The Democratic Party’s Most Confounding Primary

Originally published in The Intercept with Akela Lacy on July 28,2020.
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WHEN NEWS BROKE late last summer that Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy was considering a primary challenge to Sen. Ed Markey, many political operatives reasonably asked … why? Elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, the most high-profile aspect of Kennedy’s political career had been giving the Democratic response to the State of the Union in 2018 — and, of course, being a Kennedy. Markey, meanwhile, wasn’t shrouded in any scandal and had recently introduced the Green New Deal resolution with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an instant hallmark of progressive politics.

Polling voters, though, the answer is a little more evident. Last July, before Kennedy jumped in the race, a Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll showed that 45 percent of likely voters in the state were undecided about supporting Markey for reelection and 14 percent said they had never heard of him. By September, Boston Globe/Suffolk University released another poll finding Kennedy leading Markey by 14 points in a potential Senate head-to-head, and more Massachusetts voters viewed Kennedy as the more liberal candidate and a better fighter for Democratic priorities than Markey.

Soon after Kennedy announced his candidacy in September, progressive groups were quick to jump behind Markey. Markey has earned endorsements from a host of progressive organizations, ranging from national groups like Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, and Planned Parenthood to teachers unions, peace groups, and environmental activists on the state level.

As the September 1 primary nears, progressives, many of whom are still mourning the losses of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic presidential primary, have turned their sights to saving Markey’s seat in the Senate — grateful for his early backing of the Green New Deal, which was unpopular among Democratic leadership in Washington when it was introduced. It doesn’t matter to them that Kennedy also supports the Green New Deal, and some view his recent announcement that his family trusts have divested from oil and gas stocks as too little too late. (In December, Markey’s campaign returned more than $46,000 from donors who didn’t meet requirements of the fossil fuel pledge, which both candidates signed.)

Many also suspect that Kennedy has decided to run for Senate because he’s calculated that it might be easier to unseat a 74-year-old incumbent now than it would be to beat Rep. Ayanna Pressley or Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in an open primary six years down the road. Indeed, Kennedy’s stated rationale for entering the primary is a little fuzzy. Both candidates admit that when it comes down to brass tacks, they are in line on major issues. Kennedy’s case boils down to the idea that he thinks he could “leverage” the Massachusetts Senate seat better than Markey has. Senators have immense power beyond just voting on bills, Kennedy’s argument goes, and Markey hasn’t used his position effectively enough to serve the Democratic Party and the country.

The result is a Senate primary race that can best be described as pretty weird. On the one hand, there’s an incumbent who has served more than 40 years in Congress running as some kind of grassroots underdog. On the other hand, a literal Kennedy is claiming to be bullied by the political establishment and invoking language used by progressive insurgents who’ve sought new leadership to shake up the status quo.

There hasn’t been polling in the race since early May, when a UMass-Lowell poll showed the race had significantly tightened with Kennedy up by just 2 points. That, Markey’s campaign manager John Walsh argued, is because the progressive base has consolidated behind the senator. But another poll, conducted around the same time by Emerson College/7News, showed Markey trailing Kennedy by 16 points.

PROGRESSIVE ENTHUSIASM FOR Markey from both the activist community and left-wing media has at times led the left to go fairly easy on the senator for votes they’ve criticized other Democrats for. Over the years, like Joe Biden, Markey voted for the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and the 1994 crime bill, and he opposed busing for desegregation in the 1970s.

When asked if he has any comments about these past votes, Markey told The Intercept that Black and brown men in the United States were “owe[d] a national apology” for the over-incarceration wrought by the 1994 crime bill, and said that’s why he’s co-sponsoring Sen. Cory Booker’s Next Step Act to overhaul the criminal justice system. Markey offered similar remarks when he announced his 2018 co-sponsorship of the First Step Act, a precursor to Booker’s bill: “The First Step Act is just the beginning of the national apology we owe to the generation of African-American men and women who lost their lives and futures in prison due to a few dollars of crack cocaine and an unjust War on Drugs.”

On Iraq, Markey says he “deeply regret[s] that vote” and blamed President George W. Bush for lying to Congress and the American people about nuclear weapons in the country. “I’ve worked every day to ensure we don’t have another needless war in the Middle East,” he said, though he voted “present” in 2013 on military intervention in Syria, saying at the time that he needed to study the issue further.

“Senator Markey has been on the cutting edge of progressivism in the Democratic Party for his entire career,” Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, said in a statement to The Intercept, citing the senator’s early support for net neutrality and opposition to nuclear weapons. “Has every vote he’s ever taken over his long political career been perfect? No. But he’s often the person in his party forcing others to take hard or uncomfortable votes before positions become politically popular, creating the space and momentum for change.”

Though Markey has positioned himself as a stalwart leader of the progressive movement, and touted the significance of receiving progressive endorsements in his primary, the senator lacks a record of backing progressive primary challengers, something Warren and Sanders have embraced over the last few years. Unlike Warren and Sanders, for example, Markey stayed out of Charles Booker’s competitive Senate bid in Kentucky this year, and in his home state, he’s standing behind Rep. Richard Neal, despite Neal facing a much more progressive challenger in Alex Morse. Markey also didn’t endorse Pressley in 2018, though his supporters say it matters that he didn’t endorse Mike Capuano, the incumbent, either.

Back in November, a reporter pressed Markey about why he wasn’t supporting Morse, given that he supports the Green New Deal, and Neal doesn’t. “Ultimately he supports taking bold action on climate change and changing the tax code that makes [a Green New Deal] possible,” said Markey, defending his colleague. Markey and Neal both endorsed each other before Kennedy and Morse were running. “I like both candidates,” he added, referring to Booker and Morse. “On big votes Congressman Neal has been with me, but we have our differences.”

Kennedy hasn’t endorsed in the Morse/Neal contest either and told The Intercept that he plans to focus on his own race. Kennedy has also been criticized by progressive groups for endorsing the more moderate candidates in Massachusetts races in which progressive challengers were running.

“One thing we’ve pointed out is that in 2018, he had the choice to support progressive women of color — Ayanna Pressley and Nika Elugardo — but he didn’t,” said Jonathan Cohn, a leader with Progressive Massachusetts, a statewide advocacy group that has endorsed Markey. In those races, Kennedy endorsed incumbents Capuano and Jeffrey Sanchez, who both lost. (This cycle Elugardo has endorsed Markey, and Pressley is staying out of the race.)

EARLIER THIS WINTER, a Democratic activist in Massachusetts approached Kennedy after a campaign town hall and pressed him on why he was running. “With due respect to Senator Markey, who is a good man, there’s more to this job than the way you vote and the bills that you file,” Kennedy answered, as reported by Boston Magazine. “It comes with an ability to leverage that platform … and, with due respect to the senator, if you’re not going to leverage that now … then when?”

But has Kennedy “leveraged” his House seat to the best of his ability?

“I think I have,” he told The Intercept, though acknowledged that he’s “done it differently obviously” than star representatives like Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez. He credits those women for using their platforms to cast a spotlight on issues of importance. “I’ve tried to do that in a way that is most natural to me,” he said, and pointed to his fundraising trips throughout 2018 to help Democrats flip the House. Kennedy said this work helped flip the House in 2018 and in a recent debate, he brought up his fundraising for Covid-19 relief groups and legal defense for immigrant families.

“Let me be clear,” he added. “When I critique Senator Markey … I’m not saying in persona, experience, history, or policy that I would be the next AOC or Ayanna Pressley. Like that’s not who I am, that’s not the policy positions that I necessarily take.”

“The reason Joe can go around [fundraising] is because he’s Bobby Kennedy’s grandson,” said Walsh, Markey’s campaign manager. “It’s not because he’s ever led on a single issue since he’s been in Congress.” Kennedy countered that he’s proud of his leadership in areas around mental health and LGBTQ issues, and noted he spoke to Black Lives Matter and transgender rights in his 2018 response to the State of the Union.

Kennedy’s campaign said its polling shows Markey leading with more white, affluent voters, while Kennedy is doing better with middle-class and working-class white people, as well as Black and Latino communities. “We are proud of the broad and incredibly diverse base of support Joe has earned from communities of color to working-class cities and towns,” Kennedy’s press secretary, Brian Phillips Jr. told The Intercept. White, affluent voters tend to be more reliable Massachusetts primary voters, and so the Kennedy campaign is hoping for high turnout overall. “If you look to more moderate and conservative Democrats, they’re with Joe,” said Walsh.

