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Will Democrats Back a ‘Green New Deal’?

Rep.-elects Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Neguse exit a Democratic Caucus meeting at the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

News related to climate change is rarely good. More often than not, it engenders a sense of doom and helplessness among the public. But lately there has been a glimmer of hope on the horizon for climate justice, and it bears the name Sunrise Movement.

Even before the midterm elections took place, activists in the youth-based climate justice organization had planned a sit-in at the Washington, D.C., offices of California representative and longtime Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. A week after the election, the approximately 200 people that crowded into Pelosi’s office were visited by newly elected New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Addressing the climate activists, Ocasio-Cortez said, “My journey here started at Standing Rock,” referring to the powerful indigenous-led rebellion to stop the Dakota Access pipeline project in 2017. Immediately afterward, Ocasio-Cortez pledged to introduce legislation to create a “Select Committee on a Green New Deal,” as one of her first actions in Congress.

William Lawrence, a co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, explained to me in an interview that the movement is motivated by the existential threat of the climate crisis. “We have hundreds of millions of lives worldwide that are at stake because of the threat of runaway climate change,” he said. The solutions out of this crisis are known and achievable: “We need to overhaul our energy system, our food system and our transit system,” Lawrence explained. In his opinion, “The only way to do that in time is for the government to take an active role in the economy to shape and guide the transition. That’s exactly how we got ourselves out of the Great Depression.”

But lawmakers are still undecided on a plan of action. Pelosi, feeling the pressure from grassroots activists and new colleagues like Ocasio-Cortez, made the call for reviving a defunct committee called the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was established the last time Democrats controlled the House.

While that committee’s mandate would not go nearly as far as the one Ocasio-Cortez has proposed, other Democrats, like New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, dismissed Pelosi’s position, saying a select committee was “not necessary.” His opposition highlights a strongly regressive streak within the Democratic Party that feels compelled to maintain the status quo in the face of the climate devastation that is already happening all around us.

Establishment Democrats now have two powerful forces working to push them in the right direction on climate: a strong grassroots movement intent on holding politicians’ feet to the fire, and a bold new crop of aggressive young Democratic Socialists like Ocasio-Cortez, who have been elected to office. It is the perfect storm of forces needed now more than ever to push a strong climate agenda.

Coming off a violent hurricane season on the U.S. East Coast, this fall brought record-breaking fires to the nation’s West Coast, underscoring the urgency of climate catastrophe. The death toll from the worst fire in California’s recorded history—the Camp Fire in Butte County—has now reached 83, with more than 600 still missing. Meanwhile, rain is expected this week in the northern part of the state, which could bring relief to the dry areas but could also trigger dangerous mudslides and flash flooding in areas stripped bare of brush and vegetation. Scientists are in clear agreement that climate change is behind this unprecedented fire season.

But President Trump barely acknowledged climate change during his weekend visit to the impacted areas. In addition to (embarrassingly) forgetting the name of the devastated town of Paradise—he referred to it as “Pleasure” before being corrected—Trump lectured state officials about the importance of raking and cleaning forest vegetation. His interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, went even further, saying in an interview with the extremist right-wing outlet Breitbart that the fires were the fault of “environmental radicals.”

Rather than confront Republicans like Trump and Zinke (Lawrence dismissed the GOP as “An organized alliance between fossil-fuel billionaires and white supremacists”), the Northern California chapter of the Sunrise Movement showed up outside the offices of Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, a strong progressive figure and veteran lawmaker. They wore masks to protect their lungs from the toxic air that blanketed the areas surrounding the Camp Fire, and they called upon Lee to support the resolution that Ocasio-Cortez plans to introduce. So far, Lee has not responded.

Lawrence said the activists were sending a message to Lee, saying, “We love you, we respect you, you have been a progressive champion for many years on so many issues, but that doesn’t mean you get a pass on this.”

What activists with the Sunrise Movement are cleverly doing is demanding that their elected representatives, including Pelosi, Pallone and Lee, answer the question: “What Is Your Plan?” “Not only do they not have a plan,” said Lawrence, “but they don’t have a plan to make a plan.”

Angry about Pallone’s recent stance that no action is needed to establish any sort of select committee to address climate change, Sunrise Movement activists paid him a visit, too. According to Lawrence, Pallone attempted to cast himself as their ally, citing his statements in support of climate action and his 2009 vote for a “cap and trade program.” But Lawrence pointed out that Pallone “has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel companies.”

Lawrence and his fellow activists are demanding that Democrats back a “Green New Deal”—a proposal whose very name invokes the important government jobs program that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law to help end the Great Depression. The idea is one whose time has come. Rampant poverty and climate change are arguably the two most important challenges facing the U.S. today. A Green New Deal would address both crises together. At this moment, Congress has no plan to solve either income inequality or global warming. Indeed, Trump and the GOP’s deregulatory agenda is exacerbating these problems through actions like last year’s tax-reform bonanza for the wealthy and ending the Paris Agreement. Our elected officials are literally erasing our children’s future.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky movement. Lawrence said he is realistic: “We know that we are not going to pass anything until 2021 when we have Trump out of office, and hopefully we have a more favorable breakdown in the Senate.” With regard to recent developments, he insisted, “But now that the Democrats hold the House, it is absolutely imperative that they make a plan that will be ready to go in 2021.” The climate—and our species—depend on it.

Sonali Kolhatkar
Columnist
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…
Sonali Kolhatkar

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