Op-Ed: If Washington rejects the Green New Deal, California should step up and do it ourself

A farmer stands a field on his third-generation family farm in Clovis, Calif. on Jan. 24, 2014.
A farmer stands a field on his third-generation family farm in Clovis, Calif. on Jan. 24, 2014.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has disappointingly sidetracked the buzz-generating, urgently needed Green New Deal, but Washington’s likely failure to nurture the idea presents an opening for California.

The Green New Deal is an audacious, ambitious proposal to treat the climate threat with the radical seriousness that it requires, while also reversing economic inequality and injustice. Although it is, so far, more concept than concrete plan, it proposes — like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Depression — a society-wide mobilization, with jobs and government investment as incentives to turn the nation’s energy infrastructure and economy toward sustainable energy.

The term Green New Deal has occasionally been used over the last decade, but the idea took off among blue wave Democrats and their supporters after the midterm campaign. In a poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change, 81% of a nationally representative group of registered voters approved of a Green New Deal, suggesting huge pent-up demand for tackling climate change.


When the alternative is no hope at all, a longshot is a bet worth taking.

Newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other newcomers negotiated for the formation of a House Select Committee for a Green New Deal, whose members by rule couldn’t take donations from the fossil fuel industry, and which would have had a year to craft job-creating legislation to help solve climate change. But Pelosi summarily folded that committee into a revived Climate Crisis Select Committee, which can’t write legislation and whose members aren’t banned from raising fossil fuel money.

The goal of a Green New Deal is simple: The world’s economies must become carbon-free in the next dozen years to avert runaway global climate change, and to achieve that will require the expenditure of trillions of dollars on public works projects and research and development to eliminate fossil fuel use, upgrade the nation’s energy facilities, and provide training for hundreds of thousands of green jobs.

To generate labor for the projects, the government would guarantee jobs paying at least $15 an hour, just as the New Deal put millions of people to work building public infrastructure and restoring natural resources. The Green New Deal would pay particular attention to projects that redress environmental injustice, fixing air and water pollution problems that typically plague poor and minority communities.

Pelosi’s tepid response may arise in part from her calculation that a Green New Deal won’t happen at the federal level as long as climate-change-denying Republicans control the Senate and the White House.

But in California, Democrats are dominant and so is a climate-fix agenda. The state is already committed to a 100%-renewable electricity supply by 2045. Jerry Brown, who stepped down as governor on Jan. 4, and the state’s voters have made California an international climate-change leader. New Gov. Gavin Newsom could maintain the state’s vital role by putting California into the lead in fleshing out what will define a Green New Deal.


The costs would be high, but the benefits would be much higher. The first New Deal shows what kinds of things can be accomplished from targeted efforts: Nearly a century later, Roosevelt’s projects still provide the foundation for much of California’s infrastructure.

The Los Angeles International Airport, federal courthouse and many state schools, parks, highways, bridges, sports facilities and water channels date to the New Deal. The New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps even cut a two-lane, 800-mile-long fire break through the Sierra called Ponderosa Way; it went right through the recently fire-ravaged town of Paradise and might have offered residents an additional evacuation route if it had been properly maintained.

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In fact, one urgent California Green New Deal project should be a giant effort to prevent future megafires by thinning state forests and conducting prescribed burns and other measures that would help us prevent or survive wildfire. The state government is already funding that effort, but a more ambitious program that trained and employed Californians to do that work, at a cost of billions of dollars, would still make sense when the cost of the damage from just the Camp and Woolsey fires last year was estimated at $19 billion.

The state could also modernize its electricity grid — building decentralized regional grids for better security, efficiency and safety, and putting transmission wires underground where the wind can’t blow them down and spark fires — as it phases in its requirements for more all-electric homes and commercial buildings. The state could also take on the essential task of decarbonizing its huge agricultural industry, funding farmers to stop using pesticides and fossil fuel-based fertilizers and adopting practices that restore soil so that it again becomes a carbon sink.

A Green New Deal in California should also include projects that will allow the state to end oil production and refining, which will otherwise keep California from meeting its climate goals. It could put researchers to work with grants to fund research and development into climate-enhancing technologies. A new conservation corps could retrofit commercial buildings for sustainability, and help build new transit projects. The list goes on and on.


Vested interests, especially the oil industry, will fiercely resist a Green New Deal in the state, and finding funding will be a difficult task. But without something like it, massive climate change upheaval is a dead certainty. When the alternative is no hope at all, a longshot is a bet worth taking.

Jacques Leslie is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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