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Michael Levitin reports on how the Trump climate narrative is under threat as the clean energy revolution in cities and states makes inroads in Washington
When New York’s firebrand 29-year-old Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveiled the Democrats’ Green New Deal resolution on 7 February, America took notice. The sheer scope and ambition of the proposal jolted a Washington political establishment that, unlike cities and businesses across the country, has made little effort – not to mention progress – addressing the climate crisis.
The six-page blueprint tackles climate, jobs and social inequity all at once, committing the US to dramatically invest in a clean energy economy along the lines of a 10-year national mobilisation comparable to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which lifted the nation out of the Great Depression and set it on course to lead the global economy for a century.
From massive investments in clean transit and sustainable farming practices, to the creation of millions of green jobs, the plan seeks to make America run on 100% renewable energy by 2030.
Four-fifths of the country’s registered voters support a Green New Deal – including two-thirds of Republican voters
The Green New Deal (GND) is already so popular that five Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidency have endorsed it, along with more than 60 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and nine in the Senate.
Polls show that four-fifths of the country’s registered voters support a Green New Deal – including, incredibly, two-thirds of Republican voters, which helps explain why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the surprise announcement on 12 February that he would allow the GND measure to come before the Senate for a vote.
As Ocasio-Cortez said at a press conference announcing the resolution: “To combat the threat [of climate change] we must be as ambitious and innovative in our solutions as possible. This resolution is our first step to define the problem and define the scope of the solution. Today is also the day that we choose to assert ourselves as a global leader in transitioning to 100% renewable energy and charting that path.”
While news of the Green New Deal might have shocked Washington insiders and dismayed mainstream political pundits, it elicited loud cheers from the nation’s broad and diverse coalition of business leaders and local and state governments, which have already aligned their missions behind a transition to 100% clean energy. Since President Donald Trump announced in June 2017 that he was pulling America out of the Paris climate accord, the We Are Still In coalition of investors, businesses and local governments has committed to aggressively fight climate change and garnered more than 3,600 signatories. The coalition represents people and organisations in all 50 states, and covers nearly half the US population and around $9.5trn in GDP.
The coalition, is “becoming a political force for change at the state and federal level, creating a crescendo of activity, and the Green New Deal is adding to the many game-changing moments we’ve seen over the last two years,” said Anne Kelly, senior policy director of Ceres, an NGO that founded We Are Still In, along with World Wildlife Fund and Climate Nexus.
In January, Ceres, which works with businesses and investment leaders on Capitol Hill to shape legislation making renewable energy easier and cheaper to purchase, spearheaded an investor coalition representing $6.5trn to pressure six fast-food industry giants, including McDonald’s, Domino’s, Burger King and KFC, to drastically cut their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and water use.
As we design climate solutions, we have to think about a just transition for workers and those who are caught in the middle
Kelly said her group is “optimistic and energised” by the youthful leadership and messaging behind the Green New Deal. “They are trying to create clean, green, well-paying jobs, and to really make certain that climate remedies take into account the stunning, disproportionate burden that is carried by low-income individuals and communities of colour in terms of economic dislocation, air quality and pollution,” she says. “As we design climate solutions, we have to think about a just transition for workers and those who are caught in the middle of [the crisis].”
Putting a price on carbon has growing appeal in Washington, and the momentum generated by a Green New Deal could finally make the long-awaited carbon market a reality.
Meanwhile, the We Mean Business coalition is working with some of the world’s biggest corporations pushing for stronger climate policies that will provide clarity for companies and enable them to act more boldly on their emissions goals and targets.
The aim, said the organisation’s policy director, Jen Austin, is for government policies and private sector leadership to reinforce one another.
So far, some 860 companies worth nearly $17trn in market capital, equal to 20% of global GDP, have committed to steps reducing their carbon footprint, from food and beverage giants like Nestlé, Kellogg and Coca-Cola, to Gap, Citi Group, General Motors and L’Oréal.
And since Trump's announcement of the US withdrawal from the Paris treaty, more than 50 US companies have committed to the Science Based Targets initiative, committing to setting science-based targets for cutting their emissions in line with the Paris goals to keep warming below 2℃. Many more firms are committing to the RE100 programme to make their production and supply chain operations 100% renewable.
The Green New Deal isn’t just a piece of climate policy. You’re talking about building infrastructure and planning for zero carbon economic growth
“What we’re talking about around the world is momentum and action on the corporate side, and political will and policies that give clarity and confidence from the government side,” said Austin. “We’re seeing the signals that we can get there, both on the supply side and the demand side, really across the board.”
She adds: “The Green New Deal isn’t just a piece of climate policy, a sustainability question or just one corporate decision. You’re talking about building infrastructure, planning for zero carbon economic growth and creating zero carbon jobs.”
Working with businesses and investors, city governments across the country have been accelerating emissions-cutting policies that put them at the forefront of a blooming Green New Deal. Take Chicago, America’s third largest city, which became the first in the US to custom screen its entire investment portfolio – around $8bn in assets – for GHG-emitting factors, as it seeks to go carbon neutral by 2020. Some $12trn in assets nationally are subject to environment, social and governance screening, but Chicago has shown leadership by also becoming the world’s first city to sign onto the UN Principles for Responsible Investment.
