From The Intercept
LIKE SO MANY others, I've been energized by the bold moral leadership coming from newly elected members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley in the face of the spiraling climate crisis and the outrageous attacks on unarmed migrants at the border. It has me thinking about the crucial difference between leadership that acts and leadership that talks about acting.
I'll get to the Green New Deal and why we need to hold tight to that lifeline for all we're worth. But before that, bear with me for a visit to the grandstanding of climate politics past.
It was March 2009 and capes were still fluttering in the White House after Barack Obama's historic hope-and-change electoral victory. Todd Stern, the newly appointed chief climate envoy, told a gathering on Capitol Hill that he and his fellow negotiators needed to embrace their inner superheroes, saving the planet from existential danger in the nick of time.
Climate change, he said, called for some of "that old comic book sensibility of uniting in the face of a common danger threatening the earth. Because that's what we have here. It's not a meteor or a space invader, but the damage to our planet, to our community, to our children, and their children will be just as great. There is no time to lose."
Eight months later, at the fateful United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, all pretense to superheroism from the Obama Administration had been unceremoniously abandoned. Stern stalked the hallways of the convention center like the Grim Reaper, pulling his scythe through every proposal that would have resulted in a transformative agreement. The U.S. insisted on a target that would allow temperatures to rise by 2 degrees Celsius, despite passionate objections from many African and Pacific islander delegates who said the goal amounted to a "genocide" and would lead millions to die on land or in leaky boats. It shot down all attempts to make the deal legally binding, opting for unenforceable voluntary targets instead (as it would in Paris five years later).
Stern categorically rejected the argument that wealthy developed countries owe compensation to poor ones for knowingly pumping earth-warming carbon into the atmosphere, instead using much-needed funds for climate change protection as a bludgeon to force those countries to fall in line.
As I wrote at the time, the Copenhagen deal -- cooked up behind closed doors with the most vulnerable countries locked out -- amounted to a "grubby pact between the world's biggest emitters: I'll pretend that you are doing something about climate change if you pretend that I am too. Deal? Deal."
Almost exactly nine years later, global emissions continue to rise, alongside average temperatures, with large swathes of the planet buffeted by record-breaking storms and scorched by unprecedented fires. The scientists convened in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have confirmed precisely what African and low-lying island states have long-since warned: that allowing temperatures to rise by 2 degrees is a death sentence, and that only a 1.5-degree target gives us a fighting chance. Indeed, at least eight Pacific islands have already disappeared beneath the rising seas.
Not only have wealthy countries failed to provide meaningful aid to poorer nations to protect themselves from weather extremes and leapfrog to clean tech, but Europe, Australia, and the United States have all responded to the increase in mass migration -- intensified if not directly caused by climate stresses -- with brutal force, ranging from Italy's de facto "let them drown" policy to Trump's increasingly real war on an unarmed caravan from Central America. Let there be no mistake: this barbarism is the way the wealthy world plans to adapt to climate change.
The only thing resembling a cape at the White House these days are all those coats Melania drapes over her shoulders, mysteriously refusing to use the arm holes for their designed purpose. Her husband, meanwhile, is busily embracing his role as a climate super-villain, gleefully approving new fossil fuel projects, shredding the Paris agreement (it's not legally binding after all, so why not?), and pronouncing that a Thanksgiving cold snap is proof positive that the planet isn't warming after all.
In short, the metaphorical meteor that Stern evoked in 2009 is not just hurtling closer to our fragile planet -- it's grazing the (burning) treetops.
And yet here's the truly strange thing: I feel more optimistic about our collective chances of averting climate breakdown than I have in years. For the first time, I see a clear and credible political pathway that could get us to safety, a place in which the worst climate outcomes are avoided and a new social compact is forged that is radically more humane than anything currently on offer.
We are not on that pathway yet -- very far from it. But unlike even one month ago, the pathway is clear. It begins with the galloping momentum calling on the Democratic Party to use its majority in the House to create the Select Committee for a Green New Deal, a plan advanced by Ocasio-Cortez and now backed by more than 14 representatives.
The draft text calls for the committee, which would be fully funded and empowered to draft legislation, to spend the next year consulting with a range of experts -- from scientists to local lawmakers to labor unions to business leaders -- to map out a "detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan" capable of making the U.S. economy "carbon neutral" while promoting "economic and environmental justice and equality." By January 2020, the plan would be released, and two months later would come draft legislation designed to turn it into a reality.