Young Leftist Candidates Are Breathing New Radicalism Into Stale Climate Politics

Insurgent candidates are running on bold stances, but there's been less focus when it comes to preventing the potential end of human civilization.

From left: Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Adbul El-Sayed, and Randy Bryce. Photo Illustration: Elise Swain for The Intercept. Photos: AP (3); Getty Images

On the same day that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won an upset victory in her primary against Wall Street-friendly incumbent Joe Crowley — one of the most powerful Democrats in the House — a New Yorker nearly 50 years her senior fed rumors that he would seek the highest office in the land.

Aside from pouring $80 million to support a set of handpicked Democratic congressional hopefuls, billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg once again seems to be angling to run for president. Business Insider columnist Daniella Greenbaum took the opportunity to assert: “Democrats need to choose: Are they the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the party of Michael Bloomberg?”

She sided with the latter, but the question is a valid one. The differences between Bloomberg and Ocasio-Cortez are difficult to stuff into a single paragraph, but let’s try: He’s one of the richest men in the world who made his fortune on Wall Street and, in his tenure as mayor, went out of his way to make the financial sector feel at home. She’s a democratic socialist who until last year bartended in Manhattan and campaigned to make housing a human right — something Bloomberg made a more difficult goal to attain for her future constituents.

But one key difference might be less obvious and a bellwether for climate politics post-2018 if a blue wave sweeps Democrats back into power on Capitol Hill: how they plan to tackle climate change.

Since leaving his post, Bloomberg has adopted climate change as one of his pet causes, becoming one of the world’s most well-known advocates for quelling rising temperatures. He’s funded efforts to shutter coal-fired power plants and when the Trump administration announced that it would pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Bloomberg offered to pick up the tab instead. He even co-authored a book on the subject with former Sierra Club head Carl Pope, cheerily titled “Climate of Hope.”

Bloomberg comes to climate action, as he writes therein, as an “unrepentant capitalist.” In his view, climate change is simply a collection of market failures, the solutions to which are encumbered by political failures. “Working together, businesses, governments, and civil society are already repairing many of these market flaws,” Bloomberg and Pope reason, optimistically. “We simply need to do more of it faster. Markets, like gardens, feed and enrich us. But they also require tending. Weeds need to be pulled out and fertilizer added in.”

They suggest centering the profit motive — something “many environmentalists have traditionally seen as an enemy” — as a main driver of climate action. “Only when self-interested acts are also climate-friendly acts will success be possible. In other words: reducing carbon must offer profit opportunities for us to win the battle against climate change,” they conclude. “The federal government doesn’t have a lot to do with climate change. … State governments, only a little,” Bloomberg told CBS News recently. “It’s city governments and the private sector. Mostly the private sector.”

He does do some hedging in the book. “I don’t have much sympathy for industries whose products leave behind a trail of diseased and dead bodies,” he clarifies, but the most restrictive action he imagines is to “put them out of business by driving down demand, through taxes that address their true societal cost, regulations that mitigate the harm they cause, and public awareness advertising that makes plain the dangers they pose.”  

Contrast that with Ocasio-Cortez’s climate stance, informed in part by the fact that several parts of her district are vulnerable to sea-level rise. Per her platform:

It’s time to shift course and implement a Green New Deal – a transformation that implements structural changes to our political and financial systems in order to alter the trajectory of our environment. Right now, the economy is controlled by big corporations whose profits are dependent on the continuation of climate change. This arrangement benefits few, but comes at the detriment of our planet and all its inhabitants. Its effects are life-threatening, and are especially already felt by low-income communities, both in the U.S. and globally. Even in NY-14, areas like Throgs Neck, College Point, and City Island are being affected by erosion and rising sea levels. Rather than continue a dependency on this system that posits climate change as inherent to economic life, the Green New Deal believes that radically addressing climate change is a potential path towards a more equitable economy with increased employment and widespread financial security for all.

To get there, Ocasio-Cortez isn’t looking to the private sector, but suggests “waging a war for climate justice through the mobilization of our population and our government.” She sets as a goal a complete transition by the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.

If Ocasio-Cortez’s election marks a new era for the Democratic Party, what will that mean for its climate politics?

