At a time of legislative gridlock, is there any way to make progress on climate change? Last month, Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, introduced the resolution that’s become known as the Green New Deal. The resolution — a statement of principles, rather than an actual piece of legislation — calls for a 10-year “national mobilization” to reduce emissions from the power sector to zero. It also calls for overhauling the country’s transportation system, upgrading all existing buildings, and guaranteeing everyone in the U.S. “high-quality health care” and a “job with a family-sustaining wage.”
The Green New Deal has been praised as “our only hope” and as a move that “could revolutionize U.S. climate politics.” It’s received a great deal of media attention, and some have argued that this alone is reason to celebrate it. “Whatever becomes of the plan,” The New York Times editorial board wrote, “it will have moved climate change — a serious issue that has had serious trouble gaining traction — to a commanding position in the national conversation.”
But the plan has also been criticized, and not only by those who oppose any sort of climate action. In its editorial on the Green New Deal, The Washington Post argued the goal of decarbonization is “so fundamental” that linking it to other policy goals is a mistake. The president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America called it a lesson in “exactly how not to enact a progressive agenda.”
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Senator Markey discussed the background of the Green New Deal, why it’s an important step in laying the groundwork for tackling climate change, and why advocates of climate action should “be leaning into this fight.”
Yale Environment 360: The most striking feature of the Green New Deal is how ambitious it is. It calls for meeting 100 percent of the nation’s power demand from zero-emission sources, overhauling the transportation sector, expanding manufacturing, providing all people with high-quality health care and also with economic security. And so my first question is, why so ambitious? Why include so many goals instead of just focusing on climate?
Senator Ed Markey: At the end of 2018, the United Nations released a new report on climate, saying we have just 12 years to act because there is a direct existential threat to the planet. The United States issued, across 13 agencies, its own climate assessment that said we must act to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades. So both of those reports came out at the end of 2018 and created a much more urgent need for us to take strong action soon in order to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.
“It’s time for us to come back and have the new debate about what are the smartest ways to put a price on carbon.”
e360: Couldn’t I make an argument that argues for precisely the opposite strategy, that the climate crisis is so urgent that we really need to focus, to quote Bill Clinton, “like a laser beam” on that?
Markey: Well, the language in the resolution is essentially Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 Second Bill of Rights [on economic security]. And what we did was to say that if we are going to engage in an overhaul of the way we generate electricity in our society, that we need massive job creation and that that transformation should be jobs but also justice. So that those communities that have been historically most harmed by pollution, and will be most harmed by climate impacts, are included in the Green New Deal. And that’s the right to a job, to health care, to education, because together those rights spell security. And that we should link these goals.
But we don’t talk about single-payer health care. We don’t talk about any specific approach, other than the larger goals that FDR, and Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have always used as the template for what the goals are for our country. We have a moral responsibility to lift up all workers and all communities.
e360: The resolution is obviously very ambitious, but one thing that’s notably not in there is a price on carbon, either in the form of a tax or a cap-and-trade mechanism. And you have spent many years and much political capital on a cap-and-trade bill —the Waxman-Markey bill — that actually passed the House in 2009. So why isn’t that in there?
Markey: The purpose of the resolution is first to lay out the magnitude of the problem and then to lay out what the magnitude of the response has to be to deal with the problem across all sectors of the economy, without laying out individual prescriptions. We laid out principles, but not prescriptions, so we can unleash a debate across our country as to what are the best ways in each sector to deal with the problems. The resolution is policy-agnostic. But it accounts for the complete environmental and social costs and impacts of emissions. We could wind up putting a price on carbon, but we have to protect the most vulnerable simultaneously.
And we have to now construct a formula ten years after Waxman-Markey that can accomodate it in this era, where we’ve learned so much from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast, from what California is doing [on renewable energy], and the 350,000 jobs we now have in wind and solar. There were only 1,000 megawatts of solar in 2008; we now have 65,000 megawatts because of policy changes. We moved from 25,000 megawatts of wind in 2008 to 98,000 megawatts. We’ve gone from 2,000 electric vehicles to a million today, with 500,000 new [electric] vehicles coming off the manufacturing runways just this year.
So it’s time for us to come back and have the new debate about what are the smartest ways in each area, ultimately to put a price on carbon, but to do so in a way that’s very sensitive to the most vulnerable in our society.
e360: So the Green New Deal is obviously a resolution and not a piece of legislation. But is anyone working on a legislative package?
