppose poverty?” but “How do you fix those in a cautious, money-dominated, politically polarized, uncertain nation like ours?” More significantly, why laden a clarion call for revolutionary action on climate change — which has wide popular support, according to polls — with attenuated social justice measures that can be more fractious?

The nonbinding nature of the Green New Deal legislation is both a weakness and a strength. On the one hand, we are too far along the path of global warming for symbolic acts. On the other, at least the proposal offers targets for binding legislation in the future that could move us closer to where we need to be.

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The more controversial elements of the proposal, meanwhile, should either be excised or allowed to wither on the vine. For instance, the measure calls for “high quality union jobs” and guaranteed jobs for all. But unions are the creations of workers and ought to come into existence through workplace democracy, not government edict. And what would a guaranteed-jobs program look like? How would it get paid for? What would those jobs be? The Green New Deal also calls for “ensuring a commercial environment where every businessperson is free from unfair competition and domination by domestic or international monopolies,” and “providing all people of the United States with high quality health care [and] affordable, safe, and adequate housing.” What in the name of John Muir do those goals have to do with combating climate change?

Still, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey have the political world talking. Some of the discussion, particularly from the right, is derisive and mocking, but Ocasio-Cortez and Markey invited it by stapling a progressive wish list to their much-needed call to action on climate change. We urge policymakers to focus the debate on the core crisis of climate change, while recognizing the magnitude of the transformations required to address it. Regardless of what happens to the Green New Deal proposal itself, serious work lies ahead. And given Congress’ general inability to act, the work falls to all of us, from personal choices in consumption to pressuring elected officials loudly, strongly, and incessantly to get their heads out of the sand and deal with this.

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