“We need a Marshall Plan for renewable energy in the United States,” she told me last week, shortly before the election, suggesting that a massive $146 billion investment to rebuild Puerto Rico — per a proposal by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — could provide “an example for how we can approach the ravages of superstorms and climate change moving forward. … We can show the world what recovery in an era of extreme climate change looks like.”

Climate change hasn’t been a big part of the conversation about the blue wave. But if it’s successful, and the party finds itself with enough seats to push through ambitious legislation next January, what to date have been seen as minor differences between Democrats on climate could become the grounds for legislative battles. That is, if Ocasio-Cortez’s election marks a new era for the Democratic Party, what will that mean for its climate politics?

After all, there’s a lot of room for Ocasio-Cortez to maneuver in the space that opens up when Bloomberg suggests the government deal with some companies like this: “Put them out of business by driving down demand, through taxes that address their true societal cost, regulations that mitigate the harm they cause, and public awareness advertising that makes plain the dangers they pose.”

While there’s been ample attention paid to insurgent candidates’ bold stances on “Medicare for All” and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, no natural analog has emerged when it comes to preventing the potential end of human civilization.

Ocasio-Cortez is one among many left-leaning candidates with ambitious climate proposals who could breathe fresh air into a policy field long-dominated by market tweaks, half-measures, and lofty talk of megawatt hours and parts per million of carbon dioxide — not to mention wealthy white men. Kaniela Ing, Abdul El-Sayed, and Randy Bryce are all calling for some version of a Green New Deal and strict restrictions on fossil fuel corporations, framing climate change as both an equity issue and an economic opportunity for working-class Americans. Similarly, Jess King, Rashida Tlaib, Ben Jealous, Kevin de León, and others are looking to go after the fossil fuel industry and have all sworn off taking money from them.

Before getting into the details of these proposal, it’s worth giving some context for just how dire the climate problem is, and how vast the changes science demands really are.


Former New York mayor and United Nations special envoy for cities and climate change, Michael Bloomberg before a dinner on the eve of the One Planet Summit on December 11, 2017 at the Grand Palais in Paris, France on december 11, 2017. Photo by Romain Gaillard/pool/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg before a dinner ahead of the One Planet Summit on December 11, 2017, in Paris, France.

Photo: Romain Gaillard/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP

Conservative estimates suggest that greenhouse gas emissions in industrialized nations like the U.S. begin rapidly declining after 2020. For just a two-thirds chance of meeting the Paris Agreement’s 2 degree celsius warming target, emissions in such places need to draw down to zero by 2050. And even that scenario assumes that so-called negative emissions technologies that can suck carbon out of the atmosphere will be by that point deployable at scale. Though most climate models assume these technologies will soon or already exist, they currently don’t — at least not in any meaningful way. Without them, the timeline for decarbonization gets much shorter and means shutting down every coal- and gas-fired power plant and taking every single oil-fired, combustion engine car off the road worldwide within a decade. Alas, Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the U.K.’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, told me last year, “We have to mitigate as if these negative emissions technologies do not work.”

Bloomberg and others like him have held up the Paris Agreement as our saving grace; even without the White House on board, citizens, businesses, and local governments can stay on track. Altogether, though, the track the Paris Agreement leaves us on currently is for around 3 degrees of warming. That would leave around 4.5 billion people vulnerable to heat waves, decimate large chunks of the world’s arable land, and render coastal cities like New York virtually uninhabitable by the end of this century. Getting in the neighborhood of 2 degrees means countries “ratcheting up” their commitments over the coming years. And even that 2 degree target will still lead to warming that is too high for many people — especially those in low-lying island nations or agricultural communities vulnerable to climate-fueled drought. That’s why representatives from the Global South have for years chanted “1.5 to survive” to U.N. climate talks, calling for a more ambitious, 1.5 degree target that grows farther out of reach every year.

Climate scientists aren’t prone to mince words about how tall the task of staying below even 2 degrees will be. Anderson estimates we have about a 5 percent shot at getting there. Like Ocasio-Cortez, he says it will require a massive mobilization “similar to the Marshall Plan we had in the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War, when the continent was basically flattened and we had to start almost from scratch,” noting that such a program would need to both scale up clean energy and radically scale down fossil fuels, not just expect one to outcompete the other on the free market. “It’s that scale and rate of change that will be necessary to deliver an infrastructure that will allow us to meet our 2 degree commitment.”

