Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put forward the resolution in the House. Senators backing it include several candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren among them.PETE MAROVICH/The New York Times News Service

Canada and the world for years have done little about climate change, save for watching it worsen as ever-more greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere. Consider this: Since 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was signed, global emissions have risen almost 40 per cent.

There is a new urgency. Last fall, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that limiting global warming to 1.5 C – the figure in the Paris Agreement – will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” The world has to cut emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, from 2010 levels, and get the number to net zero by 2050.

This is the landscape in which the Green New Deal has emerged in the United States. Its name evokes the emergency economic measures of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. The concept has been bandied about for a decade but shot to prominence in February in the form of a 14-page resolution introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Senate.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put forward the resolution in the House. Senators backing it include several candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren among them.

This month, the Green New Deal received another mainstream endorsement. Joe Biden – the current frontrunner among Democrats vying for 2020 – called it a “crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face” as he released his environmental proposals.

The green aspects of the Green New Deal are to be lauded. The proposal calls for 100 per cent of power generated from clean, renewable and zero-emission sources. Existing buildings are to be upgraded and new buildings should meet zero-emission standards. Zero-emission vehicles, mass transit and high-speed rail would overhaul transportation.

Green New Dealers frame their goals against U.S. economic inequality, from long-term wage stagnation to the wealth divide between the very rich and the rest. And, so, beyond the environment, the Green New Deal has an array of goals.

Some are uncontroversial for most Western countries – universal health care – but others have attracted criticism, such as the pledge of “guaranteeing a job … to all people.”

Supporters see a green revolution as a shot to remake society. Given the scale and scope of the work required to combat climate change, it is true that this could be an opportunity for widespread reform. But one wonders if the core mission could be diluted, or not take off at all, if opponents can attack a single element and take down the entire edifice.

The methods of change are also a question. Among some environmentalists – never mind voters – policies like a carbon tax are not popular. Democrats appear to have given up on that lever. Nuclear power also remains controversial. Some proponents reject expensive but needed technology like carbon capture and storage. Green New Dealers also place more emphasis on public spending by government and less on free markets.

Being absolutist about the solutions is not going to solve the problems. The market must play a role – alongside governments. Mr. Biden is one of several Democratic 2020 candidates who have outlined Green New Deal-like plans. They promise large government investments and predict the money will spark much more in private-sector spending. New regulatory standards for buildings and cars can drive private-sector innovation. Governments can also wield their buying power to be at the fore of change in buildings and transportation to help reduce costs for society more broadly.

Finally, the timeline of the Green New Deal in Congress – the resolution calls for a “10-year national mobilization” – has been called unrealistic, even by some believers.

But this again reflects the heart of the Green New Deal. The battle against what may be becoming a climate emergency has always been incremental. This strategy has led only to increased greenhouse emissions. The Green New Deal rejects small steps and responds to the challenge the world faces with answers that could actually reach the required outcomes.

Urgency and big thinking are the Green New Deal’s greatest asset. It is a serious blueprint for what needs to be done, and it’s clearly driven the debate among Democrats this year. There are questions about the Green New Deal’s breadth, but its core goals set a high standard worth considering.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe