Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are pushing a bold new plan to tackle climate change

For the first time in recent memory, there is a growing clarion call for a response that goes beyond the limits imposed by our economic system.

SOURCEIn These Times
Image Credit: J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Last week, Donald Trump offered a perfect encapsulation of the political Twilight Zone that is his presidency when he dismissed his own administration’s dire report on climate change, claiming simply, “I don’t believe it.

That report was perhaps the most alarming warning yet of the imminent havoc presented by our climate crisis, predicting stark falls in GDP and economic activity, massive species die offs, flooding, increases in extreme weather events, sea level rise that threatens the very existence of U.S. coastal cities and rising temperatures that could make Chicago’s climate rival that of Phoenix or Las Vegas.

But while President Trump glibly writes off the predictions of over 1,000 experts spanning 13 federal agencies, a newly ascendant progressive cohort in government is rallying support for a bold alternative: A Green New Deal.

That proposal, which calls for transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy through a colossal jobs creation program, has been championed by two of the most well-known insurgents in Congress, incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The progressive stalwarts shared the stage together Monday night at a packed town hall event entitled “Solving Our Climate Crisis.”

The gathering follows previous national town hall events put on by Sanders’ camp in recent years which have focussed on Medicare for All, income inequality and foreign policy. These town halls have frequently drawn over a million viewers, rivaling – and sometimes eclipsing – the viewership of cable news stations.

But besides the topic area of discussion, early on Sanders made clear what made his event distinct from what would be seen on corporate media: “This event is not sponsored by Exxon Mobil, nor is it sponsored or paid for by the Koch brothers.”

This is no small thing. A report from watchdog group Public Citizen earlier this year shows that, on the whole, mainstream media outlets consistently avoid in-depth reporting on climate change. Many of these outlets also receive substantial financial support from fossil fuel companies, whether through corporate advertising, grants or other forms.

Over the course of the 2016 election, mainstream outlets, including ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, significantly decreased any mention of the issue on their programs compared to previous years. And the 2018 midterms continued to see barely any serious discussion of climate change on cable news. When it is covered, pundits frequently mention climate change only as it relates to Trump’s shifting policies, without offering any type of thorough exploration of the issue and its consequences.

Sanders’ town hall, then, provided something rarely seen in U.S. media: experts and politicians talking in depth about the dangers and potential solutions to the climate crisis. And while the tenor was rightly sober, it did provide a rousing call to arms for those prepared to take on the existential climate emergency we are all facing.

Taking on the fossil fuel industry

The Trump administration’s climate assessment was not the only paper on climate change’s devastating effects to come out in recent months. In early October, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a groundbreaking report that laid out, among other things, that world governments have just 12 years left to lower fossil fuel emissions by a staggering 45 percent to avoid a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius and the resulting risks of devastating drought, extreme heat, floods and mass poverty.

Barring efforts of monumental proportion to slow climate change, the report’s authors predict that we are currently on track to see temperature rises of 3 degrees Celsius, which could spell untold horrors for humanity and all other species that occupy the only known life-supporting planet in the entire vast expanse of the universe.

One of that report’s authors, Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, joined as the first guest on Sanders’ town hall meeting. Ekwurzel described the major finding of the IPCC report: “Climate change is not some problem in the distant future: It is here, it is now, and it is happening in every part of the country.”

She continued to describe some of the impact of the continuing crisis. “We may be unleashing a destabilization in the West Antarctic ice sheet which could cause massive sea level rise. Most people in the world live near the coasts around the world, which means many places would be inundated.” Sanders’ responded, “It means communities where millions of people live will be underwater. And in terms of national security issues, it means mass migrations of people.”

When it comes to the economic impact, Ekwurzel said, “We find that if carbon emissions continue unabated that the U.S. could endure annual costs of over $100 billion in some sectors.” She went on to explain that by reducing carbon emissions, we could lower that figure by half or even more, while also saving innumerable lives.