Kennedy, who recognizes that he comes to this race with wealth and a dynastic political history, still feels like he hasn’t really been given a fair shake by the left. Progressive media has gone after Kennedy for working for Michael O’Keefe, a conservative, tough-on-crime district attorney on Cape Cod. “Why did Joe Kennedy … choose in 2009 to help cage his indigent neighbors under the leadership of O’Keefe?” asked The Appeal’s Will Isenberg. The Nation’s Maia Hibbett said Kennedy would have been “collecting quality-of-life fines, securing low-level drug convictions, and evicting families from their homes” during his time as a prosecutor.

Kennedy told The Intercept that he did not handle eviction cases, as those are civil suits, and that his time was spent primarily on DUIs, assault and battery charges, domestic violence, and opioid and mental illness drug cases. “The idea that your liberal ideology has to be in accordance with your boss is an absurd position to take, because yeah I disagree with him, but my job wasn’t setting policy, it was implementing the laws that were actually uniform across the state,” he said. According to Kennedy, his nickname at the office was “innocence project” because of his commitment to criminal defense.

In May, Kennedy introduced a bill to establish a right to counsel for eviction, medical bankruptcy, and domestic violence cases — a decadeslong goal from the legal aid community. Yet he earned minimal progressive plaudits, perhaps because earlier that month he was ripped online for a tweet that said no patient should “be forced to fight off medical bankruptcy in the midst of a global health pandemic without a lawyer by their side.” (The next day he clarified, “Let me be clear here: We need Medicare for all. We need an end to medical bankruptcy. … But until we get there, we need assurance that every patient will have access to legal counsel and aid if they are forced to fight their insurer in court.”) Kennedy has also been blasted by progressives for not co-sponsoring former Rep. John Conyers’s original Medicare for All bill in the House, but he said he was “proud” to co-sponsor Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s version, which builds upon earlier proposals from Sanders and Conyers, after working with her to ensure that it would cover abortions and long-term care.

“Senator Markey has over the course of the past several months gone much further left than he ever has,” Kennedy told The Intercept. “The progressive world has consolidated around him to make him the progressive in the race and tried to make me a mealy-mouth moderate who is running on ambition and my name, which has been frustrating to say the least.” Kennedy said he wants more of an honest conversation about vote histories. “I looked at my record and what I’ve done and I’m just trying to say, ‘Hey, you want to have a debate about who is more progressive? Fine. I think the honest answer is there’s areas where Senator Markey has led, and there are areas I’ve led.’”

LAST WEEK, Kennedy’s campaign held a press conference with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who slammed Markey for his immigration record, pointing to a 2013 vote in which the senator broke with his caucus and the president to increase Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention bed quota. Kennedy later voted for an omnibus spending bill that included the quota, along with all but three other House Democrats.

Markey certainly rejects the idea that he hasn’t led in the Senate and ticked off a number of his biggest accomplishments, from increasing fuel efficiency standards to creating the largest federal program for low-income students to access internet at home. He feels his advocacy on issues like the climate crisis, net neutrality, and Medicare for All position him well to win his next election. “It’s not your age, it’s the age of your ideas that are important,” Markey said. “And in terms of the age of my ideas, I’m the youngest person in this race.”

Markey isn’t alone on shifting leftward over the course of this election cycle. Kennedy, whose grandfather was killed by a man who’s been up for parole many times in recent years, now supports eliminating life sentences without parole, although he said he wants to balance sentencing reform with the wishes of victims and their families. That’s a change from earlier this year, when he wrote in a February candidate questionnaire that he supported eliminating life sentences without parole for juveniles and nonviolent cases, and “heavily restricting,” but not eliminating, qualified immunity.

“I think my position on that has actually evolved since we even did that questionnaire,” Kennedy said. “I’ve thought about that one a lot. … I am comfortable now with the idea that people should be eligible for parole. … I also want to make sure victims’ voices and survivors’ voices are heard.”

At the end of the day, the Markey and Kennedy campaigns will have poured close to $20 million into a race that won’t help Senate Democrats add any seats in the chamber or markedly change the winner’s policy blueprint for the next congressional session. Kennedy has raised more than $7.8 million so far, and Markey — who out-raised Kennedy for the first time last quarter, according to his campaign — has raised more than $10.4 million to date. Both men cast their most recent fundraising hauls as evidence that their campaigns are surging.

Climate Advocates Are Gearing Up for the Next Stimulus Package

Originally published in In These Times on April 9, 2020.
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With Congress planning to reconvene later this month to hash out another coronavirus stimulus bill, climate activists have begun discussing how they might assert themselves more successfully into the next federal package.

Progressive climate advocates tried to shape the debate leading up to the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law on March 27. A few days before the president signed it, dozens of climate groups, including 350.org, Sunrise Movement and the BlueGreen Alliance, joined in coalition with hundreds of left-leaning organizations in releasing “Five Principles for Just Covid-19 Relief and Stimulus.” The fourth of these five principles called for creating good jobs while tackling “the climate crisis that is compounding threats to our economy and health.” Their demands—grouped under the banner of a “People’s Bailout”—included new federal investments in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, expanding wind and solar, and restoring wetlands and forests. The organizations also called for requirements that industries reduce their climate emissions and pollution in exchange for aid.

Soon after, a coalition of scientists, academics and wonks released a “Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Economy”—a detailed “policy menu” that lays out specific climate and inequality-conscious ways to spend new federal investment. The ideas draw from proposals put forward from nine Democratic presidential candidates, including Jay Inslee, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “Most of the physical work proposed here cannot begin immediately,” their letter acknowledges. “We must focus on halting the spread of deadly illness. However, we can do all the preparatory work now to make green projects ‘shovel ready.’”

Daniel Aldana Cohen, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor and one of the 11 co-authors of the Green Stimulus, told In These Times that many of the drafters were influenced by Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, which centers on how leaders often exploit national crises to advance destructive policies when citizens are too distracted to fight back.

“During a crisis people turn to ideas lying around, and the oil CEOs are not waiting for the virus to stop before pushing their ideas,” Aldana Cohen said. “We knew we had to get something out more quickly.” Their thinking was maybe their climate proposals would influence discussions around the CARES Act, also known as “Stimulus 3”—but more likely their proposals could help influence subsequent stimulus packages that lawmakers have signaled they plan to negotiate. Knowing that it can take much longer for organizations to sign on to detailed policy agendas (rather than to broad principles), Aldana Cohen said Green Stimulus authors sought to “mobilize as wonks” and then invite climate leaders to sign on as individuals.

Stimulus 3 ended up being tough for climate advocates, not only because they emerged winning none of their more visionary demands, but also because Republicans attacked them for politicizing the crisis and stalling relief.

A central fight ended up being over whether Congress should require airlines to cut their emissions to 50% below 2005 levels by 2050 in exchange for billions in rescue aid. The airline industry has committed to this target voluntarily, but climate advocates want it stipulated in law.

Such legally-mandated conditions have precedent. During the 2008 auto industry bailout, General Motors and Chrysler had to accept new fuel-efficiency standards in exchange for federal aid. But lawmakers in late March said they wanted to focus on getting immediate relief out to workers, hospitals, and businesses—and publicly charged climate advocates with derailing that effort.

“[Democrats] are holding up voting for this emergency bill to help the American people in terms of the economy and in terms of our health care over solar panels and wind turbines, a green new deal about airline emissions,” said Republican Senator John Barrasso in a speech on the floor.

“Democrats won’t let us fund hospitals or save small businesses unless they get to dust off the Green New Deal,” accused Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democrats countered by pointing to Senate Republicans who, in the midst of negotiations, inserted a $3 billion provision for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which are federally-owned oil stocks stored underground along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. After this, climate advocates ramped up pressure for aid to clean energy industries, Melinda Pierce, the legislative director for the Sierra Club, told In These Times.

In the end, the $3 billion for the oil industry was scrapped, as were tax breaks for wind and solar, and demands for airline emission reductions. Climate advocates were left bruised from the fight.

“The airline conversation ended up being a debate about [carbon] offsets which is not the terrain that Green New Deal advocates want to be fighting on,” said Aldana Cohen, who urged for more focus around job creation and job protections. “We should be focusing on investments that lift up workers and communities,” he said.

