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Can the Green New Deal make it through Congress? Here are 5 things you need to know.

Whether or not it does, it is likely to affect future climate policies.

- February 20, 2019

Earlier this month, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) unveiled a Green New Deal, a decade-long plan to address climate change. Unlike previous proposals to reduce carbon emissions through small cost increases, the Green New Deal outlines the equivalent of a war effort — a coordinated response across society.

The plan proposes projects to reduce carbon emissions across the U.S. economy: upgrading buildings so they use less energy, removing carbon from the electricity grid, electrifying transportation, cleaning up heavy industry and working on agricultural emissions.

It also aims for 100 percent clean electricity. Some proposed projects involve expanding research and development to create new technologies, while others would use existing technologies. To get these projects off the ground, the government would almost certainly contract with private businesses.

The plan also focuses on social policy, such as health care and housing, in outlining principles to guide its ambitious efforts. It is a departure from previous climate efforts, which have focused narrowly on environmental issues.

Many Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have spoken out against the plan, while several Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed it, including Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).

As it stands, the proposal is a nonbinding legislative resolution — but it could influence approaches going forward. Here are five things to know about the plan and the state of U.S. climate policy.

1. Climate policy has stalled.

Passing a climate policy in the United States to combat climate change has long been politically challenging because it is opposed by powerful, well-financed groups such as fossil-fuel companies, electric utilities and automakers, research shows, and these groups have driven ideological polarization on climate policy. In a paper, my co-authors and I show that congressional offices that meet with and receive funds from fossil-fuel organizations are more likely to believe the public does not want action on climate change.

Congress has not passed a climate bill in a decade. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last shepherded a cap-and-trade bill, aimed at reducing carbon emissions, through the House in 2009. That bill failed in the Senate after protracted negotiations with fossil-fuel industries.

Despite successes in some states in the early 2000s, subnational climate policy also has stalled. In Washington state, for example, the public voted down a ballot initiative in November that would have imposed a small tax on carbon pollution.

2. What’s new in the Green New Deal?

Instead of focusing on raising the cost of fossil fuels, like previous policies, the Green New Deal aims for the government to invest in large projects to reduce carbon emissions across society, partnering with private businesses to do so.

This will not be simple. Carbon emissions come from every corner of the U.S. economy. Some sectors the plan targets, such as cement and steel manufacturing, do not have clear solutions for how to remove carbon. If the United States invests in trying to solve these and other problems, Green New Deal advocates suggest, it might unlock solutions that could drive down carbon emissions at home and around the world.

3. Focusing on jobs and other benefits could build public support.

The plan aims to create millions of U.S. jobs, probably in higher-paid skilled trades. They also could be targeted toward helping communities move away from fossil fuels.

Past policies focused more on costs. The focus on jobs has several political benefits. As I have shown in research with Chris Warshaw, emphasizing job creation increases public support for clean energy policy; focusing on costs undermines it.

Removing carbon across society will be difficult. Large segments of the U.S. workforce will need to focus on this problem over the coming decades. The plan aims to set government policy that moves private capital and workforce development in this direction.

The Green New Deal is also unique in that it aims to share the benefits of removing carbon from society with the public. Its proposed energy retrofits could make it cheaper for families to heat and cool their homes, and its proposed investments in public transportation could reduce congestion while making it easier for everyone to get around. These proposals might shore up public support for the overall package.

Given that even small carbon taxes in places such as France have provoked some backlash, a policy in which the government shoulders the costs, rather than the public, may prove more politically viable. As Theda Skocpol argues, public benefits must be clear for federal climate policy to be enacted.

4. Obstacles to the Green New Deal

At this stage, the Green New Deal is more exhortation than legislation. If the plan becomes a formal legislative package, the path to passage is narrow. As Matto Mildenberger writes, previous climate policies in Congress have faced strong opposition from fossil-fuel companies allied with Republicans and unions representing workers in carbon-intensive industries allied with Democrats. Some unions with ties to fossil fuels have already said they are “skeptical” of the plan.

It’s unclear whether bundling social and environmental policy will help or hinder efforts. Progressive Democrats such as Ocasio-Cortez probably believe it will create a broader coalition that can help the party win more seats in the 2020 elections. But Republican lawmakers and President Trump will try to frame the plan as too extreme, which could undermine support.

5. Prospects going forward

This initial resolution is symbolic — but its introduction may reinvigorate climate policy efforts. It signals how Democrats might address the challenge if they regain control of Congress and the White House, and it could encourage Republicans to introduce more incremental climate policy to forestall such a large-scale plan. Support from businesses and investors interested in green jobs could also grow.

That could flip the politics of climate change by building a winning coalition of businesses and public support for climate action.

Leah C. Stokes is an assistant professor of environmental politics at the University of California at Santa Barbara.