By William S. Becker

If Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brings the Green New Deal to a vote in the Senate this week as he intends, the result will be political theater. It won’t be more than that. Why? Because in its present form, the Green New Deal is a vision articulated in a nonbinding resolution, and the opposition of the Republican-controlled Senate is preordained.

Here is what we’re likely to witness: McConnell and his Republican colleagues will try to brand the entire Democratic Party as a big-government socialist cabal. Democrats, who actually represent 50 shades of opinion on the proposals in the Green New Deal, may ask why so many Republicans are still ignoring climate change when half the states with the most weather disasters are “red”.

If Senate Democrats have done their homework, they might ask McConnell how denying climate change is good for his constituents in Kentucky. The state ranks 12th the nation for its number of natural disasters. It has averaged more than one disaster declaration a year for the last 66 years. Yet it ranks 48th among the states for disaster preparedness. Moneywise, a publication that “helps people make good decisions”, advises its readers not to retire in Kentucky because it is one of the states “hit by nature more than others”.

The real work on climate change will have to take place at the other end of the Capitol. Unless Mother Nature does something so awful that ignoring the link between global warming and weather disasters becomes politically untenable, we will not see climate legislation until 2021, and then only if voters rid the White House and Congress of science skeptics and politicians indentured to the carbon lobby.

The House has handed out committee assignments to lay the groundwork for 2021 and it appears that the growing field of Democrats running for president will defy recent convention and make climate change a campaign issue.

But first, Democrats would be wise to avoid too divisive a family fight over the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey. Ocasio-Cortez and her platoon of young supporters deserve tremendous credit for putting climate change back on the House agenda and in the public conversation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserves credit, too, for twice creating special House committees on the climate crisis.

However, Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez appear to be on different pages about how to proceed. It is likely that centrist Democrats in the House will favor a more focused Green New Deal that concentrates like a laser on how to achieve a net-zero carbon economy by mid-century. Ocasio-Cortez should not oppose that development because a clearly focused Deal is the right thing to do.

To put it bluntly, it does not make sense to worry about remodeling the kitchen while the house is on fire. The social-equity objectives of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal are overdue, noble and necessary, but the highest priority right now must be to build an economy that allows society to be not only fair and just, but also livable.  Congressional action to achieve that society should not be slowed or jeopardized with proposals for government programs on which there is not yet consensus. Those ideas must be dealt with separately.

It is important for Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters in the Sunrise Movement that the United States can make a very good start on improving social justice and equity by rejoining and leading the international effort to stabilize the Earth’s climate. For example:

  • Low-income and minority communities are disproportionately exposed to air quality and water quality issues associated with fossil-fuel electric generation. Compared to the rest of the population, greater concentrations of minorities live within 3-miles of coal- and oil-fired power plants.
  • Low-income and minority communities are impacted most by disaster-related damages to critical infrastructure. They often do not have the resources to mitigate or adapt to natural disasters.
  • Research shows that as “hazard damages increase (due to climate change), so does wealth inequality, especially along lines of race, education and homeownership”.
  • In rural America, many economically distressed communities are surviving today because of the growth in renewable energy income and jobs. In 2017, rural landowners earned $267 million by leasing land for wind farms. More than 70% of wind farm revenues go to counties with below-average incomes in both red and blue states.
  • Low-income households benefit most from improvements in energy efficiency – an essential part of a net-zero carbon goal — because they spend a greater portion of their incomes on energy. Energy efficiency improvements can save households nearly $50 billion per year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s the equivalent of tax-free extra paychecks for those who need it most.
  • As the Green New Deal recognizes, the cost and availability of health care remains a critical issue. As always, prevention is the best medicine. The American Lung Association (ALA) reports this year that 4 in 10 Americans are still exposed to dirty air, mostly from power plants and vehicles. Shifting to cleaner electricity will prevent as many as 3,600 premature deaths and 90,000 childhood asthma attacks annually by 2030, the ALA says. That means $60 billion per year in health care savings for the American people.

Congressional action is critical even with strong state and local leadership to cut greenhouse gas pollution. There are two battles to keep in mind. One is between members of Congress who do not accept the need for an energy transition and those who do.  The other is the battle for Congress’s loyalty. It is between voters on one hand and the carbon lobby on the other. What the House of Representatives proposes for a national energy transition must be so uncluttered and intuitively necessary that voters make it an offer their representatives of Congress cannot refuse, the carbon cartel’s money notwithstanding. We have seen strong support for climate action in national polls; now we must see it in national politics.