Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls the Green New Deal the ‘moonshot’ of our generation. Here’s what to know about the plan and the opposition it faces.

A workman uses a machine to clean panels at a UK solar farm on July 29, 2015.

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A workman uses a machine to clean panels at a UK solar farm on July 29, 2015.
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  • A top policy priority for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a Green New Deal – a comprehensive plan to address climate change in the US.
  • Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced a Green New Deal resolution earlier this month. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could force a vote in the Senate as early as next week.
  • The Green New Deal is a package of initiatives meant to stimulate the US economy by increasing investment in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure projects.
  • Ocasio-Cortez wants the country to implement a carbon-free, 100% renewable energy system and a modernized electrical grid by 2035.
  • But critics are concerned that the plan could cost trillions of dollars.

Anyone who’s followed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise to power has probably heard about the Green New Deal.

It’s an idea touted by some Democrats – including senators Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand – as a way to address climate change by investing federal money in large-scale infrastructure projects that would help the country transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In the process, those projects would ideally create a wealth of American jobs.

Ocasio-Cortez’s version of the plan calls for eventually meeting 100% of national power demand through renewable sources, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, and guaranteeing a job to any citizen who wants to work.

“This is going to be the Great Society, the moonshot, the civil rights movement of our generation,” she said during a climate change town-hall event with Senator Bernie Sanders in December 2018. “That is the scale of the ambition that this movement is going to require.”

Edward Barbier, a professor of economics at Colorado State University, told Business Insider that this type of rhetoric is arguably “the first time that the US – or any major Western economy – has proposed a comprehensive 20-year plan for a green transition.”

Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced a Green New Deal resolution in the House and Senate, respectively, on February 7. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said he plans to force a vote in the Senate before the group’s next recess in August. According to the New York Times, that vote could come as early as next week.

But the Green New Deal resolution creates no specific mandates or programs – it’s legislatively nonbinding – so even if it passes, it wouldn’t dictate any concrete action.

“It’s biggest value may be as a messaging document,” Paul Bledsoe, an advisor with the center-left Progressive Policy Institute, told Politifact.

What’s in the Green New Deal resolution?

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s plan pushes for a series of “10-year national mobilizations” to address climate change, with the ultimate goal of meeting 100% of the country’s power demand through clean, renewable energy sources and cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to net-zero.

To accomplish those goals, the plan would involve major changes to the US’ infrastructure, electricity grids, and transportation systems to make them more sustainable and energy-efficient.

“In 10 years, we’re trying to go carbon-neutral,” Ocasio-Cortez told NPR.

The resolution calls for renovating buildings and infrastructure to be resistant to extreme natural disasters, as well as the creation of “smart” power grids that could augment access to affordable and efficient electricity. It also includes a potential overhaul of the US’ transportation sector in order to eliminate pollution and carbon dioxide emissions by investing in zero-emission vehicles, public transportation, and high-speed rails.

Additionally, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey want the Green New Deal to provide millions of new, high-wage jobs; stronger labor laws and trade unions; and healthcare, higher education, and affordable housing for all. It demands universal access to clean air and water, too.

The new resolution doesn’t call for a ban on fossil fuels like coal and oil, though some environmentalists wanted that. “There’s some real questions as to why there wasn’t a ban called for,” Vijay Das, senior campaign strategist with progressive policy group Demos, told Politico after he read an early draft of the resolution.

Not all democrats are on board, though – Politico also reported that 47 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus plan to introduce an alternative nonbinding resolution this week that urges Congress to act immediately on climate change. Led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, that resolution doesn’t include specific targets or timetables the way the Green New Deal does.

Ocasio-Cortez’s vision for a Green New Deal

On her website, Ocasio-Cortez – who represents New York’s 14th Congressional district – says she considers climate change to be the “single biggest national security threat for the United States and the single biggest threat to worldwide industrialized civilization.”

Ocasio-Cortez and other Green New Deal supporters see the plan as a way to take on that enormous threat while stimulating the national economy at the same time.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addresses the crowd and kicks off the 3rd Annual Woman's March in Manhattan on January 19, 2019.

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addresses the crowd and kicks off the 3rd Annual Woman’s March in Manhattan on January 19, 2019.
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Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Traditionally, those opposed to taking action on climate change have argued that such policies would harm the US economy in the short term, since our energy systems rely heavily on coal, oil, and gas. (That’s the justification President Trump gave when he announced his intention to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement.)

The Green New Deal flips that logic on its head by taking its name and inspiration from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. That initiative included a series of programs introduced during the Great Depression to boost prosperity, protect workers, and provide public-works jobs.

In the Green New Deal’s case, the new jobs would involve work like manufacturing electric cars or retrofitting homes with solar panels.

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Creative commons

Most economists believe a Green New Deal would indeed create jobs, according to Pacific Standard magazine. A 2014 report by economists from the University of Massachusetts­-Amherst noted that cutting US carbon emissions by 40% in 20 years would require an investment of $200 billion annually, but create 4.2 million jobs.

