Is the Green New Deal Dead?

April 9, 2019

Technically the Green New Deal (GND) has yet to live as a formal legislative proposal as compared to “a sense of resolution. Therefore, any reports of its demise would be premature.

The Senate’s vote on Majority Leader McConnell’s GND resolution seems to have marked the end of a chapter. Although the GND concept will continue to be talked about, America’s climate plan will ultimately be defined by a series of legislative acts rather than a single integrated piece of legislation. Therein, perhaps, lies the problem.

Disaggregation of the various elements of the Green New Deal, as broadly-brushed during the 2018 election cycle by Representative Ocasio-Cortez and socially progressive organizations like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, is as real as it is apparent. Much less apparent is whether the introduction of individual pieces of legislation reflects a rejection of the broader vision and will ultimately lead to an ignominious end to the newly charged national climate debate.

No one would be blamed for thinking that breaking apart the GND’s component pieces will end as badly for the environment as it did for Mr. Dumpty following his great fall. How many times have politicians parceled out pieces of a broadly integrative policy for solving complex social problems only to make it easier to kill?

Notwithstanding the taunts of Trump and the declarations of the climate-denier community that the GND will lead to a socialist takeover of the republic for which they stand, the intention of the GND’s proponents has always been to offer a sweeping vision of what’s necessary for making a rapid and just transition to a healthy domestic economy. A vision to guide the passage of a series of discreet legislative acts and a strong economy that produces net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases.

Climate-science deniers hide behind the claim that even if the climate is changing as a consequence of human activity, the US can do very little to stop or slow the rise of GHG emissions as long as countries like Russia,  China and India continue to rely on coal and other fossil fuels to power their economies.

GND supporters, whether members of the 2020 class of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president, local government and industry leaders or grassroots activists, do not see the problem of Earth’s warming as a straightforward matter of setting and enforcing global rules about how to allocate the burden of cutting emissions. Their view is more in line with David G. Victor’s, co-chair of the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate at the Brookings Institution:

The reality is somewhat different. Climate is a leadership and followership game — the leaders are ready for energy transitions, but by themselves, they don’t matter unless followers also come along.

The message is that the US cannot afford to wait for others to act, and neither should it be expected that others will vigorously act if the US refuses to set an example through its actions—not simply its words. According to the World Economic Forum, the US ranks 27th on its list of nations ready to make a transition to a clean energy economy. There is much work to be done if the nation is to maximize the contribution of clean energy sources to the economy. There is at least as much work outside of the power industry that needs doing.

Whatever the future of the Green New Deal as originally envisioned; it has already accomplished what was unthinkable a short six months ago—a charged national climate conversation. The past week’s events on Capitol Hill evidence the change that has come over the nation largely at the insistence of young voters and progressive politicians.


The first week in April proved a busy one for climate-related discussions and actions on Capitol Hill. The week’s events reflect the newly charged national debate about climate science and what the US should be doing to combat Earth’s warming.

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The hearings and legislative introductions also portend what should be expected between now and the presidential nominating conventions of both parties in the summer of 2020. The events highlighted in the paragraphs below are offered as examples of the directions the congressional debate has begun to take in earnest. They by no means represent the panoply of approaches that will be pursued over the next 12 to 14 months.

In the House of Representatives

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis held its first hearing titled: Generation Climate: Young Leaders Urge Climate Action Now. The hearing was a fitting shout-out to the rapidly emergent leadership role of youthful climate advocates in the US and around the world. Witnesses included Mr. Aji Piper, a plaintiff in Juliana v. US a case—that if successful—would establish an inhabitable environment as a constitutional right and that I have written extensively on. Others testifying included Ms. Lindsay Cooper, Policy Analyst, Office of the Governor of Louisiana, Office of Coastal Activities, Mr. Chris J. Suggs, Student and Activist, Kinston, KC, and Ms. Melody Zhang, Climate Justice Campaign Coordinator, Sojourners; Co-Chair, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. (Copies of their prepared statements may be found here.)

In her opening statement the chair of the Select Committee, Kathy Castor (D-FL), set the tone of the hearing:

…today we’re starting with the people who are the most affected by the climate crisis: young people who are growing up in it, who bear the costs and burdens, and who will help find the opportunities before us.

Millennials and Generation Z have grown up knowing we are in a climate crisis. Now they are demanding that we address it…a young, vibrant and smart generation that is central to America’s democracy. They work. They pay taxes. They vote.

