Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old US Congresswoman representing the New York boroughs of Bronx and Queens, has shot into public prominence in the US for a non-binding resolution that she and her Democrat colleague, Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts, have tabled in the US Congress.
What is surprising is that there is nothing remarkable about the resolution. It contains a package of oft-discussed ideas on how to decarbonise the US economy. Even the caption — “the Green New Deal” — has been mentioned before. New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, used this phrase in 2007 while writing about clean energy. Yet, Cortez is today the cynosure of her seniors in the US Congress. Her resolution has won the support of several presidential hopefuls and the “old new ideas” on global warming have acquired traction.
What is the reason for her success? Why has this resolution struck a chord? What lessons, if any, does the Cortez phenomenon offer Indian politicians who wish to embed climate change more deeply into our policy fabric?
Victor Hugo said “nothing can hold back an idea whose time has come”. His insight focused on two elements: The idea and the timing. A “good” idea would be no more than just that if introduced at an inopportune time. It could be transformational if supported by context and circumstance. The response to Cortez’s resolution suggests the importance of a third factor. Language and message.
The road to decarbonisation has been well-marked over the years and the milestones are known: Electricity must be decarbonised by basing it on solar and wind; industry furnaces should be powered by solar and heat; the internal combustion engine should be replaced by electric vehicles; residential homes and buildings should be redesigned to make them carbon neutral; clean energy technology should be generously funded etc.
The distance covered so far down this road has not, however, been much. The IPCC “special report on global temperature of 1.5°C”, published in October 2018, made clear that the world has a long way to go in achieving its objective of containing temperatures to below 1.5°C: This objective will only be achieved if it accelerates the implementation of ideas that secure “rapid and far reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure and industrial systems” and thereby “deep emission reductions”.
The reasons for this slow pace are many and country specific. The US, for instance, has stumbled because of the ambivalence of political leaders towards global warming, the varying interpretations of scientific data and the counterfactual physical experience. President Donald Trump is openly derisory when he says it “wouldn’t be bad to have that good old fashioned global warming right now” in his tweet from the US Mid-West where temperatures had fallen to Arctic levels.
One reason common to all countries for the disconnect between the idea of decarbonisation and its implementation has been the absence of broad-based public and, therefore, political support. The green agenda has all too often been introduced at an inopportune time or through an ineffective medium.
The Cortez phenomena offers a sense of what is possible if both timing and medium juxtapose to leverage and complement each other. Her resolution was, for instance, well-timed. It was introduced at a time the US public was still unsettled by the spate of natural disasters that had hit the country. The fires in California last year were the worst ever, leading to considerable loss of life and livelihood. Moreover, it was no longer possible to ignore the mounting scientific evidence of global warming and the forewarning of scientists that the window of opportunity for managing the consequences was fast closing. Cortez also leveraged the power of language. Instead of complicating public understanding by discussing arcane and the still somewhat controversial issues of carbon pricing, sequestration technology, nuclear energy and financing structures, it called for a “10 year national mobilisation” plan for reducing carbon emissions. The medium was a simple war cry.
The Cortez resolution may eventually end up in the archives like so many other resolutions on the same subject but, today at least, it has to be credited for bringing global warming into the US national conversation. What is the takeaway, if anything, for India from the Cortez resolution? I ask this question only because I believe our public has still not fully appreciated the implications of global warming for India: We will be amongst the worst-affected countries in the world if sea levels rise, glaciers melt and temperatures fluctuate between extremes. There is therefore an urgency in raising public awareness about this issue.
All governments for the past two decades have made an effort to tackle the challenge of climate change. The UPA government set up the National Action plan on climate change in 2008 and established a number of climate change missions. The present government made a comparable, if not greater, effort. They set ambitious targets for solar and wind power; they provided incentives for electric vehicles; set a timeline for the cutting of emissions by utilities and also benchmarks for energy efficiency; and, they replenished the “clean energy fund” for financing clean energy through an increase in the coal cess. But no government has been to able to elevate this issue to a national priority and bring it into the public, and, therefore, political discourse.
The Cortez resolution offers a clue on how this could be done. The subject must be brought onto the legislative agenda. The new governments should introduce a bill — call it “the climate change and clean energy Bill” — that sets out a time-bound objective for decarbonisation. The language of the bill must be exhortatory and its purpose should be to educate and mobilise. It should be able to bring climate change into the national conversation and create the opportune time for implementation of the ideas already on the agenda.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 4, 2019, under the title ‘Over the barrel: The right climate’. The writer is chairman and senior fellow, Brookings India.