By Danielle Kurtzleben
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a blunt initial response to the prospect of a new, climate-focused infrastructure package weighing in at around $2 trillion.
“The size of it is disappointing. It’s not enough,” she said.
However, in President Biden’s new plan — not to mention the conversation within the Democratic Party around climate change — Ocasio-Cortez also sees success for the Green New Deal that she, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and grassroots climate activists championed.
The White House plan did end up including priorities that Ocasio-Cortez said she was excited to see: strengthening unions, for example, as well as a focus on communities hit hardest by climate change.
“One thing that I am very excited about is that I do believe that we have been able to influence a lot of thinking on climate and infrastructure,” she said. “As much as I think some parts of the party try to avoid saying ‘Green New Deal’ and really dance around and try to not use that term, ultimately, the framework I think has been adopted.”
The New York Democratic representative spoke to NPR this week hours before final details on Biden’s much-awaited infrastructure package were released. That plan would spend $2 trillion over eight years, much of it on mitigating the climate crisis. It is the first of a two-part push on an expansive array of infrastructure initiatives, green energy projects, as well as social programs that the administration refers to as “human infrastructure,” that is estimated to be around $3 trillion to $4 trillion.
Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives want more than double that rate of spending.
Her comments mirror the tension in how progressives view the Biden administration’s climate change agenda, as a clear sign that with measures like the Green New Deal, they have reframed the policy conversation … albeit not nearly to the scale of their liking.
Varshini Prakash is executive director of the Sunrise Movement, one of the main activist groups pushing for the Green New Deal. She applauded multiple aspects of Biden’s climate policy — for example, the commitment to spend 40% of the infrastructure plan’s money on “disadvantaged communities,” as well as a New Deal-inspired plan to create green jobs.
“I think the Civilian Climate Corps was something that we didn’t anticipate being a priority for the administration right away,” she said.
Biden called for the creation of that corps in his January executive orders on climate change — orders that climate groups widely supported.
However, the $10 billion his new infrastructure plan calls for spending on it is far too little, says Prakash.
“We’re just orders of magnitude lower than where we need to be,” she said. “And I think that that fight over the scale and scope of what needs to happen in terms of employment and the creation of jobs, in terms of the scale of investment and the urgency is going to be a terrain of struggle as this plan gets debated and discussed in Congress.”
With Democrats holding a modest majority in the House and the thinnest possible majority in the Senate, getting this infrastructure plan passed will require a balancing act of keeping both progressives and moderates happy. In the House, Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called Biden’s plan “a welcome first step,” but added that “more must be done to improve on this initial framework.”
Meanwhile, moderate Democrats in the Senate may hesitate at spending several more trillion, on top of the latest COVID-19 relief package.
From carbon taxes to the Green New Deal
The Green New Deal was never a hard-and-fast policy proposal; it was a nonbinding resolution that broadly called for an overhaul of the economy intended to benefit workers and the environment. That overhaul included a long list of progressive ideas, like guaranteed jobs with paid leave.
Candidate Joe Biden did not fully embrace the Green New Deal on the campaign trail — certainly not to the degree that, for example, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders did.
But Biden did speak approvingly of it, calling it on his campaign website “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.” And once he gained the nomination, Prakash and Ocasio-Cortez were both on the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on climate, part of an effort to create policy consensus within the party last year. Both Prakash and Ocasio-Cortez credited the Biden team for its openness to their ideas.
Altogether, Ocasio-Cortez says, she thinks that the Green New Deal shifted both policy and how politicians talk about that policy.
“Pre-Green [New Deal] rollout, a lot of the conversation around climate policy was very scientific and also very capitalist, very — carbon taxes. It was very, ‘Let’s nudge the market tax incentives,’ things like that, which is not to say all of those things are bad, but the idea that the market is going to fix a problem that is created by the market is just, in my view, it’s not correct,” she said.
“What the Green New Deal did was that we said and we spoke about how we need to use a New Deal framework for public policy and to address climate change, which means a full economic mobilization and using an infrastructure and jobs creation plan,” she said.
It’s also true that the Democratic Party has started framing climate policies as being more explicitly about improving people’s lives.
One crude but telling measure: the Biden campaign’s climate change proposal mentioned the word “jobs” 29 times. The Hillary Clinton 2016 proposal: twice.
Likewise, Biden put “environmental justice” in the headline of its plan — a sign of how central that concept has grown in climate conversations in just a few years.
However, forces well beyond climate activists and the Green New Deal may have also precipitated this shift, says Paul Bledsoe, who was a climate adviser to former President Bill Clinton and is now a strategic advisor at the centrist Democratic think tank the Progressive Policy Institute.
“I think that Americans during the pandemic have come to appreciate the role of government in emergencies and are increasingly viewing climate change as our next biggest emergency and therefore [are] more comfortable with a government-led response that focuses on incentives for clean technology,” he said.
Whatever the cause, however, the upshot is the same: a newly expansive climate policy.
“It seems clear that Biden is determined to use large government incentives and investments in clean energy to jumpstart the economy and job creation, and that’s a new, more Keynesian approach than has been used in decades,” he said.
As a clear show of what more they would like to see, progressives introduced the THRIVE Act this week — a nonbinding resolution cosponsored by more than 60 Democratic members of Congress, including Ocasio-Cortez. The act mirrors the Green New Deal in calling for sweeping change (strengthening unions, providing a range of supports to communities of color), as well as heavy spending (proponents are calling for $10 trillion in spending over a decade).
And that means climate activists will continue the balancing act of both celebrating the White House’s plans while also trying to pull them further to the left.
“I think this is a moment where our movement demands and the way we have communicated about this crisis, the connection to jobs, the connection to justice, is making its way into mainstream politics,” Prakash said. “And it’s a huge victory for all of us.”