Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


With a new House membership comes a Green New Deal — and new attention to climate change on Capitol Hill

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
The “Green New Deal” platform, a wide-reaching set of proposals on climate, energy, and economic policy, has been championed by people like Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota’s 5th District.

After years of being dismissed and denigrated, climate change is back in the spotlight on Capitol Hill.

Weeks before the new Democratic majority even is sworn into office in the U.S. House of Representatives, climate change has soared to the top of the party’s agenda — a place it has not always been — thanks largely to incoming lawmakers who made sweeping action on climate a centerpiece of their campaigns.

Advocates are now hopeful that focus and energy will translate into a new dynamic in Congress — one in which climate change is a top issue. Democrats are poised to use their new authority to not only debate and vote on climate legislation, but also to hold hearings and even create a new special committee on ways to counter climate change.

What’s more, the climate rhetoric coming from the new Democrats is as radical as Congress has ever heard: The “Green New Deal” platform, a wide-reaching set of proposals on climate, energy, and economic policy, has been championed by people like Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota’s 5th District, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, someone who — on the first day of new member orientation in November — demonstrated with activists at Nancy Pelosi’s office, pushing her to adopt the Green New Deal.

It represents a remarkable shift from the last four years of unified Republican control of Congress, during which the majority — populated by people critical of the idea of human-caused climate change — mostly ignored the issue. When they did focus on it, the point was often to discredit the issue by holding skeptical hearings or, in one notable case, by bringing a snowball on the Senate floor as evidence against global warming.

Republicans still control the Senate, and much of the House GOP contingent favoring action on climate either retired or lost in 2018. The Republican president, meanwhile, does not believe in human-caused climate change.

That means that most climate legislation — especially the big stuff favored by the progressive Democrats — is unlikely to go anywhere in the next two years. But that isn’t stopping lawmakers and advocates from treating the Democratic takeover as a landmark moment in D.C.’s climate debate, and one that could lay the foundation for bolder actions on climate later on.

New and old deals

The climate views of the new Democratic majority run the gamut, from the Green New Deal — something which previously existed only on the progressive fringes — to more mainstream policies that Democrats tried to advance the last time they controlled Congress.

The Green New Deal, now supported by Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and more than 30 of their fellow congressional Democrats after a flurry of post-election activism, is capturing the excitement of the progressive base right now. There is a sense of urgency to counter climate change in the wake of President Trump’s reversal of several Obama-era climate policies — not to mention two recent reports, from the United Nations and the U.S. government, that forecast catastrophic damage from climate change if nothing is done.

While the congressional version of the Green New Deal is not officially defined yet — Ocasio-Cortez and others are calling for a special committee to draft a final plan — it will entail a dramatic reshaping of the U.S. relationship with oil, gas, and coal. Blueprints call for 100 percent of U.S. power to come from renewable sources within 10 years, a total reworking of the U.S. energy grid to make it more efficient, and the reduction or elimination of carbon emissions in the agriculture and manufacturing industries.

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
On the first day of new member orientation in November, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrated with climate activists at Nancy Pelosi’s office, pushing her to adopt the Green New Deal.
Initial versions of the plan also call for several left-wing policy proposals, such as establishing a “universal basic income” and a federally backed jobs guarantee, cementing it as a jobs and economy initiative as much as it is a climate and energy-driven initiative.

In a tweet announcing her support, Omar said “as the devastation caused by our changing climate becomes more real, it’s clearer now than ever that we are in desperate need of a #GreenNewDeal. We need urgent action — and real commitment — to break our addiction to fossil fuels.”

The Democrats who aren’t pushing for the Green New Deal, however, still have a lot to say on climate policy. Dean Phillips, the representative-elect for the 3rd District, talked about the issue in his successful 2018 bid, focusing on Trump’s moves, particularly the president’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the 2017 Paris climate accords, which were hailed as an important step toward global action to reduce carbon emissions.

Phillips supports something called the Carbon Fee and Dividend Plan, which would leverage market forces to reduce carbon emissions by imposing a tax on fossil fuels, the proceeds of which would be returned to consumers to insulate them against higher energy costs.

It’s regarded in a similar light as the so-called “cap-and-trade” carbon tax scheme put forth in one of Congress’ most recent significant legislative efforts on climate change, a 2009 bill that narrowly passed the Democratic-controlled House but went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

‘A huge deal’

That a big group of Democrats is pushing these policies in D.C. is an exciting development for climate advocates, who often use words like “despair” to describe the difficulty of pushing U.S. policymakers of both parties to act on climate — or even talk about it — in an era of dire warnings about where the planet is headed.

According to Kevin Lee, a senior staff attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a St. Paul-based advocacy group, the shift in D.C. power dynamics is a “huge deal” for climate policy.

