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The ‘Green New Deal’ isn’t all that new — but maybe this idea’s time has come

Thomas L. Friedman gets credit for coining the term in 2007, but others were thinking along these lines still earlier.

photos of representatives introducing green new deal
I don’t seek to criticize or marginalize Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the Sunrise Movement or anyone else in the GND movement as lacking in originality. That their agenda seems fresh and unprecedented to a lot of people, whose responses tend to be supportive, strikes this onlooker as still another basis for encouragement.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

It is hard to think of a more interesting and encouraging moment in this nation’s recent environmental history than last week’s clumsy rollout of that still-evolving program of environmental/energy/economic policies called the Green New Deal.

Why encouraging? Consider:

  • Despite considerable uncertainty, even disagreement, among its leading advocates about the GND’s current content and what its final shape ought to be, the initiative has strong support among progressive Democrats, including more than 40 members of Congress and a handful of presidential hopefuls. Also among voters, regardless of party.
  • Despite intramural sniping among those Democrats, also among big environmental groups, over such hot-button issues as the acceptability of nuclear power and the necessity of large-scale carbon capture, the main focus seems to be on finding a pathway to consensus — not on the possible futility of going up against Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.
  • Despite a relentless and virtually fact-free mortar barrage from Republicans and climate deniers, public opinion seems to strongly, even instinctively, favor the general notion of new government investment in clean energy and climate protection as a route to jobs growth, improved infrastructure and long-term cost savings.

Why interesting? Chiefly because so little about this Green New Deal is actually new; its clear antecedents stretch back for a few decades, at least.

By noting this I don’t seek to criticize or marginalize Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the Sunrise Movement or anyone else in the GND movement as lacking in originality. That their agenda  seems fresh and unprecedented to a lot of people, whose responses tend to be supportive, strikes this onlooker as still another basis for encouragement:

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Perhaps what we have in the newest Green New Deal is the restatement of valuable and venerable ideas whose political plausibility is emerging at last, because they now seem so inherently sensible.

Thomas L. Friedman is generally credited with coining the term “Green New Deal” in a pair of pieces he wrote for The New York Times in January and April of 2007; they later became part of his book “Hot, Flat and Crowded.”

Without disputing his coinage — memorable phrase-making is among Friedman’s greatest gifts — I’ll just note that similar ideas were already in wide circulation by the late 1990s, when I started writing about environmental policy as a Strib editorialist, and probably sooner.

With “Natural Capitalism” (1999), Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins argued for a new industrial revolution that would achieve sustainable economies based on respect for natural systems and stewardship of natural resources, with government support where necessary. Storm Cunningham’s “The Restoration Economy” (2002) outlined new opportunities for economic growth and business success in watershed restoration, brownfield remediation and other regenerative repairs of industrial mayhem.

Both of these, as I recall, placed considerable emphasis on transitional paths to clean and renewable energy, which has become only cheaper and easier — and far more urgent — in the interim.

If those books came out in less traumatized times, they also had the advantage of being heard in an era when political conversation was much more civil, and somewhat less rigidly partisan.

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Though I can’t retrieve the name of this particular Republican, I cannot forget the moment early in the George W. Bush administration’s environmental rollbacks when a thoughtful lawmaker (possibly lobbyist) came to the Strib to talk to me about his vision of reshaping the GOP by recapturing environmentally minded progressives from the Democrats.

We need to lose the focus on defending greenhouse gases and dirty smokestack plumes, he said. Stop pitting jobs and economic growth against environmental protection. Instead, remind people that conservation is conservative, that markets deliver efficiency, that infrastructure is an investment rather than a purchase, and that private business — sometimes with prudently limited government help — can make clean energy and environmental stewardship into smart business propositions, while eliminating much of the current regulatory apparatus (and its overhead) as no longer necessary.

Fast forward now to 2008 and Van Jones’ “The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems.” This best-seller, which had the misfortune to emerge as the subprime mortgage collapse was driving economic meltdown, focused more directly on the specifics of job creation and this key advantage of “green-collar” employment:

A large share of workers in an expanding green sector are performing intrinsically local functions — unlike loggers, miners and assemblers — so they can go to sleep each night in confidence their employers won’t decide overnight to export their jobs insulating homes, retrofitting HVAC systems, installing solar panels, maintaining wind turbines, building out grids for distributed power generation….

Of the limited opinion polling that has been done on the current iteration of a Green New Deal, the most impressive by my lights comes from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. In December, registered voters were given this description of the proposal:

Some members of Congress are proposing a “Green New Deal” for the U.S. They say that a Green New Deal will produce jobs and strengthen America’s economy by accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. The Deal would generate 100% of the nation’s electricity from clean, renewable sources within the next 10 years; upgrade the nation’s energy grid, buildings, and transportation infrastructure; increase energy efficiency; invest in green technology research and development; and provide training for jobs in the new green economy.

Asked to state their support on a four-point scale — strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, strongly oppose — 81 percent of respondents favored the plan, with half strongly supportive.

Despite their party’s negative messaging about moving off fossil fuels and shifting to renewables,  64 percent of Republicans also favored the plan, and of these about three-fourths were strong supporters. Among independents, 88 percent said they were supporters.

The most interesting thing about these results, at least to me, is the striking degree to which the respondents were essentially uninformed about the Green New Deal: 14 percent had heard “a little,” 3 percent “a lot,” and 82 percent “nothing at all.”

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One way of looking at these results is to consider that support may fade as the GND becomes more specific, and as people hear more about its details, its sponsorship, its potential costs — not to mention opponents’ challenges to its vision. Another way is to consider that this level of support now appears to be essentially reflexive, sort of a no-brainer.

If that’s so, it suggests that while the Green New Deal’s predecessor proposals might not have registered sizable gains in the policy-making arena, they may have had a profound impact on the way Americans think about what’s worthy, what’s right and what’s possible in a world where job growth, decent living standards and environmental betterment are no longer in competition — indeed, may not even be separable anymore.