3 ways to translate Green New Deal into actual policy

Source: By Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash, The Hill • Posted: Friday, February 15, 2019

The unveiling of the Green New Deal by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has created a media firestorm. Several 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls have rushed to endorse it, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has shrugged it off as a “green dream.” Its multiple drafts, and the retractions over issues like whether the Green New Deal requires the government to pay those who are unwilling to work, has given the media a field day.

Debating whether the Green New Deal will turn the U.S. into a social-democratic Scandinavia or into the next socialist Venezuela is cute but not productive. We suggest focusing on another question: Given the urgency of climate action, how might some elements of the Green New Deal get translated into a concrete policy?

We should focus on three key issues:

  • building a winning coalition
  • allowing for incrementalism
  • ensuring fair and just transition

In the U.S., the House, the Senate and the president (assuming there is no judicial challenge) need to get on board to get any federal policy enacted. Democrats control the House, but Republicans control the Senate and the White House. This means that no Green New Deal-type policy will get enacted until 2020, even assuming that Democrats from fossil fuel producing states support the Gree New Deal in its current manifestation.

In 2020, even if Democrats retain the House, win the White House, and take back the Senate, they will probably not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. The current border wall situation illustrates the importance of this point. If Democrats, as a Senate minority party, can deny President Trump his border wall, what would prevent Republicans from doing the same for the Green New Deal?

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is a specialist in delaying tactics. This means that to make progress, the Green New Deal will need bipartisan support. The challenge is to construct a winning coalition. How can this be accomplished in our age of extreme partisanship? To begin, there needs to be a shorter, focused version of the Green New Deal directly addressing the issue of climate emergency. Other elements of progressivism will need to wait.

A realistic Green New Deal should focus on the low hanging fruit: projects with bipartisan support such as wind energy. Some of the most vocal supporters of wind energy are Republican governors. Texas ranks at the top in terms of installed capacity, followed by Iowa, Oklahoma, California and Kansas. Several Midwestern states have a sizeable installed capacity. Thus, wind energy cannot be viewed as the pet project of coastal, liberal elites. It is very much a phenomenon of the American heartland.

Solar energy presents a more mixed picture. But even here, purple states like Arizona are among the leaders. The bottom line is that it is possible to build a bipartisan renewable energy coalition. But the optics must look good: Republicans might be willing to support wind energy, but not a broader Green New Deal per se.

Second, Charles Lindblom argued, successful policy-making is incremental. This requires building on past policies (such as the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) and focusing on small but concrete policy issues.

U.S. states provide a fantastic opportunity because the federal structure allows states to serve as policy laboratories. Any big project must first exhibit proof of concept. If the pilot succeeds, then there is a strong case for scaling it up to the national level.  California’s scaling back on the high-speed rail corridor between Los Angeles and San Francisco suggests the need for state-level pilots, before any national level ambitious program is launched.

The way forward is to implement specific Green New Deal policy ideas in a few states to demonstrate the policy wisdom of, say, retrofitting buildings or a greater thrust for renewables. Because states cannot print money unlike the federal government, this will provide a dose of fiscal realism. Policies, such as high-speed rail networks that cannot be attended to at the state level will need to wait until bipartisan support can be secured. In some states, Democrats control both houses and the office of the governor. These are excellent sites for quick policy experimentation.

Third, any massive economic transformation creates winners and losers. This poses political challenges, especially if the transformation is a direct result of a governmental intervention (as opposed to say the internet-led Amazonification of the retail business). Those losing out from the policy shift will have incentives to use the political system to sabotage the policy.

For example, the AFL-CIO’s President Richard Trumka noted at the 2018 San Francisco’s Global Climate Action summit, “Does your plan for fighting climate ask more from sick, retired coal miners than it does from you and your family? If it does, then you need to think again,”

“Simply demanding that plants, industries and projects be stopped or shut down, with no plan for the people who are put out of work…no call for shared sacrifice…and no dialogue or solidarity with those whose lives and communities are dependent on carbon-based fuels…that poisons the well politically and slows meaningful action on climate policy,” he added.

The Green New Deal notes there will be “fair and just transition for all communities and workers.” This concern should get very high priority. Labor unions and Native American tribes dependent on fossil fuels must be brought on board urgently. However, addressing their concerns probably does not require the government to pay everybody who is not working.

Climate policy tends to suffer from an IPCCization of the discourse:  The assumption that technical climate reports will spur policy action. But they have not, at least not at the scale required for addressing climate change. The reason is that politics was absent from much of the technical climate talk. Ocasio-Cortez has framed climate policy as politics and created tremendous grassroots excitement. This is an important achievement.

The Green New Deal is an agenda-setting document. It is time for policy wonks with legislative expertise to weigh in. Ocasio-Cortez’s 2.4 million (and growing) twitter followers should appreciate that progress on the Green New Deal will be incremental. In Washington D.C., legislative compromise and bipartisanship are not sell outs. These are critical strategies to get ideas translated into policies.

The Green New Deal has jump-started a stalled climate conversation with several bold ideas. The next step is to identify the most promising ones that can garner bipartisan support and turn them into concrete policies. This is the path to a realistic Green New Deal.

Nives Dolsak is a professor and the associate director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at University of Washington, Seattle 

Aseem Prakash is the director of the Center for Environmental Politics, and the Walker Family professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, Seattle.