Democratic leaders all but killed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s push for a select committee on a Green New Deal on Thursday, essentially returning to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s original plan to appoint a party stalwart to chair a revived global warming panel.
Activists said Thursday they’d continue the fight. But the announcement seemed to signal an end to weeks of protests and political bird-dogging by activists who had quickly garnered support for a resolution establishing a Green New Deal select committee from more than 40 incoming or sitting House Democrats and nearly a half-dozen senators, including three likely presidential contenders.
In that, the congresswoman-elect from New York can claim victory.
The push forced a sea change in climate politics, pushing the policy debate from stagnant, wonky and dubious solutions centered on market tweaks to sweeping, dramatic policies that scientists say could actually make a dent in surging greenhouse gas emissions.
For years, the Republican Party’s unabashed embrace of the oil, gas and coal industries established its outright denial of the near-universally accepted science that burning fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change.
That freed the Democratic Party, beholden to its own donors in the industry, to take a wishy-washy stance, righteously assuming the mantle of “the party that believes in science” without having to advocate for policies that would seriously affect deep-pocketed interests.
In 2009, when Barack Obama was president and the party controlled both houses of Congress, Democrats’ big legislative push on climate was a cap-and-trade bill, a relatively conservative greenhouse gas policy first devised by Republican economists.
When the bill failed in the Senate ― reportedly because the White House urged party leaders to prioritize health care reform and retreat ― Democrats went adrift on the issue. Climate change barely came up during the 2016 presidential election, despite huge difference between the Democratic primary opponents and a gaping chasm between nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, who dismisses climate change as “a hoax.”
Trump’s election during one of the hottest years on record helped ignite a new political fury over runaway greenhouse gas emissions. The Trump administration’s aggressive rollback of regulations to curb climate change and decision to install fossil fuel executives and industry allies in key environmental posts hardened the Republican Party’s stance on the issue and gave Democrats an easy avatar around which to rally.
Ill-fated proposals to deal with climate change started to roll in.
In April 2017, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced a bill to effectively end fossil fuel use by 2050. In July of that year, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) proposed a carbon tax bill alongside companion legislation by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.).
The following September, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) introduced the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, mandating 100 percent renewable energy throughout the country by 2035, ending all subsidies to drilling, mining and refining companies, and providing funding to workers to transition into new industries.
Then came Ocasio-Cortez.
In June, the avowed democratic socialist won a shocking primary victory against Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), one of the most senior Democrats in the House and a powerful deputy of Pelosi. Her campaign platform called for a Green New Deal, at the time described vaguely as 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 and 1940s-style economy-wide mobilization. It was essentially a clarion call to go to war against fossil fuel emissions.
Adding to the urgency of her plan was the report in October from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found that, to avoid cataclysmic warming beyond 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, world governments needed to halve global emissions in just 12 years. When the Democratic National Committee’s decision to backtrack on a ban on fossil-fuel corporate donations in August, the party’s rift on climate change became apparent.
The 28-year-old former bartender from the Bronx became an overnight celebrity. She cultivated allies.
By the time Ocasio-Cortez cruised to an easy victory in the Nov. 6 general election, roughly half a dozen other insurgent Democrats who won were campaigning on a Green New Deal.
Their campaigns served as rallying points for the Sunrise Movement, a progressive climate justice group focused on young people. After Pelosi made it clear that Democrats’ primary plan to address climate change was to revive a defunct select committee to study the issue, the group ― buttressed by the left-wing group Justice Democrats ― planned sit-ins in the party leader’s office.
Late Thursday, the Sunrise Movement vowed to continue pushing for a Green New Deal committee.
Evan Weber, the Sunrise Movement’s political director, said in a statement: “Nancy Pelosi has the power to determine whether or not the Select Committee for a Green New Deal lives or dies. Sunrise Movement’s position is and will continue to be that it’s not over until she makes it clear that it’s over.”
Ocasio-Cortez joined the demonstration, garnering headlines and astounding a Washington establishment accustomed to new lawmakers who politely pay dues to the party elders. To streamline the effort around a specific goal, she produced a draft resolution to establish a select committee on a Green New Deal ― a counter-proposal to the Pelosi plan.
As it picked up support from dozens of Democrats, it seemed likely at one point to come to fruition. But by this week, it became clear Pelosi and her allies were putting up roadblocks, stripping the hypothetical select committee of subpoena and legislative powers. On Thursday, Pelosi’s decision to tap Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) to lead the restored select committee on climate change confirmed the Green New Deal resolution’s demise.
It’s unclear what comes next. Last Friday, more than 300 state and local officials announced their support for a Green New Deal in a widely publicized open letter. Hours later, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) became the third likely 2020 presidential contender to offer his full-throated support for the Green New Deal. On Monday, a new poll showed an eye-popping 81 percent of registered voters supported the policies outlined under the Green New Deal resolution ― including 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of self-described conservative Republicans. So the direction is apparent.
Just ask Castor.
“The Green New Deal is full of very promising ideas and passion and energy,” she told HuffPost on Thursday evening. “I think they’re going to breathe life into a select committee on the climate crisis.”
This article has been updated with a statement from the Sunrise Movement that it plans to continue to fight for a select committee.