Pierce said she and other climate advocates understood their demands for clean energy aid “were outside the scope of what leadership thought consisted emergency relief” and that enviros had originally been “very much aligned” with the idea that Stimulus 3 should focus primarily on swift aid to workers, families, healthcare and frontline businesses.

“Yet when the oil industry tried to inject $3 billion to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, we were activated beyond those goal about workers to make sure [lawmakers] weren’t providing corporate bailouts,” she said, noting enviros also fought for accountability for billions granted to the Federal Reserve for corporate assistance. “We were fighting those battles because oil and gas were bellying up to the bar to their cronies in Congress,” Pierce said.

While some Congressional Democrats touted the accountability measures they managed to win, Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst with Friends of the Earth, said the end result was a disaster.

“The guardrails for workers and communities are weak, and the guardrails for climate are nonexistent,” he said. “As a result of the stimulus bill we are all entering an even stranger and more frightening world.” Ross specifically noted how the new federal aid could potentially give cash-strapped drillers a fresh injection of subsidized credit.

Looking ahead

Though climate advocates failed to win green demands in Stimulus 3, many are looking ahead to future stimulus packages, where they believe they could be more successful. President Trump and House Speaker Pelosi initially indicated the next bill could focus on infrastructure investment, though more recently Pelosi has walked that back.

On March 31, four days after signing the CARES Act, President Trump tweeted that, “With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! Phase 4.”

The following day, Pelosi proposed reviving House Democrats’ $760 billion infrastructure bill released in January, which would include new investments in things like rail, transit, and broadband. However just two days later she signaled she had changed her mind, and maybe infrastructure should not be Democrats’ next priority. “I’m very much in favor of doing some of the things that we need to do to meet the needs of clean water, more broadband, and the rest of that,” she said on April 3. “That may have to be for a bill beyond this.”

Ross of Friends of the Earth thinks climate advocates should be careful in how they move forward, and focus their efforts on securing aid for people and preventing bailouts for polluters. “The question isn’t how to invest in climate, the question is how to invest in workers and a more resilient society,” he said. “That certainly has implications for climate, but at this moment of unprecedented immediate suffering, it likely shouldn’t be first on anyone’s mind.”

Pierce of the Sierra Club said if polluting industries need more federal aid in subsequent stimulus packages, they will continue to push for conditions. “We fully expect the airline industry is going to need an additional tranche of support and if we’re funneling tax dollars, we truly believe we should be funneling tax dollars in a way that is building industry of the future,” she said.

How intently climate advocates should push a “Green New Deal” remains in dispute, as the phrase itself has become deeply polarizing in Congress, even though the specific ideas undergirding it are broadly popular.

Aldana Cohen said he and his collaborators deliberately opted for “Green Stimulus” over “Green New Deal.” He pointed to Data for Progress polling showing Republican support for Green New Deal-like ideas when they’re not labeled as such.

“I think our view is you don’t want to have the vocabulary prejudge an argument that you believe you otherwise win,” he said. “You want to go in and focus on the substance.”

Not all Green New Deal supporters are ready to scale back on the slogan, with some saying now is precisely the time to elevate it, and resist the GOP’s bad-faith mischaracterizations.

“This is a pivotal moment to grapple with the fact that our economy was not working well and was not resilient in the face of crisis,” said Lauren Maunus, the legislative manager for Sunrise Movement. “Republicans are using the Green New Deal as a wedge issue and villainizing it, and it’s our utmost priority to clarify that the Green New Deal has always been about a plan to fight economic inequality and create millions of good family-sustaining jobs to put our country on a path to a safer, and healthier future.”

Will Bernie Sanders Stick With a Carbon Tax In His Push for a Green New Deal?

Originally published in The Intercept on July 3, 2019.
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A DEFINING FEATURE of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s political career is his consistency. The economy is rigged against the working class, the independent senator from Vermont charges, and bold political action is necessary to remedy that. His approach to tackling the climate crisis has long reflected that mindset, with Sanders ignoring the advice of the Democratic consultant class to champion taxing the nation’s largest polluters and redistributing the bulk of the earned revenue back to consumers and vulnerable people.

Now, as the 2020 presidential candidate prepares to release his climate change plan, a key element to watch out for is whether Sanders will abandon the tool he’s heralded for years to combat global warming, or integrate it into his push for a Green New Deal. As he makes this decision, Sanders is wading into an increasingly contentious debate among environmentalists about the right role for market-based solutions in progressive policy.

Sanders has long argued that a carbon tax “must be a central part of our strategy for dramatically reducing carbon pollution,” and he’s often touted the consensus behind it from economists across the political spectrum. He’s called a carbon tax “the most straight-forward and efficient strategy for quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions” and has urged his colleagues “to catch up with the scientific community and with the rest of the country.”

But over the last year, some influential groups on the left have soured on a carbon tax, pointing to a recent ballot measure that failed at the polls in Washington state and also the yellow vest protests in France over rising fuel prices — sparked by taxing carbon. And as more conservatives and business leaders have warmed to the idea of a carbon tax, some progressives have grown correspondingly distrustful — skeptical that Republicans will really do anything other than undermine the bold action that is needed.

Sanders, an original Senate co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, has been touting a Green New Deal often on the 2020 campaign trail but has so far been silent on taxing carbon. His campaign website, unlike in 2016, says nothing about it, and in June, a Sanders speechwriter told E&ENews, an environmental trade publication, that a forthcoming Green New Deal speech does not say anything about a carbon tax, though he added that doesn’t mean Sanders might not tackle the issue in the future.

“While Bernie has, in the past, introduced federal carbon pricing legislation in the Senate, the IPCC report makes clear that our window for action is closing,” Sarah Ford, the deputy communications director for the Sanders campaign, told The Intercept, referencing a landmark 2018 report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that underscored the urgency of the crisis. “So, if we are to solve the issue of climate change, a price on carbon must be part of a larger strategy and it must be formulated in a way that actually transitions our economy away from fossil fuels and protects low-income families and communities of color.”

The campaign pointed to Sanders’s Senate office, which is in the process of drafting new climate legislation. A spokesperson for his Senate office told The Intercept over email that “all I can say is that we’re still in the legislative development of our climate policy and GND, which we hope to unveil soon, and we still need to review, get input, etc.” In June, Keane Bhatt, a spokesperson for Sanders’s Senate office told E&E that he foresees his boss’s Green New Deal bill to be “focused primarily on public investment.”

Where the Vermont senator lands on the issue could be a bellwether for what’s to come.

SANDERS HAS NEVER supported a carbon tax as the exclusive measure needed to tackle the climate crisis, but he has insisted it’s an integral one. To protect families from potentially increased energy prices, a 2013 bill he introduced with then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., stated that 60 percent of the carbon tax revenue would be rebated, per capita, to every legal U.S resident. He and Boxer also promoted a number of other ideas, including weatherizing 1 million homes per year, funding worker retraining programs, and making massive investments in clean energy research and development. Sanders called it “the most comprehensive climate change legislation in the history of the United States Senate.”

In 2015, after Sanders had mounted his bid for the White House, he used his support for a carbon tax as a way to distinguish himself from the more piecemeal climate proposals pushed forward by his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. Her advisers, many of them still bruised from the failed cap-and-trade fight from 2010, urged her to steer clear of anything resembling a tax, which they said could leave her vulnerable to Republican attacks of raising energy prices.

But Sanders, who has never been very fearful of potential Republican smears, leaned into the policy idea he believed in. On the campaign trail, he called for a carbon tax, banning fossil fuel lobbyists from the White House, and ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies. He also called for increased federal investment in wind, solar, energy efficiency, electric cars, biofuels, high-speed rail, and public transit — items that will likely be central to any Green New Deal.

“Bernie will tax polluters causing the climate crisis and return billions of dollars to working families to ensure the fossil fuel companies don’t subject us to unfair rate hikes,” his plan stated. “Bernie knows that climate change will not affect everyone equally. The carbon tax will also protect those most impacted by the transformation of our energy system and protect the most vulnerable communities in the country suffering the ravages of climate change.”

One major success of his 2016 campaign was getting language included in the Democratic Party platform in support of a carbon tax. The platformstated that Democrats “believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities” and that Democrats should “support using every tool available to reduce emissions now.”

