What remains of the US Green New Deal?

While policy-makers squabble about Build Back Better, climate change continues to contribute to major wildfires, droughts, and other disasters across the United States.

SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus
Image Credit: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In November 2018, the Green New Deal became a rallying cry for climate activists when members of the Sunrise Movement occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and adopted the slogan as their unifying message. A few months later, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who had joined the young activists in Pelosi’s office, brought this message to Congress when she partnered with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) to introduce their Green New Deal resolution. More manifesto than binding legislation, the resolution laid out a vision of an equitable clean energy transition for the United States.

In drawing from the language and history of FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s, climate activists have hoped to join together two strands of the progressive movement: environmentalism and economic justice. The United States needs to radically reduce its carbon footprint and, at the same time, create well-paying jobs, especially for those workers leaving economic sectors associated with dirty energy. As with FDR’s program, the Green New Deal relies on government direction and funding to advance this major economic transformation.

Since the original resolution, other Green New Deal bills have emerged on education, housing, and cities. U.S. cities, too, have established Green New Deal initiatives, and many civic organizations continue to champion the GND as a radical vision for a reoriented U.S. society.

Yet many of the actual components of a clean energy transition have stalled in Congress even though the candidate who promised such a transition won the presidential election in 2020. Although some very modest climate-related provisions can be found in two successful pieces of legislation supported by the Joe Biden administration—the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, both in 2021—the bulk of the clean energy provisions have been bundled into Build Back Better. Originally a $3.5 trillion Democratic proposal, this bill was whittled down to $2.2 trillion and then effectively killed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in late 2021.

“Build Back Better is seen by many as the biggest step in the direction of the Green New Deal,” relates Brett Fleishman, the head of global finance campaigns at 350.org. “Joe Biden had expected to arrive at COP 26 in Glasgow in November 2021 with the bill signed in his back pocket so he could slap it down on the table and start a bidding war with the Chinese. But that didn’t happen.”

May 30, Fleishman continues, will be the next deadline to make a push to win Manchin’s support for a smaller bill that includes higher taxes on the rich and a prescription drug provision. The West Virginia senator is also likely to insist on increased fossil fuel production, at least in the short term. Complicating the picture, large-scale government spending programs have recently become more difficult because of rising prices and inflationary concerns.

The climate provisions in Build Back Better “are not 100% dead,” agrees Rajiv Sicora, Senior Policy Advisor for Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). “But as my boss says, they’re on life support. The truth is, we’re not going to have federal climate legislation at the scale that we need without making a lot more noise, without being a lot more disruptive, and without finding ways to counter the power of the fossil fuel industry and other corporations that are lobbying furiously against it.”

Saul Levin, a Senior Policy Advisor for Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), notes that the Biden administration has not done much to meet its climate change promises. “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law had a lot of good things in it,” he points out. “But every study suggests that it will create more greenhouse gas emissions than it will reduce. Climate change is getting worse because of that law and without the Build Back Better plan. From my own personal perspective, it would be an international disgrace for the Democratic Party not to pass substantial climate legislation.”

While policy-makers squabble about Build Back Better, climate change continues to contribute to major wildfires, droughts, and other disasters across the United States.

“How many climate-related disasters will it take for us to understand that this is a serious issue?” asks Susie Strife, who manages all of Boulder County’s sustainability efforts, policies, and programs with a special focus on clean energy, finance, and climate action. “There’s clearly a disconnect between what local governments and state governments are doing, and the push for national federal policy and change. Doing nothing puts us in a much more precarious position, and it’s more expensive.”

In response to the war in Ukraine and a surge in gas prices, the Biden administration announced at the end of March the release of a million barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And instead of restricting fossil fuel production, the United States has been scrambling to persuade other countries to boost output to substitute for the loss of banned Russian imports, particularly for European partners. These developments contrast sharply with the latest IPCC report, which appeared at the beginning of April. Although pessimistic about recent trends in carbon emissions, the report stressed that halving emissions by 2030 was still within reach.

Against this backdrop, in mid-April, these three experts gathered for a conversation facilitated by Brett Fleishman about the promises, polices, and prospects of the Green New Deal in the United States. Expressing concern about the urgency of the moment, they offered concrete suggestions about how to achieve at least parts of the GND vision.

