A week after being elected as New York's 14th District congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined a protest by a group of young environmental activists urging Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive House Speaker, to lead the party in developing a comprehensive, ambitious plan to address climate change in the next Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez's move immediately catapulted the idea, until then a somewhat fringe proposal called the Green New Deal, into the mainstream. In the month since the sit-in, which was coordinated by the the youth-led organization Sunrise Movement, 36 members of Congress have joined Ocasio-Cortez in supporting the plan. And on Friday, more than 300 local and state officials across the U.S. also threw their support behind the proposal in an open letter.
Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat humanity is currently facing. A report released by the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change in October found that by 2040 — less than 22 years from now — the world would be in crisis, facing everything from food shortages and extreme poverty to wildfires, droughts, and the death of coral reefs. According to the panel, in order to cut carbon emissions and lessen the damage, the global economy would have to be transformed at a scale and pace that has "no documented historic precedent." Another report, this time commissioned and released by the U.S. government in November, concluded that not only the environment will be threatened by climate change in the next century — both public health and the national economy are also at risk.
It's with this mindset that Ocasio-Cortez and environmental activists are pushing for the Green New Deal. So, what would it entail exactly? At this point, the deal is more of a promise to tackle climate change and income inequality in the next decade or so. "We're positioning the Green New Deal as an umbrella for a set of policies and programs that get America out of fossil fuels and transitions our country to stop the climate crisis, eliminate poverty, and improve the lives of million of working families," Varshini Prakash, co-founder of Sunrise Movement, told Refinery29. "It's not gonna be one bill or one policy, it's going to be it's going to be a sweeping set of reforms that go beyond simple climate policy."
For example, Ocasio-Cortez has a draft proposal with some suggestions, but lawmakers and activists had made it clear that this should be an ongoing conversation. Among the things the freshman congresswoman is proposing are building a nationwide "energy-efficient 'smart' grid"; moving industries such as transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing from fossil fuels and instead pushing them to use renewable energy; and updating systems in residential and industrial buildings with "state-of-the-art energy efficiency." These suggestions would go hand-in-hand with measures to fight income inequality, which would include a jobs guarantee "to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one"; establishing universal health care programs; and offering training and education so workers, even those employed by the fossil fuel industry, can be part of these new "green" jobs.
This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation.
Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
But the first step, and the reason why the Green New Deal has gained steam this past month, is for the House of Representatives to create a "select committee." The bipartisan working group, comprised by 15 members, would have one year to come up with a bill to kick the reform into gear. One of the crucial parts is that members of the committee would be banned from taking campaign donations from oil and gas companies. That way, Ocasio-Cortez and activists argue, there would be no conflicts of interests and the legislation would not be weakened. Their main goal before the next Congress comes into session is for the proposal to be include in the Democratic caucus' agenda.
To succeed, Ocasio-Cortez has been using her political capital to wrangle support for the Green New Deal internally and externally, and that's a win for the movement according to Michelle Romero, national director of the organization Green For All. "The Green New Deal has really picked up steam because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been brave enough to demand it as a solution," she told Refinery29. "Climate leaders and environmental justice leaders has been doing the work, but when she showed up [to the sit-in], she lent her platform to give greater visibility to the movement and she really deserves credit for that."
While some of the ideas captured by the proposal are not exactly new — a less ambitious version of the deal was introduced in 2003, though it was never entirely successful — the renewed energy around it is a welcome change for people such as Romero. "The movement that 10 years ago made climate change a top issue of the 2008 presidential debate really has paved the way for this next wave [of activism] we're seeing now," she said. "Through that, we got the Green Jobs Act and some renewable and energy-efficient funding from the 2009 stimulus package. There were some real, concrete things we were able to get done then. Now that Democrats regained control of the House, it's a real opportunity for [the party] to pick up where they left off."
At a town hall in early December, Ocasio-Cortez framed the fight against climate change and income inequality tapping into an idea that tends to catch the attention of most people regardless of their politics: pure American exceptionalism. "This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the Civil Rights movement of our generation," she told attendants.
This resonates with folks like Prakash, who has built Sunrise Movement alongside other young people with the belief that fighting climate change is about changing the course of history.
"I’m 25 years old. We’ve known about the climate crisis for twice as long as I’ve been alive in this planet and we have yet to do something that scales our action and economic activity to combat the crisis," Prakash said. "[Fighting climate change] is about survival and existence. Are we going to take action over the next 10 years to ensure our generation has a livable future, or are we going to continue to kick the can down the road and resign ourselves to live a life filled with chaos, violence, and uncertainty?"