“The really exciting thing about some of the proposals is, this is really the first time I’ve ever seen policy proposals that reflect the scale of the crisis that is climate change,” he said.

He is not expecting that Congress will approve sweeping climate legislation anytime soon. “The real power comes from these new members of Congress,” he said. “Even if we can’t drag the Senate along with us, the momentum that provides to states and local governments is transformative.”

Nicole Rom and Sarah Goodspeed are staff members of Climate Generation, a Minneapolis nonprofit advocacy group. They say they’ve long focused primarily on what gains they could make on the state and local levels in the absence of action from Washington. Neither expects that to change in 2019, but they’re hoping for more from D.C. than before.

Rom said Democrats talking about climate change will help to “normalize” the issue — a benefit she says will trickle down to state-level efforts on climate and energy. “If that’s all Democrats do, keep it in the media and on the radar, it does a lot for the moment with which we can get some action,” she said. (A possible example of that power may come soon: After retaking the majority, key Democratic lawmakers with jurisdiction on climate policy announced they’d be holding hearings in January on tackling climate change.)

She said climate issues helped to fuel the “blue wave” in the 2018 midterm, especially in Minnesota’s suburbs. “There’s no shortage of policy ideas I feel we’ll be sharing with our congressional representatives, to keep the issue moving forward.”

Are Republicans totally a lost cause on climate issues? According to a report in the Atlantic, 20 House Republicans who favored climate action did not win re-election in 2018 — leaving about two dozen Republicans open to climate policy still in office. The views of most members in the smaller GOP House contingent are likely closer to those of Jim Hagedorn, the congressman-elect in Minnesota’s 1st District, who has expressed skepticism about man-made climate change and cast emission-reduction efforts as bad for the economy.

Mike Franklin, president of the Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum, has hope for bipartisan cooperation on climate change — and he believes a vocal contingent on energy and climate issues in D.C. may help bring the GOP along.

“The Democrats are very likely to debate and pass a climate bill that I hope will force the hands of the Republicans and even some moderate Democrats,” he said, “to pivot off whether to do something into what should we do.”

Franklin said Democrats would do well to embrace moderate Republicans who are willing to compromise with them on issues of climate and energy, and expressed concern Democrats were going “overboard” with policies like the Green New Deal.

“Are we doing energy and environmental policy, or are we doing tax policy and public welfare work?” he asked. “I’ve seen a temptation to mix those things a lot, and I hope they don’t. … I’m rooting for a thoughtful conversation, hopefully a bipartisan conversation, on what to do.”

These advocates agree that Democrats have an opportunity to put climate at the top of the national agenda — and to keep it there. Observers are already predicting they will help make climate change a major issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, and possibly in the general election, too.

“This feels substantially different than other things that have happened in the past,” Lee said of the Democratic takeover. “There’s a level of not just enthusiasm but engagement on the issue that I’ve never seen before — and that is different, that is substantially different.”

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/14/2018 - 10:41 am.

    If Franklin and his moderate Republicans are serious about addressing climate change, they need to embrace Green Democrats.

  2. Submitted by John Webster on 12/14/2018 - 11:52 am.

    Nowhere in this cheerleading essay is there even a hint of technological reality. “Blueprints call for 100 percent of U.S. power to come from renewable sources within 10 years, a total reworking of the U.S. energy grid to make it more efficient, and the reduction or elimination of carbon emissions in the agriculture and manufacturing industries.”

    No energy experts in the real world believe those goals are even remotely possible given the current state of scientific knowledge. The only way to achieve those goals would be to radically decrease the amount of energy used per capita, which would result in a major economic slowdown and a huge decrease in the average standard of living in America.

  3. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/14/2018 - 05:00 pm.

    Unfortunately it appears that China and India will increase their use of fossil fuels in amounts that will be greater than U.S. reductions, but some progress is better than none despite the effects on the economy.

    • Submitted by Peter Pesheck on 12/19/2018 - 07:56 am.

      Fine… so let’s develop the technology, infrastructure, and jobs in the US, and take “the US is doing it too” excuse off the table.

      Climate is changing faster than models predict, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating. More people should be aware of just how scary things could get if we don’t act soon (see recent IPCC report and Ron Meador’s Oct 15th MinnPost column). If we dally too long or do too little, our kids and grandkids will probably face very difficult prospects. If the oceans warm sufficiently to release huge quantities of methane, now trapped in the cold depths of the ocean, rapid extinction is a possibility. Even if we didn’t go extinct, life under those conditions would be very difficult and very unpleasant.

      Or, we could get busy, now, as if the lives of our kids depend on it. It’s time to quit arguing with climate deniers. We can talk with those who are truly interested, or are truly misinformed but have an open mind. A closed mind will not be a particularly useful trait if/when things go down hill, so those with newly-opened minds can be welcomed if/when they come around.

