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The idea has reshaped global climate policy, but is far less concrete than its supporters have been led to believe.
Since its ascension in 2018, the Green New Deal has defined the terms of the global climate debate. Perhaps no other climate policy in history has been as successful. Democrats and Republicans alike have been judged by how closely they seem to hew to it. The Sunrise Movement, the highest-profile American climate-activism group, rallies for it. Abroad, the European Union has dubbed its 1-trillion-euro attempt to decarbonize its economy “the European Green Deal.” And on the histrionic fields of social media, progressives ask how society can afford flooded subways, horrific droughts, deadly heat waves, and uncontrollable wildfires but not pay for a Green New Deal.
Even now, as Democrats in Congress and the White House wrangle over the terms of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, the Green New Deal leers from the sidelines. How does the bipartisan infrastructure deal differ from the Green New Deal? Will the partisan reconciliation bill amount to a Green New Deal?
With so much ballyhoo, it’s become easy to miss the central, implacable fact about the Green New Deal: It does not exist.
By this, I don’t mean that it hasn’t passed. I mean something more fundamental: Nobody has written it down. Three years after the idea of a Green New Deal broke into the mainstream, you can’t find an authoritative and detailed list of Green New Deal policies anywhere. There is no handbook, no draft legislation, no official report that articulates what belongs in a Green New Deal and what doesn’t.
This is more than just an academic point. It means that tens of thousands of Americans want very badly to see Congress adopt a political program that definitionally cannot pass, because there is no “it” for lawmakers to vote on. It means that Biden’s infrastructure package cannot be compared with the Green New Deal, because the contrast will not find purchase. It means that at a moment of historic possibility, American climate politics still has one leg stuck in the spectral and symbolic, when it should be knee-deep in the real.
I should clarify: We’re not entirely ignorant about the Green New Deal’s policy aims. To hear most supporters tell it, the core idea of a Green New Deal is that the federal government should be the author and finisher of America’s climate transition. The government should decarbonize the country’s energy system by 2030, if not sooner, and adapt American infrastructure to a hotter, angrier world. And it should do so while reducing material inequality and remedying racial injustice. So far, so good.
Onto these climate goals, the Green New Deal has tacked demands for good old-fashioned European social democracy: The original, 14-page Green New Deal resolution, which sketched broad goals and was introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey in 2019, demanded universal health care, affordable and safe housing, and protections for workers’ right to unionize. These goals made it into later versions of the Green New Deal: You could find them in Senator Bernie Sanders’s climate platform during the 2020 presidential primary, and the Sunrise Movement still demands Medicare for All and student-debt forgiveness.
This bid to expand the welfare state has attracted nonstop criticism. But maybe surprisingly, it strikes me as one of the best-explained aspects of the Green New Deal’s program. It rests (to my eye, at least) on the work of Naomi Klein, Alyssa Battistonti, and a handful of other leftist political theorists who have argued that climate change makes such intense demands of society that addressing it requires a full rewriting of the social contract between individuals and the state. Earth has too few resources to offer every human a life of private opulence; what it can sustain, instead, are communal luxuries—fewer Bugattis, more beautiful rapid-transit systems. The way to create buy-in for climate policy is by building those luxuries as the constraints of low carbon consumption start to bite.
That’s a keen insight. But how to bring about that low carbon consumption? Here, the unifying thread starts to fray. For instance: The original Green New Deal resolution devoted a surprising amount of verbiage to “deindustrialization” and the decline of American manufacturing. It called for green tariffs, purchase guarantees, and beefy “buy American” rules to reinvigorate U.S. industry. When I wrote about the Green New Deal in February 2019, I dubbed this enthusiasm for industrial policy its “big idea.”
That approach was championed by a think tank called New Consensus, which was supposed to write a summary report on the Green New Deal in 2019. Such a report would have clarified what, exactly, belonged in a Green New Deal and what didn’t. But that report never came out, and no other group has tried to write it.
In the resulting vacuum, a series of more recent proposals has taken almost the opposite approach from New Consensus, arguing that the caregiving work of nurses, teachers, and child-care providers should dominate any Green New Deal. This approach sits uneasily at best with a demand for reindustrialization. And the closer one looks, the more one finds areas of silent but potent disagreement about what a Green New Deal even is.
Take these questions, for instance:
How much of a role should electric cars play in a Green New Deal? Activists often talk about ubiquitous buses and high-speed rail. But Sanders’s 2020 climate platform created a more or less direct $3.5 trillion subsidy for the auto industry by helping Americans buy electric cars.
How much of a role should the government play? When Ocasio-Cortez spoke about the Green New Deal three years ago, she allowed for Tennessee Valley Authority–type institutions as well as public-private partnerships. “It’s not as though the federal government’s going to wave a wand and say, ‘We’re going to do it all ourselves,’” she said. Now the Sunrise Movement’s main demand of the government is for a Civilian Climate Corps that will directly hire young people.
How should the Green New Deal be funded? Should the U.S. government push private capital into climate-friendly projects by establishing a new ratings agency for green finance? Or should it reject any role whatsoever for private capital in the energy transition, funding the whole affair through tax dollars?
And thorniest of all: What is the role of the American state in global decarbonization? Should the United States aim to play the same role in the energy transition that it played in World War II (whatever that means)? Can the Pentagon accelerate decarbonization, as Senator Elizabeth Warren has pitched? Or should the U.S. retreat from global affairs, seeking only to partner peacefully with China, or even going as far as defunding the military, as the Sunrise Movement has called for?
These questions matter because they shape how progressives think about climate policy now. Biden has championed both a new industrial policy and care work as infrastructure. How different are his plans from what a Green New Deal would do? The bipartisan infrastructure deal includes a $27 billion green financial accelerator, a sort of green bank. Is that good for progressives, because it is based off Sanders’s plan for a state development bank; or bad, because it muddies a public process with private capital?
Perhaps I’m looking for too much specificity. Maybe no detailed plan is needed in advance. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s original New Deal was an improvisational response to a crisis; it was experimental and pragmatic, not foreordained and strategic. Yet if that’s the case, then progressives should bring a sense of imagination, of possibility, to discussions of the Green New Deal. They should recognize that the Green New Deal is not a single policy to win, but a change in outlook and approach. It does not have a price tag, because it will never be a single thing at all.
This confusion, I think, points to perhaps the most ignored and most important aspect of the climate-policy debate: Nobody knows how to solve climate change. Nobody knows how to decarbonize the economy. Oh, people have ideas about what kind of technologies are important—the U.S. needs more wind, more solar, more electric vehicles, smarter electric grids—but on the fundamental question of how to make those changes happen quickly, we live in ignorance. What kind of political program will connect the prose to the passion, allowing climate-concerned policy makers and workers to build the infrastructure we need today, bank their successes tomorrow, and remake the economy in a decade? The answer is: We do not know. Nobody knows. The world remains open. That’s what makes working on climate issues so enthralling, so terrifying, and such a privilege.
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Robinson Meyer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.