The blog of the Urban Institute
February 8, 2019

“A Green New Deal” sets a high bar for environmental economic change and justice

February 8, 2019

On Thursday, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced their framework for “a Green New Deal (PDF).” Ultimately, the resolution, H.R. 109 and S.R. 59, sets a broader vision for other legislation, rulemaking, and federal programs, rather than being a detailed plan or bill itself.

But it has received almost as much attention before its release as its precedents in the environment economy than legislative battles over the past few decades had received during their implementation. Given the high bar it sets and its focus on addressing social and economic injustices, the resolution’s vision is as wide as the attention it has garnered.

What’s in the Green New Deal resolution?

The framework categorizes massive challenges with solutions placed firmly onto “the duty of the federal government,” including these:

  • Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions
  • Obtaining and securing basic natural resource qualities, like clean air and water
  • Creating millions of high-wage jobs
  • Modernizing infrastructure

A Green New Deal sets a 10-year time frame to accomplish these objectives through a range of projects, such as investing in climate-resilient projects, retrofitting existing production to all-renewable energy sources along with energy transmission systems, green upgrades for all (yes, all) buildings in the country, cleaning up “legacy” pollution and restoring natural ecosystems, funding research and development, and providing education and training resources to fill the entire program’s workforce needs—almost all of which are to be locally identified and prioritized.

What’s new about it?

The biggest change in the Green New Deal resolution is its explicit call-out of the “systemic injustices” faced by “frontline and vulnerable communities” in ways that defy conventional approaches among Washington industry insiders and policy experts about how to expand programs and qualify their benefits.

Past efforts, like the weatherization and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Programs or green job training (PDF), focused only on one group (typically low-income people) or only generally referred to disadvantaged communities. In contrast, a Green New Deal directly takes on historic social and economic injustices as a core goal. It names the communities in question, from the elderly, to the low-income, to the indigenous.

The resolution requires that these communities be involved in the development of the Green New Deal resolution’s details as much as being equal recipients to its eventual benefits. And it highlights the many grassroots environmental and climate justice activists who have struggled for energy and climate programs that are inclusive of populations who are typically absent from the policy table but are at environmental ground zero.

A Green New Deal will also likely be compared with the provisions of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) (PDF). Both call for green job training, expansive weatherization assistance, and increased renewable energy and energy-efficiency research programs. Both efforts’ approaches and proponents combined the simultaneous challenges of climate change and income inequality with proposed benefits accruing through large environmentally focused workforce and economic development initiatives.

But one difference between the two efforts is ARRA’s reliance on programs that already existed in the federal government—like workforce training (PDF), energy research (PDF), and weatherization—many of which involved incentives for private-sector players, “shovel-ready” projects, and well-tempered targets. In contrast, a Green New Deal hasn’t committed to any of these current programs and calls for less conventional tactics to reach its massive, comprehensive goals.

Some of the ARRA efforts, combined with other legislation, like the evolving greenhouse gas rule, moved the dial in certain areas (like renewable energy use) but ultimately did not lead to environmental or economic transformation. Evidence and lessons learned from ARRA can help inform potential changes to the Green New Deal resolution and expand or revise program options.

What’s next?

The resolution is predicted to stay in limbo for some time because of its far-reaching goals and lean details. Yet, given the massive climate and economic challenges identified, setting such a high bar at the start may be the newest part of a Green New Deal.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks as Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) (R) listens during a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol February 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. Sen. Markey and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez held a news conference to unveil their Green New Deal resolution. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images).

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