The USA’s key to climate change mitigation may be through politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC).
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) gained national attention when she won the 2018 midterm Democratic primary elections and, at 29 years old, became the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress. Powerful Democrat Joseph Crowley had remained uncontested as representative for New York’s 14th Congressional District for 14 years. AOC’s victory was therefore impressive not only due to its unexpected shift in the Democratic party but also because she is a publicly funded, grassroots, working class Latina woman.
What are her policies, particularly her Green New Deal (GND)?
Beyond her non-traditional political background, her first proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey was House Resolution 109, also known as the Green New Deal (GND). Since its introduction in February 2019, it has been a contentious and controversial proposition in US politics. Despite this, the USA is responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and was the highest consumer per capita of fossil fuels globally in 2019. Therefore, the world desperately needs the States to introduce an effective long-term decarbonisation strategy that meets the 2018 IPCC report’s urges to prevent global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius.
AOC’s victory was therefore impressive not only due to its unexpected shift in the Democratic party but also because she is a publicly funded, grassroots, working class Latina woman.
AOC’s GND is a 10 year mobilisation plan which alludes to the New Deal implemented during Roosevelt’s administration in the 1930s. Alongside being an economic plan, the GND aims to tackle chronic American social and political issues through the lens of the climate emergency. Its main goals include:
- Achieving emissions reductions between 40 and 60% by the end of the decade and reach net-zero by 2050
- Creating millions of green jobs
- Investing in sustainable infrastructure
- Reforming the food system and agricultural sector
- Securing social needs such as clean water and universal healthcare.
Throughout all its goals, AOC has ensured the GND focuses on communities affected most by environmental racism and economic inequality.
One of the greatest criticisms of the GND is its funding, as it is predicted to cost a figure between $10 and $93 trillion. However, the idea that it is too expensive to be feasible has been refuted, as the creation of new jobs and reduction of climate-related costs (such as healthcare and fatalities) would pay for itself over time. Additionally, a 2017 IMF report found that the US government was the second largest fossil fuel subsidies provider, spending $649 billion in 2015 alone. It posits that efficient fossil fuel pricing would have reduced global carbon emissions by 28%, fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46%, and increased government revenue by 3.8% of GDP. This suggests the upfront costs of a Green New Deal would be more profitable than continuing to subsidise the fossil fuel industry, the benefits of which are often not seen by regular citizens but by the banks of the bosses of these polluting industries.
Why should we be looking at politicians like her?
Whilst the GND is nonbinding and was unsuccessful in the House of Representatives, it has proved a key piece of legislation in the 2020 Presidential Election and has inspired similar proposals of the GND in other countries, such as British MP Caroline Lucas’ (more about the UK Green New Deal can be found here). In a Channel 4 interview, author Naomi Klein describes an ‘ecosystem of activism’ in which politicians like AOC are ‘translating the demand from the streets into policy’.
This suggests the upfront costs of a Green New Deal would be more profitable than continuing to subsidise the fossil fuel industry, the benefits of which are often not seen by regular citizens but by the banks of the bosses of these polluting industries.
Despite being the largest global emitter at the time, the USA never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, encouraging Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper also to withdraw in 2011. President Obama’s proposal to reduce emissions by just 4% below 1990 levels during the 2009 Copenhagen Accord rendered the conference futile, as other countries’ much higher commitments were contingent on American assent. From Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement in 2017 to accusations of ‘regulatory capture’ in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – appointing members who work within the fossil fuel industries they are supposed to regulate – the Trump administration demonstrates a complete lack of concern for the climate crisis.
Contrastingly, the ambitious nature of the GND is a very visible attempt to rectify American complacency towards the environment. This resolution, AOC’s pride in her identity as a marginalised woman, and her opposing political stance to the Republican government have propelled her image and message to an internationally recognised level. As the only successful woman of four grassroots politicians who were followed in the documentary ‘Knock the House Down’ to win in the 2018 primaries, she has gained mass media attention but also intense scrutiny from opponents.
For many, AOC has become a symbol of a shifting dynamic in the American political scene: she is attempting to hold the government and fossil fuel companies accountable and recognises that climate justice cannot be achieved without economic and social changes that stem from political decisions. Therefore, she may be the key to inspiring the election of more grassroots politicians who can drive the USA to commit to effective climate action.
Art by Alice Vine