Markey: Yes, that’s what we’re saying — that in each area now, we are calling on members of the House and Senate to introduce their bill. So for example, there is a tax-extender bill, which will potentially be up for debate this year that will include extenders for wind tax breaks, solar tax breaks, electric vehicle tax breaks, tax breaks for storage technologies. And that’s the forum to have that debate.
Each committee in the House and Senate, each member now has an ability to introduce legislation that can deal with the issue. So we’re having hearings. And what people forget is that Citizens United was decided [by the U.S. Supreme Court] in January of 2010. And that’s what led to a flood of money coming into the system in 2010, and that dropped the overall public acceptance that climate change is real by 20 points. So we’re now back up to 72, 73 percent [who accept the reality of climate change]. And we have a Green New Deal movement that’s been born.
“We have struck a chord that is resonating with the American people, especially young people. And we’re ready for a fight.”
e360: Some of the people who are talking the most about the Green New Deal right now are actually the fiercest opponents of action on climate change. And one of the arguments that they’ve always used against any form of climate action is that it’s the first step on some path towards socialism. I’m wondering if this sort of thing concerns you. What would you say to those folks who are out there saying that the Green New Deal just gives opponents of climate action that much more ammunition?
Markey: I would say that when we passed the Affordable Care Act in 2009, that within two weeks there was a new movement that was called the Tea Party that was born. And it was attacking the bill that had just passed by saying that it had death panels in it. And it was a very well-funded effort. It knowingly and deceptively tried to take attention away from the actual content of the Affordable Care Act. And that’s what they’re doing today — it’s just a replay of what they did with death panels. They are wanting to avoid the actual debate about the severity of the problem, as we’re being warned by the scientists of the world and our own country.
So the difference this time is that we do have an army [behind us]. We have struck a chord that is resonating with the American people, especially young people. We also have many more people who are better financed who are willing to participate in this debate across the country than we had in 2009. And we’re ready for a fight.
e360: But the Democrats did lose the House the following year, in 2010. So I wonder if that example might send chills down people’s spines?
Markey: Well, I think what should send a chill down people’s spines are the scientific reports about the existential threat to the planet. In my opinion, we don’t have an option. We need to lay out a plan for how we’re going to deal with this. And I think what we saw in recent weeks with [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell moving to confirm a coal lobbyist to be the new administrator of the EPA, with Trump naming a climate denier to be on his panel for the national security implications of climate change, with the president speaking for an hour and 20 minutes in the State of the Union and not mentioning climate change, not mentioning clean energy, is a clear and present danger to our future.
And so I do not believe that we have an option. I think we have to fight and we need a plan. We have a 10-year renewable energy success story to now talk about. Again, none of that existed 10 years ago. The markets are working as long as the correct regulatory and tax policies are in place. They were not in place until 10 years ago. And we can build on that in a very successful way and go on the offensive. We should not be on the defensive. We can create millions of blue collar jobs. The 350,000 people in wind and solar are roofers, they’re electricians, they’re sheet metal workers. There are 50,000 coal miners, and we now have 350,000 in wind and solar, and we’re going to knock on the door of 400,000 or 450,000 by the year 2020, and with millions more to come. So we shouldn’t be back on our heels. We should be leaning into this fight. We can explain that we are creating the greatest blue collar job-creation engine in decades. And I think it’s why we have touched a nerve with the American people. They are fed up with the Congress doing nothing to address this crisis, this existential threat. And if we frame it correctly with a positive agenda, I think it can in fact make a big positive difference in the 2020 election cycle.
“This resolution has generated more debate about climate change in three weeks than we’ve had in the last nine years.”
e360: Mitch McConnell, who is no friend of climate action, has repeatedly said that he wants to bring the Green New Deal resolution to a vote on the floor of the Senate. And I just read that [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer had come up with a plan under which Senate Democrats would simply vote “present” to avoid having to take a yes or no vote. And I’m wondering if it concerns you that a) Mitch McConnell wants to bring this to the floor, and b) that that seems to be Schumer’s take on it.
Markey: Well, first I agree with Chuck Schumer’s strategy. I worked with him to construct it. Mitch McConnell has not brought any climate legislation to the floor in the last five years, with the exception of plans to make the climate even more dangerous. He brought legislation up that now permits drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He brought up legislation on the Keystone Pipeline. But what he’s doing here is just a stunt. They have no plan to solve the problem. They only have a plan to worsen the problem. It’s all part of his pattern of behavior and it’s going to continue.
