WASHINGTON — Speaking at a crowded auditorium at Howard University, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and other proponents of the Green New Deal — an ambitious plan to rid the U.S. economy of a reliance on fossil fuels — affirmed their progressive ideals while striking out at both conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats who have, according to her and other critics, done too little about global warming for too long.
In particular, Ocasio-Cortez, who is in her first term as a congresswoman representing the Bronx and Queens, seemed to criticize Joe Biden, who entered the U.S. Senate in 1973, 16 years before she was born. Speaking with a sense of urgency, Ocasio-Cortez described how NASA had been warned about climate change since 1989 and how more warnings came in the years thereafter, to little legislative effect.
“I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then come back today and say we need a ‘middle of the road’ approach to save our lives,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Her remarks were obviously aimed at Biden, who is now running for president and is facing criticism for not speaking urgently enough about climate change. A spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez did not deny that Biden was a target of remarks.
Ocasio-Cortez also denounced “conservatives on both sides of the aisle,” a line that earned cheers and whooping from the audience, composed in part of young activists associated with the Sunrise Movement, which planned the event at Howard as a culmination of a nationwide tour promoting the Green New Deal.
Ocasio-Cortez savored the moment with a smile before continuing. Her remarks, which came at the end of the two-hour event, crystallized an argument for the Green New Deal that is rooted less in policy details, which remain largely lacking, than in a kind of existential desperation. Compromise has, that argument goes, led to the current state of affairs, in which an economy still reliant on fossil fuels is leading to what many scientists say will soon be catastrophic environmental degradation.
“We cannot allow ourselves to be bullied out of our values anymore,” Ocasio-Cortez said, urging the audience not to “settle for less.” That, too, seemed to be a reference to next year’s presidential election, a priority for Green New Deal proponents. The event’s young, energetic moderator, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement Varshini Prakash, demanded that Democratic candidates “swear off oil and gas money forever” and “commit to make the Green New Deal a day-one priority” if elected. She also called for one of the primary debates, which will begin this summer, to focus on climate change. The issue was virtually absent from the debate stage in 2016.
One of the 2020 candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also spoke at the rally at Howard. He also had criticized Biden for his stance on climate change, tweeting last week in disfavor of any “middle ground” approaches to the problem. On Monday night, he used the increasingly dire language of climatologists, invoking the potential of “international havoc and war,” which some say rising temperatures and ocean levels could cause.
Sanders called for “massive investments” in renewable sources of energy, deploying that phrase several times. Republicans have painted such investments as unrealistic, claiming that the cost of the Green New Deal could be as high as $93 trillion. Experts, however, have called that number vastly inflated, with some putting the cost at about $18 trillion.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., took on another facet of Republican criticism. Markey, who is co-sponsoring the Green New Deal with Ocasio-Cortez, noted that the plan is often depicted by opponents as a socialist takeover, one that will prevent Americans from eating hamburgers and flying on airplanes (because both activities contribute to climate change). But then he pointed out that Republicans had taken many measures to help allies in the extractive industries, in particular by offering them tax breaks.
“Give us some of that socialism that the oil and gas industry has had for a century,” Markey taunted.
The Green New Deal remains in it legislative infancy, but supporters are also sharpening their arguments, tapping into a growing reserve of public anxiety about a warming planet.
One of the speakers at Howard, writer and social activist Naomi Klein, read from Republican criticisms that warned of “despotism” and “the annihilation of liberty.”
These, Klein revealed, were not directed at the Green New Deal but were nearly 90 years old, having been directed at the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt. Also criticized as a socialist takeover by some conservatives, the New Deal was a vast program of public works and social-safety programs that contributed to the end of the Great Depression and is widely credited for helping build the fabled American middle class.
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