For the first time in a decade, climate change is being discussed on the Senate floor. And it’s not just Democrats who are talking. The entire national political system is wrapped up in the debate over how to address climate change, even as the Trump administration continues to reject the threat.
The trigger behind this renewed interest in climate change was the Green New Deal. Despite being a political flop, the resolution has managed to capture national attention in a way that lengthy climate reports, protests, and anomalous weather could not.
Shifting Tides on Climate
The Green New Deal came at the right moment. In a recent survey by Yale and George Mason Universities, the number of Americans “very worried” about climate change has increased by 8%, to almost one-third of the population, since just last year. At the same time, media coverage of climate change in major outlets like the New York Times has skyrocketed in the past two years.
Part of the reason for this is that the effects of climate change are becoming more tangible in the US than they were a decade ago. The US was hit with a rapid succession of extreme weather events, like flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, the near-total destruction of Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, bitter cold and flooding across the Midwest, and historic wildfires in California, over the past two years. At the same time, scientists have been able to link these events to climate change with more certainty than ever before. The result is that the public and media are paying closer attention to climate change – and inching closer to demanding large-scale changes – than ever before.
Still, the shift in national opinion on the issue of climate change has been slow to percolate into national politics. The Trump Administration has been rolling back emissions regulations with little coordinated pushback. House and Senate members – including Democrats – have been virtually silent on climate change since Republicans took the House in 2010. And with few exceptions, climate change remained out of national politics during the 2018 midterm elections as Democrats failed to put together a policy platform on the issue.
Into that void stepped the Green New Deal, driven in large part by the rising public voices of climate youth activists demanding action.
Sparking the Debate
The resolution was a moonshot from the start. The Green New Deal called for the US to go carbon-neutral within 10 years – something that environmentalists and economists alike believe to be unrealistic. At the same time, it lacked real policy prescriptions for how to achieve any sort of systematic emissions reductions. Just weeks after it was introduced, Republicans are aiming to bring the Green New Deal up for a vote on the Senate floor as a way to embarrass and damage Democrats.
But in shooting for the moon and missing, the Green New Deal at least got off the ground. For the first time, climate change is front and center in national politics.
After years of dodging questions on climate change to the frustration of environmentalists, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly called for legislative action to address emissions and publicly berated Republicans’ inaction on climate change in speeches from the Senate floor. The Democratic party is also now searching hard for a politically viable path towards emissions reductions – one that they can run on in 2020 and beyond.
Thanks to the Green New Deal, climate change is also likely to play a major role in the upcoming presidential elections. Four Democratic presidential candidates signed on as co-sponsors to the resolution, while numerous others expressed support for action on climate change in its wake. Meanwhile, Jay Inslee, Washington governor, launched his 2020 presidential campaign on a platform entirely centered around battling climate change.
Even Republicans haven’t remained immune from the injection of climate change into the national political debate. An increasing number of Republican voters believe that their party needs to address climate change, and the admission that climate change is real is now standard within the Republican party. While Republicans have gladly mocked the Green New Deal, several House members have taken up the mantle of developing conservative climate legislation – potentially including a carbon tax – with the backing even of the oil industry.
Can the Climate Discussion Maintain Momentum?
Still, there are some questions over how effective this lightning rod will be for the environmental movement in the long-run. The Green New Deal exposed a deep fracture in the Democratic party between moderate Democrats and the more liberal wing of the party, which could prevent meaningful political action or water down any future platform on climate change.
Moreover, much like the Green New Deal itself, no party or politician has yet offered a clear route towards reducing carbon emissions. In all likelihood, it will be a year or more – deep into or even after the presidential election – before either party coalesces around a concrete climate change platform. Whether the current discussion can maintain momentum on the national stage for that long and whether voters will prioritize climate policy over other hot-button issues like healthcare, the state of the economy, and immigration when it comes time to cast ballots remain to be seen.
In the meantime, the Green New Deal has allowed the debate over climate change to explode onto the national stage in a way that the US hasn’t experienced in the past. With the public, media, and Congress all pushing for and discussing solutions to climate change, the US may be making its first small steps towards addressing this global threat.