By William S. Becker
The always informative blog Grist reports that the proposal for a national Green New Deal is stirring up criticism from grassroots organizations that have worked for a long time on social justice, renewable energy, the sovereign rights of Native Americans and other dimensions of the idea pushed by freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Some long-time activists are concerned that the idea was developed “top down” by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, rather than at the grassroots where boots with well-worn soles are on the ground. Grist reports that Ocasio-Cortez’s staff is now taking in ideas from many of those organizations and the Green New Deal is growing from a concept into a more specific set of objectives.
In case there still is any friction about the top-down origins of the idea, let’s consider how these things often work. The idea of a Green New Deal has been around for a long time before Rep. Ocasio-Cortez adopted it, but the way it has appeared on the congressional stage is not untypical.
In the intense pressure and pace of political campaigns, many ideas are hatched or adopted from others without the incubation they deserve. They are added to a candidate’s platform based on her and her staff’s reading of what constituents want and what aligns with her values. There seldom are the time or resources to hold town-hall meetings, for example, to gather the grassroots knowledge that defines the details of the legislation that would implement the idea.
What can happen, however – and it has happened now — is that a candidate can put an idea on the voters’ radar and build momentum for it. The attention the news media gave to Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and victory, juxtaposed with the disturbing report from international scientists that the world has only a dozen years left to substantially reduce emissions from fossil fuels, raised the odds that one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s first acts when the new Congress convened would be to carry through with her plan to create a special House climate committee and to appoint its chairperson.
The fact that Pelosi’s “House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis” was not exactly what Ocasio-Cortez had in mind makes little difference. Even without subpoena power, the Committee is a new bully pulpit that, if used well, can accomplish two broad goals. It can give voice to the ignored majority in America that wants federal leadership on climate change, and it can include the voices of the many Republicans and conservatives who understand the urgency of this issue. In other words, it can make it safer for Republicans in Congress to get behind legislative responses to global warming, including a price on carbon.
The chair of the Committee on the Climate Crisis, long-time clean-energy champion Rep. Kathy Castor, comes from Florida where sea-level rise already is affecting coastal communities. “We are in a race against time,” she says. She would do well to invite testimony as soon as possible from grassroot groups, perhaps by video-conferencing and written input so that more of them can afford to participate (without carbon emissions from travel to Washington, D.C.)
What’s important is to keep the momentum alive, to mature the Green New Deal idea and to use the committee platform to show America what must be done, how it can be done, that it is possible to do it and that confronting climate is not and never has been a partisan issue. Congress can no longer ignore without unforgivable risk that it will take more than a village to build a 21st century energy economy in the United States. It will take the entire country in a determined once-in-a-generation initiative. History will judge us one way or the other, but it could be one of America’s finer moments.