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Why the Green New Deal Rollout Was Kind of a Mess

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 07:  U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and other Congressional Democrats listen during a news conference in front of the U.S. Capitol February 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. Sen. Markey and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez held a news conference to unveil their Green New Deal resolution. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Compromise is fun. Right?
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Thursday’s Green New Deal rollout started off as a triumphant moment for the activist left but quickly turned a bit odd and confusing. By the afternoon, it seemed almost as if there were two Green New Deals floating around the Internet, and it was hard to tell which one to take more seriously.

First, there was the official edition, a nonbinding resolution that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced with Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. The sprawling legislative vision board called for zeroing out the country’s net carbon emissions within 10 years while also addressing all sorts of economic and environmental issues. (Clean water, antitrust, and health care all got shout-outs.) It made clear that Green New Dealers don’t merely want to avert climate catastrophe but also intend to use the crisis as a chance to rebuild the foundations of the U.S. economy, much the way FDR did during the Great Depression.

Was it unrealistic? Sure. We’re probably not going to retrofit every building in America for energy efficiency within a decade, as the framework calls for. But sweeping vision statements aren’t usually about practicality. And a careful read revealed that, for all its ambition, the resolution actually represented a compromise of sorts between the new wave of socialism-embracing enviro-warriors, represented by Ocasio-Cortez, and establishment climate hawks like Markey, who co-authored a cap-and-trade bill that passed the House but died in the Senate during 2010. Far-left environmental groups such as the Sunrise Movement, which staged sit-ins in Spaker Nancy Pelosi’s office over the Green New Deal, have threatened to oppose climate legislation that relies on nuclear power, carbon-capture technology, or “market-based mechanisms” to limit carbon, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. This absolutist stance has startled and frightened some more-moderate climate activists and scientists, who believe that power sources like nuclear will be necessary to prevent the planet from frying and are worried that the left might be stumbling into an environmental agenda that will inadvertently doom us by rejecting necessary tools. It’s OK, in their view, to be overly ambitious about taming capitalism; it is not OK to rule out technologies we might need to save ourselves.

The Green New Deal resolution avoided these messy fights simply by staying mum on them. Instead of saying yes or no on nuclear, for instance, it set out the goal of “Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” The words carbon tax aren’t in the resolution, which means the idea isn’t being ruled out. The compromise worked. Even if every Democrat wasn’t quite on board, the resolution netted 60 house members and nine Senators, including a bunch of 2020 hopefuls, as co-sponsors.

But then there was the unofficial version. Early in the day, Ocasio-Cortez’s office sent out a FAQ to reporters that read a bit like the Green New Deal Uncensored—as if the resolution had gotten drunk at an office party decided to tell its co-workers exactly what it thought of them. Nuclear? On its way out. “It’s unclear if we will be able to decommission every nuclear plant within 10 years, but the plan is to transition off of nuclear and all fossil fuels as soon as possible.” Carbon capture tech? Not a priority. “We believe the right way to capture carbon is to plant trees and restore our natural ecosystems. CCUS technology to date has not proven effective.” The document even seemed to set its sights on air travel and beef. “We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.” To top everything off, the FAQ suggested Washington could pay for the plan essentially by printing money, thereby going full Modern Monetary Theory.

Ocasio-Cortez’s office eventually sent a followup email, claiming it had accidentally sent an “old” version of the FAQ. The newer, slightly toned-down one was posted on the congresswoman’s website, before eventually being taken down. But the FAQ made its way around Twitter, where it inspired mockery and consternation among the right and center-left.

All this created a great deal of confusion. Which document actually represented the real green new deal? As one of my baffled colleagues asked, what was canon and which was fanfic? At a press conference with Markey and Ocasio-Cortez, reporters pressed the politicians on the issue of nuclear power. Markey, for his part, seemed displeased about the whole thing. “The resolution is silent on any individual technology which can move us toward a solution of this problem. This is a resolution that does not have individual prescriptions in it, so it is silent,” Markey told reporters. The FAQ, he reiterated, was “not part of the resolution.”

It is unclear exactly why Ocasio-Cortez’s office decided to release a document that undermined their own legislative handiwork. Neither her press team nor her chief of staff has returned my requests for comment, and they generally seem to be keeping quiet about the matter. But after hearing a few different theories about what may have transpired, I think there are basically two ways to look at it.

One obvious read is that the FAQ simply represents Ocasio-Cortez’s unfiltered views, and she will continue a push a version of climate policy along the lines it lays out. If so, that’s obviously important to know, given that she’s the brightest new Democratic star in the House, and maybe in all of Washington. She’s helped vault climate policy to the front of the party’s agenda. But many moderates are going to hesitate to go along with the program if they think the end goals are not-so-secretly extreme and misguided.

Another way to look at the situation, though, is that the FAQ is essentially just a list of points that Ocasio-Cortez and her office lost on while negotiating the resolution with Markey. Most of the things that raised an uproar on Twitter—like wiping out America’s flatulent steer population—were not included in the resolution, after all. If you keep that in mind, the side-documents look more like an attempt to save face with left-wing activists, a promise that Ocasio-Cortez will keep fighting for their priorities even if the vast majority of Democrats won’t ever embrace them. As Markey suggested, the resolution is canon; the FAQs are fanfic. And if you think the most important thing about this week’s resolution was the fact that other Democrats embraced it, then Ocasio-Cortez’s personal priorities are less important than what actually appeared on the page. After all, she can’t tweet bills into law.

In the end, this mini-controversy matters only insofar as it shows that there are still sharp divides among different parts of the climate movement. Preventing disastrous global warming will require those sides to come together on a program. But while the Green New Deal’s messy rollout shows that consensus may be a challenge, the proposal is, fundamentally, a step in that necessary direction.