What the media’s coverage of the Green New Deal is missing

Everyone’s talking about Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, but no one knows what it is.

Incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks to reporters after a group photo with freshman members of the 116th Congress on Capitol Hill November 14, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
Incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks to reporters after a group photo with freshman members of the 116th Congress on Capitol Hill November 14, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

The Green New Deal championed by Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is one of the hottest progressive policy ideas around.

But virtually no one knows what it is.

In fact, many in the media and elsewhere who think they know what it means, likely have it wrong. Or aren’t explaining the full picture.

Since the midterms, dozens of U.S. representatives and at least four Democratic senators have pledged support to create a Select Committee to create legislation for a Green New Deal. The goal is a “detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan” to rapidly transition the country away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy, such as a solar, wind, and electric cars.

But the public appears to be remarkably uninformed about the details of the deal. And many who are covering it seem to think it is just about a transition to renewable electricity. Yet the electricity sector only generates 28 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — and is generally considered the easiest sector to decarbonize.


This confusion was underscored by a new survey by the climate change communication programs at Yale and George Mason University (GMU) — along with its media coverage.

To begin with, according to the poll, barely anyone had even heard about the Green New Deal. Yale and GMU point out that of 966 registered voters surveyed, 82 percent had heard “nothing at all” about the Green New Deal  and only 3 percent had heard “a lot.”

A new survey finds very few people know much about the Green New Deal proposal.
A new survey finds very few people know much about the Green New Deal proposal.

With so few people knowing anything about the Green New Deal, it’s especially easy for confusion to arise about what it actually is and what its potential popularity might be.

But despite the fact that few of the people surveyed had heard of it, news outlets had a different takeaway. The Huffington Post headline on Monday said, “Green New Deal Has Overwhelming Bipartisan Support, Poll Finds. At Least, For Now.” And The Hill’s headline was, “Poll: Majorities of both parties support Green New Deal.”

Adding to the confusion is the way surveyors presented what a Green New Deal was. And this interpretation may have had an impact on whether or not people support it.


To gauge its popularity, Yale and GMU described to those being surveyed a deal that would: “generate 100% of the nation’s electricity from clean renewable sources within the next 10 years; upgrade the nations’ power grid, buildings, and transportation infrastructure; invest in green technology research and development; and provide training for jobs in the new, green economy.”

As the survey showed, this set of proposals did have overwhelming bipartisan support, with 81 percent of voters — including a remarkable 57 percent of conservatives — saying they either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” this plan.

It’s certainly important that so many people support climate action and the transition to renewable electricity — and that is quite consistent with previous polling.

But here’s the catch. The Green New Deal presented by the survey isn’t actually Ocasio-Cortez’s plan — even though both the media and pollsters portray their version as the full Green New Deal.

The climate problem is far more all-encompassing than just the electricity sector. Ocasio-Cortez’s plan addresses this — and goes far beyond just talking about climate change.


The plan laid out on her website includes “decarbonizing the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries [and] transportation and other infrastructure” in the same 10-year time frame. In short, it aims to make the entire US economy carbon free in a decade — not just the power sector.

Also, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal Plan (and the draft legislation) includes “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one” and “additional measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs.”

Given some of these aspects of the proposal, it’s likely the entire plan would not be as popular with conservatives as the one Yale and GMU described. Indeed, the pollsters themselves noted that they “did not mention [to respondents] that the Green New Deal is championed by Democratic members of Congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”

They concluded, “partisan framing in communicating about the Green New Deal – by either the Right or the Left – could activate partisan associations and erode the existing bipartisan support for the concept.”

It seems when you remove politics, people love pollution-free solar and wind power.

Finally, the amorphous term itself can generate confusion. Others have long used it to indicate their own version of an environmental plan.

Indeed, the term itself dates back to a 2007 New York Times column by Tom Friedman, where the focus was on how to “create a whole new clean power industry to spur our economy into the 21st century.”

And more recently in a Friday speech on his 2019 agenda, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) announced, “New York will launch the Green New Deal to make New York’s electricity 100% carbon-neutral by 2040 and ultimately eliminate the state’s entire carbon footprint.”

Here too, the focus is on the electricity side of things.

So, perhaps the best answer to “what specifically is in Green New Deal?” is the one the Sierra Club gave in late November: “Nobody knows… though a lot of people already have ideas about what should go into it.”

This is a key reason so many Democrats have been so welcoming of a Select Committee for a Green New Deal — not because they all agree on the same detailed plan, but precisely because action is needed, and there are a lot of details to be worked out and agreed-upon.

The science makes increasingly clear that the country (and the world) needs to be as close as possible to carbon free by 2050 — and that we need to be well along the path by 2030.

That’s a good argument for creating a Select Committee in the House to hash out key details as soon as possible.