One team member extrapolated those results to give Pacific Standard a rough estimate of how many jobs would be created if the US were to cut 100% of its emissions: somewhere around 6.8 million new jobs.

“It’s critically important for the United States to make the transition to a low-carbon economy,” Richard Howarth, professor and chair of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, told Business Insider. “Implementing the required technologies and infrastructure will create business and employment opportunities that could be targeted to communities in need of jobs and redevelopment.”

In the new resolution, Ocasio-Cortez recognized the need to give extra help to poor communities that could be affected by the way the Green New Deal would alter the US economy, NPR reported.

How do we pay for a Green New Deal?

Critics are increasingly posing questions about how the Green New Deal’s would be funded. The conservative think tank American Action Forum estimated that costs could to between $51 trillion and $93 trillion over the next decade.

Yet a majority of those estimated costs – between $42.8 trillion and $80.6 trillion – would go towards providing jobs and healthcare for all, as Bloomberg reported. Only about $12 trillion would be funneled into curbing carbon emissions.

Plus, Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey argue that the price tag for doing nothing to curb emissions could easily top $93 trillion. The two have pointed to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that estimated the impacts of climate change could cost the US more than $500 billion every year by 2100.

The new resolution didn’t offer specifics about funding, and the draft text on Ocasio-Cortez’s website simply says that “the majority of financing of the plan shall be accomplished by the federal government.”

In a January 60 Minutes interview, she suggested taxing the richest Americans at a rate of 60-70% in order to secure that funding.

But in an op-ed published by CNN, Harvard University economists Jeffrey Miron and Laura Nicolae argue that even additional revenue from that tax wouldn’t be enough to cover the Green New Deal.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez

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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Beyond taxes, some supporters of a Green New Deal have suggested a carbon tax as a funding option. In that scenario, the government would charge companies a fee for the carbon dioxide that they emit.

“Carbon-tax revenues could be used to hold down taxes,” Howarth said.

Regardless of questions about funding for a Green New Deal, Barbier made two suggestions in an analysis published in Nature. First, he said, the US government should end subsidies that encourage fossil-fuel energy production. Second, the plan needs to avoid dramatically increasing the federal deficit.

“Saddling future generations with unsustainable levels of national debt is just as dangerous as burdening them with an economy that is environmentally unsustainable,” Barbier wrote, adding, “efforts to boost green sectors should pay for themselves.”

The Green New Deal’s second wind

Ocasio-Cortez may have thrust the Green New Deal into the spotlight recently, but the idea is not new. In 2007, journalist Thomas Friedman explained the concept in The New York Times.

“The right rallying call is for a ‘Green New Deal,'” he wrote. “The New Deal was not built on a magic bullet, but on a broad range of programs and industrial projects to revitalize America. Ditto for an energy New Deal.”

The United Nations Environment Programme began to promote the concept in 2008, and in 2009, President Obama earmarked $90 billion for renewables, clean electricity, and a smart grid in his administration’s $800 billion stimulus package.

But since then, the news about our climate has continued to worsen. The oceans just had the hottest year on record, and a costly wildfire in California sent energy giant PG&E into bankruptcy.

Armed with that ammunition, grassroots environmental groups like the Sunrise Movement, a group of young people who advocate for climate policy, have renewed the push for a Green New Deal. And companies like Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Ikea, Coca-Cola, and GM have committed to go 100% renewable regardless of federal action.

In November 2018, before Ocasio-Cortez was sworn in, she joined activists from the Sunrise Movement in a demonstration outside Nancy Pelosi’s office. The group was calling for the creation of a select committee for a Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal’s future is still up in the air

According to one survey, 92% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans support a Green New Deal plan. But it’s unlikely this resolution will pass in the House or Senate.

“Someone’s going to have to prove to me how that can be accomplished, because it looks to me like for the foreseeable future we’re gonna be using a substantial amount of fossil fuels,” Rep. Francis Rooney, a Republican who represents Florida’s 19th District, told NPR. Rooney is co-chair of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus.

But Vice President Al Gore has expressed optimism about the plan’s future.

“The Green New Deal resolution marks the beginning of a crucial dialogue on climate legislation in the US,” Gore said in a statement. “The goals are ambitious and comprehensive – now the work begins to decide the best ways to achieve them, with specific policy solutions tied to timelines.”

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Benoit Tessier/ Reuters

The details of how these goals will be achieved are still up in the air. But in a way, that ambiguity mirrors the original New Deal, according to Stephen Cohen, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

FDR’s approach was, similarly, “a series of improvisations in response to specific problems,” Cohen wrote in a blog post. He added, “advocates should avoid the trap of attempting to spell out every detail of a program that should be innovative and experimental and not set in concrete.”

That could prove to be useful guidance for Democratic hopefuls running for president.

“At this stage, the Green New Deal is more a set of guiding aspirations than a concrete policy proposal,” Howarth said. “The specifics are going to depend on the framing and outcome of the 2020 presidential election.”