ONE OF THE most prominent voices in the environmental movement to turn against a carbon tax is Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington state and the presidential candidate who is running primarily on tackling climate change. Inslee has strongly supported taxing carbon in the past (an idea sometimes called imposing a “carbon fee”), but bills in favor of the proposal never made it out of his state legislature, and related ballot initiatives failed in 2016 and 2018. (The fossil fuel industry spentmore than $31 million to beat the 2018 initiative, more than twice the amount spent by supporters.)

In January, Inslee announced that he had grown wary of relying on a carbon tax to reduce emissions. “To actually get carbon savings, you need to jack up the price so high that it becomes politically untenable,” he told NBC News, adding that he was more interested in taxing the rich to fund a Green New Deal. His aggressive proposals on the 2020 campaign trail also do not include taxing carbon.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, the original Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, also pointed to Washington’s failed carbon tax ballot measure as reason to not hold much hope in a similar national effort. “If it can’t pass in Washington state right now, I’m not sure that says that there’s much of a pathway at this moment nationally,” he told Politico in December.

Other proponents of the Green New Deal have argued that a carbon tax just shouldn’t be a primary focus. A set of talking points released — and then retracted — by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office in February emphasized that any carbon tax “would be a tiny part” of a Green New Deal. A carbon tax generally “misses the point and would be off the table unless we create the clean, affordable options first,” the fact sheet said. Ocasio-Cortez also wrote on Twitter that ideas like a carbon tax can’t be the premier solution to tackling the climate crisis.

Paradoxically, the successful grassroots organizing led by environmental groups like the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has been building bipartisan support for a carbon tax and dividend since 2007, has now sparked wariness among other environmental activists who say Democrats can’t afford to compromise with a party that denies climate science and answers too often to the fossil fuel industry.

Others on the left have been increasingly skeptical of relying on any sort of market-based solution to tackling the climate crisis. In January, more than 600 advocacy groups including Friends of the Earth, the Sunrise Movement, Food & Water Watch, Indivisible, and People’s Action signed a letter pledging to “vigorously oppose” any climate legislation that promotes “market-based mechanisms and technology options such as carbon emissions trading and offsets, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, waste-to-energy and biomass energy.” This kind of language kept eight of the largest environmental groups off the letter, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, separately criticized Democrats for “still seem[ing] fixated on the half solutions of cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.” He argued that “market pricing schemes should no longer be the centerpiece of a comprehensive climate strategy.”

Aside from signing the congressional letter, the youth-led Sunrise Movement has also signaled it’s not very interested in a carbon tax. While Sunrise’s political director, Evan Weber, has said a carbon tax “has the potential” to be part of a Green New Deal, he’s also dismissed the idea that it’s an important tool for tackling the problem. “There’s been a predominant conversation in Washington, D.C., that’s been led by economists and politicos that have tried to frame a carbon tax as the only way,” he told Politico. “It’s proved time and time again to be not politically popular, and we haven’t even priced the policy at where economists say it needs to be. The idea that [a carbon tax is] the way out of this mess is something we need to be pushing back on.” Neither the Sunrise Movement nor Weber returned The Intercept’s request for comment.

SUPPORT, HOWEVER, STILL exists for a carbon tax, even among environmental groups that have embraced the Green New Deal framework. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby have endorsed both bold public investment and a carbon tax as ways to combat climate change. New polling from Data for Progress, a progressive polling organization, also recently found strong support among Democratic voters for both approaches to tackling the crisis.

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Many congressional supporters of the Green New Deal also agree there’s room and need for both. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., an original co-sponsor of the resolution, has said a price on carbon has “got to be part of the solution.” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a vocal supporter of a Green New Deal, has also argued that it’s perfectly compatible with a carbon tax.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., another original Green New Deal resolution co-sponsor, has also pushed back on the idea that the failed carbon tax ballot measure in her state means it’s too politically unpopular to pass anywhere — pointing to the large sums of money the fossil fuel industry had to spend to defeat it. “I am not in the camp that thinks it failed because of a carbon tax, I don’t believe that,” she told E&E“I think it failed because industry really doesn’t want it to succeed.” She acknowledged that the progressive movement has been “a little bit all over the place” when it comes to carbon taxation.

Climate change experts also continue to vouch for a carbon tax. In its report issued last October, the IPCC endorsed pricing carbon to reduce emissions and recommended imposing prices of $135 to $5,500 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution by 2030 to keep global warming in check. But an OECD report from last September found that few countries that do have carbon taxes are setting them at levels high enough to meaningfully curb emissions — highlighting the political challenge at hand.

IN MANY RESPECTS, there is more legislative traction around carbon pricing than there’s been in years, and Republicans are increasingly warming up to the idea. While groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity still adamantly oppose it, other conservative businesses and even fossil fuel companies have come out behind it, though sometimes with conditions that progressives would unlikely support — like environmental deregulation or immunity from any lawsuits.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful Ways and Means Committee heldits first climate-related hearing in over a decade, and in late November 2018, three Republicans and three Democrats in the House introduced the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, the first bipartisan carbon tax proposal in Congress in almost 10 years. Known colloquially as the “Deutch proposal” after one of its Democratic authors, Rep. Ted Deutch, it would direct proceeds from the tax back to consumers in the form of monthly rebate checks. The legislation has been described by experts as a “highly progressive” proposal, given that high-income households would pay a disproportionate amount of the tax, yet the resulting revenues would be distributed equally to all households. Under this bill, a family of 4 with two adults would take home an annual dividend of $3,456 by 2025. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby said it “may be the strongest and most comprehensive climate bill ever submitted to Congress,” though the group also stressed that “no one should expect any single policy to solve climate change by itself.”

There are other carbon pricing proposals on the table. One, known as the “Baker proposal,” has earned the endorsement of many in the business community, and it embraces a carbon tax in exchange for repealing other environmental regulations and limiting legal liability on the energy industry. Another bill, known as the “Whitehouse proposal,” would redirect most of the carbon revenue generated to reduce the employee portion of the payroll tax. Named after Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the proposal was co-introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another presidential candidate and original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution.

The idea of a carbon tax came up briefly in last week’s Democratic presidential debates, when “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Rep. Tim Ryan how he would fund climate projects “if carbon pricing is just politically impossible.”

As Time’s energy reporter Justin Worland noted, the question itself confused the point of a climate tax, which is meant to make polluting the environment more expensive, not primarily finance green projects. Ryan didn’t reference any carbon pricing in his answer, yet former Rep. John Delaney, who co-sponsored the Deutch proposal last November, picked up on the opportunity to tout his work pushing the bipartisan solution. “My proposal, which is put a price on carbon, give a dividend back to the American people — it goes out one pocket, back in the other,” Delaney said. “I can get that passed my first year as president, with a coalition of every Democrat in the Congress and the Republicans who live in coastal states.”

In the second debate, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg called for “aggressive and ambitious measures” to tackle climate change and cited a carbon tax and dividend as one he’d support. “But I would propose we do it in a way that is rebated out to the American people in a progressive fashion so that most Americans are made more than whole,” he said, invoking bills like the Deutch proposal.

Some commentators online criticized the way Democrats fail to adequately explain how a carbon tax and dividend work to voters.

Though Sanders was not asked anything about a carbon tax and dividend in the debate, he has for years demonstrated how to promote the idea in clear, progressive terms — highlighting the need to make wealthy polluters pay for their planetary destruction, while protecting working people and vulnerable communities from rising energy prices.

In 2016, though not a single question was asked in the general election presidential debates about climate change, Sanders seized on a question in the primaries about fracking to push his opponent on the need for a carbon tax.

“The truth is, as secretary of state, Secretary [Hillary] Clinton actively supported fracking technology around the world,” Sanders said. “Second of all, right now, we have got to tell the fossil fuel industry that their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet. And that means — and I would ask you to respond — are you in favor of a tax on carbon, so that we can transit away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy at the level and speed we need to do?”

Three years later, it’s not yet clear how Sanders will proceed. Does he still believe taxing carbon is worth fighting for, or will he eschew consistency in favor of a new approach to tackling the climate crisis?

