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March 20, 2019

Ocasio-Cortez’s genius climate stroke: Her Green New Deal is most serious response to crisis yet

January 11, 2019
The right idea. (Zach Gibson / Getty Images)

Ruing the day that they mocked her clothing or dancing, some critics have decided to train their fire on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s brain instead. She didn’t know the three branches of government; she overstated how much the Pentagon had wasted. If, a writer in the Washington Post suggested, this kind of imprecision persists, “responsible self-government becomes impossible.”

This line of attack, I would guess, is going to fall flat too, because as the last few weeks have shown, Ocasio-Cortez is in fact more right on the biggest questions than anyone else in the House of Representatives. Call her Ocasio-Cortex; where it matters, she seems to understand issues at a deeper level than most pols.

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The best example is climate change, the issue of our time, where her Green New Deal plan has provided a badly needed new opening. Early this week, a research group published new data on U.S. carbon emissions, showing they’d risen sharply over the past year.

Even scarier: We’re basically producing the same amount of carbon as we did in 1990, when we first learned of the climate crisis.

Essentially, through Democratic and Republican administrations, we’ve done far too little. There are a few comprehensive state-level plans: California is acting, and environmental justice groups in New York State, for instance, have painstakingly put together a Climate and Community Protection Act that’s a model for others.

But at the federal level, where it really counts, we’ve fallen farther and farther behind the physics of climate change.

Which brings us back to Ocasio-Cortez. Her plan for a Green New Deal — endorsed “in concept” in recent days by one presidential aspirant after another — is among the first Washington efforts to approach climate change at the right scale.

The call to get off fossil fuel by the 2030s is hard but technically achievable; the guarantee of a job in the renewable industry to anyone who wants one would actually provide the labor required to make a transition of this magnitude.

Backers plan two years of hearings to shape the final package — but if we follow their lead, get ready to follow European nations away from gas-powered cars, and prepare for public transit to get a serious shot in the arm.

The young people of the Sunrise Movement, who have done the most to push the Green New Deal, and who enlisted Ocasio-Cortez in their gutsy Capitol Hill protests, are far closer to meeting the scientific requirements of the moment than the various luminaries (Michael Bloomberg, George Shultz, James Baker) who propose what they consider “politically realistic” grab bags of carbon taxes and regulatory overhauls.

Not only have those gone nowhere politically, but they wouldn’t make enough change fast enough. In the end, after all, global warming is a math problem.

Since some have begun calling her by initials now, it’s worth comparing AOC to that other New Yorker, FDR. His New Deal morphed over time as some initiatives floundered and others flourished. But what stayed the same — and what made the difference — was the scale. He was attacking the problem of the Great Depression with programs of great size.

There are other similarities too, I think, not least among them the joy that they each bring to the task. (If you want to see the World War II-era equivalent of AOC’s dance, take a look at FDR’s discussion of “my little dog Fala”).

The great governmental gift lies in figuring out first what needs to happen and then at figuring out what is required to meet that need, both in terms of policy and in terms of politics. Ocasio-Cortez can apparently do it backwards, and in heels.

McKibben is an author and environmentalist.

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