Accordingly, he’s leery of relying predominantly on market-based approaches to get the job done, calling “the “dominant neoclassical, market-based approach … fundamentally flawed for guessing system-level changes.” Anderson notes that there are “root and branch” changes required of capitalism to deal adequately with the climate crisis and “even then, whether you can say it looks and sounds like capitalism [after that], I don’t know.”

Insurgent candidates’ climate plans, then — involving large-scale government investment and economy-wide transformations — aren’t just populist and politically salient in the sense that they’re promising jobs and a higher standard of living. They’re also more firmly in line with the science than the market fixes Bloomberg imagines.


Kevin de Leon, state Senate president pro tem and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, stands on stage after speaking during an election party Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Kevin de Leon, state Senate president pro tem and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, stands on stage after speaking during an election party Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in Los Angeles.

Photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP

So what alternatives are on offer from insurgent candidates?

Randy Bryce, running for the Wisconsin House seat Paul Ryan will vacate later this year, comes at his jobs-focused climate and energy platform with firsthand knowledge. “I’ve worked in the copper mines up in the upper peninsula” of Michigan, he told The Intercept. “You get done with a shift, and you’re covered in this black and red color — we call it the red death. I would take one shower and think that everything was clean, but it took three showers to get everything off.

“But as far as putting up the wind turbines,” he says, “you’re outside. And at the end of the shift, you’re still exhausted, but you feel a lot better.” Unlike the rooftop solar business, wind turbine work is largely unionized, in many cases by the same unions that erect pipelines, like the United Steelworkers and the Laborers International Union of America. Bryce told me that his union — Iron Workers Local 8 — “practically wrote the book on how to erect wind turbines,” but had to give up much of that work in Wisconsin after Republican Gov. Scott Walker passed policies that were hostile to renewable energy.

He’s calling for a Green New Deal that would create “tens and thousands of new jobs,” end subsidies to fossil fuel companies, prosecute Exxon Mobil for misleading the public about the existence of climate change, and get the U.S. entirely off fossil fuels by 2035. Bryce’s evolution on the issue reflects the shifting politics: Having supported pipelines in the past for the jobs that they provided to union members, he’s now opposed to any new oil and gas infrastructure. “You have to get to the root of the problem, and that’s dependence on fossil fuels,” he says. “Let’s get people to work doing things that are going to help our future. Rather than clinging to things in the past, I’d rather move ahead. The thing at the end of the day is to feel good about a job, as opposed to working on something that’s going to leak and cause damage,” he told The Intercept, referring to pipelines.

“Hawaii may become the climate refugee capital of the Pacific, from all the people living on these atolls needing a place to come. We’ve got to make sure we have the resources to account for that.”

Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, a 33-year-old doctor who’s worked as the health commissioner for Detroit, approaches climate issues from a public health perspective — and with a firsthand knowledge of how austerity politics can work against good policy. He took his job in the city’s health department as it was under emergency management, where a state-appointed board took over Detroit’s finances in order to help reign in its nearly $20 million in municipal debt through a series of painful budget cuts.

“The whole mindset is that once we get through the emergency, then we can think about the future. But right now, we’re under emergency circumstances,” El-Sayed told me by phone. “It kills any kind of future-oriented thinking.”

He describes climate change as a threefold problem for Michigan, involving ending our reliance on “a system of energy production that will ultimately poison us and poisons our kids,” creating jobs as older industries falter, as well as updating and, in some cases, creating infrastructure for the 21st century. “We don’t have time, and we’ve got an opportunity to solve three problems at the same time if we’re willing to embrace the future,” he says. Recognizing the budget constraints placed on states — and Michigan in particular — part of his plan to do that includes setting up something called the Pure Michigan Bank, a state infrastructure bank to enlist private capital in public projects in which the “payout is owned and operated by the public,” he says. He also hopes to rejigger what Michigan’s state budget prioritizes, through things like ending its $10 billion in refundable business tax credits.

“The money is there,” he says. “The question is whether we want to allocate it toward what we want to use it for or funnel it to large corporations that will offshore and automate our jobs away.”

Hawaii Rep. Kaniela Ing speaks at a legislative hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 in Honolulu. Ing and other lawmakers are calling for more oversight of the commercial fishing industry after an Associated Press investigation found hundreds of foreign fishermen confined to boats and some living in subpar conditions. A bill would require fishing boat owners who want a commercial license to provide to the state a copy of the employment contracts with every fisherman before the license is granted. (AP Photo/Cathy Bussewitz)

Hawaii Rep. Kaniela Ing speaks at a legislative hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 in Honolulu.

