A Green New Deal Is Still Possible, Just Not the Way You Imagined

Passing a single sweeping piece of legislation won’t happen, experts predict, but lots of smaller climate actions could add up to something big.
January 19, 2021, 12:00pm
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls on President-elect Joe Biden to take bold action on climate change outside Democratic National Committee headquarters on November 19​, 2020.
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls on President-elect Joe Biden to take bold action on climate change outside Democratic National Committee headquarters on November 19, 2020. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the hours before thousands of Trump supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, climate activists allowed themselves to dream big. “The decade of the Green New Deal has just begun,” declared the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate group allied with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, in response to Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff winning their Georgia elections and giving Democrats a majority in the Senate for the first time in a decade.

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“With Democratic control of the Senate, we have the opportunity to make our post-virus economic recovery a green one, and we can do it on a massive scale,” Democratic Sen. Edward Markey told VICE News. In 2019, he and Democratic House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the original Green New Deal, a sprawling resolution which called for the creation of millions of climate emergency-fighting jobs along with a 100 percent transition to clean energy and huge investments in clean manufacturing. “The Green New Deal is the kind of economy-wide job and justice creation mobilization we will need,” he said.

But Democrats only have 51 votes in the Senate, the slimmest possible majority; nothing climate-related will pass without the votes of moderates like Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator who voted against the 2019 Green New Deal resolution, saying “we need to focus on real solutions that recognize the role fossil fuels will continue to play.” 

Biden himself has distanced himself from the concept, arguing in October that “the Green New Deal is not my plan.” Meanwhile, 120 Republicans in Congress have objected to certifying Biden as president despite the Capitol Hill riot that left five people dead, and they can use a Senate tool called the filibuster to block any climate bill that doesn’t have a supermajority of 60 votes. 

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Experts contacted by VICE News said many Green New Deal-style actions are still possible—making low-carbon industries a key part of the pandemic stimulus, creating millions of green jobs, employing vast numbers of laid-off oil and gas workers, and moving much faster than before to clean electricity.

But it probably won’t look like what many activists imagine. 

“A lot of advocates think of things like the Green New Deal and think we’re going to introduce a massive single sweeping piece of legislation,” Mark Paul, assistant professor of economics at the New College of Florida, said. In reality, the best-case outcome could look more like the original New Deal of 1930s, “which was made up of dozens and dozens of different pieces of legislation that in retrospect was looked back upon as this grand project,” he said. 

Here’s how experts think that could play out in the months and years ahead. 

‘Hundreds of billions’ of dollars in federal green spending

Biden wants to move fast on climate change. On Day One of his presidency he will likely strike down the Keystone XL pipeline, which was proposed to deliver 830,000 barrels of oil per day from the Canadian tar sands. And he said that details of a green stimulus, which will complement his $1.9 trillion plan to fight the coronavirus pandemic, will be unveiled next month. “It will make historic investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, innovation, and research and development in clean energy,” he said

Spending big on clean energy, green buildings, and research into low-carbon technology could “deliver large economic multipliers, reasonably quickly, and shift our emissions trajectory towards net zero,” according to a survey of 231 central bank officials, financiers and other economic experts conducted by researchers at Oxford University earlier this year. 

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It is also apparently popular with many conservatives. Fox News broadcast the results of a poll on election day in November suggesting 70 percent of voters somewhat or strongly favor “increasing government spending on green and renewable energy.” A more recent poll from Yale University and George Mason University supports that finding.  

Even some Republicans accept the strong economic case for green investment, as evidenced by the $35.2 billion in clean energy research, tax credit extensions for wind and solar, and other climate spending approved by the GOP-controlled Senate in December. “That’s a real model of what’s possible,” Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said. 

Biden’s green spending over the coming months probably won’t be at the scale of the $2 trillion he promised in his climate platform. “But certainly I think something in the hundreds of billions seems like a realistic possibility,” Dan Farber, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said. “That’s still a huge amount of money that would make a big difference.”

New climate jobs for Black, brown, and low-income people

Biden believes that his unprecedented stimulus proposals could help ease the dire financial challenges faced by many communities of color. “The return on these investments in jobs, racial equity will prevent long-term economic damage, and the benefits will far surpass the cost,” he said

That’s because the job losses resulting from the pandemic are not hitting Americans equally. Unemployment for white workers increased from 3 percent to 9 percent from January to June 2020, according to a ProPublica investigation. For Black workers, unemployment grew from 7 percent to 15 percent during the same period. Racialized people are more likely to work in lower-paying service jobs that aren’t possible to do remotely, a recent Federal Reserve Board study found

Evidence suggests it’s cheaper for the federal government to put people back to work in green industries, which tend to be labor-intensive, as opposed to polluting ones, which require fewer workers. One study cited by the Oxford researchers calculated that $1 million in public spending on renewables would potentially create 7.49 jobs, compared to 2.65 for fossil fuels. 