We Have To Finance A Global Green New Deal — Or Face The Consequences

Originally published in The Intercept on June 24, 2019.
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AS POLITICIANS TALK more about ramping up their commitments to reducing carbon emissions — over the weekend, even Vice President Mike Pence squirmed when pressed on his climate denialism and said the U.S. is making progress on that front — one key aspect of the crisis remains conspicuously absent from most U.S discussions: so-called climate finance. The question of how much money the U.S. and other wealthy, industrialized nations will transfer to poor, developing countries so that they can effectively reduce their own carbon emissions has gone largely unaddressed, even as it grows in importance. Developing countries already account for more than 60 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions and are expected to contribute nearly 90 percent of emissions growth over the next two decades.

The amount of money needed for “climate finance” is one of the most hotly debated issues between countries and represented one of the most contentious aspects of the Paris Agreement in 2015. Poorer countries have repeatedly said they could make steeper emissions cuts if they were adequately supported by wealthier nations in the process.

new report from the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think tank, argues that industrialized countries should contribute $2 trillion annually to help developing nations stave off the effects of climate change. An investment of that size would be 20 times larger than existing global commitments, which developed countries are already struggling to meet.

There is also an ideological debate behind the purpose of climate finance. Proponents of environmental justice argue that the U.S. has a moral and ethical responsibility to help less prosperous countries deal with the threat of climate change because so much of the U.S.’s own development and economic growth has contributed to suffering around the globe. Politically speaking, though, the issue is largely framed in terms of national security: The United States will be safer and better off if climate disasters don’t go unmitigated in other parts of the world.

The needle on climate finance has moved slowly since 2009, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced at international climate negotiations in Copenhagen that by 2020 the U.S and other developed nations would “mobilize” $100 billion per year from public and private sources. The figure was selected to convey political will and was not based on any scientific analysis. As part of that $100 billion commitment, the U.N. established the Green Climate Fund, designed to finance climate mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries like securing the water supply in South Tarawa, Kiribati, and restoring degraded ecosystemsin El Salvador.

The fund’s governing board includes equal representation between developing and developed nations, and its first round of funding began in 2013, when 43 countries pledged to raise $10.3 billion for projects. Of that amount, the U.S. pledged to contribute $3 billion over four years.

As countries and experts debate how much climate aid is needed to raise over the long term, the amount of money raised and spent so far is also a matter of great dispute. One reason for that, according to Kevin Adams, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute, is that countries generally self-report what they’re providing, and so what developing countries say they receive can differ from what developed countries say they have contributed. “This can be due to factors like exchange rates and currency fluctuations, fees paid to consultants or other service providers, as well as the financial instrument used, such as grants versus loans,” he explained.

In 2015, for example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a report stating that wealthy countries had already mobilized $57 billion in climate aid, but leaders from developing nations argued that those figures were dramatically inflated. Indian officials called the OECD’s estimates “deeply flawed” and just “partially correct at best.” A 2018 Oxfam report also argued that climate-specific assistance to developing countries was likely overstated by a “huge margin.”

There’s also disagreement over what formally constitutes climate finance, an umbrella term that generally refers to climate mitigation, adaptation, and reparations. The “climate finance” term, according to Adams, is supposed to signify new and additional funding that goes above what countries are already spending (or supposed to be spending) on international development.

Adams said the rhetorical separation between “developmental aid” and “climate aid” is important so countries don’t just “relabel existing funds” they were already contributing. Though in practice, he explained, the distinction between the two can be much more tenuous, “particularly in the case of adaptation [funding] where climate vulnerability is so closely tied to poverty, access to services, and institutional capacity.”

Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, the global director of World Resources Institute’s Sustainable Finance Center, agrees the gap between development finance and climate finance is fairly porous. “There was always an overlap, and the reality is, the distinction is starting to break down,” he said. “These days, people recognize you can’t really do proper development without thinking about climate change and that we need to be talking about it as climate-informed development.”

Despite the growing consensus over the overlap between the categories, the Paris Agreement and other climate conventions have been designed using various methodologies and accounting systems that do not include development finance. “In some ways, we’re kind of stuck in this system we’ve created, where for a while we’ll have to move forward on these parallel tracks,” said Martinez-Diaz. “On the one hand, we’ll have a system to measure climate finance for [the] Paris [Agreement] and the $100 billion pledge, and on the other hand, we need to try and incorporate climate change into our water programming and our food security programming and our health programming. Even though some of that money cannot be counted as climate finance under the current rules, it still matters.”

THE CONVERSATION AROUND climate finance has been more robust outside the United States, yet President Donald Trump’s reneging on prior U.S. commitments has raised serious questions about how international targets can be met. Late last month at the R20 Austrian World Summit, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized how important climate financing was for tackling the crisis, stressing the need to meet the $100 billion goal by 2020 and “a full replenishment and an effective functioning” of the Green Climate Fund.

International climate talks are taking place this month in Bonn, Germany, and in July, the Green Climate Fund will hold its next board meeting. The next round of fundraising for the Green Climate Fund is provisionally planned for the fall, but right now leaders don’t know how much they’ll be able to raise without the help of the United States. In 2017, Trump announced that he was ending U.S support for the Green Climate Fund, even though the U.S. had yet to pay $2 billion of the $3 billion it had previously pledged. (The U.S. had transferred $1 billion to the fund under President Barack Obama.) Last fall, under its newly elected far-right prime minister, Australia said that it too would no longer be honoring its pledge to the Green Climate Fund.

Advocates see the challenge of mobilizing more money in this next round of funding as critical for establishing legitimacy and trust in the climate financing project and the Paris Agreement more broadly. If poor countries can’t rely on wealthy nations to help them industrialize in sustainable ways, then they may conclude they have little choice but to develop their economies along the same carbon-heavy trajectories that North America, East Asia, and Europe already took.

Encouragingly, both Germany and Norway have already announced their plans to double their previous commitments to the Green Climate Fund in the upcoming round of resource mobilization. Martinez-Diaz said WRI estimates that an ambitious replenishment goal should be about $14 billion if the U.S. does not participate, and about $22 billion if the U.S. does.

IN THE PEOPLE’S Policy Project report, published earlier this month, author Jacob Fawcett lays out a plan for what he calls a “Global Green New Deal,” under which developed countries would contribute $2 trillion annually, with the U.S. raising $680 billion of that, which amounts to 3.5 percent of the U.S.’s GDP.

The report suggests three ways for the U.S. to raise that money. One possibility would be a one-time issuance of open market treasury bonds, like selling $10.8 trillion worth of bonds into the open market and giving the earned cash to an investment fund managed by the U.N.; it would be difficult for a future president to repeal something like that, but it could spike interest rates. Another option is a one-time issuance of special treasury bonds, which could alleviate the interest rate risk but would be a little easier for a future administration to default on. The last proposed option is for Congress to pass a law authorizing annual mandatory spending, which would avoid the sticker shock of a one-time government debt issuance but also be the most vulnerable to political repeal.

The premise of Fawcett’s argument is that estimates for climate finance thrown around by world leaders are not actually based on what is necessary to confront the climate crisis. He notes that there are reputable climate finance models that project a cost of hundreds of billions and trillions annually; those figures fluctuate depending on what’s included and how they weigh various public and private financing methods.

“I want to see more attention paid to just how big this funding issue is, and I think it’s really a big fight,” he said, “with the amount of funding needed just several orders of magnitude beyond what people have been discussing.”

IN 2015, the England-based Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy issued a report calling for up to $2 trillion in annual climate financing. Another estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for $2.38 trillion in annual funding for energy sector development alone. Another 2015 report, produced by the World Bank and consultancy firm Ecofys, said financial transfers “could reach up to US$100–400 billion annually by 2030, possibly increasing to over $2 trillion dollars by 2050.” A 2011 U.N. estimate put the “annual financing demand to green the global economy” in the range of $1.05-$2.59 trillion. The World Economic Forum estimated in 2013 that there needs to be at least $700 billion in green infrastructure spending per year by 2020, separate from the $5 trillion annual investment in traditional industries.

While there are several multilateral funds aimed at climate finance, the People’s Policy Project recommends that the U.S. contribute the entirety of the $680 billion to the Green Climate Fund, which is the one most deeply rooted in the principles of the Paris Agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The paper assumes that it’s the global institution with the most capacity to handle that much money responsibly, and that it’s more secure once it’s in the hands of the U.N.

