What's So 'Radical' About Taking Climate Change Seriously?


On Sunday, newly-sworn in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was interviewed on 60 Minutes about something that should be, at this point, easy enough to agree on: the planet is heading toward climate disaster unless world leaders take radical, purposeful, and sustained steps to mitigate the crisis. But Anderson Cooper’s questions about Ocasio-Cortez’s vision on climate—a program called the Green New Deal that advocates hope can serve as a road map to developing the kinds of policies required to meet the problem in force—did not engage with the substance of the program and instead focused on whether or not a 70 percent tax rate on the super wealthy was politically “radical.”

The Green New Deal aims to move the United States to rely 100 percent on renewable energy sources, eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, and invest in “green” technology that invests in communities of color who have been most affected by climate change, all within 12 years— the time that we have left to change course before extreme weather patterns increase and lead to large-scale disasters like famine, disease, and displacement, according to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Its going to require a lot of rapid change that we don’t even conceive of as possible right now,” Ocasio-Cortez told a skeptical Cooper. “What is the problem with trying to push our technological capacities to the furthest extent possible?”

Unless world governments take serious measures to control greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewable energy within the next decade, the World Bank Group predicts that 140 million people will be forced to relocate by 2050 and, according to the Trump administration’s own report, deadly weather patterns will rise by 50 percent by 2100. But the Trump administration has been recklessly taking America backwards, rolling back Obama-era regulations, supporting oil and gas companies, and has withdrawn the U.S. from the global Paris climate agreement. We are already seeing the consequences: In 2018, carbon emissions rose sharply in the U.S.

The changes necessary to offset catastrophe are, much as Ocasio-Cortez told Cooper, an extreme break from politics as we currently know them. But Democratic leadership, much like Cooper, seems to reject such an approach out of hand in favor of a more familiar set of politics—which also happened to help create the crisis in the first place.

Last week, in response to pressure from freshman members of Congress like Ocasio-Cortez and activists from the Sunrise Movement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ultimately revived the House Select Committee for the Climate Crisis “to investigate, study, make findings, and develop recommendations on policies, strategies, and innovations to achieve substantial and permanent reductions in pollution and other activities that contribute to the climate crisis which will honor our responsibility to be good stewards of the planet for future generations.” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who will head the Committe, told the Hill that it “will be a committee clearly in the spirit of the Green New Deal.”

The committee’s creation is indicative of both the influence of the Green New Deal, and Democratic leadership’s resistance to such an ambitious program. The committee itself does not reference the Green New Deal, lacks the subpoena power to produce key witnesses and documents, and allows fossil fuel-funded politicians to join the committee, allowing for an inherent conflict of interest with the committee’s mission. The weakness of the committee is just another example of the way that politics as usual, or the politics that Democratic leadership seem most comfortable with, are no longer enough, whether coming out of the mouths of Cooper or Pelosi.

“We are pretty disappointed in the Select Committee for the Climate Crisis. It doesn’t include any provisions that we asked for,” Sunrise Movement co-founder and communications director Varshini Prakash told Jezebel. “We’ve really seen that corporate money in politics and oil and gas money in politics has utterly corrupted our ability to pass the kind of climate policy that we need.”

Yet the creation of the committee, along with Ocasio-Cortez’s backing, reflects the growing influence of the grassroots movement around the Green New Deal, which polls suggest is popular with voters. More than 40 House members support the plan, with Ocasio-Cortez become the most vocal supporter in Congress. Sunrise, founded by Prakash and a handful of other 20-somethings, has a new goal in 2019 and beyond: turning support for the Green New Deal into a “litmus test” for any Democratic presidential candidate.

When Cooper expressed skepticism at Ocasio-Cortez’s ambitious packages, which include single-payer healthcare and tuition-free college, she hit back: “No one asks how we’re going to pay for this Space Force. No one asked how we paid for a two trillion dollar tax cut. We only ask how we pay for it on issues of housing, healthcare, and education.”

Green New Deal backers point out that the package is about reprioritizing the budget, which currently centers around Trump’s anti-immigration agenda in securing a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. “It is not a question about how we pay for it, it’s a question of how we prioritize it,” Prakash said. “In 2017, the GOP gave away $1.5 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthy that I do not think that most people in America have felt the benefits of. We have the money, it’s just a question of where we are investing it. And I would say that the future of the human civilization as we know it, and the right to breath clean air and drink fresh water and live lives with peace and dignity are worth investing in.”

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