The congresswoman on her vision for a post-fossil-fuel future and an economy that works for working people
There was, essentially, no Green New Deal before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was just a slogan rolling around the mouths of newspaper columnists and environmental activists until the 30-year-old political phenom put her star power behind it. Just a month after she was sworn in as the youngest congresswoman in history, Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey debuted a 14-page resolution outlining the principles she hopes will form the foundation for a slew of climate legislation over the next decade. A jobs program to save the planet shouldn’t be all that controversial, but skeptics along the political spectrum found something to hate. The concept was ridiculed by Republicans even as some attempted to co-opt it (Rep. Matt Gaetz’s Green Real Deal), and deemed too audacious by liberal Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But the Green New Deal’s ambition was always the point, and in just one year, it has already dramatically changed the way Washington talks about the climate crisis. This winter, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce released a plan committing to a 100 percent clean-energy economy by 2050 — three times longer than the Green New Deal’s 10-year timeline, but a quantum leap from the toothless regulations that typified past policy conversations.
In January, Ocasio-Cortez sat down with Rolling Stone to reflect on her first year in office, her climate anxieties, and her blueprint to fix what’s broken in our country.
A lot of people have an “Oh, shit” moment with climate change — something that wakes them up to the scale and severity of the crisis. What was your moment?
I think it happened in two phases. The first moment happened at Standing Rock. I was there with native communities and leaders. It was their land, secured via treaty with the United States, that we decided to violate because a fossil-fuel company had essentially purchased our politics. Just standing there, [seeing] people organized against these massive tanks, these armed guards. [But] it wasn’t the U.S. military that people were standing up against; it was a militarized corporation — a fossil-fuel corporation. That, to me, was the “Oh, shit” moment in terms of what it’s actually going to take — because it’s not just about the science, it’s about the systems that protect all of the power that goes into defying the science.
But in terms of the cost and the scale, the second “Oh, shit” moment happened with Hurricane Maria the following year. I lost my grandfather in the aftermath of Maria.
I didn’t know that. What happened?
He was in a hospital in the storm, on the Western half of the island. And these are the kinds of casualties that are not counted. Power went out across the entire island, and roads and bridges, infrastructure was so compromised. Medicines couldn’t be transported. And my grandfather passed away while he was in the hospital. And the thing is, I can’t say, “Oh, the hurricane killed my grandfather.” Right? But we don’t know. Did he not get medicine in time? There was little to no power, or communication to my family. This was also a time when the government was saying that only 64 people died. We know that the number is actually in the thousands.
The Green New Deal was a top priority for you when you came to Congress. There was an idea that the resolution was worded vaguely to bring in the broadest possible coalition. How confident are you about getting a broad coalition signed onto specific details?
The Green New Deal [was] worded very deliberately, because what was very important for us is that we had to put out a comprehensive vision with underlying principles. No matter what kind of policy we’re talking about, it had to be bound by three things. The first is a drawdown of carbon emissions on a 10-year timeline. The second is the creation of jobs — having this be industrial policy to create millions of jobs and provide an economic stimulus for working people, not for Wall Street. And the third was to center front-line communities, to make sure that this policy was not just prosperous and scientifically sound but that it was just.
Bringing that broad coalition into agreement on those three core principles is extraordinarily important because it cuts down on a lot of our fights in the future. The traditional divide in climate fights has been an artificial conflict created between labor and environmental organizations, and this resolution rejects that fight outright. And by adhering to these principles, we have environmental organizations saying, “Listen, we have committed to economic prosperity for everyday people.” And we’ve got labor groups saying, “We have committed to carbon drawdown and centering the most disparately impacted.”
How did you go about getting the first draft of the resolution together?
Well, it was an extremely complicated process because we were committed to drafting legislation that was truly bottom-up. The extra challenge was that even among nonprofits, there’s still something of a hierarchy, right? A lot of D.C. groups can be heavily white or heavily affluent. We took a lot of input from groups in D.C., but we did a lot of work to reach out to experts in front-line communities. We were able to work with organizations like the Climate Justice Alliance, which brings together indigenous perspectives, black perspectives, Appalachian perspectives. So a lot of it had to do with making sure we were partnering the science and the economics with the realities on the ground.
So much work went into the resolution, then you have this big rollout and the narrative is hijacked by the GOP over the fact sheet [released by your office with language about “farting cows” and supporting people “unwilling to work”]. What was that like?