This is a transformative generation. The March for Our Lives, the People’s Climate Movement, the massive student Climate Strikes we saw all around the world: these are movements led by young people who are demanding climate justice for their generation and the generations of young people who will come after them. 70% of young people in America…worry about climate change…based on the latest science from the administration’s own National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they have reason to worry.

The main takeaways from the hearing were:

  • Representative Castor reiterated that the Select Committee lacked the power to propose and draft legislation, highlighting its fact-finding role and license to search for new approaches for solving the climate crisis.
  • The Committee will be holding hearings outside of Capital City to connect with constituents.
  • Representative Garret Graves (R-LA), the Committee’s ranking minority member, indicated and defended what has become a mainstay of the Republican position on efforts to transition the economy to a net zero GHG emitter–the need to balance the economic contributions of fossil fuel industry with environmental sustainability.
  • Garrett pushed witnesses on specific solutions—a tack that has also been taken by Republicans in their efforts to respond to the philosophical underpinnings of the GND.

The Climate Action Now Act (H.R. 9) was reported out by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The bill is now before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The legislation is intended to keep the US as a signatory on the Paris Climate Agreement and directs the President to develop a plan for the United States to meet its nationally determined contributions to the reduction of GHG emissions.

The bill is the first formal climate-related legislation proposed by the Democrats. Republican members of the Commerce and Energy Committee complained that the proposed legislation was reported out without the benefit of a hearing. Chairman Pallone (D-NJ) responded that the subject had been debated since Trump announced his intention to pull the US out of the Agreement and needed no further debate. Although hardly a collegial step, the absence of debate was a tactic routinely employed in the 115th Congress by the Committee’s Republican majority.

The legislation will pass the House largely—if not entirely—along a party-line vote, after which it will be sent to the Senate for its consideration. There is virtually no chance that either the Republican Senate or the White House will support the proposal.

The Green Real Deal (H. Resolution 288) is sponsored by two Florida Republican Represent-atives, Gaetz, and Rooney. The Resolution recognizes that climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States and that climate change threatens human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.

The Green Real Deal (GRD) shadows and shades the Green New Deal—soliciting cheers and jeers from the right. Like the GND, the GRD is a non-binding resolution.

The proposed resolution should not be considered frivolous, however. Its goals include expanding support of innovative research, including carbon capture and new non-emissive carbon technologies, modernization of the grid, establishment of tax incentives for energy efficiency upgrades to residences and commercial buildings and grants to universities for improving community resilience and adaptation.

GRD is notable also for its prime sponsor. Congressman Gaetz often characterized in the press as the GOP’s Trumpiest Congressman once introduced a one-sentence bill to abolish EPA. Now Gaetz is blasting Republicans who ignore or deny climate science—predicting that:

History will judge harshly my Republican colleagues who deny the science of climate change.

Gaetz is a close ally of the president and a frequent guest on the Fox News airwaves. While President Trump has repeatedly denied science and shared false theories about climate and renewable energy, e.g., the sound of windmills causes cancer, Gaetz’s resolution should be considered by climate defenders as a pitch to Trump’s populist base.

The seriousness of Gaetz’s break with the denier community is reflected in the headline of an offer by  Junk Science to debate the representative: GOP Congressman Matt Gaetz goes Al Gore. The self-stated positions of the site’s principal are:

  • The world does not need to be ‘saved.’
  • The economy cannot ‘decarbonize’ without fossil fuels.
  • CO2 emissions are going up no matter what…and that is good.

Recognition of the realities of Earth’s warming remains a Republican exception rather than a rule as evidenced by the resurrection of the House Energy Action Team (HEAT). The revival of HEAT was announced last week by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and will be co-chaired by Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and Markwayne Mullin (R-OK).

The group’s first order of business will be to file a discharge petition to force a vote on the Green New Deal. The petition is a means whereby a bill can be forced out of committee and to the floor for a vote. The House rule requires the petition to be signed by 218 members—a simple majority. Although doomed from the start, the tactic is being employed to cast Democrats in general, and GND supporters in particular, as part of a socialist wave washing up on America’s shore.

Climate defenders, however, might want to see the revival of HEAT and the vehement challenge by the Junk Science guy, as evidence of Republican concerns that the climate message of Democrats—progressives and moderates alike—is resonating with voters. A message that cannot be easily defeated by parliamentary tricks—as earlier shown by the recent maneuver of Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) to get Democrats to vote on his GND resolution.