When asked how we can individually help tackle climate change, Ekwurzel began by advising to “start with your own life and what you can do,” but then quickly transitioned toward influencing those in power. “Absolutely ask your leaders ‘what are you doing to reduce emissions globally?’” she urged.

Sanders followed up with an even more direct appeal to target the principal perpetrators of climate collapse. “The time is late, and that means countries all over the world are going to have to stand up and take on the fossil fuel industry if we are going to leave our kids and our grandchildren a planet that is habitable. This is a crisis situation. It is unprecedented and we have to act in unprecedented ways.”

Capitalism can’t save us

Such an explanation underpins the argument for a Green New Deal – a wildly ambitious plan that would transform not just the energy sector in the United States, but also the functioning of the entire economy. The proposal would involve modernizing infrastructure, investing in renewables and overhauling food, water and energy systems while creating millions of high-quality jobs.

Based around the goal of achieving carbon neutrality, the plan involves the creation of a Select Committee in the House which would, according to a resolution drafted by Ocasio-Cortez, put together a “detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan” to achieve “economic and environmental justice and equality.”

While this may sound like just another functionary task, as Naomi Klein explains at The Intercept, the current plan calls for the committee’s recommendations to be released ahead of the 2020 elections, which could make it a test and rallying cry for all progressive candidates that cycle.

Not everyone is a fan of the plan, however. In the recent Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Stopping the Socialist Resurgence,” GOP strategist and former George W. Bush whisperer Karl Rove criticized Ocasio-Cortez’s rhetoric around the proposal as “sounding too much like a Maoist functionary.” Elsewhere in the piece, Rove raises the red flags of increasing support for Medicare for All, student debt relief and increased taxes on the rich, calling on his Republican brethren to prepare themselves to come out victors in the grand battle of ideas.

But while Rove is rightly scandalized by the rise in socialist ideas, he misses that the very policies he hopes to contest in the court of public opinion are already backed by most Americans. When it comes to Medicare for All, 70 percent are on board. Student debt relief is widely supported. Three-quarters of Americans are behind raising taxes on the wealthy. And when it comes to a Green New Deal, Data for Progress found that among eligible and enthusiastic voters, more than half “said they would be more likely to support a candidate running on a green job guarantee.”

Embracing these large-scale progressive attitudes and pursuing state intervention in the energy sector is widely believed to be the only way to stave off the worst effects of climate change while creating equity in our response to the crisis – and the Green New Deal offers a clear path forward.

Beyond centrist solutions

Both climate activists and researchers say we need to immediately wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and leave future resources in the ground. This approach, far more radical than anything seriously discussed in mainstream energy reporting, served as the basis for Ocasio-Cortez’s presentation at Monday’s town hall.

Ocasio-Cortez, an open democratic socialist, began by pushing back against the most frequent criticism of a Green New Deal program: its alleged negative effects on the economy. “It’s just plain wrong, the idea that we are somehow going to lose economic activity. It’s not just possible that we’ll create jobs and economic activity by transitioning to renewable energy,” she said. “It’s inevitable.”

“It’s inevitable that we can use the transition to 100 percent renewable energy as the vehicle to truly deliver and establish economic, social and racial justice in the United States of America. That is our proposal.”

She went on to compare the challenges presented by the current moment to those faced by past U.S. leaders who helped push through major accomplishments under daunting odds. “This is going to be the Great Society, the moon shot, the Civil Rights Movement of our generation,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez, who last month participated in a protest outside House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding Democrats push for a Green New Deal, presented the case in clear moral terms. “We’ve amassed some of the largest amounts of wealth in American history, but we have never seen so many people struggling and living paycheck to paycheck in the way that we are today,” she explained.

“When we talk about transition, we talk about just transitions. Transitioning to renewable energy that provides justice to all people who are impacted. That includes fully funding the pensions these coal minors are due, of which they’re being stripped. For younger people, that means providing educational opportunities for them to transition to renewable energy jobs.”

She went on to lay out why the type of traditional centrist environmental policies of means testing and half-measures won’t cut it in rising to the demands of this moment. “When we try to solve this piecemeal, we’re not going to get it solved in time. That’s why we’re asking for this really ambitious, singular plan. And I believe that the progressive movement is the only movement with answers right now, that is drawing from the lessons of history.”