“No city can afford to sit back and wait for the Green New Deal to come to them from Washington, DC," said Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summers. "Our office has developed a first-of-its-kind public environmental, social and governance (ESG) screening for all of our corporate securities, taking into consideration everything from carbon emissions to renewable energy, water conservation, workplace protections and other issues crucial to the expansion of the green economy. Our hope is that Chicago's work in ESG investing can lead the way for more government portfolios to consider the risks of not taking these factors into consideration and align themselves with the Green New Deal."
Philadelphia is another large US city that is making GND-style climate leadership a priority. Between 2008 and 2014, a city-run programme helped retrofit 17,000 homes for energy efficiency, and the city boasts over 200 miles of bike lanes, encouraging people to get out of their cars.
It has also issued a plan to become entirely zero waste by 2030. Philadelphia is now tackling dozens of energy reduction projects and it recently committed to building a 70 megawatt (MW) solar facility, seven times larger than any current solar project in Pennsylvania, to supply the city with more than one-fifth of its energy. “This will create economic opportunities for local companies and workers,” Mayor Jim Kenney told Ethical Corporation, adding that he committed Philadelphia to keep working towards the goals of the Paris climate agreement after the Trump Administration announced its intention to withdraw from it.
The Green New Deal is working to address climate change, and the need to create family-sustaining jobs for the future
“The Green New Deal is working to address two issues at once: the need to act swiftly on climate change, and the need to create family-sustaining jobs for the future. As the poorest large city in the US, where one in four of our residents live in poverty, Philadelphia must also ensure that our climate plans are developed equitably and lift those who are most vulnerable. Having an ambitious federal climate plan is critical, and we plan to voice our support for legislation that will help us achieve our goals.”
Another East Coast city that intends to live up to the spirit and substance of the Paris climate agreement is Hoboken, New Jersey. “We’ve come to realise in this context, where we have a president who believes that climate change is a hoax, … that it is truly incumbent upon cities that can take action to go ahead and do so,” Mayor Ravi Bhalla said. The city’s climate action plan calls for municipal operations to be net zero by 2025, and the entire city net zero by 2030.
During 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, 80% of Hoboken was under water. “We know by way of personal experience that climate change is real, that it is not a hoax. The flip side was that we didn’t sit down: we looked for a solution to the problem and took measures to make ourselves more resilient and adaptable to the impacts,” continued Bhalla, citing the city’s Rebuild By Design initiative, a $230m federal plan to build flood-protection infrastructure.
Bhalla says the Green New Deal may sound overly ambitious to some, but “you’ve got to start somewhere,” he said, “and things rarely start with majority support, so just the fact that we have the Green New Deal on the radar is a significant start because it signals to me that we could have a symbiotic relationship at the federal, state and local levels addressing climate change.”
The early weeks of 2019 also saw great strides taken on the state level as Illinois, New Mexico and Michigan joined the US Climate Alliance, bringing the number to 20 of US states committed to upholding the principles of the Paris agreement. Last November, voters in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin voted to replace Republican governors with Democratic ones, resulting in stronger climate leadership.
In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat, has supported aggressive reductions in greenhouse gases while Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania recently announced his state's first comprehensive climate targets. Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has backed ambitious renewable energy goals and set a target of 100% clean power by 2040. And Colorado’s new governor, Jared Polis, campaigned explicitly on a platform to make Colorado 100% renewable by 2040.
The fact that climate policies are catching on even in Michigan shows the degree to which the Trump narrative is being challenged
Last month, Michigan’s newly elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer created a new state office of climate and energy to tackle emissions and other climate-related issues. The fact that climate policies are catching on even in this Rust Belt state – a critical swing state that Donald Trump barely won in 2016 – shows the degree to which the Trump narrative on climate change is being challenged.
"We see this as part of a larger trend we're seeing across the country with new governors who ran on climate, who ran on transitions to 100% clean energy," Sara Jordan, manager of the League of Conservation Voters' Clean Energy for All campaign, told InsideClimate News. "I think you're seeing a lot of these governors not wanting to be left behind in this transition.”
Last November, two-thirds of voters in Portland, Oregon, passed a measure to tax some of the city’s biggest corporations – companies generating at least $1bn in sales nationally – and use the money to fund clean energy and climate adaptation projects. The city anticipates the tax will provide $30m to $80m in annual revenue to increase rooftop solar, energy-efficient buildings and green jobs training: all measures that fit with the broader goals of the Green New Deal.
In fact, solar installers and wind turbine technicians are now the two fastest-growing jobs in the US with around 100% annual growth.
Some say the nationwide popularity of the Green New Deal reflects a profound change in the American electorate, which previously failed to recognise the severity of the climate crisis. According to a survey in December by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, 48% of Americans believe the impacts of climate change are being felt “right now”, up 9% points since last spring and double the response to the same question in 2010.
With young leaders like Ocasio-Cortez speak out loudly and forcefully on the issue, and activist groups like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats reflecting a more pragmatic, aggressive approach to climate, the question now is how well, and how quickly, the federal government can catch up to the work already under way at the business and local government levels.
Michael Levitin is a journalist based in Berkeley, California, covering climate and clean energy financing among other topics. He has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Time and Newsweek.
Ceres CEO Mindy Lubber, Chicago city treasurer Kurt Summers, Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, and Hoboken mayor Ravi Bhalla will be among over 100 speakers at Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Summit New York 18-19 March.
Main picture credit: lev radin/Shutterstock
This article is part of the in-depth briefing Stepping up to 1.5C. See also: