By William S. Becker

The political question of the day – and perhaps the question of our time – is about the Green New Deal. It sounds nice. Polling shows that a huge majority, more than 80%, of voters like it. But outside of a small group of advocates, everyone seems unsure about just what the Green New Deal is.

There is a good explanation for that, which I’ll get to shortly. More interesting is that the Green New Deal (hereafter the “Deal”) is a much bigger deal than many of us thought. That became clear this week in a conversation between two of the nation’s most thoughtful thought leaders. More about that shortly, too.

By way of background, the Green New Deal made its formal debut on the national stage with a rule offered in the House of Representatives by freshwoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has made a big splash – more like a photogenic tidal wave, actually – as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, having defeated one of the Democratic Party’s senior leaders.

On the opening day of the 116th Congress, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez proposed that the House create a special committee to facilitate the creation of a plan for the United States to transition to 100% renewable energy in 10 years. The word “facilitate” is important here. Put a pin in that, too.

Although her proposal was not approved, the House has since added global climate change to the agendas of several of its committees, including a new “House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis” convened by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

While the idea of 100% renewable energy has received most attention, advocates of the Deal want it to be more than that — “a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation”. For example, all members of society would have the chance for job training and education, and the guarantee of a job that paid a living wage. The Deal would mitigate racial and gender inequality, diversify local economies, and ensure that the nation’s energy transition was fair. In short, the United States would undergo a deep social and economic as well as an energy transformation.

The reason for confusion is that the Deal’s principal advocates have described it only in broad strokes. They want the details to be developed in a two-year consultation with experts and leaders from business, labor, state and local governments, tribal nations, academia, civil society groups and communities. Congress could facilitate the Deal’s development, but it would be shaped and owned by the American people, not by economic or political elites.

These goals are obviously visionary and incredibly ambitious. But in a conference call this week, Stephen Heintz, the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and author/activist Naomi Klein framed an even and more ambitious Deal. It would confront the confluence of three deeply important threats: climate change, the erosion of our democracy, and the dominance of the type of capitalism that pays attention only to profit and the acquisition of material wealth.

This Gordian Knot manifests, for example, in a rigged economy that has produced unconscionable wealth and income inequality in America, one of the reasons that socialism has a more positive image than capitalism among young Democrats today. It manifests in how money is corrupting our electoral democracy and controlling public policy, including how the entrenched fossil energy sector has blocked climate action for all these years.

Heintz said we live in an “age of anxiety”, but he and Klein see this confluence of threats as a historic opportunity for the United States to take a great leap forward toward the kind of country it should be.  Klein cited one roadmap called the “LEAP manifesto”, consisting of 15 demands that add more citizen-based detail to the Deal.

So, what is the Green New Deal? That question is supposed to be answered by the American people in an open and inclusive dialogue. As urgent as the clean energy transition is, the Deal must be more comprehensive and holistic than that. There are several things that must be cleaned up in the United States today. Our energy economy is just one of them.

If there is no Deal to untie the knot, we will not recapture the country we want or get the future we want. That’s how important the Deal is. It is a formidable challenge inherited by this generation. By the middle of this century, we will know whether it is another Great Generation, or the generation that did too little too late.