For the past two years, the Green New Deal (GND) has driven the conversation about how to address climate change. It has been the subject of praise and scorn. Now that we sit on the verge of the Biden Administration and the 117th Congress what future does it have? 

By promising to re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement and saying he will appoint John Kerry as his climate envoy, President-elect Biden has shown his administration will make climate change a priority. Knowing they have an ally in the White House, Congressional supporters of climate action will likely push for new legislation. What form that legislation takes is an open question, however, given its recent prominence the GND would likely be a major part of that debate, even if ultimately it were broken up or watered down through compromise. 

In this context, both supporters and opponents of acting on climate will invoke the GND. So, what exactly is the Green New Deal?  

Since the mid-2000’s the phrase has been used by commentators like columnist Thomas Freidman and critics Van Jones to describe a large-scale mobilization to combat climate change. It was meant to echo President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s, which were large in scale and had a profound impact on American society. 

In its current context, the GND refers to a resolution introduced in Congress that would take the U.S. to greenhouse net-zero gas emissions and meet all energy demand through clean, renewable, and zero-emission sources. These goals would be accomplished by 2030. 

If enacted, as part of a large-scale effort, the proposal would also guarantee every American a job and access to nature, clean air and water, healthy food, a sustainable environment, and community resiliency. To accomplish these goals the U.S. government would increase spending on several key areas including infrastructure, renewable energy and manufacturing, family farms, renovating buildings, public transit, and helping communities impacted by climate change. In addition, the GND would guarantee protections for labour union organizing and potentially new trade barriers. 

Compared to past efforts to address climate change, like cap and trade, which were more market-based approaches this is a significant expansion of the size and scope of action from the U.S. federal government. Since the GND was first proposed by Senator Ed Markey and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there has been considerable debate about how much the program would cost if it were fully implemented. The resolution that was introduced does not include a final price tag, that would be determined by the legislative process. 

The GND is dead…

Right before the November elections many Democrats and climate activists thought the results would give them control of the White House and both Houses of Congress. Under this so-called blue wave, Democrats would be able to implement structural changes in how Congress operates, such as eliminating the filibuster in the Senate and use their majorities to pass progressive policies on a host of issues including the GND. 

However, on election night the blue wave did not materialize. 

Although the Democrats held control of the House of Representatives, they lost several members and saw their majority shrink. At the same time, Republicans held off large scale Democratic gains in the Senate and are likely to hold onto power in the chamber[1]. During the campaign, some candidates ran on the GND and others ran away from it

In addition to those setbacks, following the election, the political environment has not improved for the GND. To begin with, some Democrats have already spoken in support of keeping the filibuster in place regardless of whether they are in the majority. The filibuster is a tactic that has been used to stop climate legislation that was less ambitious than the GND. Getting past a filibuster requires 60 members of the Senate to vote to stop debate so a measure can proceed to a vote. 

In 2021, depending on what happens in the Georgia Senate races, this will require at 10-12 Republican members voting with the entire Democratic Caucus. It is highly unlikely that many if any, Republicans in the Senate would vote for the GND. 

Also, some Democrats who were elected to the U.S. Senate, such as John Hickenlooper and Mark Kelly, stressed that while they supported taking action on climate change they did not support Markey and Cortez’s proposal. News reports have surfaced that certain members of the Democratic caucus blame the party’s position on climate and energy policy with hurting their electoral chances. 

…Long live the GND

Given the results from early November, it appears more moderate climate proposals will be what gets implemented, especially through Executive Orders, in Washington, DC for at least the next two years. However, that does not mean the GND is dead. Proponents of the measure are quick to point out that more than 90 co-sponsors of the legislation were easily reelected, and Vice President-Elect Harris was also a co-sponsor of the bill in the U.S Senate before joining Biden’s ticket and could use her position to influence the new president’s actions on climate. 

Looking ahead, when you factor in how popular the GND is with liberal activists and younger voters, it is likely that this proposal will remain a mobilizing force in the Democratic Party for years to come. Senator Markey did use it as a key part of his primary campaign victory over Congressman Joseph Kennedy in Massachusetts – a state where the Kennedy family had never lost an election. 

While most of the GND’s components will ultimately require legislation being passed through Congress until the political environment improves proponents may want to focus their efforts on state-based efforts. 

With power being spread out in the U.S., governors and state legislatures can try to implement parts of the proposal. State action can later serve as a template for larger national action. Coincidentally, one of the more famous examples of this was how New York State’s reforms and social program during the 1920s were the eventual model for President Roosevelt’s New Deal. In more recent years we have seen states act on issues like lowering prescription drug costs or raising the minimum wage when the federal government is either unwilling or unable to respond. 

Whether the GND resolution becomes law at the state or national level ultimately is a question that will be decided by the voters and the legislative process. However, the Green New Deal’s impact on the climate debate now, despite its temporary electoral shortcomings, should not be ignored and will likely be felt for years to come. 

  [1] On January 5 Georgia will hold a runoff election to determine who wins the state’s two U.S. Senate seats. The results of these contests will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate for the next two years.