In a remarkable town hall event with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes last Friday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) reset the entire debate around the Green New Deal.
Since the idea of mobilizing the entire economy to get off fossil fuels first burst into the political consciousness last fall, thanks in large part to Ocasio-Cortez, many aspects of the Green New Deal have been somewhat vague.
For instance, do the other big goals laid out in the Green New Deal, such as universal health care, all have to be achieved in the same piece of legislation as the plan to decarbonize the economy? And when exactly would the entire U.S. economy, not just the electricity sector, have to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions?
In an hour-long discussion held in Ocasio-Cortez’s district at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine — where Hayes was born in 1979 — she and her colleagues provided some answers.
During the discussion, Hayes pressed the question of whether all of the big goals really have to be achieved at once. He noted that simply decarbonizing the economy is an enormous challenge, sure to spark a major political fight, so is it a good idea “to also tack on say, universal health care, which is a big difficult fight in and of itself?”
Both Ocasio-Cortez and Demond Drummer, head of the New Consensus think tank, which is working on details of the Green New Deal, replied that all of the goals are important and mutually reinforcing.
“But in order for us to pursue this agenda,” Ocasio-Cortez explained, “we don’t have to do it all at once.”
The point of the nonbinding Green New Deal resolution was not to spell out the solution, she said, but rather to ensure “we make it a national priority” and emphasize that “the scope of the solution must be on the scale of the problem.”
One of the most interesting exchanges came when Chris Hayes posed a hypothetical question to Ocasio-Cortez along with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the policy director for New Consensus, who joined the congresswoman for this segment.
“I want you to imagine there’s 435 members in the House of Representatives who are down for the Green New Deal,” he said, as well as “100 members of the U.S. Senate” and a president. “Not the world we live in, but just think about that world,” he added.
“So, no political obstacles, OK?” Hayes continued. “We’re not talking about political obstacles, just technical feasibility, zero emissions by 2050, cut in half by 2030, right? Those are the goals, basically, around that?”
This is a particularly noteworthy question because the specific economy-wide goals of the Green New Deal have not actually been spelled out, and yet neither Ocasio-Cortez nor anyone else challenged Hayes’ version of the goals. Instead, Khanna responded, “Well, we got to start,” and went on to discuss how the U.S. could achieve “50 percent solar and wind energy by 2025.”
Some supporters — and many critics — of the Green New Deal have said that the goal is to decarbonize the entire economy in 10 years, and some early drafts seemed to support that view.
But the actual resolution itself was artfully vague. It says we must “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions,” but doesn’t say by when. Then it says we need a “10 year national mobilization” to achieve a variety of goals in different sectors.
Yet it is only in the electricity sector where there is actually a 10-year goal to become carbon free. In every other key sector discussed — transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and upgrading our infrastructure — the goal is to remove pollution and greenhouse gases “as much as is technologically feasible.”
Significantly, the electricity sector only generates 28 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — and it is generally considered the easiest sector to decarbonize.
Decarbonizing the entire U.S.economy by 2030 was always a more inspirational possibility than a politically or technologically feasible policy.
And to avert catastrophic climate change, the science makes clear that we need both significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by mid-century. This town hall may serve to reset the Green New Deal discussion toward exactly how we achieve both of those goals.