The Green Climate Fund’s ability to handle that level of investment is another question. “The Green Climate is good at upscaling ideas, and it’s crucial that the approaches it is developing are closely linked to the principles of the Convention, but you’d have some practical issues to it handling that much funding,” said Adams of the Stockholm Environment Institute. “While the replenishment is currently ongoing, scaling it up 200 times to $2 trillion would be an enormous institutional challenge.” Indeed, the Green Climate Fund’s capacity to review projects is limited, and it can only distribute money to countries that apply with a robust project to pursue — not a quick or easy task.

Adams said industrialized countries should “do more and contribute more” toward the effort of climate finance, which is more important than a focus on the exact figures needed. “While $2 trillion might be in line with the scale of the climate challenge, it is so far beyond the $100 billion goal currently enshrined in the Paris Agreement and which contributor countries are struggling to meet, it’s hard to see that figure gaining much political traction,” he said.

Oscar Reyes, an Institute for Policy Studies fellow focused on climate and energy finance, said the $2 trillion figure is in line with the costs of retooling large swaths of infrastructure and creating new infrastructure, which can escalate quickly, especially in economically disadvantaged nations where energy systems with proper access to electricity are being developed for the first time. Still, he said, aiming to raise $2 trillion — especially considering corruption in the international development space — is not necessarily the way to go.

“What probably makes more sense to me at the moment is, let’s get the Green Climate Fund to $20 billion, or $30 billion, and build the organization up in a sustainable way,” he said. “If you throw out a lot of money, it’s really difficult to see how that’s done, though maybe that’s my lack of imagination.”

The U.N., meanwhile, is working to develop a better sense of what’s needed. The UNFCCC’s Adaptation Committee is seeking proposals to better determine what is needed to address adaptation funding gaps. The committee aims to compile results in late 2020 or early 2021.

THERE IS ALSO a debate over the role of public versus private climate funding. The People’s Policy Project operates from an assumption that the public sector should cover the entire cost and not rely on businesses or philanthropists to shoulder the responsibility. Most other climate financing plans rely on a mix of public and private sources, though typically with public funding acting as a sweetener for hefty private investment. The 2015 Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy paper Fawcett cites in his report argues that “private finance is potentially the most important source of funds for climate mitigation investment.”

Fawcett said he isn’t wholly opposed to private investment, citing carbon-capture technology as one example that he’d feel more comfortable with. He cautioned, though, against the potentially more exploitative situations, like companies that rent out solar panels to poor villages. He thinks predatory situations could be more easily mitigated if the U.N. had control over the aid.

Advocates and world leaders face the challenge of striking the balance between a wealthy, developed country’s moral obligation to helping poorer, developing countries and framing the climate finance conversation in terms of national self-interest.

When Trump announced he would no longer contribute the rest of the United States’ pledge to the Green Climate Fund, he wrongly claimed it was “costing the United States a vast fortune.” Matthew Kotchen, an Obama administration official, responded in the Washington Post that U.S officials had “vigorously advocated for a fund that served the interests of the United States.” Kotchen also noted that encouraging other countries to reduce their emissions helps create a more stable and secure world, and reduces economic costs for many sectors of the U.S. economy. He made no mention of environmental justice or the nation’s ethical obligation.

Even as he calls for greater climate finance flows, Adams acknowledged “there is a tension between trying to help contributor countries recognize their own vulnerability to climate change in a globalizing world, and,Feliza at the same time, recognizing that contributing to climate finance should not only be about individual interest.”

THE GREEN NEW Deal, considered among the boldest proposals to tackle climate change in the United States, is rooted in the principles of economic justice. The resolution commits to promoting a “just transition” for all communities and workers, and prioritizes job creation and social benefits for “frontline and vulnerable communities.” Still, it is very domestic in focus, and some commentators have urged legislators to think more deeply about climate finance.

Last month, Ben Adler, an editor at City & State, argued in the Washington Post that while many conservatives claim the Green New Deal is too big, its sparse focus on the United States’ international obligations suggests that the plan might not be nearly big enough. The Green New Deal resolution contains one sentence that gestures at climate finance, endorsing the “international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal.” Earlier this month Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said she expects her Green New Deal climate plan to cost at least $10 trillion, though she did not specify how much of that she envisioned for international funding, if any. Her office declined to comment on specifics about climate finance. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, the original Senate co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, also did not return requests for comment.

Looking toward 2021, which is the soonest a Green New Deal plan could feasibly be passed, Democratic presidential candidates have so far steered clear of very large climate financing figures. Joe Biden promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement and use “America’s economic leverage and power of example” to get other countries to increase their emission reduction goals. His plan doesn’t say anything specific about climate aid. Jay Inslee, the candidate who has centered climate change most prominently in his campaign, did pledge to double the United States’ investment in the Green Climate Fund. And Elizabeth Warren proposed a $100 billion “Green Marshall Plan” to fund projects in poor, developing nations — though the projects would require countries to purchase American-made energy technology for the work. Projects funded out of the Green Climate Fund do not come with similar restrictions.

Ultimately, with Green Climate Fund replenishment talks coming up soon, the political will for tackling the climate crisis on the rise, and Green New Deal details yet to be formalized, it’s in many ways a ripe time for the U.S. to begin thinking more seriously about its role and responsibility to other nations grappling with the climate crisis.

“I think there is an international dimension of the Green New Deal that’s missing,” said Adams. “But at the same time, I think it’s a helpful policy approach because it moves the conversation to a space where climate change is inextricable from our economies and the way our societies are structured, as opposed to treating it like a one-off externality.”

Maine AFL-CIO Becomes First State Federation to Support a Green New Deal Bill

Originally published in In These Times on April 22, 2019.
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On Tuesday, Maine lawmakers will hold a hearing for “An Act to Establish a Green New Deal for Maine”—a new climate and jobs bill that has the notable support of Maine’s AFL-CIO, the first state labor federation to endorse a Green New Deal-themed piece of legislation. The bill calls for 80 percent renewable electricity consumption by 2040, solar power for public schools, the creation of a task force to study economic and job growth, and a commission to help facilitate a just transition to a low-carbon economy. Its backing from a coalition of over 160 labor unions offers an instructive lesson for other states looking to build union power to tackle a warming planet.

The bill is the brainchild of Chloe Maxmin, a 26-year-old state lawmaker elected in November, and the first Democrat to ever represent her district. Maxmin, who has been an environmental activist since she was 12 years old, and co-founded the Harvard fossil fuel divestment campaign while in college, said she knew if she was voted into office she would approach climate politics in a different way.

One of the criticisms of the national Green New Resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is that it lacked a broad coalition of supporters when it was first introduced. But Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s political strategy, they’ve explained, is to use the aspirational framework as an organizing tool over the next two years, to bring more key partners on board.

Maxmin, by contrast, sought to bring allies into her coalition prior to going public with the legislation, and Maine labor and environmental groups did not have a deep history of working together before. “I’ve been an organizer for a long time, and to build power and to really create something inclusive I knew it had to be inclusive from the beginning,” she told In These Times. “The traditional strategies that we’ve used around climate and climate policy just have not really gotten us very far.”

Maine has some unique characteristics: It is the most rural state in the nation, the whitest (roughly ­tied with Vermont), and the oldest. It’s also, as of 2019, one of just 14 states where Democrats control all three branches of state government.

While she knows her bill will be associated with the federal resolution, Maxmin stresses that hers should be understood as targeted legislation, specifically tailored to her state’s needs. “Of course, there are national parallels with not only the name but also echoing the themes of economic justice and opportunity, but it’s a very Maine-specific bill, and not meant to cover every component of the climate crisis,” she said.

Matt Schlobohm, the executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, praised Maxmin for her deliberate efforts to “create a policy that was ambitious, aspirational and do-able” for working-class people. Maine’s labor community, which has about 12 percent union density, has not historically focused on climate issues or climate justice. Schlobohm thinks this legislation is a real chance for unions “to build trust and develop their analysis and capacity” in a meaningful way.

The bill sets less ambitious targets than the national Green New Deal resolution, which, among other things, calls for 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, and includes language around reducing emissions from transportation and agricultural sectors. While the Maine Sierra Club supports the legislation, Maxmin acknowledged that some environmental activists have criticized her bill for not going far enough.

“Our approach was targeted legislation focused on economic and job growth in Maine,” she said, pointing to the solar projects for schools, and the jobs-focused task force which would report on its findings by next January. Like the state’s opioid task force which has paved the way to new state policies, Maxmin said she expects to be able to introduce more specific job legislation generated by the task force’s research next year. “There are other [environmental] bills going through the State House around transportation and agriculture,” she said. “This [bill] is for workers, low-income Mainers, and economic growth in Maine.”

