The protest that jump-started the Green New Deal

Source: By Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Fourth in a series on the decade’s pivotal moments in environment and energy. Click here to see the first part, here for the second part and here for the third.

It was a moment made for Twitter: Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) stood in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office encircled by cameras, egging on young protesters who had gathered to call for a new economy remade around climate concerns.

On that November morning, a week after the 2018 midterms, the wildly viral progressive star, then 29, for the first time brought national attention to the Green New Deal, a broad set of progressive ideas that had for years languished in esoteric climate activism circles.

The protest, which drew more than 200 activists from the Sunrise Movement to the Cannon House Office Building, kicked off a new era of climate action, where progressives have real power to shape the Democratic Party’s agenda and force it to be more ambitious in its emissions goals.

Dozens were arrested that day, and the Sunrise Movement held several more demonstrations in Democratic offices before the party formally took control of the House after a sweeping midterm victory.

Over the next few weeks, the activists spurred intense debates within the party about Pelosi’s planned climate change select committee.

Progressives demanded it be focused on crafting a Green New Deal, while the establishment — most notably incoming Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) — worried it would leech away their jurisdictional power.

In the end, Pelosi (D-Calif.) went her own way, forming the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis without legislative power or a Green New Deal mandate.


But the protests marked the start of a movement spearheaded by Ocasio-Cortez, who infamously ran in a primary against longtime New York Rep. Joe Crowley and has become a major figure in the new, younger Democratic Party.

A few months later, she introduced a resolution laying out the Green New Deal with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). And virtually every presidential candidate has been forced to talk about it — whether they love it or hate it.

As Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash put it during the first protest, “This is the new face of the Democratic Party.”

The protests that November day failed to win any meaningful concessions from Pelosi, but in the year since, the Sunrise Movement has changed the tenor of Democratic debate about climate policy.

Young activists have used confrontations, which often went viral, to win concessions from individual Democrats — whether it’s scorning fossil fuel industry donations or endorsing the Green New Deal — illustrating their central role in the party’s broader leftward shift.

That’s also created new divisions in the party, most notably with major union leaders who have distanced themselves from the Green New Deal.

And to the chagrin of centrists who helped Democrats clean up in suburban House districts in 2018, the Green New Deal has also become fodder for the GOP.

Republicans have stretched the bounds of truth — and serious political discourse — to talk about it. A climate change hearing rarely goes by without a Republican lawmaker questioning why the panel is not scrutinizing the Green New Deal.

House Natural Resources ranking member Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said earlier this year, “For many people who live in the West, but also in rural and urban areas, the ideas behind the Green New Deal are tantamount to genocide. That may be an overstatement, but not by a whole lot.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) led the GOP’s most effective messaging effort on the issue earlier this year when he scheduled a floor vote on the resolution. Democrats, in an effort to stay unified on climate, voted “present,” and the resolution failed 57-0.

On the presidential campaign trail, the Sunrise Movement and its cohort have nonetheless succeeded in making climate change a major issue — with the Green New Deal as a litmus test.

It’s a marker to which every Democratic presidential candidate has to pay lip service. Some — such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — have become Green New Deal champions, while others — most notably former Vice President Joe Biden — are pursuing a more moderate coalition of voters.

Either way, they’d better be prepared to talk about it.

Crystal ball

There’s no House floor vote coming on the Green New Deal resolution, nor is there much indication that Pelosi thought twice about the protests in her office last year.

In fact, the California Democrat at one point dismissed the Green New Deal as “the green dream, or whatever they call it,” even though nearly 100 members of her caucus are co-sponsors of the resolution.

And yet, the movement will likely reverberate in the climate debates to come. For Democrats, wonky policy debates are turning into sweeping conversations about the government’s role in directing the economy in the face of climate change and expanding the social safety net to account for environmental justice.

The details — how and whether to price carbon emissions, and how the government pays for massive technological and social investments — will still have to be worked out if Democrats want to pass climate policy in 2021.

Progressive activists have angered some centrists by talking up big ideas at the expense of incremental policy and denouncing technologies like nuclear and carbon capture widely seen as necessary facets of the climate policy portfolio.

But in part due to the Green New Deal, many observers say there’s a more promising political coalition now than there was when the House passed the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in 2009 — the last time Congress tried to address climate change.

Ocasio-Cortez said of climate action: “It’s going to require a lot of rapid change that we don’t even conceive as possible right now. What is the problem with trying to push our technological capacities to the furthest extent possible?”

The progressive movement that built the Green New Deal will be put to the test in next year’s elections. Republicans will use it to label Democrats as “socialists” in key battlegrounds, while President Trump and the party writ large will frame the Green New Deal nationally as an attempt to tear down the American economy to accommodate progressive values.

Polling has shown those messages to be effective among certain voters. But if Democrats succeed in 2020, their base has set them up to begin the next decade as they began the last: embroiled in debate about how to tackle climate change.