The Green New Deal Isn’t Unrealistic, It’s Necessary

Young activist speaking to a group of other climate activists

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been scared about climate change.

Growing up, I heard about how my hometown of Boston could be largely underwater by the end of the century. I grew up watching increasingly severe droughts and floods take thousands of lives in southern India, where my family is from, and fearing my family might be next. Every step of my life, fear of climate change has been a potent, tangible force. It feels less like some abstract scientific fact in a textbook and more like knowing a giant asteroid is heading toward my family.

Today, much of my generation can’t escape that fear even as we make life decisions about whether or not to have children. Is it moral to bring someone new into a planet that’s 3degrees warmer? How much of our income should we save for retirement? What’s really the point, if the planet’s going to look like Mad Max?

Which is why, when I read the UN reports that say we have little more than a decade to solve this problem, I’m overwhelmed by a powerful sense that this is an emergency. We simply don’t have time, as a society, to keep having the same pointless debates about whether the science is real or to continue predicting the odds that some particular piece of legislation can clear the Senate. All that’s left is to put forward an idea that actually meets the scale of the crisis within the necessary time frame – one that can ensure millions of people, who are disproportionately low-income and people of color, don’t lose their lives to climate-charged storms, floods or other natural disasters – and then do everything in our power to make it happen, in a coordinated effort across every sector of our economy.

There is not a single idea being debated in the halls of Congress today ambitious enough to do that, except for the Green New Deal, written by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey. As we worked with Sen. Markey and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez on their resolution, we expected the usual objections to come our way. We expected, as had been the case with the Waxman-Markey bill early on in the Obama presidency, that Washington Republicans bought out by fossil fuel CEOs would scream bloody murder. We correctly predicted, as had been the case with numerous proponents of carbon tax proposals over the years, that we would be dismissed as idealistic children, too naive to be concerned with the details of how experts think politics happens. But what we truly didn’t see coming was this new notion that we are unrealistic, that the lofty ambition of our idea is itself proof of our lack of seriousness.

Pundits, from the pages of New York Magazine to Mother Jones, hammer away with the argument that the Green New Deal is too ambitious to even consider seriously. They are joined by billionaire coffee magnate Howard Schultz, who dismisses the idea with much the same condescension as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who pretended not to remember even the name of the resolution in mocking it as a “green dream.” Even the New York Times  editorial board declares the Green New Deal only a little better than the apocalyptic nightmare it aims to prevent, advocating instead for “step-by-step measures” like reversing Trump-era environmental deregulation and “tax incentives for electric vehicles.”

Those well-intentioned critiques outlining a more “realistic” alternative might have been convincing 30 years ago, before Exxon’s decades-long disinformation campaign and systematic bribery of elected officials forced our political system into stalemate on this issue.

Thirty years ago, step-by-step policy tweaks might have given us a fighting chance at avoiding catastrophic climate change within my generation’s lifetime. But in the time since, we’ve seen every opportunity to pass meaningful climate legislation crushed by moneyed opposition and cynical poisoning of the public dialogue. We’ve had to organize tirelessly to push our own allies, like President Obama, to reject dangerous oil pipelines and drilling. If we’ve learned anything, watching report after report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sound the alarm while politicians debate dead-on-arrival, small-bore policies, it’s that a step-by-step process of incremental changes, as a strategy, has failed to safeguard our future or our planet.

If we are serious about averting catastrophe, it’s clear that we need a new approach to this crisis, something that can break through all the forces that make climate action so difficult: corporate power, partisan polarization and the debasement of the nation’s “conservative” party into a vehicle for plutocrats, racists and anti-science cynics.

Any chance of winning this fight depends on igniting powerful social movements to change the political weather and build an expansive political coalition capable of taking on the fossil fuel lobby. To do that we need to make a new, salient and values-based argument that speaks to America’s hopes and fears: A vision of our future where all of us can thrive in a prosperous and healthy world.

Varshini Prakash is the Executive Director of Sunrise Movement. She lives in Boston.