Pushing Joe Manchin

Although several Democrats were unhappy with elements of Build Back Better, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin emerged as the bill’s principal opponent. The bill passed the House of Representatives on November 19, 2021. One month later, Manchin released a statement outlining his opposition to the bill, based on its costs in light of overall government debt and surging inflation. Despite his later declaration that the bill was “dead,” Manchin remains open to a radically reduced version that focuses on “climate change, prescription drug prices and deficit reduction.” Most recently, he has sought to build momentum for a bipartisan energy bill that would boost domestic fossil fuel production and avoid the Democratic-only budget reconciliation process.

Manchin’s reputation as a deficit hawk is not the only reason for his opposition to Build Back Better. Not only did he make his fortune from a coal business, he protected that business and the coal industry more generally through his actions as a politician. The Biden administration’s efforts to transition away from coal and other dirty sources of energy—through Build Back Better and other measures— directly challenges Manchin’s financial and political interests.

“We’re all inside of a house that’s burning down and there’s a person standing there with a fire extinguisher,” Saul Levin says. “The House did its job, and it’s come down to Senator Manchin. The House does not have leverage over Manchin. Speaker Pelosi doesn’t have much leverage over Manchin. The question is: will President Biden and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) do their jobs and hold their party together? And the answer so far has been a resounding no.”

“The Biden Administration and the leadership of the Democratic party in Congress did not have a plan to deal with Manchin,” reports Rajiv Sicora. “We could have loaded up Build Back Better with even more good things for the people of West Virginia, and gone directly to them to make the case for how the bill would improve their lives—the kind of organizing approach that Bernie Sanders would have pursued as president.” At this point, the White House is waiting on Manchin rather than putting pressure on him.

The fight has expanded beyond the congressional floor. “A bunch of activists blockaded Joe Manchin’s coal plant this weekend,” Levin reports. “If I were Joe Biden, I’d use the Antiquities Act to take over coal fields all over West Virginia to establish national monuments and then do a live broadcast each time saying that ‘Joe Manchin is killing the coal industry’—over and over again until he stops.”

Defense Production Act

The Biden administration has other options besides Build Back Better to advance elements of the Green New Deal. One of those is through the Defense Production Act where, in the name of national security, the president can declare an emergency that provides the executive with powers to force companies to produce key commodities. Ordinarily, the Act is invoked during wartime. But activists have long argued that the climate crisis should put the United States on just such an emergency footing.

“Our team—Congresswoman Bush and Rep. Jason Crow (D-WI) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)— introduced a bill a little less than a week ago called the Energy Security and Independence Act,” reports Saul Levin. “It basically calls for $150 billion for various investments in the renewable energy supply chain. Two-thirds of that was for the Defense Production Act.”

He continues, “Joe Biden could say right now that because of the emergency in Ukraine as well as the climate emergency, we’re going to redirect hundreds of billions of dollars to making strategic investments to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels from Russia and Saudi Arabia. The money could cover public transit and vehicle electrification, but also heat pumps and other measures to reduce utility costs.”

The bill is designed to provide Biden with the congressional backing to invoke the Defense Production Act and deploy $100 billion through that mechanism. It has, Levin reports, attracted support across the Democratic Party. Even if it doesn’t pass, he adds, it will help shape the messaging around the urgency and the resources needed to address a clean energy transition.

Green New Deal for public schools

The Energy Security and Independence Act is only one of a number of Green New Deal-adjacent bills in the House.

In July 2021, for instance, Jamaal Bowman introduced the Green New Deal for Public Schools Act. It would provide $1.43 trillion over 10 years to overhaul America’s public schools through healthy green retrofits, hiring more educators, expanding social services, and updating curricula. “The bill provides enough funding for every school in the country to get to zero carbon emissions through a combination of a comprehensive retrofit to reduce energy use, install solar on site and electrify the building, and get rid of all the toxic materials that are currently threatening so many young people, particularly students of color and low-income students in rural communities,” Rajiv Sicora explains. “The funding would also cover climate resilience efforts such as building out broadband infrastructure and EV charging stations, and garden and tree planting,” according to The Washington Post.

It’s not just about upgrading public schools. The bill imagines young people taking greater control of the green transition. “My boss is passionate about putting young people at the center of our response to this crisis,” he continues. “Right now, we have a youth mental health crisis in no small part because of climate change and what they’ve been going through during the pandemic.”

“But imagine you’re a public-school student in a community where your school has been ignored and experienced disinvestment,” he adds. “Then, suddenly, your school becomes the epicenter of this new process. And you’re able to study the retrofit to your building. You’re participating in a community garden. You’re seeing how the electric school bus is procured. And you’re watching how climate-friendly food is coming into the school for lunches.”

