In 2009, for the first time in history, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that would regulate greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Entitled the "American Clean Energy and Security Act," or Waxman-Markey after the bill's sponsors, the bill would invest in renewable energy, create a Renewable Energy Standard, and introduce a cap-and-trade system that promised to cut the use of fossil fuels by 80 percent by the year 2080.
Then-President Barack Obama, enthused by the House's passage of the bill, urged the Senate to pass Waxman-Markey "so that we can say, at long last, that this was the moment when we decided to confront America's energy challenge and reclaim America's future." The nation, he said, would finally tackle climate change.
Then the bill failed in the Senate.
It has been nearly 10 years since Waxman-Markey, and 10 years since Democrats—the party that prides itself on believing in climate change—have offered any semblance of a unified plan address the climate crisis. Senators Jeff Merkley and Bernie Sanders have proposed bills over the years to reduce the use of fossil fuels, but bills like the 100 by '50 Act and Merkley's Keep It in the Ground Act, both introduced in 2017, found little support within the party.
Why have Democrats wasted so much time procrastinating on the environment? The environment is shown to be a political winner: A study from Yale University and George Mason University last March found that a majority of Democrats and independents think global warming should be a high priority for President Donald Trump and the U.S. Congress. A majority—64 percent—of all registered voters think that Congress should be doing more to address global warming.
Aside from what voters think, Democrats should be taking advantage of the moral imperative of acting on the climate—and of the political advantages that will follow. The Democrats have a chance to make a lasting policy legacy with climate legislation, and promoting a policy like the Green New Deal could help them capture the ever-elusive youth vote while keeping the base happy. As Kate Aronoff has written for The Intercept: What a squandered opportunity it would be to let the climate "crisis go to waste."
A lot has changed in the climate arena in the last decade, and with concern about the climate gaining political momentum, we appear to be approaching a political tipping point on the issue. Environmental disasters, exacerbated by climate change, are ramping up. Two years ago, with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, along with wildfires and flooding, the nation experienced the most costly year on record for natural disasters.
"That narrative about the changing climate and the extreme weather events that are occurring as a result, and how that's impacting people, that is so much more pronounced [now] in people's lives," says Robert Cowin, director of government affairs for the climate and energy department of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Scientific reports, too, have emphasized the urgency to act: Since 2009, two major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports have stated with confidence that humans are on track to change the climate irreversibly. It has never been more auspicious, and strategically sound, for senior and freshmen Democrats alike to begin throwing their weight behind an ambitious climate plan—specifically, the Green New Deal.
The GND is a comprehensive (if still quite general) plan that would decarbonize and stimulate the American economy through sustainable job creation across various sectors. Now that Democrats control the House again, there aren't any more excuses to keep putting off action—indeed, continuing to do so could cost them their hard-won seats in the upcoming primaries.
As over 200 Sunrise Movement activists demonstrated with their sit-in at the U.S. Capitol two months ago, climate activists are ready to pressure elected Democrats ahead of the 2020 election. The movement is staging a national tour to drum up grassroots support for making the Green New Deal the central focus of the primary; the goal is to "unleash the high level of support" for the GND on 2020 hopefuls by demonstrating "the pain of living in the climate crisis and the anger at the fossil-fuel billionaire class that basically got us into this mess," says Garrett Blad, a national spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement.
Sunrise is hardly the only group organizing hard to remind Democrats about the concerns of their base. In an investigation of grassroots anti-Trump movements, Time found that "Democrats will be heading into a 2020 presidential election in which local grassroots organizers will have more power than ever." On the climate, Emily Atkin at The New Republic writes that, with activists putting heat on even the greenest of Democratic representatives, "The green vote matters more than ever—and it will be harder than ever to win it."
Pledging a commitment to the GND would be a fresh platform for a party that two-thirds of Americans called out of touch after the 2016 general election.
Unfortunately, right now, the Democrats' plan to freshen their branding is to keep doing the same things that got them here; currently, establishment Democrats' plan is to revive the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which has no mandate or subpoena power, making it even weaker than its previous iteration, known as the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which created Waxman-Markey a decade ago.
Establishment Democrats appear to be afraid of moving to the left, and they've sabotaged themselves over and over by laying trip-wire across the aisle and calling it compromise. That strategy isn't working: It cost the Democratic Party almost 1,000 seats during Obama's presidency, as Democratic leaders tried and failed to compromise with Republicans and Tea Partiers.
With such a recalcitrant GOP, the Democratic Party's antiquated idea of compromise simply doesn't get results. That's something voters have learned too: Democrats used to favor politicians who compromised more than Republicans did, but, last year, that changed. A 2018 Pew study found that the gap between Democrats and Republicans who favored compromise—one that had existed since Pew began conducting the survey in 2011—was now closed. From 2017 to 2018, Democratic voters expressing a preference for politicians who compromised dropped from 69 percent to 46 percent—two points off of Republicans' 44 percent.
The problem isn't that compromise or bipartisanship is inherently unproductive; rather, it's that what Democrats believe to be worthy of bipartisanship—a desire they often project onto their voters (as when Nancy Pelosi insisted that her party could "find common ground" with Trump)—is too often a farce. Putting climate at the center of the Democratic platform wouldn't be divisive; quite the opposite. It's a uniting, winning strategy. Just ask Congressman Sean Casten, who flipped a 40-year Republican-held House seat running on a climate-centric platform. Or consult a poll from last May from Yale and George Mason, that says 70 percent of registered voters think we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including 84 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans. Or another recent poll, again from Yale and George Mason, showing that 81 percent of registered voters support the GND, including 92 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans.
There's tangible legislation that Democrats could even pass today with bipartisan support. Renewable energy tax credits, for instance, have Republican support and are "the most important federal policy that stimulated renewable energy growth," Cowin says. Infrastructure investments, too, are bipartisan and will be an essential part of a green energy future. Such investments could "revitalize our grid, which integrates more renewables, reduces emissions, makes things more efficient, and reduces our vulnerability to extreme weather," according to Cowin. Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, specifically mentions green infrastructure in its report on the GND, which lays out a "greenprint" for what the deal could look like.
By any measure, then, the GND should satisfy the Democratic fetish for the long-extinct concepts of compromise and bipartisanship. Even if the GND didn't have such overwhelming support, though, the plan is ambitious—and necessary. With a new grip on Congress, such a bold assertion of power is what Democrats need. It's the next logical step to the party's recent momentum: Democrats have been winning an unusual number of special elections, shoring up an ideological base, and realizing that they "can get things just by asking for them," as Ben Mathis-Lilley puts it for Slate.
To achieve meaningful climate action, Democrats should similarly stop fearing Republican rhetoric about how environmentalism necessarily entails killing jobs. In fact, the opposite is true: The renewable energy industry creates jobs at a rate that far outpaces the coal industry. Job creation is one of the core concepts of the Green New Deal. And despite Trump's best efforts, the coal industry is in decline. Job growth isn't a side effect of the energy transition; it is an inevitability.
Selling the GND, then, won't just be another policy package. It'll be a narrative about the sustainable future to come. To support a persuasive vision, the text of the Green New Deal itself has to be bold, as does the party backing it. For the planet's sake, and for their own Democrats should get the GND right—and they should make sure that it's built to avoid the racial-justice problems of the original New Deal.