So we don’t want Mitch McConnell to bring up our resolution without hearings, without witnesses, without science to be a part of the debate before it’s brought out to the Senate floor. We don’t want to just be part of a [process] where Mitch McConnell short-circuits the actual debate the American people are demanding. So we want this resolution to go through the Environment Committee, the Energy Committee, to bring in the witnesses who can testify to this issue. We don’t think that’s going to happen. We think that there is a gag order which has been imposed on any discussion of the actual science on the Senate side. All McConnell’s trying to do is just to set the stage without any hearings, science, or witnesses that can testify to the truth of what the danger is to the planet.
e360: What’s the Democrats’ strategy then?
Markey: Well, here’s what all 47 Democrats [in the Senate] believe. We believe that, one, climate change is real. We believe, two, it’s caused by humans. And three, that Congress needs to act. And we’re going to stand on that platform. All of us. So the question isn’t whether every single Democrat supports everything in the resolution. It’s whether any Republican supports a single action on climate. The Republicans have no plan. That’s why they are using my resolution to force a vote and to block true, meaningful debate. Our goal is to not allow Mitch McConnell to play games with such an important issue and to make a joke out of it.
e360: I’m wondering if you can speak to your decision to sponsor the Green New Deal resolution in the Senate, even though some of your Democratic colleagues seem ambivalent about it.
Markey: I’ve spent my career working on climate issues. I know how little debate we’ve had on the issue. I know that no reporter asked Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump about climate change in the presidential debates. This resolution has generated more debate about climate change in three weeks than we’ve had in the last nine years. And that’s a good thing. That’s critical going forward. That empowers anyone who hears about it, of any age. We have young people and older people who want something to be done. We need an army of people who care about this issue, and it’s there.
Sometimes democracy works better when ordinary people have a way of expressing how unhappy they are with the system’s inability to deal with the hugest issues. And it’s mostly when it’s existential. It’s nuclear weapons, it’s climate change, or it’s health care that’s provided to every family. And that’s what we’re seeing across this country.
And simultaneously, I believe — and so does the younger generation —in American innovation and ingenuity. The solutions to this generational problem need to be developed and built here in the United States. We can do it.
So that’s how I view it. Young people believe it. They think it can happen. They just hate the idea that Donald Trump is the denier-in-chief, they hate the idea that Mitch McConnell won’t even allow a debate on climate change in the Senate. So I think what has happened is that all across the country, everyone has a view on it now — especially people who haven’t read the resolution. They’re very strongly opposed to something they have not read yet. They don’t even know what’s in it.
And by the way, we also include, which is very important, in each section, the words “technologically feasible.” So the goals are high, but it actually includes the words that say changes in the utility, automotive, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors — as much as is technologically feasible over 10 years.
“It’s going to ultimately be largely the private sector that does it, as they did with the wireless revolution.”
And when people say, can we afford it? We had $400 billion worth of damage in the last two years. Fires, storms. And what the scientists say, it’s going to be tens of trillions of dollars in our own country and hundreds of trillions of dollars across the whole planet. The answer is, we don’t have an option. We have to do it. But it’s going to ultimately be largely the private sector that does it, as they did with the wireless revolution, the broadband revolution. But we have to create the conditions where they’re given the incentives to solve the problem. And I think we can do it. I’ve seen it. I did telecomm and I’ve been doing this, and it’s the same formula.
e360: You yourself have had said you’re not going to take any fossil fuel money. Would you urge all your colleagues to take the same pledge? And would you urge voters to basically demand that?
Markey: I’m not going to take fossil fuel money. I’ll leave it up to my colleagues to each individually decide what they’re going to do.
e360: One last question. We just saw that emissions in the U.S. were actually up in 2018 after being flat for awhile. As you point out, this problem couldn’t be more urgent. Given the current political landscape, is there anything that this Congress could actually do to move the ball forward?
Markey: Yes. Practically speaking, we could pass a tax-extender bill for tax breaks for wind, solar, batteries, electric vehicles. We could pass an infrastructure bill that would be a green infrastructure bill. We can take the appropriations process, and in each individual area insert funding for green programs. We can make a down payment on what we need to do now on infrastructure, on taxes, on appropriations. And that is the beginning of a pragmatic way of looking at this existential challenge.