NOW INTO its 26th season, the self-parody act that is the Republican Party on global warming is still playing to a loyal audience. With the nomination of Kelly Knight Craft to be ambassador to the UN, Americans can expect to be represented in the world’s premier climate-policy forum by the wife of a billionaire coal magnate and Trump donor who claims to admire “both sides of the science” on global warming. Reports meanwhile emerged of a White House scheme to commission a panel of sceptics to attack the government’s own National Climate Assessment. The latest iteration of this quadrennial review of America’s changing climate, launched in 1990 by George H.W. Bush—the last Republican leader to play it straight on global warming—irked Donald Trump. Released in November, while California was battling its worst wildfire of modern times, it did not support the president’s claim that insufficient “raking” of the forest floor was to blame.
No wonder many Democrats want to cut the Republicans out of climate policymaking altogether. Their two past attempts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions—a legislative effort in 2009 and the regulatory steps taken by Barack Obama—both foundered on Republican resistance. The first, the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, passed the House but was not taken up in the Senate after the Democrats lost their 60-vote majority there. The second is being dismantled by the fossil-fuel lobbyists Mr Trump hired to run the Environmental Protection Agency. The Democrats’ nascent third effort, the Green New Deal (GND) championed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and endorsed by Kamala Harris and other presidential hopefuls, is therefore designed differently. It is intended to have the durability of legislation, but to be so broadly appealing to Democrats it can be passed without Republican support.
Thus its main innovation: targeting climate change and social inequities together. A blueprint released by Ms Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, one of the architects of the 2009 bill, promises universal health care and affordable housing, as well as extremely steep emissions cuts. This has been viewed as a naive effort to cure all the ills of modern capitalism at a stroke. Yet it is also intended, in theory more pragmatically, to expand Democratic support for emissions cuts by harnessing the two main parts of the party’s coalition: college graduates who want climate-change policy and blue-collar workers whose jobs are threatened by it. Resistance from those workers’ representatives—for example Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate energy committee—was another reason why Waxman-Markey failed. The social policy in the GND blueprint is designed to win them over.
The enthusiasm the green deal has generated, from the climate activists who invaded Mitch McConnell’s Senate office this week as well as the 2020 contenders, is testament to more than Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s salesmanship. Its emissions targets, which would include decarbonising electricity generation within a decade, are at once vastly ambitious and merely commensurate with what scientists recommend. That makes it hard for anyone concerned about global warming to gainsay the proposal. It has a powerful moral allure. Yet the gravity of climate change also means the world cannot afford another failed effort by America to curb its tide of carbon pollution. And the green deal appears to have no chance of success.
Only a unified Democratic government—with a filibuster-proof majority or no filibuster to worry about—could entertain passing it. This is not simply because the climate-related proposals in Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s draft are left-wing. In fact, by allowing a possible role for carbon pricing, nuclear power and carbon capture-and-storage, they are more moderate than many activists would like. A bigger problem is that by lumping together climate and social policy the proposal appears to confirm one of the main Republican arguments for inaction on global warming: a contention that Democrats are using the issue as a smokescreen for a left-wing economic agenda. This has hitherto been an exaggeration; Democrats have been pushing carbon pricing, a market-based solution, for a decade. Yet the green deal provides compelling evidence for it, which makes the prospects of Republicans returning to sanity on global warming even more remote.
It might therefore seem sensible that the deal’s architects are only counting on Democratic votes. Yet moderates such as Mr Manchin—who says the GND is “not a deal, it’s a dream”—seem unlikely to support it. The proposal is already being used to attack such Democrats in rural states with lots of extractive industries. Opposing it would offer them a relatively low-cost opportunity to define themselves against their party. It is therefore hard to imagine anything resembling Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s blueprint passing into law. And if it did, Republicans would unite to overturn it, just as they did in response to Mr Obama’s much less provocative health-care reform. The inconvenient truth for Democrats is that they cannot impose their policies by legislative fiat any more than Mr Obama could do so by executive order.
It is a tough conclusion, because the prospects for bipartisan climate action are modest at best. And it would be hard to maintain enthusiasm on the left for the incremental steps, such as limited carbon pricing, such action might entail. While privately conceding the unreality of the green deal, some Democratic lawmakers therefore view it as a powerful slogan, to be replaced by more achievable policy in due course. That could make tactical sense, if it helps ensure the next Democratic president prioritises the issue. But it risks underestimating how hard it will be to pass any serious climate policy. Opposition politicians who duck the painstaking work of developing credible policy are liable to come to power with no serious plan—as the Republicans demonstrated in their opposition to Obamacare. It is an example Ms Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters are closer to emulating than they think.