Photo: Cathy Bussewitz/AP

In Hawaii, Kaniela Ing is running to represent a congressional district that could be among the country’s most dramatically affected by climate impacts, saying that climate change factored into his and his partner’s decision about whether to have a child. “Within my son’s lifetime, Waikiki could be underwater,” he told me back in April. “That’s the lifeblood of Hawaii’s economy. The neighborhood I grew up in could be underwater. Hawaii may become the climate refugee capital of the Pacific, from all the people living on these atolls needing a place to come. We’ve got to make sure we have the resources to account for that.”

Like Ocasio-Cortez, his platform includes a federal jobs guarantee, which he sees as a central part of his climate plan. A “job guarantee,” he said, “would work very well for a lot of green initiatives: to retrofit buildings and build advanced energy infrastructure like wind and solar. If we have these jobs, our economy will grow and our tax revenue will grow as well.” As he elaborated on Twitter, his support for a Green New Deal is also rooted in his belief that “there are so many jobs out there that the private sector won’t create that would literally help protect our planet and save us from impending climate doom.”

“We only really have 15 years to change things,” he said. “Just reinstating the Paris Climate Agreement isn’t enough.”

Running to represent a large part of the Detroit metro area in Congress, Rashida Tlaib has taken on big polluters and oil companies in her state senate district, which — thanks to the legacy of industrial waste dumping there — is also Michigan’s most polluted. She introduced a bill in the state legislature to limit new diesel emissions and fought to remove a towering pile of Koch Brothers-owned petcoke, a byproduct of petroleum production, from the city’s waterfront.

After being told by Michigan’s notoriously corrupt Department of Environmental Quality, or MDEQ, that the petcoke didn’t pose a danger to public health, Tlaib trespassed on Koch land, collected her own samples, and had them tested independently. The results found that they did, forcing the MDEQ to admit as much, and prompting then-Detroit Mayor Dave Bing to step in and have the piles removed.

By email, a representative from Tlaib’s campaign, Andy Goddeeris, said that Green New Deal plans are “definitely proposals we’re behind” and that they’ve been tracking. “We’ve been calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and the immediate and massive investment in green, clean, renewable energy, which will help us fight climate change while creating thousands of jobs for our workforce here in Michigan and across the country,” he added, along with the fact that they’re pushing for bans on new oil pipelines, fracking, and offshore drilling.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, congressional candidate Jess King is running on a similar platform that includes prosecuting Exxon and ending fossil fuel subsidies. Part of the grassroots energy fueling her campaign is rooted in the local organizing against the Atlantic Sunrise and Mariner East pipelines. Both King and Tlaib have been endorsed by Climate Hawks Vote, a grassroots-funded Super PAC that for several years has been looking to hold Democratic politicians to a higher standard on climate. Among other ambitious climate plans are those from California Senate candidate Kevin de León, also endorsed by Climate Hawks Vote, and former NAACP head Ben Jealous, who just won his primary in Maryland’s gubernatorial race.

“We only really have 15 years to change things. Just reinstating the Paris Climate Agreement isn’t enough.”

It’s not as if insurgent candidates are the only ones with ambitious climate plans, though. In the House, 36 representatives — including Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn. — have co-sponsored the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, calling for the U.S. to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 and a moratorium on new coal, oil, and gas projects. Endorsed by groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network and Democratic Socialists of America, it may be the most ambitious federal climate legislation introduced to date. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s 100 by 50 Act — considered a kind of North Star for climate action in the Trump-era Senate — is still relatively tempered in comparison to insurgents’ proposals, with a more lenient phase-out timeline.

None of these efforts, though, have been able to generate much momentum, and the vast majority of climate policymaking at the national and international level revolves mainly around demand-side market incentives, rather than cutting off the supply of fossil fuels or funding big spending packages that could fuel a transition.

