Debunking the biggest concerns about the Green New Deal

There has been a heated argument in Washington and around the country about the Green New Deal. The most fascinating part of this dialogue is that a number of partisans on both sides of the issue don’t actually know what the Green New Deal is.

Nevertheless yesterday, Senate Republicans put a resolution on it to a vote, to try and attach Democrats to the proposal some in their party put forward.

The gambit, however, failed, when Democrats all voted “present” on a procedural motion to bring it to the floor. Still, the attempt by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring it up shows just how powerful the conversation around it is, especially given the sheer volume of misinformation around it.

It is completely understandable why so many misconceptions persist around the Green New Deal. Supporters of the plan haven’t yet agreed what exactly they mean when they refer to a Green New Deal, despite it being put to a vote.

Are they talking about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) resolution? Are they talking about the FAQ that was released by Ocasio-Cortez’s staff that was aimed at clarifying and expanding upon that resolution?

It is more than those, though. There will also be competing bills from other lawmakers expected in the coming months, as well as policy papers produced by various environmental groups and progressive think tanks.

The Green New Deal is still in nascent stages of existence and the competing visions of the program is further complicated by the corporate and conservative opposition to any version of the legislation. By twisting language around existing proposals and taking items out of context, the right has made it that more difficult to understand what the Green New Deal actually entails.

Let’s do our best to discuss what we know about the Green New Deal so far.

For our purposes, we will discuss the resolution introduced Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and claims that have been made around it, including the controversial FAQ released by Ocasio-Cortez’s staff.

Green New Deal Myths

Will the Green New Deal radically change society?

Yes. Any effective version of the Green New Deal would have to radically change our day-to-day lives. Americans depend on unsustainable activities to live and work, including burning fossil fuels and creating massive amounts of waste. Turning around the effects of climate change is going to require a drastic shift, as the United States was responsible for 20 percent of global emissions through 2014.

While Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s resolution merely calls for “recognizing the duty of the federal government to create a Green New Deal,” the policies it suggests are far more radical than anything America has tried to combat climate change in the past.

The 14-page resolution suggests that Congress should work “to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers,” and “to create millions of good, high-paying jobs,” through a massive decade-long mobilization. Some of the steps the resolution recommends include investing in community resilience against climate change, making energy consumption in the U.S. 100 percent renewable, upgrading all American buildings, and overhauling the US transportation system.

Yes, the plan is ambitious. But, the alternative is not only destructive, it is also expensive.

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Will the Green New Deal be expensive?

abandoned new deal era farmhouse surrounded by modern windmills kelifamily/Shutterstock Dorothy Lange/Library of Congress (PD) (Licensed) Remix by Jason Reed

Yes. It is important to remember that the existing resolution is more of an outline of commitments more than a transformative bill, however, attempts are being made to put a rough price tag on its policy suggestions.

Conservative groups have thrown around numbers in the tens of trillions of dollars, and while that is likely exaggerated, a number creeping into the trillions is not unrealistic. For example, modernizing the electrical grid would cost over $500 billion. And this is just one proposal of a number called for in the resolution.

That being said, many of the proposals could ultimately net savings. A modernized electrical grid would save energy. An all-electric auto-fleet would cut fuel costs. A world that could avoid climate catastrophes like floods and famine has not just a moral net profit, but you save the cost of rebuilding cities if and when disaster strikes.

When estimating the cost of the Green New Deal, policies that cost a lot in ten years may end up creating net savings in thirty or fifty.

This is why FDR’s New Deal is a great reference point for the Green New Deal.  The New Deal created a number of ambitious government programs focused on massive infrastructural investment during the Great Depression, and set the foundation for many environmental, artistic, and public works achievements in American life.

Would there be a substantial initial layout of funds to make The Green New Deal happen: yes. Would the investment in dramatically changing the way we approach the environment and energy consumption ultimately save money and create jobs? Very possibly.

Does the Green New Deal enjoy widespread support?

That depends whether you are talking about politicians or voters. A poll conducted by Yale and George Mason found that 80 percent of voters across both parties support the Green New Deal. Data for Progress did some deep-dive polling into the term “Green New Deal” and a variety of its components, and found widespread support for the program, even on a more granular level.

Despite public support for the Green New Deal, the bill only has about 60 supporters in the House. A number of Democratic senators have expressed reservations about the proposal while Republicans remain in lockstep against the resolution. That being said, the majority of serious Democratic presidential hopefuls have backed the resolution.

Are hamburgers going to be illegal?

No. “The Democrats are going to take away your hamburgers,” is quickly becoming “The Democrats are going to take away your guns” of the Green New Deal. But while this is an extreme exaggeration, this lie is rooted in some truth.

