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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal is a chance for Republicans to define energy policy, if they take it

By embracing the concept and some of its more workable ideas, Republicans could do much good for themselves and for an American future.
Image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Senator Ed Markey, from right, D-Mass., speak during a press conference to announce Green New Deal legislation to promote clean energy programs outside the US Capitol on February 7, 2019.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images
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By Joe Brettell

It would be easy for Republicans to ignore both Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Green New Deal, introduced last week — and many already have. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, called it a "socialist manifesto," while Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., suggested such ideas “always end with the Gestapo.” Even Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed the bill as “the green dream, or whatever they call it,” saying the effort would be one of many ideas considered.

That isn’t terribly surprising: Conventional thinking suggests that climate issues are a bit like taxes — they simply don’t compel voter action. For example, consider the recent failure of fossil fuel ballot issues in both Washington and Colorado, states widely seen as liberal and pro-environmentalist policy.

Yet recent polling suggests that climate is growing in importance to voters everywhere, particularly as they see the effects manifest in their own backyards. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 69 percent of Americans are “concerned” or “very concerned” about climate issues. From apocalyptic wildfires in California to storms like Hurricane Harvey in Texas and coastal floods in Florida, most Americans will experience their own flavor of a changing climate and eventually expect some sort of action.

And even corporate America is increasingly shifting its stance on climate change, its effects and causes. Major oil producers like Exxon Mobil have acknowledged the presence of climate change and even backed ideas such as a carbon tax. Meanwhile, California mega-utility Pacific Gas & Electric has been forced into bankruptcy, in large part due to the catastrophic wildfires in their coverage territory — fires driven by record winds, parched land and unusual fire patterns that have puzzled even veterans of the state’s myriad weather patterns.

PG&E’s travails may turn out to be a key tipping point for industry by pushing climate change from a political and scientific debate to a clear operational threat. Executives will undoubtedly eventually face both boards of directors and shareholders who will want a plan for how climate change is being dealt with, and how their companies are protected against its effects.

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Granted, the rollout of Green New Deal legislation was rocky at best, but the term, “Green New Deal”, is still evolving. And, in a Congress that has functioned only from one short-term continuation resolution to another, the GND represents a bold moonshot that could jumpstart a new era of the legislative branch boldly leading.

The concept, after all, is the sort of bold, big-picture thinking that legislators of both parties could, and need to, embrace. While some of the foundational precepts it espouses are fundamentally unworkable, both politically and economically, the concept echoes the sort of go-for-broke mentality that built the Eisenhower Highway System, the Apollo Program and fueled the rise of the modern tech economy.

By embracing some of its more workable ideas, Republicans could do much good, for themselves and an American future. That’s because, as energy writer Kate Aronoff stated recently, “Like the first New Deal, then, the Green New Deal isn’t a specific set of policies so much as a values framework under which any number of policies can fit”.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal bill encompasses everything from substantial decarbonization of the economy to job retraining, guaranteed health care and infrastructure investment. But the chances of such a major body of legislation being passed wholesale are remote. More likely — particularly if Republicans and some Democrats wholesale dismiss the idea of a new green deal — it will simply serve as a Rosetta Stone of sorts for incoming legislators and generations of progressive voters.

But Ocasio-Cortez has already seemingly come to understand the daunting realities of implementing really broad changes. Wisely, she, along with supporters of the legislation, jettisoned environmentalist demands for a fossil fuel ban, a key tenant for interest groups (but a potential problem for her caucus and 2020 supporters) in favor of more moderate language.

Besides which, it is a political and economic reality that several key battleground states (like Ohio, Pennsylvania and others) depend on fossil fuel-based industries, like coal and heavy manufacturing, for both jobs and tax revenue. So instead of pursuing the absolute end of these fossil fuels, demonizing their supporters or shutting them out of this conversation, the two parties could look for issues of common ground and do the hard work it takes to craft a compromise. Such an effort wouldn’t be unprecedented: Congressional Republicans lifted the oil export ban, but also extended the production tax credit for solar energy in 2016.

Instead of costly and vitriolic fights over banning one form of energy or another, the parties could agree to encourage investment in technology such as energy storage, which has been supported by new Republican FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee, or to the creation of incentives for infrastructure resilience or updating and strengthening the electric grid.

What’s most unique (and largely overlooked) about the Green New Deal however, is that it uses energy policy as a catalyst for broader social and economic change – addressing the need for job retraining and providing incentives for those most likely to be affected by climate change, such as minority, elderly and other historically economically challenged communities.

Here too is an opportunity for a new breed of Republican lawmakers to craft policy instead of talking points. For instance, the Opportunity Zones being championed by Republican Tim Scott seek a free market solution that incentivizes corporate investment while addressing the issue of income and economic development.

It’s clear that some in the conservative ecosystem have chosen to make Ocasio-Cortez, and everything she proposes, the movement’s bête noire — but if politicians wholesale follow their lead, they might well be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Working instead toward compromise legislation on climate change would at least allow conservatives and their allies a hand in crafting ideas and legislation they know and support, rather than taking a chance of having it forced upon them in future presidential administrations or activist courtrooms.

In an era where too many politicians think small, it’s time to jump start our ability to dream big again together, and some sort of Green New Deal type policies could be a start.