Energy & Environment

Climate Policy or Piety?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (at right) hold a news conference for their proposed “Green New Deal” on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., February 7, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The Green New Deal can be whatever AOC wants it to be.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, champion of the Green New Deal, would like to have her cake and eat it too. A few months ago, Ocasio-Cortez admitted — after Jonah Goldberg pointed out that even outright confiscation of upper-class wealth would not pay for her signature legislation — that the Green New Deal would do nothing to address the climate crisis she purports to care so much about. Responding to Goldberg’s tweet, she linked to her bill and explained: “Hey there! Totally get it if you’ve never bothered to read the legislation you’re commenting so authoritatively on. The Green New Deal is a non-binding resolution of values. It does not have a price tag or CBO score and costs us $0 if passed.” Set aside the fact that Goldberg was obviously referring to a FAQ sheet that those who worked on the bill released when the plan was first being discussed. What’s remarkable is that she conceded that her plan for addressing climate change was merely a “resolution of values” — that is, entirely ineffectual.

Upon introducing the Green New Deal in February 2019, Ocasio-Cortez argued that it was a moral imperative that the Green New Deal be enacted. Dismissing concerns that the cost of the program, if implemented, could exceed $90 trillion over the course of the next decade, Ocasio-Cortez insisted that “we have to decide whether we’re going to pay to react or pay to be proactive. I can tell you now, the cost of pursuing a Green New Deal will be far less than the cost of not passing it.” The aforementioned FAQ sheet named “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work” as one of its objectives — an aggressive and no doubt costly pursuit. The congresswoman worried aloud that even the drastic measures she and her Senate co-sponsor Ed Markey (D., Mass.) suggested would prove insufficient. As she told NPR, “even the solutions that we have considered big and bold are nowhere near the scale of the actual problem that climate change presents to us.”

Alas, Ocasio-Cortez’s lofty ambitions seem to have come back down to earth. Instead of reshaping society, she now seeks only the passage of a nonbinding resolution of values. In 2019, climate change was an extinction-level crisis, and the Green New Deal a monumental, but still inadequate, fix. By May 2020, Ocasio-Cortez had made her peace with expressing climate pieties rather than enacting climate policies.

So, what does Ocasio-Cortez believe? Will climate change alter the course of human history for the worse if the Green New Deal is not enacted, with even more radical legislation to follow it? Or is the Green New Deal nothing more than a marketing ploy for an ambitious young politician? A few months ago, the latter seemed more likely. But wait! During Thursday evening’s presidential debate, the earlier, more idealistic Ocasio-Cortez made a reappearance. After she and “The Squad” were invoked by President Trump, who implied that Joe Biden would be a slave to the climate agenda of “AOC plus three,” the congresswoman tweeted, “It’s actually AOC plus 115 because that’s how many House and Senate members have cosponsored the most ambitious climate legislation in American history.” Then she linked to the exact same bill that she had called a resolution of values — the one she had boasted would cost (and do) nothing at all. Once again, the Green New Deal has been transfigured into whatever Ocasio-Cortez needs it to be for her to execute her next Twitter burn.

It would be unreasonable to blame Ocasio-Cortez for acknowledging the reality that, in the current political environment, the Green New Deal — the set of policies advocated in the FAQ sheet, not the pointless resolution she actually sponsors — could not pass either chamber of Congress. However, she shouldn’t be allowed to claim, at the same time, to be saving the world. Nor should she be exempt from being asked what the consequences of the Green New Deal would be if it was ever implemented in a real way. Ocasio-Cortez has purported to be someone who understands the gravity of climate change. It should be insulting to her supporters that she uses the issue as a political asset and branding tool while abdicating any responsibility for defending it on the merits.

In a 2018 primary-campaign ad, Ocasio-Cortez announced that it was time to “acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same” and asserted that the key to achieving real change is “political courage.” On policy grounds, the congresswoman has proven herself distinct from the candidate she beat, but does she possess a surplus of political courage? Her opportunistic motte-and-bailey act on what is supposedly her signature plan suggests not. In a parliament of wannabe pundits, Ocasio-Cortez has established herself as just one more source of noise, albeit a loud one, among many.

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