Even as climate change has rapidly evolved from an abstract threat to a tangible crisis, political candidates have struggled to make it a central focus of campaigns dominated by more immediate voter concerns.
Now, the political conversation is catching up.
Climate change issues, and more specifically demands by Democratic activists for policies grouped under the label of a Green New Deal, are fast becoming a marquee issue in the presidential race. Increased voter anxiety over the warming planet and a deft marketing campaign by progressive activists have pushed candidates to take positions substantially bolder and louder than those of past elections.
On Thursday, backers of a Green New Deal unveiled a plan in Congress notable for its audacious goal of restructuring the entire national economy around the climate fight and pouring trillions of dollars into clean energy and innovation.
Equally notable, however, was the list of who signed on — most of the major Democratic presidential candidates in the race so far.
What they have pledged loyalty to at the moment is mostly a slogan and an idea — the particulars of the Green New Deal, and even the price tag, have yet to be worked out. Nevertheless, their enlistment in the crusade marked an important moment in both the presidential race and the changing nature of the political debate over climate change.
“Every signal appears to be that the Green New Deal is going to be a major part of the presidential election,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication. “This is in no small part because the larger political dynamics have shifted on climate change.”
The Green New Deal — or the latest iteration if it — has been pushed onto the national agenda by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first-term Democratic congresswoman from Queens, N.Y., whose media savvy, adroit organizing skills and socialist leanings have catapulted her to political stardom on the left.
The concept had been kicked around for years, with the slogan having been popularized a decade ago in a book by the journalist Thomas Friedman, a quintessential establishment figure. But the call for investment and mobilization on the scale of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to create a “greenhouse-gas-neutral society” within 10 years has suddenly galvanized attention from a new generation of political activists.
The resolution that Ocasio-Cortez and others unveiled with more than 60 co-sponsors is a populist and environmental call to arms. It calls for a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030, but also the guarantee of a living-wage job with paid vacation to every American. One passage talks about upgrading every building in the United States for energy efficiency and another about providing all Americans “high-quality healthcare.”
“Small, incremental policy solutions are not enough,” Ocasio-Cortez said at a news conference in Washington. “This is a major watershed moment.”
Standing by her side were several veteran Democrats, including Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has helped lead the Democratic establishment’s climate crusade for years. Their presence — and the names of the party’s presidential candidates on the list of co-sponsors — signaled the party’s shift on climate politics. The Green New Deal received a swift endorsement from former Vice President Al Gore and the Center for American Progress, which has long been associated with the party establishment.
“It is time for us to be bold once again,” Markey said.
How bold is certain to become a matter of intense intraparty debate. Democrats are ecstatic about the Green New Deal’s marketing potential. Unity on particular policy prescriptions is harder to come by. There is disagreement over how to transform climate action into a populist movement that can draw support beyond the predictable regions where the clean-energy transformation is already underway.
Before the Green New Deal resolution was even rolled out, former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a global leader in climate action and a potential presidential candidate, warned Democrats against overreach.
“I'm a little bit tired of listening to things that are pie in the sky, that we never are going to pass, are never going to afford,” he said late last month at a talk in Manchester, N.H., where he announced he would be drafting his own Green New Deal proposal that he will devote his own considerable wealth to pushing. “I think it's just disingenuous to promote those things. You've got to do something that's practical.”
Later, while touring a factory, he told reporters: “People are not going to overnight give up their jobs if those jobs happen not to be on the right side of the Green New Deal.”
A recent poll by Yale and George Mason University found the idea of a Green New Deal has the support of 81% of registered voters, including nearly two-thirds of Republicans, but that may change when the details of its size and scope emerge.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) called Thursday’s Green New Deal proposal “a Washington takeover of our nation’s energy system” orchestrated by “the far-left fringe.” The conservative Club for Growth branded it a “job-killing, socialist wish list.”
Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was cautious in embracing it, noting it is one of several ideas Democrats are likely to put on the table.
Scholars who have worked on the issue cautioned that the Green New Deal’s reach could prove limited if visions for big spending and economic transformation are not tempered — particularly in those large swaths of the nation where voters resented even the far less ambitious climate policies pursued by the Obama administration.
“There is no doubt that the well-intentioned Green New Deal will speak to the already converted, and that is important because there is impatience and urgency,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “At the same time, looking at another side of the equation may be a way to actually have a discussion with redder audiences.”
Brookings recently produced data showing that some of the regions at most risk of suffering economically from climate change are also the places most fiercely resistant to addressing it.
“There is this stark irony that climate change will impose the greatest economic losses on the Republican part of the country,” Muro said. “It should be possible to have two discussions, with one of them going on in the places the climate-left’s language is less effective.”
Presidential candidates, however, were not hedging. Polling shows that among engaged Democratic primary voters, climate has moved into the top tier of concerns. Those voters are looking for a compelling vision to rally around and eager for a message that can rival the fossil-fuel-driven “energy dominance” theme President Trump used to woo blue-collar workers.
In addition to Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, all co-sponsors of Thursday’s plan, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is preparing a possible presidential bid that would focus almost entirely on climate issues.
That sort of emphasis will be crucial, said former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has twice run for president.
“To make climate change an important [campaign] issue that moves people will require enormous imagination,” he said. “There are some broad shoulders required.”