Money-wise for federal agencies, House Democrats are unlikely to prepare and pass a Budget Resolution because of the differences between progressives, moderates, and blue dog conservatives. In an ideal congressional world, the annual federal appropriations process begins as a House Budget Resolution. In the current hyper-partisan Capitol Hill atmosphere, the normal process of budget resolutions and appropriations bills has largely been replaced by Continuing Resolutions (CR). I expect the same will occur for the coming federal fiscal year beginning on October 1, 2019.

Although limiting new initiatives, CRs have served to protect federal climate-related programs from the annual Trumplican recommended slashings. The White House’s recommendations for the coming fiscal year include reducing the operating and program budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency by 30 percent, DOE’s Energy Efficiency, and Renewable Energy programs by 70 percent and the proposed elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The cuts are in opposition to Republican members of Congress like Gaetz and Rooney, who are advocating much-increased budgets as the Party’s answer to the GND.

House Democrats are beginning to focus on a carbon tax. Last week more than 100 House Democrats wrote a letter to the leadership of the House Ways and Means Committee urging action on a series of clean energy tax credits. The group of 100 also talked about this year’s federal tax package that could include an extension of the wind and solar production and investment tax credits that are shortly set to phase out. It is unclear whether the White House will propose or accept any new tax legislation, e.g., a package of middle-class tax cuts.

A federal carbon tax has been fighting its way back onto center stage since the GND started consuming most of the available oxygen associated with new national climate defense policies. One of the tax’s advantages is its bi-partisan appeal. Although some carbon tax proposals have been introduced, it is unlikely that any will be supported by enough Congressional Republicans in the Senate to make it onto the president’s desk—where it would face a certain veto.

The tax’s unlikely success during the 116th Congress is likely to be viewed positively by Speaker Pelosi who is still feeling stung by the loss of cap and trade legislation the last time Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.

In the Senate

Last week’s major Senate action impacting federal climate defense actions was the Majority Leader’s choosing to use the nuclear option to change the way the Senate’s Republican majority will now handle certain nominations. The current rule allows for 30 hours of debate for lower court and sub-cabinet nominees. The new rule slashes debate time to two hours.

The change will not impact Cabinet-level nominees, Supreme Court justices, federal appeals court judges, or members of some boards and commissions. The rule change greatly enhances the possibility that Trump will have most of the 100 or so judicial nominations now in the queue confirmed by the end of his first term. A conservative judiciary is a critical part of Trump’s strategy to deregulate the environment.

What makes the nuclear option “nuclear” is that it violates the Senate’s rules in order to change its rules. The nuclear option has been used in the past by Democrats.

As Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein points out, Republicans have already eliminated the need to get a 60-vote supermajority to defeat filibusters on Supreme Court nominees and have ended the “blue slip” practice on circuit court nominees that allowed home state senators to block appellate judges.

A conservative judiciary will likely be Trump’s most lasting legacy. A legacy that a Democratic president will not be able to undo. Lifetime judicial appointments are the motivating source of recent statements by some Democrats about expanding the number of US Supreme Court justices.

Last week’s events on Capitol Hill are only the beginning of what now appears will be an active and often contentious back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans.

Is the Green New Deal Dead?

The innate strength of the GND concept is its integrative vision. Earth’s warming is about more than energy sources. It is—as experts have been saying for years—the product of the full range of human activities, from agriculture to tourism and from power production to product engineering. Laugh as you might about animal farts and airplanes, they contribute to the problem that even the Trumpiest GOP member of Congress recognizes is in dire need of a solution. There is, however, no single solution to the problem.

Whether the GND concept is ever made concrete, its integrative vision must live in each piece of proposed legislation. A random series of essentially stand-alone policy proposals—no matter how well written or intended—will fail as an adequate response to the global problem. Moreover, singularity stands every chance of creating a mish-mash of conflicting initiatives. To succeed hard decisions will need to be made—not just about what’s needed or politically feasible but about relationships between the pieces finally put in place.

The bottom line—those decisions will be easier to make with an integrated game plan. Whether a bi-partisan one emerges over the next 18 to 24 months remains to be seen. Rest assured I will be watching carefully and writing and speaking again about what I see on Civil Notion and ZeroNetFifty.

Lead image: Courtesy of Unsplash and C. Boyd

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Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American climate change policy, American politics, Green New Deal