Green New Deal: Climate Experts Explain How to Make Sense of AOC's New Bill

"The devil is always in the details, of course."

On Thursday, freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dropped a huge plan for American climate policy: a “Green New Deal,” aimed at curbing US contributions to global climate change. Some experts applaud the new ideas regarding climate change’s impact on society floated to the government by this bill, but others warn it’s asking for too much, too soon.

AOC’s proposal is a massive outline of important goals intended to meet “100 percent of the power demand in the United States through renewable and zero-emissions energy sources.” They include updating buildings to meet energy efficiency standards, creating a nation-wide energy-efficient “smart grid,” eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from industries including manufacturing and agriculture, and pushing to make the US a major exporter of green technology, services and experts.

But more importantly, this plan doesn’t skirt the fact that these changes require massive overhauls in the way that all Americans live and work, calling for a “just transition” for marginalized communities including “additional measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs.” Some policy experts believe that this bold, wide-ranging approach is innovative and necessary, while others warn its vast scope may eventually lead to its downfall.

A “Critical” Discussion

Elizabeth Albright, Ph.D., a professor of environmental science and policy at Duke University, tells Inverse that there’s a lot to be happy about in the new bill. “This discussion will be critical for scientists and the public to watch as it unfolds,” Albright tells Inverse.

“The Green New Deal does include goals of justice, climate adaptation, and resilience which are critical in the face of extreme climatic events and expand beyond previous legislation proposals which have had a more narrow focus on GHG emissions.”

climate change flood
Part of the Green New Deal looks to address the concerns of  communities who will have to deal with more climate-related natural disasters. 

With the Green New Deal, AOC looks to apply recent climate science showing how a changing climate will not only impact the environment but also society. In addition to tackling greenhouse gas emissions, it also addresses research showing climate change could have a catastrophic impact on mental health, exacerbate social inequality, affect food supply, and infectious disease.

The Green New Deal’s broad approach has earned the blessing of Ken Kimmell, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He praised the big goals and broad approach of the bill in his statement released Thursday:

It’s refreshing to see members of the House and Senate being guided by science. The Green New Deal resolution acknowledges off the bat the latest, landmark science that shines a light on the toll climate change has on people across the United States, with impacts occurring in every part of the country.

It’s Big, But Is It Too Big?

Other scientists are concerned that the Green New Deal presents broad, worthy goals but lacks a plan for how those goals might be accomplished. University of Vermont political scientist Robert Bartlett Ph.D., who specializes in environmental policy, tells Inverse that the Green New Deal is a “very skeletal proposal” for now, adding that some of the goals seem too lofty to achieve in just ten years.

“Even though most of this is achievable — in part because it is vague and little more than aspirational — there are a couple things in it that could not be achieved in a 10-year national mobilization, even if huge amounts of resources were allocated,” he explains.

Achieving 100 percent renewable energy sources in a decade, for one thing, might be a little too aggressive. “Shifting power sources is a long term endeavor that would, with focus and determination, take multiple decades,” he says.

This sentiment is also echoed by Jesse Jenkins, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, who told NPR that it would be hard enough to reach a carbon neutral landscape by 2050. AOC’s proposal, he said, is “an enormous challenge and will require reductions in carbon emissions much faster than have been achieved historically.”

Going Forward

But maybe being big and lofty is actually the point of this bill. It’s actually “non-binding,” which means that it won’t progress into law; this kind of bill, as NPR puts it, “would potentially affirm the sense of the House that these things should be done in the coming years.”

In other words, what it can do is spark conversation in government about approaching climate change in all aspects of society and serve as an outline for future bills that are specific. This could be problematic: As Bartlett warns, with environmental legislation “the devil is always in the details, of course, and since there are no details here, the devil might eventually pop up anywhere and everywhere.” So, it will be important to track exactly how future legislation will build upon the goals put forth in this deal.

Still, given the increasing urgency of the climate change crisis — NASA and NOAA just declared 2018 the fourth-hottest year on record — it may well be worth floating these big ideas and seeing what happens. Albright, for one, is hopeful that this is the case, and is waiting to see if more specific legislation will come as a result.

“I’m looking forward to seeing more clearly specified legislative proposals that would encourage bi-partisan support and implementation of the broad goals” Albright adds.