I have no idea whether the Green New Deal will result in a federal climate law two or five or 10 years from now. The proposal clearly has momentum on the left. Since early November, I’ve seen the Green New Deal talked about as a story of Democrats in disarray, or as another example of the party’s turn toward socialism. Both analyses miss the mark. The Green New Deal is one of the most interesting—and strategic—left-wing policy interventions from the Democratic Party in years.
As I wrote last year, the Democrats have a problem: They are the only major political party that cares about climate change, but they don’t have a national strategy to address it. Party elites know that they want to fight climate change, of course, but after that the specifics get hazy, and almost no one agrees on what new laws should get passed.
For the past two years, this lack of agenda hasn’t really hampered them, because they could unite around blocking Donald Trump’s deregulation extravaganza. But as Democrats consider the possibility of controlling Congress and the White House in 2020, they will feel more pressure to zero in on a strategy.
For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats can approach climate policy with a sense of imagination. They can also approach it with a sense of humility, because their last two strategies didn’t work particularly well. When the party last controlled Congress, in 2009, Democrats tried to pass a national cap-and-trade bill, a type of policy that allows polluters to bid on the right to emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It failed to pass in the Senate. Starting in 2011, President Obama tried to use the EPA’s powers under the Clean Air Act to fight carbon-dioxide emissions. After President Trump was elected, he terminated that effort by executive order.
Since then, Democrats in Congress have proposed no shortage of climate bills. A few of them even picked up Republican support. Some blue states have also tried to pass climate policy of their own, though the most ambitious of those efforts have failed. And as I wrote last year, the party has encountered new problems in its coalition. Some environmental groups have focused on closing coal plants and blocking pipeline projects, frustrating the labor movement, which appreciates the jobs that those projects bring.
From the successes, a pattern has emerged. Economists tend to prefer policies that work across the entire economy at once by integrating the costs of climate change into the price of gas, food, and other consumer goods. But voters—who have more quotidian concerns than optimally elegant economic policy—don’t always feel the same way. They don’t want gas prices to go up. And that means they support policies that remake one sector of the economy at a time, usually by mandating the use of technology. Economists like to disparage these policies as “kludges” or “command and control.” But Americans like them.
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