Haley Maurice, a junior at Bowdoin College involved in the Bowdoin Climate Action group and a student leader with the national Sunrise Movement, has been involved in discussions with Rep. Maxmin to shape the bill. (Sunrise also endorsed Maxmin’s bid for office.)

“We started meeting in early February, and [Rep. Maxmin] was just really forward in saying we need young people involved,” she said. “I’ve been very impressed by her adamant belief in the democratic nature of the bill and in making sure that everyone who is affected by this is considered and at the table.”

Maurice said that while “other climate bills proposed in the Maine legislature have very ambitious timelines,” this is the first bill she believes really prioritizes how the energy transition will take place, and constitutes “a very strong starting point” for Maine. The legislation outlines requirements for a commission to study and track progress towards a low-carbon economy, particularly for those most adversely impacted: people from demographic groups that have been historically affected, and people who are low-income and cannot participate in energy efficiency programs.

Moreover, Maurice doesn’t think a state bill on a less ambitious timeline is at odds with the work that she and her Sunrise colleagues are pushing for on the national level. If anything, Maurice said, it just reinforces why the federal government needs to also be involved in the process.

“When you say we need 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and we need a faster timeline, you need to think about the burden that places on Mainers here,” she said. “And if state bills have a slower timeline than what science is saying we need, I don’t think that is necessarily contradictory to our values. States need to push forward in the ways we can now while ensuring these transitions are happening in an equitable way, and we need a federal Green New Deal to bolster the work of the states.”

The Maine AFL-CIO’s support for the bill is an important milestone, as labor remains devided on the Green New Deal nationally. While the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee responded critically to the Green New Deal resolution, unhappy with both some of its specific language and its lack of specifics, other labor organizations have started to mobilize in support. In late March the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor approved a resolution in support of “a Green New Deal or similar effort” to address climate change and economic inequality. In mid-April, Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines, wrote an op-ed in in support of the Green New Deal, and the general urgency of tackling climate change.

Schlobohm said if he were to give advice to environmental leaders about how to organize effectively with labor, he’d encourage them to make deliberate efforts to understand unions, and engage them in a good-faith process. “And I think just the basic organizing 101 of showing up for each other,” he said. “There’s a lot of strikes and picket lines these days. Do environmental organizations show up at teacher strikes and grocery worker strikes? The same question should be asked of unions, but I think there’s just opportunity to build solidarity in this moment.”

For his labor allies, Schlobohm says the energy transition is going to happen, so it can either happen “with us or to us” and “one option is far superior than the other.”

Ultimately Schlobohm feels optimistic about the future of climate-labor organizing, says there are lots of opportunities for “win-wins”—and points to the recent organizing done by climate and labor groups in New York.

“There are renewable energy policies moving in every state in the country,” he said. “And every single one of those policy frameworks has the opportunity and levers for job quality and labor rights standards.”

 

Labor Unions Are Skeptical of the Green New Deal, And They Want Activists To Hear Them Out

Originally published in The Intercept on Feb. 28, 2019.
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Deciding whether to sign onto the Green New Deal resolution is not an easy call for many members of Congress. They have to contend with the usual opponents: coal, utilities, oil companies, and other big-pocketed interests who like today’s economic order just fine. But even on the left, coalition-building can be complicated.

After signing onto the Green New Deal as an original sponsor, one House Democrat felt that acutely when he traveled back to his district and met with two top local labor leaders. The congressperson, who asked not to be named, said he faced harsh criticism from building trade representatives who worried the plan would put their members out of work. He pushed back, arguing that their members will actually fare better with a green infrastructure plan that can drive up wages for blue collar work, pointing to jobs like retrofitting buildings and constructing renewable energy infrastructure.

Recent polling has found strong bipartisan support for a Green New Deal, but unions, a key constituency, have been less than enthused by — and in some cases, downright hostile to — the ambitious proposal to tackle climate change.

Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, or LIUNA, denounced the Green New Deal the day it was introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. In a blistering statement, O’Sullivan said it was “exactly how not to enact a progressive agenda to address our nation’s dangerous income inequality” and “exactly how not to win support for critical measures to curb climate change.”

For many observers, the construction union’s opposition was not too surprising. LIUNA had ardently supported the Dakota Access pipeline and said in 2016 that the labor organizations who opposed the project were “self-righteous” and “display[ing] a truly amazing level of hypocrisy and ignorance.” In January 2017, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, LIUNA was one of several building trade unions to meet with the president, later praising Trump’s “remarkable courtesy” and affirmed that LIUNA “look[s] forward” to partnering with the White House on infrastructure.

Some climate activists have said that support for the Green New Deal should be a litmus test for progressives. Writing for The Intercept, Naomi Klein argued recently that the labor movement should “confront and isolate” LiUNA over its opposition. “That could take the form of LIUNA members, confident that the Green New Deal will not leave them behind, voting out their pro-boss leaders,” she wrote. “Or it could end with LIUNA being tossed out of the AFL-CIO” — the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the country’s largest umbrella group for unions — “for planetary malpractice.”

As advocates of the Green New Deal work to gin up more support for the resolution, they face the challenge of parsing out bad-faith criticisms from legitimate critiques by those whose livelihoods would be impacted by a transition to green jobs. The way they straddle that line and respond to those concerns could make all the difference in getting the critical mass of support needed for the Green New Deal to pass.

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s nonbinding resolution includes explicit language backing union jobs that pay prevailing wages and a commitment for “wage and benefit parity for workers” affected by the energy transition. The Green New Deal also calls for “strengthening and protecting” the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, and for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments” with strong labor protections.

Despite those promises, only one big union, 32BJ SEIU, has come out swinging in support of the Green New Deal. The majority of labor organizations have so far stayed quiet or voiced skepticism or criticism. The opposition, particularly for those in the building industry, is rooted in concerns about jobs and wages, as well as the approaches favored in the resolution for decreasing carbon emissions. There is also a political thread, with Trump-voting Republican coal miners, for example, hesitant to embrace a policy that has been sponsored only by members of the Democratic caucus.

Evan Weber, political director at Sunrise Movement, the youth advocacy organization credited with putting the Green New Deal on the political map, suggested that his group is not too worried about labor’s early response. “Since the resolution launched, a few [unions] have put out negative and less-than-enthusiastic statements about the Green New Deal,” he said, “but most are remaining silent and choosing to view this as a potential opportunity.”

Two weeks ago, seven unions representing workers in the building industry sent a letter to the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and its ranking member, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., saying they “have grave concerns about unrealistic solutions such as those advocated in the ‘Green New Deal.’” The unions have also used the letter — which outlines their climate legislative priorities — in meetings with House members and senators since January, according to Phil Smith, spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America.

Despite advocating their position in Congress, the signatories have not yet made public statements on the Green New Deal. Mark Brueggenjohann, spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which signed the letter, told The Intercept that his union is not commenting now on the resolution, but “will be better prepared to do so” when actual legislation is available.

One climate strategy that many unions have said is important is investing in carbon capture technology and storage — a conceivable, if yet to be realized, way to prevent most of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel plants from entering the atmosphere. This method has already generated a bit of controversy in the rollout of the Green New Deal. 

In November, the Sunrise Movement called for a Green New Deal Select Committeethat included “funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases.” This language appeared to endorse research and development in carbon capture technology, something many climate experts say is necessary to keep the planet from overheating. But in January, as Robinson Meyer from The Atlantic reported, the drafters of the final version of that resolution quietly removed any reference to “capturing” greenhouse gases. Meyer noted that the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which last fall warned that a failure to make major changes to reduce global warming in the next 12 years will be catastrophic for the planet, “has not produced any projection that shows us hitting that [necessary decarbonization] target without massively deploying carbon-capture technology.”

Carbon capture technology is somewhat polarizing. Critics say it’s risky to bank on pricey technology that does not really exist yet, and they say that the fossil fuel industry uses the prospect of carbon capture as an excuse to avoid reining in their environmentally harmful businesses.