That ambitious plan – backed by groups such as the Sunrise Movement and – is beginning to look like less of a fringe idea and more like a policy moving into the mainstream of American politics. In addition to Ocasio-Cortez, 18 other House members now support the creation of a Select Committee for the Green New Deal. And Sanders is gaining support in his chamber as well: On Monday, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Or.) signed on board with the plan.

Of course, any policy along the lines of a Green New Deal will surely be bitterly opposed by the fossil fuel industry and the interests that it benefits. After all, the entire plan is premised on threatening that industry’s profits and its continued domination over the U.S. economy.

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an 18-year-old indigenous environmental activist, hip hop artist and youth director of the conservation group Earth Guardians, used his platform at the town hall to lay out why countering the coming attacks from oil and gas companies on bold climate action will require a change in both thinking and in political incentives.

“Historically it has been politically risky to stand up to the fossil fuel industry as politicians,” Martinez said. “I think our generation is very different. Yes, we are the future and have the most at stake, but we are also here now. That also gives us the perspective of pushing the agenda so that it’s politically risky to not stand up to the fossil fuel industry.”

It’s true that a battle between environmental activists and powerful fossil fuel interests has been waged for decades, and time after time, the fossil fuel industry has come out on top. As founder Bill McKibben explained during the town hall, “This has got to be the moment. In the end, what changes things is movements. We won this argument 25 years ago. But the fight so far we’ve lost, because fights are about power and money. And now we’ve got to bring power ourselves.”

The only option is to win

What makes this moment different is that, for the first time in recent memory, there is a growing clarion call for a response that goes beyond the limits imposed by our economic system.

Four years ago, Naomi Klein wrote in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, “We are stuck because the actions that would have given us the best chance of averting climate catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets…. Right now, the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change.”

She went on to pose the question of whether our society is up to the task of mitigating the climate crisis and building a sustainable future. “Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it possible without challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism? Not a chance.”

That confrontation with the forces of extractive capitalism has been made possible by a multifaceted movement of working-class, indigenous and intergenerational activists that, through dedicated organizing, has laid the groundwork for the Green New Deal. From the anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock to the Sunrise Movement’s demonstration urging Pelosi to back bold climate action, years of creative activism has set the stage for this moment.

And the policy is making progress in the halls of Congress thanks to the leadership of politicians free of oil industry funding who are grounded in working-class, frontline communities – representatives like Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).

This forward momentum is why, in her recent Intercept piece, Klein calls the Green New Deal proposal “game-changing” and says “I feel more optimistic about our collective chances of averting climate breakdown than I have in years.”

In 2014, the same year that Klein published This Changes Everything, the late science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin gave a speech at the National Book Awards where she famously said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.”

The idea that within four years, grassroots energy and political support could begin coalescing behind a policy that challenges market fundamentalism head on could not have been predicted by either Klein or Le Guin. But such calls to rise to this challenge helped open the political space that has made the current moment possible.

There is still a climate denier in the White House whose Environmental Protection Agency is staffed with fossil fuel lobbyists while the Republican Party on the whole continues to reject science and ferociously fight any legislation that would help protect the climate.

Yet more and more Americans – and political leaders – are beginning to align with the perspective laid out by Sen. Sanders in his recent book Where We Go from Here – Two Years in the Resistance: “To sacrifice the future of the planet for the short-term profits of the fossil fuel industry is unspeakably selfish, outrageous and unforgivable.”

After hearing Ocasio-Cortez’s call for courage in the face of climate change’s existential threats, Van Jones remarked that he had tried to help usher in such a Green New Deal-style approach during his time in the Obama administration, before being derailed by the right-wing. But, he continued, “I think you’re gonna get it done.”

Ocasio-Cortez then turned to the crowd – which included activists from the Sunrise Movement and other climate justice groups – and corrected him: “We’re gonna get it done. We’re gonna get it done.”


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