Well, on one hand, we did know that there was going to be a huge backlash. I was already six-months deep into a nonstop assault by Murdoch and Fox News. On the other hand, it was intensely frustrating. I had not seen the fact sheet that had gone out — it was an internal document, it had not been approved. I focus a lot on having strong internal systems and discipline on our team, and that was a lapse on something that was critically important. So I’d be lying by saying it wasn’t intensely frustrating. But all the arguments that they ended up with were arguments we knew they were going to run with no matter what. Tired arguments — “Preserving our planet is going to kill our economy” — because the GOP is Chicken Little. Their job is to say the world is ending if we allow any sort of progressive idea to succeed.
I’m curious what you think it would take to have a genuine debate with Republicans about the climate crisis?
Well, it takes [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell being out of office. It takes a new president. It’s going to take a post-Trump world, my belief. But I do think that because they have put so many eggs in this Trump basket, even they are concerned with how deeply leveraged they are with their commitment to the president.
I was on a flight back from Iowa this weekend, and I ran into a Republican congressman and he said, “How’s it going on the ground?” And I told him, “The energy is really great. There’s a lot of grassroots organizing going on, there’s a lot of turnout and a lot of enthusiasm.”
And he said, “Yeah, yeah — Trump is coming next week. So that’s going to bring a lot of energy too.” And I thought that comment was so interesting, because that is where all the energy is: on this one person. The president has the monopoly on energy, which is why the party has so much fealty to him. But when it is so pegged to one individual, that poses a very real problem for them. So while I can see that there’s very little that will be done in a McConnell-Trump world, this legislation was not written for a McConnell-Trump world. The whole goal was to write legislation for 2021.
You’ve spoken about how entrenched the fossil-fuel lobby is, how the Koch brothers essentially purchased the Republican Party. How have you seen that manifest since you’ve been here?
Republicans will pretend that they are unique individuals committed to certain values, but ultimately it’s a performance because they all vote exactly the same. Most Republicans vote the same way [Iowa Rep.] Steve King votes. Steve King is a white supremacist, and most Republicans — as much as they try to distance themselves from him in rhetoric and appearance — they all vote the same way. So the way that I see it manifest is that they’ll call me “young lady” and they’ll hold the elevator door for me, but they will still vote in ways that will gut our communities and families.
That being said, I do think they’re getting scared. I have seen, in the last year since we introduced the Green New Deal, increasing discomfort with their climate-denial position. At the beginning of last year we were hearing “Climate change is a hoax, the science is not clear,” et cetera. At the beginning of this year — one year later — we’re hearing “We all care about the climate. It’s important to draw down carbon emissions. Let’s focus on a business-based approach.” And that shift for the Republican Party is pretty massive. I think it shows how uncomfortable they are getting because they know this is the issue for the future, and they know that they’re increasingly losing the future. And ever since the flooding in the Midwest, they know they’re not just losing the future, they’re losing the present.
What about the Democrats? In 2009-10, they had a majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, and they were unable to pass a much more modest climate bill. Can you trust the party to address climate change in a meaningful way?
This is where I find who takes the White House to be important. In terms of the party itself, those basic tendencies are absolutely still there. There is an extraordinarily pro-corporate wing of the party that will block a lot of meaningful change. If we had the ACA [Affordable Care Act] fight today, we would still have people trying to kill the public option. Back then there was [Senator] Joe Lieberman; that was that clinch vote. Today it’s [Senator] Joe Manchin — and Manchin is way worse. That’s why you need that muscle from the White House. Obama ultimately saw what was going on and his priority was to win over Republican votes, and that’s where there was this kind of rollover on the public option. And we didn’t get any Republican votes anyway.
What’s the strategy for pushing a climate agenda forward under a Bernie Sanders presidency versus under a Biden presidency?
Bernie inherently understands those three principles outlined in the Green New Deal. And he’s been making that effort for a very, very long time. He will not be afraid to corral the votes he needs to corral. And I think he acknowledges the inherent bad faith that the Republican Party now operates in, which a lot of members do not. They have been here a long time, and they think we can get back to the Nineties or something. And that ship has sailed. It is gone. And I think Senator Sanders understands that. Biden doesn’t. He thinks that Trump is an aberration and that once Trump is gone, everything will go back to normal and that he can, I don’t know, play baseball with some guys and win them over. And I just don’t think that that’s the reality anymore. While I understand the deep, deep desire to get past this polarized period, this is the moment that we’re in and we need to deal with it.
It doesn’t mean lean into [the polarization], but it also doesn’t mean to worship bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake. The PROMESA Act that gutted Puerto Rico and is the reason why people are dying, was bipartisan. Going to war is bipartisan. The largest tax giveaway before the GOP tax scam was the permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts — that was bipartisan. These are some of the most corrosive pieces of legislation we’ve had in the last decade. And so it’s not just about, “Let’s pass this thing because it has a Republican vote on it.” It’s about, Are we actually improving people’s lives?
