What is the 'Green New Deal,' and how would it work?

See what each candidate has to say on climate change and the environment.
Illustration of hand casting ballot in a ballot box with smoke stacks inside.
Democratic candidates have put out a wide range of environmental plans so far, some of which cite the Green New Deal as an influence.Adriana Bellet / for NBC News

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Benjy Sarlin

The highlights of the plan

  • The Green New Deal is not a specific policy proposal, but rather a general set of goals.
  • It seeks to get the world to net-zero emissions by 2050 and ideally even sooner in the United States.
  • It goes beyond the environment and climate change to call for universal health care and affordable housing, among other goals.
  • Not all Democratic presidential candidates back the Green New Deal, with some arguing it boxes them in too much on specifics, while many Republicans, including the president, say it’s not affordable and could cost tens of trillions of dollars if fully implemented.

What the candidate positions (including Trump) are on the Green New Deal

What is the Green New Deal?

The Democratic debate over environmental issues has centered heavily around the Green New Deal, a plan to rapidly switch to clean energy to head off the worst projected effects of climate change.

However, unlike other ideas that Democrats are discussing on the campaign trail, the Green New Deal is not a clear policy proposal in and of itself. Instead, it refers to a 14-page resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., that lays out a series of broad goals and guiding principles and then leaves it to lawmakers to figure out how to meet them.

The resolution calls for “a new national, social, industrial and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal,” one that over 10 years would move to renewable energy for electricity, and make transportation, housing, agriculture and manufacturing more energy-efficient. The goal is to create millions of new jobs in clean energy and get to net-zero emissions by 2050, not only in the United States, but around the world.

As part of this process, the resolution calls for “a fair and just transition” that would provide help to workers affected by the shifting economy, protect communities impacted by the direct effects of climate change, and pay special attention to groups that have been disproportionately affected by pollution in the past.

It also goes beyond environmental policy with a series of general demands for universal health care, affordable housing, good paying jobs for all, and stronger labor rights.

Democratic presidential candidates backing the Green New Deal have released their own environmental plans, and there’s no sign of one comprehensive piece of legislation around the corner that addresses every aspect of the resolution.

Why supporters want it

The Green New Deal emerged out of grassroots-activist circles on the left and gained newfound attention in late 2018, thanks to a series of protests in Washington and a public push from the newly elected Ocasio-Cortez.

Advocates have made the case that governments have grown complacent in the face of increasingly dire evidence from scientists that the world needs to move rapidly toward clean energy.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations working group of scientists from around the world, warned in a report last year that nations needed to take “unprecedented” action to reach net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 to head off a global 1.5 degree Celsius increase in temperature.

Any temperature increase above 1.5 degrees could be especially dangerous, bringing more natural disasters, heat waves, drought and flooding, scientists say.

The challenge is so great that the report warned that the world not only needed to slash its emissions 45 percent by 2030 to keep pace, but would likely need to develop new technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere as well.

World leaders reached an agreement in Paris in 2015 to cut emissions with a goal of preventing a two-degree increase, meaning they’d have to scale up their efforts even further. Making matters worse, global fossil fuel emissions rose last year, including in the United States.

President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement and rolled back climate-related regulations, but his administration’s own scientists reached similar conclusions about the danger of global warming, lending more momentum to the Green New Deal.

A federal report in November 2018 backed by 13 agencies, including the Defense Department and NASA, warned that economic losses from climate change could become catastrophic, eventually costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

A second federal report this year found that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere was at its highest in 800,000 years and global temperatures were at near-record highs for the modern era. This July was the hottest month ever recorded.

Green New Deal advocates argue that the scale of the problem requires massive coordinated action across the government and private sector and that by tackling the issue as soon as possible, the changes can be implemented in ways that would benefit Americans by creating jobs, providing cleaner air and water, and expanding the safety net.

If the United States and other countries tackle the problem too slowly, it could require them to either accept more devastating consequences from climate change or make sudden and more drastic sacrifices to head them off. That could also make the necessary solutions less politically palatable, hindering their goals even further.

What critics say

Among the Democratic field, candidates who have not signed onto the Green New Deal so far all publicly support its aims, but say it boxes them in too much on specifics.

One complaint is that it creates unreasonable expectations by demanding a rapid shift toward net-zero emissions that some climate and industry experts argue is beyond current limitations, especially given that some activists backing the Green New Deal say the United States should reach net-zero emissions as soon as 2030.

Another common objection is that the Green New Deal needlessly complicates the debate around climate change policy by linking it to other issues like health care and a jobs guarantee.

