The first of two parts
By William S. Becker
As a cancer survivor, I learned some time ago that the longer we ignore the symptoms, the more aggressive the treatment has to be. That lesson came to mind last week when a newcomer and a long-time veteran of Congress s introduced an aggressive proposal that would help put global climate change into remission.
I’ll stretch the metaphor further. Industrial countries have been smoking up the atmosphere for a couple of hundred years. The result is that climate change has quietly metastasized through the biosphere. The symptoms include a massive loss of species, monster weather disasters, hellish heat, polar vortexes that freeze your eyeballs, rising seas, communities reduced to ashes or waterlogged rubble and, yes, the loss of human life. Here in the United States, where much of the planet’s climate toxins originate, we have been in denial and ignoring the symptoms for much too long.
So, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey unveiled a very ambitious plan for a Green New Deal last week, including radical changes in the economy, it did not seem radical to me. If we wanted the treatment for climate change to be cheap and painless, we should have started a generation ago. Now, what was radical a few years ago is rational today.
The notion of a Green New Deal appeared in the national conversation last year during the midterm election campaigns. There were not many details, yet it seemed to capture the American people’s imaginations. A poll taken two weeks after the election found that 80% of registered voters liked the idea.
The Ocasio-Cortez/Markey proposal is a non-binding resolution, meaning it would merely be an expression of the House’s position rather than legislation with the force of law. What seems to be shaping up, though, is the most comprehensive and interesting vision we have seen from either political party about rebuilding America to confront our modern challenges. In some important ways, we are still living in the last century. We get 80% of our energy from the same fuels we’ve been using for more than 100 years. On our present path, less than a third of our energy will come from renewable resources in 2050. Our infrastructure is older and in worse shape than most Americans right now.
Unless party leaders bury the Green New Deal and let it die, we will see whether the Democrat majority – including the 160 Democrats who received a total of nearly $2.5 million from oil and gas interests last year — will do something about the growing impacts of climate change. It has been a decade since the House passed a carbon cap-and-trade bill. The Senate ignored it. Neither body has talked much about the cancer since then.
We will see, too, about the Democrats’ ability to govern. Can supporters of the Deal do the high-wire act that requires perfect balance between political overreach and atmospheric under-reach? Will the Green New Deal split the Democratic caucus? Will some of the old guard in the House resist the Green New Deal to teach the upstart Ocasio-Cortez that as a freshman, she needs to take her place near the bottom of the House pecking order?
Across the aisle, will we see Republicans, who had every chance to address global warming their way when they controlled both the Congress and the presidency, make the Green New Deal a campaign issue by accusing Democrats of swinging too far to the left? And given the circumstances, isn’t overreach better than no reach at all?
A final question has to do with the willingness of voters to push Congress along. Public opinion appears to strongly support elements of the Green New Deal, but voters will have to get insufferably pesky with their congress people for any significant climate action to get strong legs. What we should hope to see is a contest for influence in the House between the fossil energy lobby and all those Americans who say they are concerned about global warming.
If we can believe the polls, seven in 10 Americans say global warming has become personally important; about the same percent worry about it; nearly half think the United States is being harmed right now; and half believe they or are their families will be harmed. Three of every four voters believe that future generations will be hurt.
Last fall, registered voters were asked whether they wanted to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, whether Congress has a responsibility to do something about the changing climate and whether the federal government has that responsibility, too. Eight of 10 responded yes.
On this issue, it seems, fears about Big Government have taken a back seat to fears about the weather. With the adverse impacts of climate change arriving earlier and stronger than anyone thought, the only legitimate criticism of climate scientists today is that their predictions have been too conservative.
So, here’s to a plan that would do something about sea-level rise and monster weather disasters; that would allow a more equitable distribution of wages, wealth and opportunity; that would pay women equal wages for equal work; that would serve the underserved; that would allow us to drink water and breathe air without getting sick; that would actually helps the middle-class that hoped for help from Donald Trump; and that maps a path to a cleaner, fairer, healthier and more prosperous country.
There are several other committees in the Democrat House that may introduce climate legislation. The Ocasio-Cortez/Markey resolution is not perfect. But it stands out as a challenge for us Americans to prove we still have the right stuff to accomplish something big, bold and beautiful.
Next: Ideas for Implementing the Deal