WASHINGTON — Liberals around the country are talking about the idea of a Green New Deal, a sweeping set of policy goals to combat the effects of climate change 90 years after President Franklin Roosevelt’s expansion of federal agencies and regulations in response to the Great Depression.
A Green New Deal, prominently promoted by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after she upset a Democratic Party leader earlier this year, has gained widespread attention in recent months. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the first high-profile Democrat to announce a 2020 White House bid, signaled support for the idea. Ocasio-Cortez and other incoming Democrats lobbied Speaker Nancy Pelosi to create a special committee on climate change, though many demands by liberals regarding specifics of the committee, including barring membership from any lawmaker who accepts campaign contributions from fossil fuel producers, were not met.
The Green New Deal at present is a set of largely amorphous and aspirational goals set out in a document by Ocasio-Cortez and other liberal advocacy groups. The list includes goals like “eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries” and “meeting 100% of national power demand through renewable sources.”
“The House has 435 members, everyone has their own ideas about how to address issues, some of them vary,” said South Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch. “But we’re only going to have progress if we’re focusing on the issue and doing something about it and that’s what the new members have helped to galvanize.”
Ocasio-Cortez recently referred to the Green New Deal as a “wartime-level, just economic mobilization plan to get to 100% renewable energy ASAP,” referring to a massive expansion of government agencies and an increase in taxes to make the nation’s energy system reliant on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
Incoming Miami Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who ousted Rep. Carlos Curbelo, one of the Republican Party’s leaders on climate issues, plans to make climate change a big part of her work in the next two years.
“To fight climate change, the federal government can do what South Florida does, call it by its name and recognize that climate change is in fact a threat, instead of removing references to it on its websites,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement. “The federal government should also follow South Florida’s lead by encouraging reductions in its carbon footprint and provide financial incentives to people and homeowners that want to be renewable energy leaders themselves.”
Many of the specifics within Ocasio-Cortez’s plan have no chance of passing a Republican-controlled Senate and gaining President Donald Trump’s support, though her document states that one of the goals of the committee is to present legislative language by March 2020, in the midst of the presidential election. The idea would be to start passing bills if Democrats are able to control Congress and the White House.
But Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber says there’s lots that Congress can do in the next two years, mostly related to infrastructure projects to mitigate the impacts of climate change, that are not contingent upon the results of the 2020 election.
“I feel like its almost a Rorschach Test, the Green New Deal seems to mean different things to different people, but it needs to be practical for infrastructure commitments,” Gelber said. “The most important thing [Congress] could do right now is to embed notions of resiliency and remediation in construction projects. In coastal communities and other communities there really is this challenge that people are having to deal with and we can’t solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.”
Gelber, whose city gained international attention for efforts like raising roads to combat the effects of climate change, said the federal government’s involvement is needed to make sure that different local municipalities and states can work together on climate-related projects that affect everyone, much like the federal government spurred the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
But the nation’s interstate highway system was funded by federal taxes on gasoline, and Ocasio-Cortez and other liberals acknowledge that their ideas will cost lots of money. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, Ocasio-Cortez said she would support raising taxes to over 70 percent for any income an individual makes over $10 million.
Those types of tax increases are a non-starter for Republicans, and even many Democrats.
“I’m skeptical,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who does not support a tax on carbon emissions even though multiple recent bills to tax carbon by Curbelo and Deutch received support from lawmakers from both parties.
“The question is, what is the negative impact on the economy going to be?” Diaz-Balart said, adding that any type of Green New Deal in legislative form will need to be “reasonable” to get any Republican support.
“Right now, I’m seeing that China is just doubling up on coal power plants,” Diaz-Balart said. “Our CO2 emissions have come down, so the question is what is [increased taxes] going to do to affect world climate?”
For now, Pelosi has sanctioned the rebirth of the Select committee on the Climate Crisis after Republicans disbanded it in 2011, though the body won’t have the same power as a full congressional committee. There isn’t a prerequisite for committee membership tied to campaign contributions like Ocasio-Cortez wanted, which would effectively bar most Republicans and Democrats from serving on it. The new body will be led by Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor, a Pelosi ally who has served in Congress for 11 years.
“I’m encouraged by the energy many new members are bringing to this vital climate change issue,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “Where we can, we will work across the aisle on these issues, including promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy.”
Gelber said any upcoming climate change legislation, despite efforts to be bipartisan, will always have a political slant to it especially if its connected to the Green New Deal.
“Different people will see it different ways. For some folks it’s a battle cry. For others it’s a request for practical help,” Gelber said. “I think you need a little bit of both though, there have to be those folks out there that are raising the flag and are pretty loud about it. But it’s equally if not more important to have practical solutions delivered to the communities who need them.”
Alex Daugherty is the Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald, covering South Florida from the nation’s capital. Previously, he worked as the Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and for the Herald covering politics in Miami.
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations — the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.