Supporters, however, argue that investing in carbon capture is scientifically necessary for reducing emissions globally and vital for maintaining economic stability. “Our union does not question the science about climate change, and we’ve been working for some time on ways to mitigate it,” said Smith, the spokesperson for the mine workers union. “The answer, to us, is not quit using coal, but to spend the kind of money that needs to be spent on carbon-capture technology, on a commercial scale in this country and across the world. The fact of the matter is, if you don’t do that, you’ll never solve the global crisis.”

The Green New Deal resolution doesn’t explicitly rule out carbon capture technology, but in a section that deals with removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the authors endorse “proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage,” like protecting land and planting new trees. Other vaguely written sections of the resolution, however, could open the door for carbon-capture technology. The resolution endorses “creating solutions to remove” emissions, and endorses the international exchange of technology, products, and services to address climate change.

The resolution is nonbinding, so the inclusion or exclusion of a provision does not dictate how future legislation will be written, but it does suggest some hesitancy to embrace carbon capture technology and storage.

The Sunrise Movement does not see “a heavy role for carbon capture and storage,” said Weber, the group’s political director, though he said it could be worth investing in some research and development for so-called heavy industry like steelmaking and shipbuilding. He noted that carbon capture technology is “pretty expensive compared to just reducing emissions by moving toward alternative forms of energy.” Ocasio-Cortez’s and Markey’s offices did not return requests for comment.

As an alternative, Weber said photosynthesis should be seen as an optimal way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “We think there’s a lot of upward potential here in the U.S. to do ecosystem restoration and preservation,” he said. “A number of studies have shown that that can really help us get toward our climate goals and we’re most interested in investing in those proven solutions.”

Laborers are also skeptical of what the Green New Deal’s promise for a “just transition” would mean in practice. “We think it’s very important to find out what a ‘just transition’ actually means and who gets to define it,” said Smith of the mine workers union. “And will people be paid what they’re earning now, with the same level of benefits? None of that has been clarified.”

Members of the United Mine Workers of America earn an average of $30 an hour, along with employer contributions to a 401(k), paid sick leave, paid vacation, and ample health benefits, according to Smith. “I think, frankly, if you’re able to say to these folks, here’s a $30-an-hour job with all the rest of the stuff you’re used to, and you’ll pretty much work the same hours, you’ll have folks say, ‘OK, I’ll consider this,’” he said. “But that’s not what anyone is saying. And it seems to us there’s a very naive view about what this is going to cost and where the money is going to come from.”

Saikat Chakrabati, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, responded to early criticisms of the Green New Deal by saying that they envision future legislation that would provide economic security to miners who would find a switch to a new career challenging.

When asked if his members see an urgency to address climate change, Smith said they haven’t done formal polling, but that “anecdotally, our membership is very split on that issue.” He noted that plenty of miners voted for Trump and tend to agree with his perspective on climate change.

Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, or NABTU, told Reuters that his members were skeptical of promises of “green jobs” and noted that “renewable energy firms have been less generous” than the oil and gas sector when it comes to paying their workers. Renewable jobs, notably, are generally safer than fossil fuel jobs and can be done anywhere in the country, unlike jobs that are dependent on the location of a mine or an oil rig.

Like the mine workers, when it comes to NABTU and other critics of the Green New Deal, members’ political orientations are relevant.

In 2016, NABTU, along with LIUNA and a handful of other unions, sent a letter to the AFL-CIO, calling on the federation to cut ties with Democratic billionaire donor Tom Steyer, a vocal critic of the Keystone oil pipeline. (Since Trump’s election, Steyer has also frequently called for the president’s impeachment.) Despite their agreement over Keystone, the groups’ partisan leanings are a bit divergent. In the 2018 cycle, NABTU gave 41 percent of its political action committee contributions to Democratic candidates and 59 percent to Republicans. More than 75 percent of LIUNA’s contributions, by contrast, went to Democrats in the last election.

NABTU and LIUNA did not return multiple requests for comment.

Weber, the Sunrise Movement’s political director, said some of the concerns unions have raised about needing more specificity are “completely valid,” though he accused LIUNA of lying about what the resolution contains and misrepresenting climate science. “It’s always kind of disappointing to see potential allies resort to tactics that we see the right wing and our common enemies using,” he said.

With respect to labor issues, Weber said, the Green New Deal is “leaps and bounds ahead of previous climate proposals.” From his group’s perspective, if energy workers cannot find new jobs that pay them equal to what they’re currently earning, then “the government should step in and make up that difference,” he said.

“I think the job guarantee is a really critical element of the Green New Deal,” he said. “It doesn’t say if you’re a coal miner, you’re now going to go work on installing solar panels, it asks what are the jobs that make sense for your community and have this transition be something that’s locally determined.”

The union that has offered the most enthusiasm for the Green New Deal has been 32BJ, which represents 163,000 doormen, security officers, cleaners, and airport workers along the east coast. On February 6, the Joint Executive Board of 32BJ passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal and “reaffirm[ed] its commitment to a 100 percent clean and renewable energy economy.”

In an interview with The Intercept, 32BJ’s New York City-based president, Héctor Figueroa, proudly noted that his union was the first to come out in support of the Green New Deal. “We can build unity in labor if we can recognize the urgency of the climate crisis” and effectively link the fight for climate justice to economic justice, he said.

Figueroa’s rhetoric is similar to that of Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise activists. He emphasized the need to take action “in a big, bold way” that addresses climate “concurrent to the problems of income inequality and declining labor standards.” He noted his personal connection — his family comes from Puerto Rico and has been dealing with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria — and he said two-thirds of their membership was born outside of the United States. “They know the impact of climate change back in their home countries,” he said. “They understand this is a global problem.”

32BJ’s February resolution on the Green New Deal “marked a new phase” in the union’s engagement on climate change, as for the past two decades, they’ve focused primarily on advocating for green jobs and energy efficiency standards, Figueroa said. “Now we’re taking another step, which is to very clearly and categorically say we need to build a future without fossil fuel,” he explained.

Their next task will be to pressure their national union, SEIU, to support the Green New Deal. “We are very passionate about it, and we believe it’s the right place for labor,” he said.

Other locals may also play a role in pressing their parent unions for support. Out in California, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, of which an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local is a member, issued a resolution in support of the Green New Deal.

Aside from that, most unions have stayed silent — even those that have contributed to the discourse around climate change in the past. The AFL-CIO, for example, passed a resolution in October 2017 on “Climate Change, Energy, and Union Jobs.” The resolution affirmed the labor federation’s commitment to passing “energy and environmental policies with a focus on ensuring high labor standards, the creation of union jobs and environmental sustainability,” and also affirmed its support for enacting “comprehensive energy and climate legislation that creates good jobs and addresses the threat of climate change.” In 2009, the AFL-CIO worked to shape the House’s cap-and-trade bill. The American Clean Energy and Security Act — the name of which is conspicuously missing the term “climate change” — died in the Senate without a vote.

While the AFL-CIO has yet to issue a statement on the Green New Deal, in September, the federation’s president, Richard Trumka, gave a speech on fighting climate change that is telling of the group’s perspective. He said that “strategies that leave coal miners’ pension funds bankrupt, power plant workers unemployed, construction workers making less than they do now … plans that devastate communities today, while offering vague promises about the future … they are more than unjust. … They fundamentally undermine the power of the political coalition needed to address the climate crisis.”

The BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of 14 unions and environmental organizations — including the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers — backed the cap-and-trade bill in 2009, but has not commented on the Green New Deal. (Spokesperson Abby Harvey declined The Intercept’s request for comment.) Critics have noted that BlueGreen Alliance tends to avoid weighing in on more controversial issues, like the Keystone XL pipeline. (LIUNA, which supported the pipeline, quit the alliance in 2012 over related disagreements.)

David Foster, the former executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, wrote an op-ed in The Hill earlier this month, urging the public to study the lessons from a decade ago, the last time leaders called for a global Green New Deal. “Unless the transition to a clean energy economy is based on unifying politics, this next iteration will also prove another adventure in pyrrhic rhetoric,” Foster warned. A decade ago, unemployment was high and the price of oil was also skyrocketing. While neither are true today, he noted, inequality remains terrible and working conditions throughout the entire economy feel even more precarious.

The Sunrise Movement plans to launch a campaign in March to build more support for the Green New Deal, with events planned in states like Michigan, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. “We’ve been working to get a lot of support from the grassroots and the grasstops,” Weber said, “and we’re going to keep doing that going forward.”