The bill would have various knock-on effects. For instance, Sicora continues, “investing in curriculum development would bring in more educators and expand community partnerships with all sorts of groups. The bill would create over a million jobs a year to carry out all the retrofits and to fill the new educator positions.”

Green New Deal for cities

In October 2021, Rep. Cori Bush introduced a bill called the Green New Deal for Cities Act that would earmark $1 trillion to build back better at the local level. The money could be spent on a number of different environmental initiatives—”replacing lead pipes, retrofitting water infrastructure, building bike lanes, installing electric vehicle charging stations, testing soil and water for contaminants, and phasing out fossil fuel infrastructure, among other options”—as well as to compensate for historic environmental injustice.

“The name is a bit misleading,” Levin notes. “The bill actually would fund a Green New Deal in every city, county, state, territory, and tribe. It’s based on the American Rescue Plan around COVID and the way dollars were distributed around the country for people to do masking and hand sanitizing at different phases of the pandemic. We need the same thing on an even greater scale for dealing with climate change and for uprooting environmental racism, which is so pervasive all over the country.”

The bill is based on the notion that every community in the country needs federal support, even if they’re already run by politicians who are pushing a clean energy transition. Such politicians “are nitpicking around the edges of the climate problem because they don’t really have the resources, for instance to expand public transit in the way that’s needed,” Levin notes.

Green champions in Congress

There are so many Green New Deal-related bills in Congress that progressive legislators have created a “Green Champions” checklist to track congressional support for the 10 top bills.

“Most people don’t have time to read through all these bills,” Saul Levin points out. “And there are hundreds of bills introduced every year called the Climate Act or the Environmental Justice act and so on. Most of them are just not very good at all. They’re not ambitious enough or don’t focus on justice or on internationalism.”

After choosing the best bills, he continues, “we spent about six months bothering offices, saying, ‘Hey, you signed onto the Green New Deal for Public Housing, why aren’t you signed up to the Green New Deal for Public Schools. From there, we steadily built up support for all of those bills. We started with just four members of Congress supporting every bill and now we’re at 24.”

What started out as a checklist has now become a pledge. There are now 45 organizations that support the Green Champions pledge, from Sunrise Movement and the Climate Justice Alliance to Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and the American Federation of Teachers.

“Instead of running for Congress as a progressive candidate supporting the Green New Deal, the question is now: do you agree to be a climate champion by signing onto these other nine bills?” Levin continues. “The candidates running for office are not just pledging to support all 10 bills, they’re also promising not to take money from the fossil fuel industry.”

Lessons from the climate frontlines

Boulder County in Colorado is one of the most committed regions of the country to a clean energy transition. It has also been the site of several major climate-related disasters. At the very end of 2021, the Marshall Fire broke out there, ultimately destroying more than a thousand homes. It was the worst fire in Colorado history.

“We have experienced tremendous wildfires,” reports Susie Strife, “as well as a 500-year flood event. My own children witnessed many of these events from our own backyard. Boulder County and California, which have become the epicenters of these climate-related catastrophes, ironically house a lot of the national labs and the researchers—climate modelers, scientists, engineers—that are doing the work to understand how we can get to a decarbonized economy.”

In response to the state of the emergency declared during the Marshall Fire, the federal government provided tens of millions of dollars in emergency funding. An even more costly flood in 2013 elicited hundreds of millions of federal funding.

“What happens when a community experiences a climate-related disaster, any disaster really, is an all-hands-on-deck-all-the-time response,” Strife continues. “No matter how much support you get, it diverts attention, resources, and staff. I was astonished to see how amazingly organized Boulder County was in its response to the Marshall fire. But that’s a sad fact to share. We’re getting good at disaster response.”

“These unprecedented events—the Marshall Fire, the 2013 flood, a firestorm in December that was put out by snow—are taking us away from being proactive to mitigate the climate crisis,” she continues. “We don’t have the time and resources, because we’re continuing to respond to these disasters. It’s bizarre: a lot of the federal funding and potential statewide funding that comes to us doesn’t require us to build back better in a more resilient manner.”

