Green New Deal Fight: A Short-Term Loss But Gains for Ocasio-Cortez & Allies

Whatever else can be said about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a socialist politician, she’s showing a flair for attracting media attention that could rival Donald Trump’s. Since her upset victory in last summer’s New York primary over Rep. Joe Crowley, then fourth-ranked Democrat in the House of Representatives, Ocasio-Cortez seems to have earned the eternal hostility of part of the rightwing press, and she also intrigues the trend-watching mainstream and the journalists on the liberal left, which makes makes her – for now, anyway – a socialist media star.

For DSA members concerned about climate change, though – and even for those who aren’t – it’s especially impressive to see how AOC has used her celebrity status since November to pressure the Democratic Party establishment over the concept of a “Green New Deal” that would address the world’s growing greenhouse warming crisis while simultaneously revitalizing the U.S. economy. In a move that has drawn plaudits from a host of media outlets ranging from Grist, the Nation and Mother Jones to the men’s fashion magazine GQ, Ocasio-Cortez in late fall submitted a resolution calling for the House Democratic majority in 2019 to create a Select Committee on a Green New Deal that would address the need for immediate action to curb U.S. carbon dioxide emissions while also guaranteeing every American a job, flattening income inequalities in the country, attacking poverty and modernizing the nation’s electric power grid while radically promoting energy conservation.

By mid to late December, the youth-based Sunrise movement, in addition to holding several well-attended sit-ins at the offices of key House Democrats to demand action on the proposal, had won the endorsement of some 43 House members and many dozens of state, local and national nonprofit organizations concerned about climate change, environmental justice and job creation.  

Within the mainstream environmental movement, among left-liberal-radical political organizations national and regional from PDA and WFP to People’s Action and DSA endorsements have cascaded.

In Congress, after the application of some political pressure, Sunrise Movement activists won the public backing of Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the next chair of the House Rules Committee, and the support of civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), likely 2020 presidential contender Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ), and a host of different U.S. representatives from fire-prone California and flood-prone New York and Massachusetts.  

Still other House endorsers include Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), newly elected this fall with DSA’s backing; Rep. Nydia Velazquez of York, a 14-term House veteran whose concerns include support for small businesses, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a sometime champion of entrepreneurial startups representing Silicon Valley; Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), the first Somali-American elected to Congress; DC’s own nonvoting delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton; Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin and Virginia Democrat Gerry Connelly.

A few days ago, however, the returning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disappointed Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise Movement organizers by announcing the establishment of a new select committee on “Climate Crisis” – not Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed Select Committee on a Green New Deal, with extensive powers to delve into climate and economic policy issues over the next two years in preparation for a possible Democratic Party return to control over Congress after 2020 elections.

According to The Hill and other publications following the issue, the proposed Green New Deal panel as Ocasio-Cortes had envisioned it threatened to impinge on the jurisdictional authority of several existing House committees that veteran Democratic lawmakers will be chairing in the new Congress. These lawmakers, notably including Rep. Raul Grijalva of New Mexico who will chair the House Natural Resources Committee and Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey who will chair the Committee on Energy and Commerce, reportedly complained to Pelosi about their prospective loss of power.  Pelosi a few days ago responded by announcing the new Select Committee on “Climate Crisis” in place of what the Sunrise movement and other GND supporters wanted.

Rather than choosing Ocasio-Cortez or some other GND supporter to chair the new panel, moreover, Pelosi named Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) to lead it. She also did not grant the new panel the power to subpoena witnesses, including Trump administration officials, to appear before it, although a similar select committee the Democrats established before the GOP takeover of the House in 2010 did enjoy subpoena power, and used it to question Bush administration energy officials. AOC spokesman Trent Corbin said the committee as it emerges so far “sounds about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.”

The Sunrise Movement’s cofounder and leader Varshini Prakash, in statements to the media, has severely criticized Pelosi’s choice, predicting that the new panel will prove to be just another congressional committee in the tradition of several previous ones that studied climate issues without doing anything significant about them. In an article in TeenVogue Prakash declared “What we’re talking about is survival. What we’re talking about is a fight for our existence, [b]ut let’s be clear — it’ll only happen if millions upon millions of young people are in the streets and at the ballot box calling for it.”

Although the Sunrise Movement is deeply disappointed with Pelosi and the Democratic Party establishment for failing to take a stand against the fossil fuel industry using campaign contributions to bankroll Congress, O’Hanlon said, Sunrise organizers plan to expand their nationwide effort and added: “We’re going to keep growing the movement and pressure all politicians — city, state, and especially the 2020 contenders.”

Writer James Ellsmoor’s remarkable Forbes “Under 30” web account said in addition to addressing climate change, “Social and environmental issues cannot be completely separated. The Green New Deal seeks to address those issues with job guarantees, universal basic income and health care programs. It seeks to mitigate the effects of the entrenched racial, gender and economic inequalities that are contributing to the spread of poverty in the U.S. … The proposal reflects the extent of the economic and social reforms needed to put the United States on the path of [sic] a prosperous future.”

Thus, no matter what the new House Select Committee on Climate Crisis does under the leadership of Kathy Castor -- who as a representative of hurricane-prone and flood-prone Tampa, Fla. has shown at least some signs of taking climate crisis seriously – it appears that the general idea of a Green New Deal to address environmental issues without sacrificing economic prosperity or shafting the poor and jobless has potentially strong support in the media and the minds of many activists and voters. A December opinion poll done by Yale University and George Mason University found that when the basic concepts behind a Green New Deal are presented to average voters, with no markers to indicate which political party or faction is proposing them, some 81 percent of those surveyed are in favor of them. Support ranges from 64 percent among Republicans to 92 percent among Democrats. Other researchers skeptically predict that once partisan markers are attached support would decline.

With that caveat, though, it’s clear that Ocasio-Cortez has enormously increased her credibility and prestige with many activist and environmental organizations with her Green New Deal advocacy. Can DSA members now build on the foundations that she has laid down, and use this issue to make democratic socialism attractive or at least plausible to a much wider population of climate activists and would-be activists than we’ve attracted until now?

Cascading climate disasters are persuading more and more people of the immediacy of the climate threat. However, concern over climate change risks are not likely to transform most liberal American environmentalists overnight into revolutionary or even electorally minded socialists. But if DSA members can take an active and public part in organizing for Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, while demonstrating that we can be cooperative participants in broad-based coalitions working to make the concept into a political reality, we may gain new credibility with a wide range of climate activists that will serve us well in future struggles for a post-capitalist, humane, ecologically sustainable and democratic future. 

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