Others have more targeted concerns. The resolution is neutral on whether nuclear power should be part of the transition from fossil fuels, for example, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said she didn’t sign on in part because she opposed nuclear power.

Some critics in both parties have argued the Green New Deal places too much emphasis on direct government investment and should instead give the private sector incentives to change on its own.

Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney, among others, has called for a tax on carbon emissions to encourage the move toward renewable energy. While the dominant stance in the Republican Party has been to oppose government efforts to address climate change, some GOP politicians have suggested that a carbon tax (Congressman John Delaney’s own bill has one Republican co-sponsor) could theoretically attract bipartisan support as an alternative to the Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal resolution doesn’t rule out a carbon tax or other price on emissions, but some activists supporting it are skeptical of the concept.

Some Democrats, especially in states with significant fossil fuel industries, have called for more research into technologies that offset the effects of their pollution. Presidential candidates, including Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, have pushed for more natural gas production, arguing it can replace dirtier fuels like coal while renewable energy gets off the ground.

On the Republican side, Trump has regularly questioned, downplayed or mocked the threat of climate change and has reacted to the Green New Deal in similar fashion. In a speech on the environment in July, he said the Green New Deal was “not affordable even in the best of times” and that it would “crush the dreams of the poorest Americans, and disproportionately harm minority communities.”

Some critics on the right have also made the case that related climate plans could raise oil and heating prices by taxing and restricting fossil fuel usage and have only a limited effect even if they succeeded, as the United States makes up only 15 percent of global emissions. However, supporters argue it's necessary for the U.S. to act even more aggressively in order to pressure other countries to do the same and that technology developed to decarbonize the U.S. would be exported abroad.

What are candidates proposing?

Democratic candidates have put out a wide range of environmental plans so far, some of which cite the Green New Deal as an influence, that often have overlapping features.

Many of the candidates have released proposals for a trillion-dollar-plus investment in energy infrastructure, like electric car charging stations and building upgrades, as well as research into new technology, like carbon capture or cheaper solar power, and funds to help displaced workers. Plans often include funding to help communities prepare for future natural disasters as well.

Among the candidates who have put out plans along these lines are former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and businessman Andrew Yang.

The plans differ in scale. Sander's, the largest by far, proposes $16 trillion in spending, paid for in part by fees on fossil fuel companies. Warren's plan calls for $3 trillion in federal investment over ten years, Biden calls for $1.7 trillion, and O'Rourke calls for $1.5 trillion, and they predict their plans would mobilize even larger contributions from the private sector.

Every Democratic candidate has pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate agreement, with some saying they would try to set its targets even higher. In general, they’ve also pledged to pursue rules that would require power plants, buildings, and vehicles to slash pollution, jumping off efforts by President Barack Obama that Trump halted or reversed and taking them further.

Sanders has gone the furthest in this regard, pledging to run all transportation and power on renewable energy by 2030. But many of the candidates have put out target dates to phase out all sales of new fossil-fueled power passenger cars: Warren and Booker set the year at 2030, while Harris and Buttigieg peg it at 2035. Their plans set relatively similar target dates for getting 100 percent of power from renewable energy sources or almost all, with some emissions offset by carbon reductions elsewhere.

Biden has pledged to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in electric vehicles and renewable energy, but doesn't set a firm date for the transition. He has set a goal of cutting the carbon footprint from buildings in half by 2035.

A few candidates have suggested creating a national service program that would hire Americans to work on climate-related projects. Warren has proposed a variation on this idea, along with Buttigieg and Delaney. Many have proposed a tax or fee of some kind on pollution to encourage the private sector to transition to renewable energy on their own. These plans sometimes call for refunding the revenue to taxpayers in the form of a dividend in order to offset any increases in their energy bills during the transition.

A related idea backed by Warren is to attach a “border carbon adjustment” to imported goods to encourage manufacturers abroad to cut down on pollution. Many of the candidates have also called for blocking fossil fuel extraction on public land to help discourage oil, gas and coal use.

One area of disagreement is on "fracking," a procedure that involves injecting water into the ground to release natural gas. Many of the candidates like Harris, Warren, Sanders and Booker, oppose the practice and have pledged to pursue restricting or eliminating its use, warning of potential environmental consequences. But other candidates have suggested it's necessary to provide enough energy to transition to a zero-emissions economy.

They also disagree over nuclear power, with Warren, Gabbard and Sanders oppose due to safety concerns, while others, including Sen. Michael Bennett, Booker and Yang support it as a source of clean power.

A unique twist comes from Yang, whose plan also calls for research into "geoengineering" projects that could potentially cool the earth temporarily in order to buy more time to reduce carbon emissions.