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The Big Difference Between a Green New Deal and Biden’s Climate Agenda

Are you giving people stuff, or giving companies money to give people stuff?

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

It’s Green New Deal week on Capitol Hill. Congresswomen Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a Green New Deal for Cities bill Monday proposing $1 trillion for struggling municipalities to create jobs, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and build more resilient infrastructure—just a few among a long list of eligible projects. Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders also reintroduced the Green New Deal for Public Housing they first proposed in 2019. Ocasio-Cortez is slated to reintroduce the Green New Deal resolution as well, with more announcements from within and without Capitol Hill to come.

Thanks in no small part to pressure from below and from the left, President Biden, a career centrist who ran on one of the least ambitious climate plans in the Democratic primary, has exceeded just about every expectation of what his first 100 days in office might look like. He’s passed a major (if temporary) expansion of the social safety net and proposed more climate spending than any American president in history, even if—as I’ve written before—it’s still way too small. It’d be easy in that context for casual political observers to look at Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which includes investments in clean energy and prioritizing communities on the front lines of climate change, and wonder: Isn’t that already a Green New Deal?

Well, no. There are fundamental differences between Biden’s proposals and the cities and public housing measures introduced Monday. Those differences speak to the broader goals that politicians and activists have in mind when talking about a Green New Deal: not just for upgrading energy systems but for remaking the fractured social contract upon which this country was built. These aren’t just differences in emissions target, say between 2030 and 2050; technologies, like whether a certain plan includes nuclear power or negative emissions; and topline spending numbers. How a given proposal plans on delivering any of the above is at least as important.

The parts of the American Jobs Plan explicitly dealing with climate largely furnish their benefits in the form of tax breaks. Those skew toward renewable energy developers by extending investment and production tax credits, vouchers for consumers who trade in their internal combustion engine cars to purchase electric vehicles, as well as a “tax credit that incentivizes the buildout of at least 20 gigawatts of high-voltage capacity power lines and mobilizes tens of billions in private capital off the sidelines.” The plan says it will deliver 40 percent of the “benefits” of investment to communities on the front lines of the climate crisis, although what that means is up for debate.

The overarching theory behind such programs is to provide an initial burst of public cash that will spur private investment and innovation both to create jobs for an economic recovery and meet certain policy objectives. The $90 billion worth of climate-themed incentives in the Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, of 2009 were structured similarly, providing loan guarantees and tax credits for companies in the clean energy space, along with research & development funding.

Direct investments do things differently. The Green New Deal for Public Housing plan, as explained by the Climate + Community Project that led research for the bill, proposes between $119 and $172 billion worth of grants to repair and retrofit public housing in the United States. The direct cash would have the tangible effect of improving people’s homes by removing toxins like black mold and making long-overdue repairs like fixing broken elevators. It would also build gardens, daycares, bookstores, and grocery stores—common features of social housing complexes in Europe. CCP projects all this would create up to 241,000 prevailing-wage jobs annually, including up to 95,000 skilled maintenance and construction jobs, with a “strong union preference” for all of the above and new union apprenticeships specifically for people who live in public housing. Residents would save $613 billion on their electricity bills and $97 billion on water per year.

Green New Deal advocates, foregrounding explicitly public investments, see policy as integral to politics, positing it as an organizing and coalition-building opportunity that can beget further gains. In that, Green New Deal proposals draw from their namesake. The original New Deal transformed the country’s built environment and created a welfare state virtually whole cloth. New Deal infrastructure was stamped with plaques, and Washington hired professional architects to design infrastructure that was both functional and magisterial. Looking at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Hoover Dam, architecture critic Frederick Gutheim wrote, “one was reminded of humanistic values, of power serving man … of the virtues of public ownership of hydroelectric power.” Government spending by a Democratic Congress and White House furnished both wants and needs. Through unprecedented labor protections, it provided institutional vehicles for working-class power to improve lives and influence politics. In the process, the New Deal constructed the New Deal coalition that managed to sustain Democratic majorities for decades to come.

That’s not to say there isn’t some overlap in Biden’s approach, which includes plenty of direct investments in things like roads and bridges. One core difference, however, lies in how Green New Deal measures sell climate policy, in particular, to the U.S. public.

An ancillary goal of direct grants and job creation is to show voters that climate policy can bring them good things, rather than simply taking their fossil fuels away. Although ARRA’s clean energy tax credits and loan guarantees may have impressed entrepreneurs, you’d be hard-pressed to find many other people who could tell you what it did for them. That had political consequences. A mostly incomprehensible climate policy the same year floundered and died in the Senate, and Democrats lost the midterms in a blowout to Tea Partiers who got oodles of Koch brothers funding. Green New Dealers are eager not to repeat that history. The Green New Deal, that is, presents a different theory of change for curbing emissions: If a primary goal of more indirect public spending is to spur on private investment, the goal of direct spending is to spur on public support—and the electoral victories that can sustain a decade of decarbonization along with it.

The differences between Biden’s plans and those being proposed this week come down to a few fairly simple questions: Are you giving people stuff or giving companies money to give people stuff? And will those people see and feel the benefit of that policy in a way they’ll attribute to the U.S. government, or the party in charge? How climate policy approaches those questions could determine how much more climate policy can be passed in the future.