In 2016, Hillary Clinton, while talking about transitioning fossil-fuel workers to other jobs, said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and companies out of business.” It didn’t go over very well. What is the strategy for phasing out coal while protecting workers’ jobs?
I’m glad you bring this up because it shows how the Green New Deal approach is fundamentally different than traditional Democratic climate policy. It is a winning policy. We are winning swing elections on a Green New Deal. Virginia ran on a Green New Deal. The gubernatorial race in Kentucky — he won largely on a Green New Deal message. And the reason for that is because we actually center these communities. And it’s not just, “Oh, here’s a six-month apprenticeship transition plan” and then there’s nothing real for those people. I’ve met with coal workers, and we have committed to bailing out their pensions. Because while all of these coal companies use their workers to get bailout after bailout, once they get that money, they never give it to their workers. It doesn’t go to those families with black lung. It doesn’t go to fully funding coal miners’ pensions. And we’re here to have that fight. Because we’re not interested in turning oil barons into solar barons. We’re here to make sure that workers are centered in our economy.
What do you say to people who think Democrats aren’t doing enough on climate and who want to support a Green Party candidate in November?
If you want a true third party — a strong Green Party, independent party, et cetera — you need to actually build the party. The presidency doesn’t do that. You need to make sure that you grow those caucuses. That’s, frankly, what a lot of Democratic Socialists of America members are doing across the country. They’re not trying to mount a third-party presidency. They’re capturing city councils and state assemblies and getting things done from the ground up. That happens to be my take. And I do think that the stakes are too high right now. We need to acknowledge that this regime is authoritarian and it’s a threat to a lot of people, and we need to make sure that we elect a Democrat this year.
Do you think we can continue growing the economy while radically cutting emissions? It’s a GOP talking point, but there are good-faith actors who say progress requires a shift away from consumerism and will result in a shrinking GDP.
I think it depends on how we measure our economy, right? It does pose a threat to the fossil-fuel industry, and that is one of the Republican Party’s main sources of income. So for Republicans it ends a great degree of the economic power they rely on. [But] I think that this transition represents an increase in prosperity for everyday people, because fossil fuels are reliant on a system that is dependent on obscene levels of inequality. This is an extractive economy — you need to extract from land and from people in order to grow.
If you wake up at 3 a.m., freaked out about the climate crisis, what’s on your mind?
I worry about families that don’t have the ability to run away. I worry about the interconnectivity of our systems, the compounding effects of climate change. For example, a huge amount of the internet’s infrastructure is on the Eastern Seaboard. Let’s say you have a massive storm — far larger than Hurricane Sandy — and even if it’s temporary, due to the storm, you have flooding of major internet servers and whole portions of the internet go down at the same time that emergency responders are trying to figure out where they need to go. Then airports are flooded so you can’t land with relief materials, and workers can’t get to the airport because mass-transit systems are shut down. Now people can’t eat for 24 to 48 hours. They can’t have access to clean water. I mean, my family has lived through a mass-casualty event: Thousands of people died in Puerto Rico, and that was on one small island. What happens when you get a major event that hits a population far larger? That keeps me up at night. And Republicans make fun of me for saying I have anxiety around [having] kids. I do.
I was going to ask you about that — how the climate crisis has changed the way you envision your life. Where you’ll live, whether you’ll have kids…
I live in and represent a city that is going to experience huge changes in its geography in my lifetime. Just the shape of New York City on a map is going to change dramatically, and that is going to necessitate a lot of people moving around. I was reading David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, and it talks about the bell curve of possibilities: from the most conservative [estimates], if we cut climate emissions immediately, to [an increase of] 4 degrees Celsius. Four degrees Celsius means half of the Earth is uninhabitable to human beings. I worry about that.
The fact of the matter is, Mitch McConnell is not going to be alive for that. It’s just math. I’m sorry to say it. I know a lot of people say it’s crass, but Donald Trump isn’t going to see that world. His grandchildren will, and it’s stressful.
How do you fight that feeling of futility? How do you keep from getting nihilistic?
I think I get a lot of that from my family. I don’t think it’s optimism. I’m not here to say, “Oh, we’re going to come in and save the day.” But seeing how my family has adapted to a post-Maria world — I think what’s happening in Puerto Rico is what a lot of people will experience in 10 years. In one way or another. It’s a possibility. But the way I’ve seen them adapt and move forward has been helpful to me. It’s not fun by any means, but I do think there’s an aspect where one way or another, communities will endure.
But I don’t want to be irresponsible in saying that, because I think they’ll be looking back at us today and thinking about how privileged we were. At any given moment, we are living at the hottest it has ever been and the coolest it will be for a very, very, very long time.
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