Fresh off of taking back the House and looking toward 2020, Democrats might do well to embrace the center: common-sense, compassionate politics that cut across partisan squabbling and extremism. What might that look like?
Tackling climate change means investing at the scale of the problem, and being willing to hold the corporations causing it accountable. Acknowledging the urgent nature of that crisis and at the urging of climate groups like the millennial-led Sunrise Movement, incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) — now joined by Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Deb Haaland (D-NM), Joe Neguse (D-CO), plus Ro Khanna (D-CA), John Lewis (D-GA) and more by the day — has called the select committee on climate change that Pelosi has proposed reviving be empowered to draft a plan for a Green New Deal, to get the US off of fossil fuels in the next ten years while dramatically improving the lives of millions of Americans. Politicians taking money from the fossil fuel industry aren’t invited.
Fifty-two percent of American support a federal job guarantee, even more so if those jobs help mitigate and adapt to climate change. Sixty-six percent support Green New Deal-style proposals. A majority of Republicans back Medicare for All, and voters across the aisle are increasingly uneasy about the influence of corporate money in politics. Fifty-seven percent of Democrats and 51 percent of all millennials — on the cusp of becoming the largest voting bloc in the country — view socialism positively, while support for capitalism among young voters has dropped by 9 percentage points since 2016. The center, in other words, is moving left.
As young protesters on Capitol Hill pointed out to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Frank Pollone (D. NJ) last week—and today to elected officials in over 350 actions around the country — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report outlines the need to start decarbonizing the global economy in the next 12 years or face a hotter, wetter and altogether more deadly future; the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees celsius of warming, scientists warn, is hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, with coastal cities like New Orleans and New York slated to be among the worst hit.
The solutions are obvious: keep as much coal, oil and gas underground as possible and put society’s resources to work building a more equitable and low-carbon world. As the IPCC report puts it, preventing runaway catastrophe will require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” plus “deep emissions reductions in all sectors.” The main culprits — the 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 — are hiding in plain site, polluting our political process with millions of dollars worth of lobbyists and campaign donations to help them continue their status quo.
Insurgent candidates calling for federal job guarantees have brought thousands of first-time voters out to the polls and to knock doors, and injected the party with a renewed sense of grassroots momentum. There is no deep bench of young Democrats in the mold of Chuck Schumer (D-NY) or Hillary Clinton poised to take the reins. From red-to-blue districts like Texas’s 32nd where Democrat Colin Allred was just elected to deep blue seats like Tlaib’s, the party’s future is ardently anti-establishment, and lies with candidates who reject corporate PAC money and the skewed incentives that come with it. Some are even calling themselves democratic socialists.
As the protesting occupants of Pelosi’s office know, there simply isn’t a way to navigate out of this mess without grabbing power back from the climate-denying GOP. But enacting sensible climate policy will also means breaking with two-decades of Democratic Party business-as-usual.
On climate, establishment Democrats are already setting themselves up for failure. Nancy Pelosi, hoping to retake the reins as House Speaker, has pledged to revive so-called “Pay-Go” rules, requiring that any new federal spending be offset with tax hikes or budget cuts. Aside from feeding GOP-created myths that there’s some inherent danger in growing the deficit, Pelosi’s “Pay-Go” pledge needlessly forecloses on the kind of public investments needed to transform our outdated grid system, greatly expand public transit, relocate coastal communities and help workers in carbon-intensive industries transition into other well-paid work. Such programs won’t come cheap, but then again neither do tax cuts for billionaires or the endless wars that Republicans have no trouble funding ad infinitum. As the GOP is keenly aware, the United States enjoys the rare privilege of having virtually unlimited financial resources at its disposal, in an economy far-off from overheating and slipping into inflation. Why not put those resources to use saving the planet and raising Americans’ standards of living?
Investing today in climate solutions, after all, will be far cheaper than sitting back and doing nothing. Left unchecked, the U.S. will bear the second-highest cost of any nation on earth for climate impacts — shouldering about 11 percent of the overall burden, projected by the IPCC to be as much as hundreds of trillions of dollars. Conversely, a quick shift to rein in emissions in earnest could add $26 trillion to the global economy by 2030, according to a recent report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. While global warming is so often framed as an issue of sacrifice — of individuals giving up cars and plastic bags — the real issue is to figure out how quickly we can make society’s massive wealth benefit the many rather than the few.
That’s not to suggest there won’t be some sacrifices, particularly among the one percent. The business model of one of the world’s most powerful industries — to dig up and burn as many fossil fuels as possible — will have to be liquidated by mid-century. Many Democrats continue to accept big and frequent donations from fossil fuel interests: Energy companies and utilities handed $19 million over to federal Democratic candidates in 2016. It’d be an understatement to say all that fossil fuel money doesn’t constrain Democratic politicians’ ambitions on climate policy; in a recent Politico article, the various Democrats who complained to the outlet about the usefulness of Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal had taken a collective $2 million from the industry over the course of their careers.
The Blue Wave won’t be worth much to the climate if it continues to have a layer of oil cash floating on top. That’s why Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Kirsten Gillibrand and more than 1,200 candidates this past cycle signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, swearing off donations from the world’s most polluting industries. The Democratic National Committee voted overwhelmingly to follow suit last summer and stop taking funds from corporate PACs linked to fossil fuel companies, only to renege two months later. DNC chairman Tom Perez cited the party’s fealty toward “forward-looking employers” in the fossil fuel industry that are “powering America’s all-of-the-above energy economy.”
For the Democratic Party’s top brass, the center has tended instead to refer to a mythical electorate that is fiscally conservative and socially liberal, allegedly excited about protecting civil rights and the environment but weary of government overreach and constraining free markets. Appealing to this virtually non-existent constituency — seeking compromise with Republicans and corporate America above all else — has cost Democrats nearly 1,000 seats up and down the ballot since 2008. Rather than presenting its own vision for the future in 2016, party higher-ups and the Clinton campaign fear-mongered about the horrors of Donald Trump. It lost them the White House as a result, and eventually the Supreme Court.
Republicans have long been known as the party of climate denial, but statements like the above from Perez and Pelosi show that the Democratic establishment isn’t much more in touch with scientific reality.
Of course, it won’t be a good use of anyone’s time to spend months locked in intra-party warfare over climate or any other issue, and the clock isn’t on our side. By barring fossil fuel cash recipients from entry and being willing to invest America’s vast rescues into preventing its greatest existential threat, Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed Green New Deal committee would allow itself to be open to the full range of changes that need to happen to decarbonize the economy.
And as both polling and science suggest, such an economy-wide mobilization is an eminently sensible proposal. With a world to lose, there really is no alternative.