The FAQ released by Ocasio-Cortez alongside the resolution stated: “We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast, but we think we can ramp up renewable manufacturing and power production, retrofit every building in America, build the smart grid, overhaul transportation and agriculture, plant lots of trees and restore our ecosystem to get to net-zero.”

The reality is that agriculture is responsible for 14 percent of greenhouse emissions, so it is possible that regulations on cattle consumption could be a part of an effective Green New Deal plan.

People can read Ocasio-Cortez’s claim there as a willful desire to eliminate all beef consumption, but that is very clearly not the case.

Will flying be illegal?

No. However, the resolution does call for a move away from air travel and towards high-speed rail as a part of “overhauling transportation systems in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation section as much is technologically feasible.”

The resolution suggests zero-emission vehicles, increased commitment to public transportation, and high-speed rail as the way to get there. Airplanes are notoriously difficult to decarbonize and experts attribute the recent rise in U.S. emissions partially to a spike in air travel.

Is nuclear power a part of the Green New Deal?

No. Though nuclear power is not referenced at any point in the resolution, the accompanying FAQ states, “A Green New Deal is a massive investment in renewable energy production and would not include creating new nuclear plants.” The document goes on to call for a transition away from nuclear power.

Does the Green New Deal provide for people who are “unwilling or unable to work?

Yes. The Green New Deal FAQ does suggest the offer of “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work.” While older conservative voters are critical of this policy, it is actually intended for just that kind of voter. The most likely manifestation of this idea would be early retirement for someone who spent their career in the energy sector and may not want to begin a second career late in life.

A jobs guarantee is an essential part of the Green New Deal because a massive transition like this will displace thousands of jobs. Without consideration for what activists call a “just transition” we could end up with an improved environment that is administered with the same level of inequality that persists in our current system.  

Does the Green New Deal include carbon taxes or cap and trade?

The resolution does not mention either of these previously favored Democratic policies by name, and many progressive groups view these tactics as too little too late. Neither of these approaches are being ruled out, but the FAQ states they will play a “tiny” role, if any, in the Green New Deal.

This is an important point because centrists Democrats like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) will say they support “A Green New Deal” and then go on to discuss their support for more incremental reforms.

Does the Green New Deal include indigenous people and marginalized communities?

Yes. At numerous points in the brief resolution, traditionally marginalized groups are mentioned explicitly.

One article in the resolution seeks to “promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”

This group of marginalized folks is referenced through the document as “frontline and vulnerable communities,” a term that is used eight times in the resolution.

The resolution also calls for “obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples for all decisions that affect indigenous people and their traditional territories.”

This kind of language has become an essential part of the conversation around the environment in recent years, as terms like “environmental racism” have become useful for describing the disproportionate impact pollution has on communities of color and low-income communities.

Is Medicare for All a part of the Green New Deal?

No. The Green New Deal and Medicare for All are often mentioned in the same breath as people asses the progressive political horizon.

But these are two distinct policy proposals. Some conservatives have claimed Medicare for All is a part of the Green New Deal on the grounds that the resolution and the expanded FAQ call for “high-quality healthcare” for America’s citizens.

Progressives sometimes say that M4A is “a part” of the Green New Deal because the proposal assumes that universal healthcare would be a part of a rational commitment to environmental justice. But to say that the Green New Deal and Medicare for All are anything more than complimentary programs is a stretch at best.

Is there stuff in the Green New Deal that has nothing to do with climate change?

Yes and no. The resolution recognizes that a lot of what got us into this mess is the unequal distribution of resources, and that if a new economic order is set up that fixes the environment but leaves millions of people impoverished or unemployed, then it didn’t really work as intended.

A portion of the resolution lays out a social justice groundwork for a future after the Green New Deal. It calls for legislation that “ensures that the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and return on investments.” It urges that the U.S. provide “resources, training, and high-quality education…with a focus on vulnerable communities, so that all people of the United States may be full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization.”

It also asks that “the Green New mobilization creates high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages, hires local workers … and guarantees wage and benefit parity for workers affected by the transition.”

Whether you agree that these considerations should be a part of a Green New Deal depends on whether you think that those displaced by climate change or left unemployed in the transition should have a seat at the table. It also depends on whether you believe the impoverished and working class should have an equal seat at the table regarding the future of the Earth alongside the wealthy and politically connected.

Regardless of your beliefs on this matter, it is a reasonable goal for Ocasio-Cortez and company to insist that everyone have the right to a decent life as we create a new way of life on planet Earth.

Brenden Gallagher

Brenden Gallagher

Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.