      If you read Ron Meador’s Oct 15th and follow up with the link to Jem Bendell’s paper, be prepared to be badly shaken (I had trouble sleeping for a couple of weeks). I’ve followed web response to Bendell’s stuff and so far haven’t seen (as far as I can tell) any assessments from the Climate Science community. Katharine Hayhoe, discussing the general reticence of climate scientists to convey alarming news to the public (they don’t want to scare the horses), commented recently about the IPCC report, essentially saying that ‘if they say it’s bad, you can probably figure that it’s REALLY bad’ (not an exact quote, but an honest reflection of what she said).

  4. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/14/2018 - 05:35 pm.

    I’m actually looking forward to the arrival of this bunch of extremists. Absolutely nothing of any importance will get passed and the prospective spectacle of dozens of investigations going with frustrated leftists screeching in the background will be highly entertaining.

    And finally, conservatives have absolitely nothing to lose. Even if Trump was successfully impeached, a President Pence would be very acceptable, bringing focus on a whole new batch of issues and the assurance that he’d pick a very qualified candidate to replace Ginsberg.

  5. Submitted by Michael Miles on 12/14/2018 - 07:36 pm.

    The next time some political person makes noises about how his/her party will save the planet under the current economic and political regimes please consider the following.

    In October, 2018 a report by the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Scientists, stated that the planet must cut it’s CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030, (twelve years from now), and 100% by 2050. Failure to do so will result in a climate that is warmer on the average of 2 degrees Celsius.

    The interesting part of this statement to keep in mind, as this level is an average, therefore a composite of all temperatures on our vast planet.

    Right now we have reached 1 degree Celsius, on average and are experiencing 500 year floods every couple years, massive hurricanes, double the number of wildfires, due to a combination of increased drought, and billions of dead trees killed by pine bark beetles that previously were killed by cold winters, but now flourish in our new climate.

    We are have experienced flash droughts in the northern plains of the US that have wiped out half our our wheat crops.

    What the IPCC has predicted is that these calamities will increase dramatically, resulting in more fire, floods, droughts, famines and massive human migration. They also estimate that failure to take action may make it economically impossible to stop a runaway climate that could end in human extinction.

    Naturalists are currently also reporting a massive extinction event ongoing around the planet that is resulting in the loss of 70-80% reduction of insects. The knock-on effects of this reduction to the global food web is a massive reduction in animals dependent upon those insects and rapid increase in the rate of species extinction.

    While the statement of the IPCC has been claimed by some too extreme, primarily the fossil fuel industry, others in the scientific community, specifically ice scientists, claim that the IPCC has acted cowardly as their models in this report still do not take into account the fact the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, therefore ignoring melting permafrost, and increased methane emissions that are already an ongoing feedback loop that no one has figured out how to manage.

    Given the enormity of the problem it seems to me that the press and political parties are either in total denial, or still very timidly eating around the edges of this, and do not understand the economic transformation and dislocation that we must undergo to meet this goal. Also people still seem to think we actually have a choice. As if they ignore this problem and continue business as usual things will get better. This is magical and deluded thinking.

    Consider what will happen in the United States in the upcoming years as we continue business as usual.

    First, with heat and drought, food will become much more expensive. Given the economic structure of our society there will be many more poor people, meaning increased disease, increased mortality, increased migration for people fleeing unlivable conditions. This will also result in more wars, as advised by the Pentagon, as the most dangerous security threat in our future. The call for open borders will seem a quaint memory when climate migrants flee starvation from the south and eventually when places further to the north, like Canada builds its fences and walls.

    We did not get here in the last two years, but rather around 100 years, with an exponential growth in CO2 emissions in the past 50 years under both Republican and Democrat administrations. This is not political, this is a result of a cultural belief system that the planet is infinite, which we are now discovering is plain foolishness.

    Next consider the cost of what we must accomplish. Some adjustments that we must accomplish in twelve years include:

    • shutting down 45% of our oil refineries, shutting down 45% of our oil pipelines, shutting down 45% of our coal plants, replacing them all with either alternative energy, or with nuclear plants.
    • build a high speed train network throughout the country to replace airline travel,
    • obtain electric vehicles that are cheaper than gas guzzlers, and get half of the population to buy them. Currently China controls 70% of all rare earth refinement. It has taken them 20 years to develop this industry to a competitive state with much government funding and direction. Some industry analysts say this time frame is typical for an processing industry startup. In the United States, at least to my knowledge there has not yet been a Federal movement to create massive incentives for rare earth refinement. This means we will have to get along with the Chinese to attempt to meet our goals, at least until we can get up to speed,
    • restructuring our transportation infrastructure to encourage more mass transit, and short trip vehicles, such as bicycles, e-bikes, electric scooters, etc,
    • restructuring our cities infrastructure to consolidate commercial zones, and reducing sprawl,
    • change the way we work,
    • change the way we eat.

