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Amid Climate Crisis, Many Americans Still Don’t Know What the Green New Deal Is

Given the time constraints of the climate fight, this election may set the course for far more than the next four years.

Teenage Climate Crisis activists from various climate activism groups protesting in Westminster during the first UK Students Strike Over Climate Change march of 2020 on February 14, 2020, in London, England.

Americans could be forgiven if the first time they heard about the Green New Deal was during the October 7 vice-presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence. Viewers of Fox News may have heard about the Green New Deal, but the coverage on Fox, according to Media Matters, has, for the last two years, focused on tying it to radical socialism and issuing warnings that the plan would lead to economic collapse.

Other networks haven’t given the Green New Deal nearly as much airtime or have failed to clearly articulate its proposed policies. In a 2019 poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 3 out of 4 Americans hadn’t heard enough about the Green New Deal to have an opinion on it. Furthermore, Republicans were about twice as likely to have heard about the plan than Democrats, and they expressed opposition to it.

A 2020 poll by the Center for American Progress Action Fund showed a similar level of confusion about the policy proposals in the Green New Deal. A whopping 53 percent of Americans couldn’t say whether the Green New Deal was favorable or unfavorable. They simply don’t know what it is.

In the debate, Vice President Pence accused the Biden camp of supporting the Green New Deal as if to incite a “Red Scare,” using the refrain of big government mandates that would result in a loss of jobs and a loss of freedom. In the fog of confusion about the Green New Deal, the American public might be swayed by the GOP’s narrative that it’s a “big government” boogeyman.

The idea for the Green New Deal originated with the Sunrise Movement, a group of young climate leaders who forced the conversation on climate through sit-ins and protests. Many are in Generation Z, or Generation Green New Deal (GEN GND) as they call themselves. They have grown up as the most digitally interconnected generation on the planet, so it’s no wonder they often gain a political consciousness before voting age. The depth of their knowledge about the climate crisis runs as deep as their climate grief from growing up in the shadow of an impending apocalypse where adults seem asleep at the wheel.

These young people set about changing the conversation on climate from one focused on polar bears and individual carbon footprints to one focused on jobs, justice and people who have traditionally been left out of the conversation about the environment: poor communities, communities of color and rural communities. Not only does climate science have a tendency to become abstract when it evokes scientific language like “gigatons” and “parts per million,” these young activists also see plenty of evidence to show that it’s the vulnerable frontline communities that are often the most harmed by the fossil fuel economy.

In February 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced the Green New Deal Resolution, with 67 House and 11 Senate co-sponsors. The nonbinding resolution calls for the U.S. to reach 100 percent zero-emission power by 2030, along with sweeping policies like a federal jobs guarantee, universal health care and affordable housing. The bill now has 101 House and 14 Senate co-sponsors.

The Green New Deal harkens back to one of the most successful Democratic initiatives in history — the New Deal — which was designed to pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression. Let’s not forget that it did so by introducing a huge jobs program to put people back to work. It also gave us Social Security, the federal minimum wage, rural electrification and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Biden distanced himself from the Green New Deal during his debate with President Trump when he said he didn’t support it and instead supported his own climate plan. However, his verbal distancing may have come in part because the GOP has set an unfavorable narrative about the Green New Deal from the get-go. A few days after the Green New Deal Resolution was introduced, Trump tweeted that it would “…permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military…” In a post-debate tweet last month, it seemed politically expedient for him to peg Biden to the plan when he said: “Biden cannot distance himself from his embrace of the (GND) no matter how hard he tries.” Last week, Trump incorrectly told Sean Hannity that the Green New Deal calls for tearing down buildings and rebuilding them with “tiny little windows.”

Maybe Biden purposefully does not want to invoke the Green New Deal on the campaign trail, to the ire and confusion of its proponents. However, his website clearly states that the Green New Deal is a “crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.” More important to whether he supports the actual Green New Deal Resolution is whether he is open to adopting its policies, and signs say that he is, at least to some of them.

Once Biden became the Democratic nominee, climate leaders, including Varshini Prakash, the founder of the Sunrise Movement, were invited by the campaign to help toughen his climate plan into what it is today, which includes eliminating fossil fuels from our electric grid by 2035, a whopping 15 years earlier than his original plan, which Sunrise graded as an F. He has also vowed to bar fossil fuel leaders in his transition team. By contrast, President Trump’s website doesn’t even have a climate plan. On the campaign’s Energy and Environment page, there is no mention of climate change or global warming. Instead, the administration touts oil and gas leases as part of the administration’s achievements.

The great news about the bold policies needed to solve climate change is that it will require a lot of good paying union jobs, including a just transition for oil and gas workers. In other words, a collective effort to address the largest crisis facing humanity would actually be good for the economy. Speaking of the economy, it is noteworthy that Fox News and the Trump administration never mention the economic toll of climate change, now a leading concern for banks around the world. Last month, for example, the task force for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued the direst warning to date by a U.S. financial regulator over the impact of climate change on markets, saying that it poses “serious emerging risks to the U.S. financial system,” and calling for regulators to “move urgently and decisively” to confront them.

Who has moved urgently and decisively to address climate is GEN GND, whether through the Sunrise Movement or through any number of other climate-focused groups. They have grown up quickly, having witnessed the absence of any serious discussion of climate change in politics. For example, 2020 has marked the first time in 12 years that climate change was a topic in a presidential or vice-presidential debate.

The fact that the Green New Deal was mentioned at all in the vice-presidential debate is a crucial start. However, time is no longer on our side considering that fossil fuel companies spent four precious decades covering up what they knew about the catastrophic effects of climate change and sowing seeds of doubt about climate science.

So far, 2020 has given us ample evidence that the Earth is warming: likely the hottest-ever recorded temperature on the planet; megafires across the West Coast that scientists didn’t expect for another 30 years, including California’s first-ever gigafire, so named for it burning over 1 million acres; and a record-breaking 10 hurricanes to make landfall in the continental U.S., with names that had to draw from the Greek alphabet for only the second time in history. And we’ve only warmed the Earth by just above 1 degree Celsius. People joke and commiserate about the unexpected things that 2020 has thrown our way, but climate scientists are in the back shouting that this year will probably be the coolest, most stable climate we can expect to have for the next century.

This is why children are leaving school to join the Fridays for Future protests of the government’s inaction on the climate crisis. This is why they often know more about the intricacies of climate science and climate policy than many politically conscious adults. This is why they are willing to risk the onslaught of virtual hate to step into the public sphere and challenge power structures as the right-wing accuses them of being paid puppets of “the radical left.”

The age of climate denial and climate incrementalism may be coming to a close, but it is not over yet. Even Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett said in hearings that she doesn’t have firm views on climate science. What’s more, her father was a longtime Shell Oil lawyer, and Shell has a major case before the Supreme Court. With the help of government inaction, fossil fuel companies continue to distract people from their role in the crisis with greenwashed marketing campaigns and carbon footprint apps that focus on individual actions rather than collective action on climate. Meanwhile, climate catastrophes continue to play out across the country, impacting vulnerable communities the hardest, but impacting everyone in some way. Given the time constraints of the climate fight, this election has the power to set the course for far more than the next four years. It’s no wonder this election has been dubbed the most important election of our lifetime.

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