Even with these climate-related emergencies, Boulder is in a better situation than a lot of other cities. “We’re a bit of a unicorn,” Strife notes, “because we’ve had a lot of support in the past. In 2010, we received a $25 million grant to jumpstart our transition to a clean energy economy, though that was really more about jobs. We’ve been able to leverage that funding over time to showcase our success. We were then able to pitch to the voters the first ever sustainability tax, and that has provided a really good stable resource for us.” Passed in 2016, the tax raised $387,000 for disbursal as grants to the country’s towns and cities in 2020.

Even with this funding, however, Boulder county hasn’t met its climate goals. “In a dream scenario, the Feds would back the regulations and the policies for a decarbonized economy, and also help us staff up to full capacity,” she continues. “But

every community is not where Boulder is, and we still need the local capacity-building. To reach carbon neutrality by 2030, local governments are ready and primed, but we would need quite a lot of investment and help in staffing and capacity.”

Mobilizing local power

To move their agenda at a federal level, climate activists have had to marshal support from various sectors. One of those has been the labor movement, which has been attracted to the job-creating potential of the Green New Deal. Recent organizing victories at Starbucks and Amazon suggest that unions are making a comeback.

“To the extent that we can, the climate movement should be looking for opportunities to partner in creative ways with the resurgent labor movement,” Rajiv Sicora notes. “We need to be fighting the same fight. It can’t just be lowest common denominator stuff. Retrofitting every public school in the country is one example. I was just talking to someone from Seattle where teachers are leading this fight in coalition with the climate movement, and brought the building trades on board to demand that the latest bond renewal include $19 million to put solar on school rooftops. This is a huge area of potential cooperation, with teachers and climate activists and parents and young people coming together.”

Saul Levin agrees. “We’ve talked to Chris Smalls and Derek Palmer, who organized the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, about what they think about climate change,” he reports. “They told us that people get hurt and are dying at Amazon all the time because they’re being forced to work during tornadoes, hurricanes, and other climate events. A lot of these new unions are being formed by young people who are savvy and are seeing the climate crisis hit them in their own lifetime.”

Localities are also trying to amplify their voices at the state and national level. “We often act in coalitions to lobby at the state and federal level for climate protective policies,” reports Susie Strife. Early on, she was involved in compiling greenhouse gas inventories to get a better understanding of what was needed at a local level. At this point, though, it’s no longer necessary to do more such inventories. Instead, she has worked with other local partners to create Colorado Communities for Climate Action, an umbrella lobbying organization that mobilizes the collective power of 40 local governments.

“That collective lobbying power is very well respected at the state legislature,” she reports. “While our mission does include federal lobbying we’ve been pretty deflated in the last several years, especially during the Trump administration. Local governments have long played the role of showcasing what’s possible when it comes to deep cuts in emissions and establishing standards, policies, and regulations regarding reductions.”

Next steps

The panelists were all acutely aware of the challenges of pushing a large federal program for clean energy transition at a time of war and inflation.

“Obviously, we do have to care about the impact of gas prices on working class people,” points out Rajiv Sicora. “This is something that the mainstream environmental movement hasn’t always been good at, to say the least. But that’s changing. We are putting the well-being of working-class Americans at the forefront of our thinking. We have answers, and we have alternatives, which the Biden administration should be exploring instead of scrambling to get more fossil fuels online that are not going to magically bring down the price of oil. For instance, they need to subsidize public transport. In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu has a fantastic Green New Deal platform, with free public transit as a centerpiece.”

The funding for such initiatives can come from the federal budget. But revenue can be raised in other ways.

“The fossil fuel industry is making very healthy profits,” Sicora points out. “Right now, the solution is not to appeal to their patriotic duty, which is what the Democrats are doing, to drill more. Instead, we need to crack down on the windfall profits of the fossil fuel industry and invest those profits to bring relief directly to people and accelerate the green energy transition. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) have a bill that does that specifically for the oil industry, and provides rebates to people. And my boss has a bill with Bernie Sanders that takes an economy wide approach, because it’s not just the oil industry. If you’re making windfall profits, we’re going to tax that at 95 percent as a temporary emergency measure.”

“I’m particularly excited about the Green New Deal for schools and also building a workforce for decarbonization,” replies Susie Strife. “Finding folks who are ready and able to electrify homes has been challenging. There needs to be some deep preparation for communities who will potentially get any of the stimulus funding to start thinking through what’s possible. I’m also excited about building a climate youth corps, like the one in the original Build Back Better legislation. We need to get people back out helping to regenerate our land. It’s a win-win if you can do carbon sequestration and involve youth as part of solution.”


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