‘Green New Deal’ is shrinking, and it mystifies activists

Source: Mark K. Matthews and Adam Aton, E&E News reporters • Posted: Friday, February 22, 2019

In a matter of months, the “Green New Deal” has transformed the way Democratic candidates for president talk about climate change.

But will they transform the “Green New Deal”?

That’s the unwelcomed test faced by a fledgling movement of activists who, somehow, intensified the climate debate within the Democratic Party. Now that they’ve convinced White House hopefuls to adopt a boundless climate plan, their next challenge is to draw a boundary against modest campaign promises.

It’s a thorny test that’s made more difficult by the very nature of the “Green New Deal,” a sprawling plan to fight climate change with a massive, government-led jobs program. The concept remains vaguely defined outside its central target — net-zero emissions by 2030 — even after dozens of Democrats came together earlier this month to outline its goals in a symbolic congressional resolution.

That kind of elasticity has its advantages. It can’t be sunk by specifics. But it also gives supporters and detractors the opportunity to define the “Green New Deal” on their terms, in a way that fits their own political ambitions.

“Most everybody wants to get on board with the ‘Green New Deal’ as long as it’s warm and fuzzy. When the outlines start to come into sharper relief, there will be more splintering,” said RL Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party environmental caucus.

At least six presidential hopefuls have signed onto the “Green New Deal” resolution as co-sponsors: Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Several of them have already tried to put their own spin on the proposal, from Klobuchar’s dialed-back approach to Sanders’ full-throated support. For his part, President Trump has criticized the idea as a “massive government takeover” that would “shut down American energy” (Climatewire, Feb. 12).

Klobuchar’s stance on the “Green New Deal” embodies the tension between the Democratic presidential field and liberal activists, who see it as a vehicle to usher in a new era of universal health care, fair pay and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

In an interview with Fox News, Klobuchar confirmed she would vote for the “Green New Deal” if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sends the symbolic resolution to the floor. But Klobuchar described the measure as aspirational, and she cautioned that implementing its ambitions into law would be another matter.

“I would vote yes, but I would also, if it got down to the nitty-gritty of an actual legislation as opposed to ‘Oh, here are goals we have,’ that would be different,” she said (Climatewire, Feb. 14).

Klobuchar expanded on those thoughts this week during a forum with CNN. When asked to name the climate policies she supports, Klobuchar rattled off a list that included fuel economy standards for cars and “sweeping legislation to upgrade our infrastructure.” She also vowed to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on her first day in office.

But Klobuchar hedged again when it came to the “Green New Deal.” “We may not have agreements on exactly how it will work and when we can get it done,” she said. “And my point that I made there was that this is a discussion that we must have as a country.”

Her responses were greeted with skepticism by the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led environmental group that’s championed the “Green New Deal” (Climatewire, Dec. 3, 2018).

“Amy Klobuchar’s comments have been, I think, leaving us wanting more,” Evan Weber, the group’s political director, said in a phone interview. “We’re hoping to see Klobuchar step up her game when she talks about climate action and the ‘Green New Deal.'”

Among Sunrise activists, Weber has been one of the most outspoken in trying to police discussion of the “Green New Deal” on the campaign trail.

In late January, he zinged former New York City Mayor and possible 2020 contender Michael Bloomberg for floating his own vision of a climate-action plan, which would include a “transition as quickly as possible to clean energy.”

“I’ve already begun working on putting together the details of what I believe is a ‘Green New Deal,'” Bloomberg said.

Weber countered on Twitter: “Alternatively you could lend your support (read: massive fortune, resources, and access) to the @sunrisemvmt who launched the #GreenNewDeal onto the national stage, and the frontline grassroots community groups who have been advocating and advancing local solutions for decades.”

Bloomberg, a longtime climate activist, has been critical of some of the early rhetoric.

“It’s time as a party that we started putting some meat on the bone and laying out exactly [what] a ‘Green New Deal’ … should include, and I believe that that plan should be bold and ambitious and, most importantly, achievable,” said Bloomberg last month.

“I’m a little bit tired of listening to things that are pie in the sky, that we never are going to pass and are never going to afford,” he said. “I think it’s just disingenuous to promote those things.”

Weber said Sunrise is tracking how all the major presidential candidates talk about the “Green New Deal” and that it has discussed plans to rank or compare each version. But he said Sunrise is not wholly responsible for filling in the details and that much of that responsibility lies with the politicians running for the White House.

“We hope the adults in the room can at least do something, now that we’ve shown the way,” he said.

Activists have so far given the benefit of the doubt to Sanders, the runner-up for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. He hasn’t yet detailed his vision for a “Green New Deal.” While other candidates are trying to prove their green credentials and boost their name recognition, Sanders did both in his 2016 run (Climatewire, Feb. 20).

“People are not expecting him to spell things out in great detail because they trust he’s already there,” said Miller, who is also political director of the activist group Climate Hawks Vote.

Sanders’ staffers have for weeks hinted that he will unveil legislation that puts his own stamp on the “Green New Deal.” But activists are watching other candidates more closely — and offering support when they inch to the left.

For instance, Booker has won plaudits from Sunrise despite his travails with other progressive causes. He told Iowa voters this month that the “Green New Deal” is a “bold idea that we need to lean [into].”

Weber tweeted footage of Booker’s remarks. “This is pretty good from @CoryBooker. Looking forward to hearing other candidates talk about the #GreenNewDeal, and to seeing policies and platforms come together as the race heats up,” he wrote.

One factor working against “Green New Deal” supporters is electoral history.

Voters rarely rank the environment as a top issue, though there are signs that attitudes are shifting.

A recent survey by Yale and George Mason universities found an uptick in the importance of global warming to U.S. citizens. Another poll from the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, found that Democrats in early voting states consider climate a top-tier issue, second only to universal health care.

Political pundit Kyle Kondik said there is little question that “the eventual Democratic nominee will be someone who has talked about climate change extensively.”

But he said he wasn’t sure yet whether the “Green New Deal” becomes a “proxy for environmentalism” among the Democratic faithful. And he wondered whether there was a political risk for presidential candidates who already back the “Green New Deal” — as that could be perceived as a kind of political outsourcing of their climate change policy.

“If you let the activists on the left set the agenda for you, they may revolt” from a candidate who departs from that framework, said Kondik, who serves as managing editor of the campaign analysis site Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “These Democrats might be better off coming up with their own specific ideas.”