Atlantic Mag: ‘The Green New Deal Does Not, Strictly Speaking, Exist’ – ‘It is far less concrete than its supporters have been led to believe’
By Robinson Meyer
Since its ascension in 2018, the Green New Deal has defined the terms of the global climate debate. Perhaps no other climate policy in history has been as successful. Democrats and Republicans alike have been judged by how closely they seem to hew to it. The Sunrise Movement, the highest-profile American climate-activism group, rallies for it. Abroad, the European Union has dubbed its 1-trillion-euro attempt to decarbonize its economy “the European Green Deal.” And on the histrionic fields of social media, progressives ask how society can afford flooded subways, horrific droughts, deadly heat waves, and uncontrollable wildfires but not pay for a Green New Deal.
Even now, as Democrats in Congress and the White House wrangle over the terms of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, the Green New Deal leers from the sidelines. How does the bipartisan infrastructure deal differ from the Green New Deal? Will the partisan reconciliation bill amount to a Green New Deal?
With so much ballyhoo, it’s become easy to miss the central, implacable fact about the Green New Deal: It does not exist.
By this, I don’t mean that it hasn’t passed. I mean something more fundamental: Nobody has written it down. Three years after the idea of a Green New Deal broke into the mainstream, you can’t find an authoritative and detailed list of Green New Deal policies anywhere. There is no handbook, no draft legislation, no official report that articulates what belongs in a Green New Deal and what doesn’t.
This is more than just an academic point. It means that tens of thousands of Americans want very badly to see Congress adopt a political program that definitionally cannot pass, because there is no “it” for lawmakers to vote on. It means that Biden’s infrastructure package cannot be compared with the Green New Deal, because the contrast will not find purchase. It means that at a moment of historic possibility, American climate politics still has one leg stuck in the spectral and symbolic, when it should be knee-deep in the real.
I should clarify: We’re not entirely ignorant about the Green New Deal’s policy aims. To hear most supporters tell it, the core idea of a Green New Deal is that the federal government should be the author and finisher of America’s climate transition. The government should decarbonize the country’s energy system by 2030, if not sooner, and adapt American infrastructure to a hotter, angrier world. And it should do so while reducing material inequality and remedying racial injustice. So far, so good.
Onto these climate goals, the Green New Deal has tacked demands for good old-fashioned European social democracy: The original, 14-page Green New Deal resolution, which sketched broad goals and was introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey in 2019, demanded universal health care, affordable and safe housing, and protections for workers’ right to unionize. These goals made it into later versions of the Green New Deal: You could find them in Senator Bernie Sanders’s climate platform during the 2020 presidential primary, and the Sunrise Movement still demands Medicare for All and student-debt forgiveness.
Perhaps I’m looking for too much specificity. Maybe no detailed plan is needed in advance. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s original New Deal was an improvisational response to a crisis; it was experimental and pragmatic, not foreordained and strategic. Yet if that’s the case, then progressives should bring a sense of imagination, of possibility, to discussions of the Green New Deal. They should recognize that the Green New Deal is not a single policy to win, but a change in outlook and approach. It does not have a price tag, because it will never be a single thing at all.
This confusion, I think, points to perhaps the most ignored and most important aspect of the climate-policy debate: Nobody knows how to solve climate change. Nobody knows how to decarbonize the economy. Oh, people have ideas about what kind of technologies are important—the U.S. needs more wind, more solar, more electric vehicles, smarter electric grids—but on the fundamental question of how to make those changes happen quickly, we live in ignorance. What kind of political program will connect the prose to the passion, allowing climate-concerned policy makers and workers to build the infrastructure we need today, bank their successes tomorrow, and remake the economy in a decade? The answer is: We do not know. Nobody knows. The world remains open. That’s what makes working on climate issues so enthralling, so terrifying, and such a privilege.