Even otherwise-progressive sitting Democrats tend to see the path to climate action as running through industry, the Republican Party, and market-based mechanisms, rather than direct regulations. In a presentation to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii — among Congress’s most reliably outspoken members on climate — unveiled a carbon pricing bill, touting the support for such a measure from the likes of General Motors, Exxon Mobil, and former Bush and Reagan Cabinet members.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has staffed press junkets with Bloomberg since Trump announced that he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, proclaiming that the U.S. is “still in.” Yet the cap-and-trade program that the California legislature renewed last summer — and that Trump has touted as a model for statewide climate action — was crafted in large part by the state’s oil and gas lobby, which built in generous loopholes for major polluters. During Brown’s tenure as governor, the state has issued 20,000 new drilling permits, and he now faces mounting pressure from climate and environmental justice groups over his refusal to freeze new drilling in the state and phase out existing fossil fuel production. Over the years, Brown and the California Democratic Party have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state’s oil and gas lobby.

There’s a relatively straightforward explanation for why insurgent candidates are more willing to confront the fossil fuel industry head-on: Ocasio-Cortez, El-Sayed, Bryce, King, and Ing have sworn off corporate donations, opting to raise funds instead through small-donor financing. All have signed onto the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, a commitment circulated by a number of climate groups to get candidates to not accept donations from coal, oil, and gas industries. Varshini Prakash of the millennial-led Sunrise Movement — one of the groups pushing candidates to sign onto the pledge — argues similarly that corporate donations have been a major hurdle to Democrats pursuing more ambitious climate policies.

The GOP has largely given itself over to being the party of climate denial and raked in millions of dollars from oil and gas CEOs as a result, and Democrats have utterly failed to put forward any practical solution to decarbonize our economy and move towards a 100 percent renewable energy economy,” Prakash wrote in an email. Combined, the oil and gas industry, electric utilities, and pipeline companies gave nearly have $20 million to federal-level Democratic candidates during the 2016 election cycle, and Hillary Clinton took just $22,000 less from fossil fuel companies than Trump.

As El-Sayed explains, “I would rather not lead than be in a position where corporations have got me in golden handcuffs.” Asked how Democrats should change the way they approach climate issues, he said, “We’ve got to be a lot more willing to stand up to big corporations. That means that we can’t take their money, and we have to talk about regulating them in a real way.”

There are more historic shifts at play here, as well. Climate change emerged into the public consciousness around the dawn of the Third Way. While research had been going on long before — including by companies like Exxon Mobil — it was 30 years ago last week that scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that the age of climate change had arrived in 1988. The policies imagined to confront it reflected the political moment, and environmentalists themselves mapped out their own Third Stage, trading in the kinds of anti-corporate lawsuits for which green groups had been known for Beltway lobbying and corporate partnerships, abandoning the bullish, confrontational campaigning that won things like the Clean Air and Water Acts.

“We spend so much on war. We can definitely afford to spend to save our planet.”

The differences between the last few decades of climate policy and the vision insurgent candidates and progressives are putting forth now speaks to the fact that old Third Way norms — climate-related and otherwise — are starting to fade, leaving the door open for talk of more stringent regulations on fossil fuel producers, big deficit spending proposals, more skepticism about just how much the market can accomplish, and an embrace of the fact that big polluters and aggressive climate action will almost certainly be at loggerheads.

For Ocasio-Cortez and Ing, in particular — both dues-paying members of DSA — a livable climate is something they see the government as having a responsibility to guarantee, alongside things like housing, health care, and higher education. When Stephen Colbert asked Ocasio-Cortez on the Late Show to describe democratic socialism, she said simply that “in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.” As Ing said, “There’s definitely a need to have some serious investment on the federal side. We spend so much on war. We can definitely afford to spend to save our planet.”

There’s also a generational aspect — and not just because today’s millennials are likely to see climate impacts accelerate within their lifetimes. Ocasio-Cortez, Ing, and El-Sayed are all under 35 — a voting demographic on the cusp of becoming the largest in the country. Aside from preferring socialism to capitalism, millennials are also much more likely to believe that a “strong government” is better equipped to handle today’s complex economic problems than the free market, according to a recent study from researchers at the University of Chicago.

Millennials’ embrace of good, big government is also part of why big, universal programs like a federal jobs guarantee and “Medicare for All” are gaining steam and entering the mainstream after languishing for years in tiny groups on the left. It’s only natural that similar thinking would start to seep into climate policy debates.

Top photo: From left, politicians Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Adbul El-Sayed, and Randy Bryce.

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