High levels of federal green spending, especially if 40 percent were explicitly directed to disadvantaged communities as called for in Biden’s platform, could go a long way towards addressing racial and income divides in the U.S. “Solutions to address climate change and the economic inequality crisis go hand in hand,” Paul said. 

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Getting the support of moderate Democrats like Manchin is theoretically possible, despite the senator’s ongoing support for pipelines and petrochemicals. The senator said in December he wants to “create high quality jobs and ensure the United States continues to lead the world in the clean energy future.” And he recently spoke in favor of 1930s-style New Deal-type stimulus. “Jesus criminy, can’t we start some infrastructure program to help people, get ‘em back on their feet?” he asked Washington Post reporter Mike DeBonis.

Manchin and other Democratic moderates will oppose any legislation phasing out the use of fossil fuels, predicts Daniel Aldana Cohen, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who helped research and write Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, which called for a $172 billion investment in making public housing greener. But getting his vote for a disparity-reducing green jobs program could be easier. 

“I don’t see Joe Manchin taking a stand against energy retrofits going to low-income homes,” Cohen said. “You have some Green New Deal ideas around housing, around transportation, that I think you would be able to pass with a very tight majority.”

Green New Deal jobs for laid-off oil and gas workers 

The pandemic has been brutal for workers in polluting occupations. More than 118,000 people in the oil, natural gas, and coal industry lost their jobs between March and August last year, and with demand for fossil fuels expected to stay low due to COVID restrictions, many of those jobs could take a long time to return, Deloitte predicts—if they come back at all. 

Many of those people could be put back to work immediately cleaning up the fossil fuel industry’s toxic aftermath, said Megan Milliken Biven, a former policy analyst for the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Management. “We can say, ‘we’re going to turn oil and gas jobs into Green New Deal jobs,’” she said. 

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Biven is referring specifically to the idea of getting drilling engineers, geologists, air quality specialists, and others to identify and decommission millions of abandoned oil and gas wells across the U.S., which leak methane and contaminate people’s drinking water. “This is very similar work to what they’ve been doing already,” she said.

Biden is apparently on board. Last summer he said that there’s “more than a quarter million jobs right away to do things like plugging millions of abandoned oil and gas wells that exist all across the country, posing daily threats to the health and safety of our communities.” Such a plan is also supported by a coalition of 31 oil-producing states. 

If Democrats want to prevent Republicans from re-taking the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, then they need to give voters something to mobilize around, experts said, and putting to work hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers could be part of that.

Clean energy gets turned into federal law

Financial markets are betting that a Biden administration is going to go big on clean energy. Over the past week or so, investors have put more than $4 billion into energy funds supporting wind, solar, and other cleaner projects. Investor’s Business Daily explains that they are “speculating on an environmental infrastructure boom.”

Biden promised during his campaign to implement a plan for “100 percent clean energy.” That might sound extreme, but 17 states including Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado have already adopted some version of this target, according to the Clean Energy States Alliance. 

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The traditional route of getting Congress to pass such a standard won’t work, because Democrats would need to overcome the filibuster. But Stokes argues that a plan for 100 percent clean energy could be included in a budget bill, which only needs a simple majority to pass. This is how Trump’s administration was able to bring in massive tax cuts for the wealthy.  

“I think we have a big shot of getting some great climate legislation though,” Stokes said. 

Climate advocates are far from unanimous in thinking that a clean energy standard could be passed through this process. But any federal plan to rapidly scale up renewable energy could find support in unlikely places, Biven said, like her home state of Louisiana, for example. 

“The reality is that the Gulf of Mexico oil production has really dwindled over the past 10 years,” she said. Accelerating an offshore wind industry could provide business opportunities for shipyards, offshore supply vessels, and other support industries “that are looking for something else to plug into.” 

With Senate control, the options for Green New Deal-style actions are greater than they’ve ever been, Farber said. 

“Their best strategy is not to go for some big headline bold transformative action,” Farber said. “But to go for a dozen or couple dozen of important actions that when you add them up are really big.” 

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.