    The IPCC has put it’s hopes on direct air capture as a way to reduce CO2 emissions but currently it costs approximately $400/ton to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, while coal is going for $40/ton. They have nixed the notion of geo-engineering as a stop-gap measure to temporarily reduce the temperature of the planet, for fear of unforeseen effects, while totally ignoring that we have been performing geo-engineering on a massive scale for the past 200 years, which now results in a 22% dimming of sunlight reaching the earth due to SO2 emitted by coal plants.

    This points to the fact that this is probably the most difficult problem in history beset by man, and must be addressed as such, and incredibly quickly, given it’s serious consequences. A full 70% of all people in the country recognize this problem, and are expecting the government to take positive action. This will take an economic transformation away from neo-liberalism, where industries have a seat in the regulatory process, as the current fossil fuel producers control our government, control international processes, control our press, and have no intention of giving up their profits, even if it means human extinction.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/15/2018 - 09:43 am.

    Again, apparently authors can’t resist the impulse to label policies that scientist have been recommending for decades as: “extremist”. This impulse to label rational politicians or agendas as extremist simply because their agendas and policies were previously ignored or suppressed by reactionaries and radical centrists is just plain goofy. Just because you’re not familiar with something, or it hasn’t been seriously discussed among consensus driven pundits, doesn’t make it “radical” or “extreme”.

    Again I will suggest: The practice of labeling policies and agendas and those who support them according to manufactured “spectrums” has the practical effect of marginalization, even when the article itself is sympathetic (as this one is). Forget the “spectrum” and focus on policy, strategy, and rationale. If you MUST label these things call them what they are: historically dismissed, ignored, or marginalized perspectives, agendas, and policies- THIS describes politicians and people like Omar, and even Sanders. For that matter, it also describes a lot of Trump supporters. This reliance on a manufactured and artificial political “spectrum” ends up ignoring political reality while pretending to describe it.

    This business of labeling actually obscures reality and interferes with our ability have rational policy discussions. The significant quality of any emerging agenda or policy is that it challenges or competes with EXISTING policies, priories, and agendas…. in other words, this about power, not locations on manufactured political spectrum’s. The truth is the status-quo doesn’t resist change because it’s “radical” or “extreme”, it resists change because it trying to preserve it’s power and influence. The policies that Omar and others are advocating aren’t: “radical”, “left wing” or “extremists”… but they ARE disruptive to the status-quo.

    Single payer hasn’t been marginalized as a plausible health care solution because it’s “left wing” or “radical”, it’s been marginalized because it’s hugely disruptive to the current health care market. The nature of power, and power dynamics that prevent or promote policy, is a critical discussion we need to have if want to make effective policy and set reasonable agendas and priorities. The practice of “labeling” policies and advocates pretends that power and resistance are irrelevant because “margins” are irrelevant.

  7. Submitted by Janette Dean on 12/16/2018 - 04:56 pm.

    Most sane people around the world are aghast that American legislators still want to take baby steps to address the all-encompassing climate change catastrophe we are unfolding through rapid global warming. We need a rapid Green New Deal and we need it NOW. A rise of 1-6 degrees Celsius is a huge amount of change when the average surface temperature has been about 13-14 degrees Celsius since modern record-keeping began. Most media never even mention the average temperature so Americans are clueless and continue to sleepwalk while our governments allow the Sixth Mass Extinction to come closer and closer. We are in a global Greenhouse Gas Chamber that fossil fuel companies keep trying to worsen, and Republicans are committing crimes against humanity and nature; they should be prosecuted and put in jail for their corrupt efforts to harm all of us including my own awful Rep-elect Jim Hagedorn who is aiding and abetting fossil fuel polluters by expressing “skepticism about man-made climate change and cast emission-reduction efforts as bad for the economy.” We all know that protecting our planet and ourselves with the utmost urgency through a renewable energy-based sustainable world is the only appropriate action we can take to ensure a stable economy and world which, right now, is continuing headlong into chaos as our climate-dependent ecological systems fail and life forms suffer, including we human beings.

    • Submitted by Peter Pesheck on 12/19/2018 - 10:17 am.

      I the worst happens, the economy we know could well be gone. How much water or food could you get, trading for a sharp knife, a box of .22 rounds, or a good book? How will we defend ourselves against roving bands of armed gun-nuts looking for food, water, etc. At this point, please use your imagination to consider what else they might take. The price of inaction (driven by complacency, modern comforts, corporate need for profits, and business as usual politics) could be very, very high.

      If we get busy now, we invest in technology development and benefit via the ensuing jobs and fruits of technological leadership, it’s a very different future. Ask yourself, your politicians, and the people leading the media you consume, why didn’t we start on this path 20 years ago?

Leave a Reply