A bold new generation of Democrats are already pushing forward on climate action, in a dramatic change of pace that could spell a very different tune in Washington come January, as well as within the wider party.
After retaking the House of Representatives earlier this month, Democrats have quickly found themselves divided on how to proceed on tackling climate change. Republicans and Democrats alike have largely waffled on addressing climate change, to the dismay of activists. But that could be about to change.
During the midterm elections, a crop of fresh Democratic faces began calling for a “Green New Deal,” one that would allow for the creation of sustainable jobs while rapidly easing away from fossil fuels. Then-candidates like New York City’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Detroit’s Rashida Tlaib also highlighted environmental justice issues, pointing to the extreme pollution plaguing low-income communities and people of color.
Now that they’re headed to Congress, those candidates appear to be making good on their promises. On Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez made headlines when she joined climate activists converging in front of Democratic California Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office.
“Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez later expanded on her comments to reporters. “We need a Green New Deal and we need to get to 100 percent renewables because our lives depend on it,” the representative-elect said, explaining her presence at the sit-in, which was organized by the Sunrise Movement. The group represents a campaign of young people pushing for swift climate action.
Climate protests are nothing new — but such groups rarely garner the kind of high level support they did this week. New members of Congress also typically lack leverage over more senior lawmakers, something that seems to be changing. Ocasio-Cortez, who actively uses social media to connect with constituents, re-iterated her support for a Green New Deal on Twitter this week.
“We need to act on climate change NOW,” she wrote, calling for the formation of a select committee free of fossil fuel industry funding to oversee the drafting of a Green New Deal plan.
A number of advocates indicated enthusiasm for the proposal, but that momentum has been met with hesitation by some Democrats. One source of contention has been the reinstating of a select committee meant to deal with global warming. Pelosi created the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in 2007, but Republicans eliminated it in 2011.
That committee is one Pelosi has called for reviving, but she’s facing opposition. Progressives have largely slammed the committee’s piddling legacy and work as inadequate, while senior Democrats have claimed the effort would be redundant, echoing work they already plan to oversee on their own committees. Some worry that a new committee could risk detracting from the efforts these other committees plan to pursue.
“As co-chairs of the Safe Climate Caucus, we believe that the committees of jurisdiction and future Chairs are ready and able to tackle this challenge,” wrote Reps. Don Beyer (D-VA) and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) in a Wednesday letter to Pelosi, pushing back against the reinstatement of the old select committee.
Green New Deal Democrats, by contrast, have a different style of committee in mind.
In addition to Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib, a number of other newly-elected representatives support sweeping efforts to address climate change, including Deb Haaland (D-NM), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), as do sitting lawmakers like Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). Some have also presented a draft of what a deal might look like, one that calls for a select committee created for the purpose of establishing a plan meant to be executed in no longer than 10 years.
Under the draft, the plan would use the input of stakeholders on a local, statewide, and national level to shift the United States on a path to becoming carbon-neutral, while accounting for job creation. The effort also nods to acting in accordance with “social, economic, racial, regional, and gender-based justice and equality,” indicating a commitment to incorporating the needs of vulnerable communities.
Pelosi has indicated she might be amenable to movements on climate change, albeit nowhere near as much as activists would like. But other senior Democrats are resisting that proposal, in addition to sweeping movements on climate action more broadly.
While Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the incoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has indicated he agrees with the deal’s “basic outlines,” he has blanched at other demands from climate activists, namely that Democrats swear off contributions from fossil fuel companies. Pallone himself has received more than $100,000 in contributions from utilities and energy donors.
That hesitation reflects the wider Democratic Party. After voting earlier this year to ban donations from fossil fuel companies’ political organizations, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) overwhelmingly voted in August to roll back that resolution in a 30-2 vote.
Many centrist Democrats also lack a track record when it comes to centering climate issues and have largely avoided making climate action a priority, a trend they seem set to continue.
“A lot of the Republican seats that we won — a lot of them are moderate, conservative Democrats, and we have to keep that in mind. Those are the people I’m concerned about,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) said, despite broad election losses by climate deniers and gains by progressives with an eye towards climate legislation. “We can’t go too extreme.”
But in the days following the midterms, progressive newcomers have continued to spotlight environmental action, pointing to a dire report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) giving the world around a decade to act on climate change.
Protests, meanwhile, are likely to continue. On Friday morning, the Sunrise Movement targeted Pallone’s office in an effort to rally support for climate action. The representative reportedly “flat-out refused” to take the group’s No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge.
With other members of leadership, they had more success. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) encountered the group that same morning and offered his support. Ocasio-Cortez promptly saluted his support with a tweet commending his “brave” backing.
“Thank you for continuing to fight for our future,” she wrote.