Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
In January, this column entertained the idea of whether or not a true progressive could win the presidency in 2020. A core feature of almost all Democratic candidates seeking their party’s nomination will be their support for a ‘Green New Deal’, the economic stimulus program designed to decarbonise the US and address economic inequality. It has been principally proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, and subsequently become a feature of the early election campaign. It has also become a lightning rod for the youthful, progressive insurgency taking place within the Democratic Party around the country.
Are the economics and politics of the Green New Deal possible?
In February, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey introduced a Green New Deal resolution in Congress that lays out the principles and goals behind their policy proposals. It consists of five goals, 14 projects, and 15 requirements. One thing that is immediately clear is that it will require a Democrat in the White House in order to stand any chance of being enacted. Otherwise, it will face the same fate as the American Clean Energy and Security Act – the Democrats’ last attempt to forge a legislative path to address climate change, which passed the House of Representatives in 2009 but progressed no further.
The policy proposal is expected to heavily influence the Democratic Party, pushing its grass roots and 2020 hopefuls towards a more defined and aggressive plan to address climate change, but the impact on this administration’s legislative approach is likely to be negligible at best. President Trump continues to conflate weather with climate change, whilst appointing sceptics to review climate science. If anything, it could have the opposite effect – to push the White House even further to the right on climate change and decarbonisation, owing to the vehemence with which Republicans oppose Ocasio-Cortez’s plans for increased government spending. On that basis, the Green New Deal could become a legislative proxy for the battle that will take place in 2020. It sets up the election to be one between climate change deniers and climate change interventionists, in that climate change has now become a signifier of broader and deeper divisions in American society.
The Green New Deal builds on the principles outlined by President Franklin D Roosevelt, whose New Deal was launched to battle the effects of the Great Depression. The 2019 proposal focuses on reducing inequality, whilst aiming to eliminate US greenhouse gas pollution in a decade. In addition, it includes a job guarantee program “to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one”.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the US still has a long way to go in its path to renewable energy. Currently, the US gets just 17 per cent of its power from renewable sources. If the Green New Deal ends up being little more than a motivator to push a future Democratic president in the direction of renewable domestic energy sources, it could start with markedly increasing that figure.
Voters will rightly demand to know how progressives intend to pay for these bold ideas. This could differ in the primary, where the Democratic base will seek ideological purity from their candidates, and the general, where the wider American public will be more concerned with pragmatism. For now, the architects of the Green New Deal have sought to largely avoid the question. It is good politics to float the ideas and consider how to pay for them later, but the economics of the proposal will not go away. In the same way that Jeremy Corbyn has pledged free university places, greater NHS funding and the best part of £500 billion in public spending and failed to answer how he would pay for it.
How will it shape the Republican response to climate change?
Given the Green New Deal is intrinsically linked to Ms Ocasio-Cortez, whom the Republicans and conservative media have grown to love opposing and mocking in the short period of time in which she has been a member of Congress, it is unlikely the GOP will support any version of a Green New Deal. Both in terms of the politics and the economics – it would invoke the kind of vast government spending the party rallies against, whilst also acknowledging the existence of climate change and the need for a government response to it.
On the campaign trail and now in the White House, Mr Trump has denied that emissions of greenhouses gases caused by human activity are warming the planet. Instead, he argues that climate change patterns are changing naturally, and in his more excessive moments laments a climate change “hoax” engineered by China to economically punish the United States. It is difficult to foresee a sudden reversal in those views.
The electoral trends might be the only thing capable of pushing Republicans into acting on climate change and reversing their current position. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in December 2018 found that 66 per cent of Americans now say they have seen enough evidence to justify action on climate change, up from 51% 20 years ago. Crucially, a gap appears between registered independents – 79 per cent of whom support action – and Republicans – 56 per cent of whom said that concern about climate change is unwarranted or that more research is necessary before taking action.
The path to a Green New Deal might not run through 2020
The Green New Deal as currently proposed has faced its own wave of criticism. Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace, even went as far as describing it as “completely crazy”. It has been dismissed by the right as a would-be act of reckless big-state spending. Government spending is often embraced by the left – such as FDR’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal and LBJ’s Great Society – but it is not alien to the right. If President Trump’s executive action on border security isn’t shot down by the courts, he will spend over $5 billion with the stroke of a pen.
The enthusiasm of first-term Democrats in the 116th Congress has made the Green New Deal a litmus test for the 2020 general election. Already, Democratic hopefuls like Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have expressed their support for the proposals. It is hard to see a Democrat who opposes the legislation courting the Left of the party and winning the 2020 nomination. For a Green New Deal to succeed, it may need a longer runway than the months between now and the November 2020 general election. It may also need more visible climate change crises in the areas that are most vulnerable, in order to pressure Republican politicians to shift their stance – like in Florida. It will certainly need a Democrat in the White House and their full endorsement.