Business·Analysis

Why Trump can take credit for his opponents' Green New Deal: Don Pittis

Climate change should not be a left-right issue, but by refusing to tackle the issue, the U.S. president has given the Democrats plenty of room to manoeuvre.

U.S. president has handed the Democrats carte blanche on the issue of our time

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey hold a news conference on Feb. 7 for their proposed Green New Deal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

U.S. backsliding on climate under the administration of President Donald Trump may have dealt his Democratic Party opponents an ace card.

While the Democrats' Green New Deal is championed by its left-leaning younger members, notably the dynamic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Trump's climate-skeptical stance has ceded the field on an issue that has a much wider potential appeal.

And according to centre-right Canadian supporters of climate action, the popularity of environmentalism as an issue owned by the Democratic U.S. left is in many ways a creation of Trump himself.

Not only that, but by dropping the ball on climate, the U.S. administration has allowed people like Ocasio-Cortez to capture younger voters disenchanted with the economy who might not otherwise fit the traditional environmentalist profile, combining the two concerns under a single populist rallying cry.

"I am so incredibly excited that we are going to transition this economy into the future,' said Ocasio-Cortez in a rousing speech outlining her Green New Deal plan. But clearly the young politician's intended audience extended well beyond the issues of climate and environmentalism.

"Today is a big day for people who have been left behind," she said.
Huge spending in the Second World War on machinery such as what was used in the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944 rebooted the U.S. economy. Spending on a Green New Deal could have a similar effect, its proponents hope. (Canadian Press)

Those left behind are not just young people. But according to Canadian millennial Katie Rae Perfitt, Ottawa-based community organizer for the climate change advocacy group 350.org, a message of "transformative change" appeals to a generation struggling with the gig economy and expensive rents. 

"They were demanding … that the Democrats in the U.S. put forward a Green New Deal that challenges the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry but also that can be the answer to some of the deepest inequities that are seen in the U.S. society but that we see also in Canada," said Perfitt.

Despite Canada's current court battle that pits the conservative governments of Ontario and Saskatchewan against the federal carbon tax plan, conservative supporters of climate change action insist it is not a left-right issue.

Margaret Thatcher's worry

It's good that the Green New Deal "puts climate change front and centre again," said Mark Cameron, executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity, who was director of policy and research for former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

"But I think it does mix a lot of things that are not necessarily compatible and subordinates the goal of reducing carbon emissions to a lot of other things on the liberal social democratic wish list."

And while Perfitt believes greedy corporations are the problem, Cameron contends that business can be part of the solution. He says former British Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher was the first major world leader to put climate change on the agenda.

Cameron also notes that while Trump and his administration appointees may want to burn more coal and make environmental laws toothless, there are many traditional conservatives and Republican politicians who did not want to see the U.S. withdraw from the Paris Accord, the co-ordinated global attempt to stop climate change.
Christmas dinner during the Great Depression. The Democrats' original New Deal during that period provided relief for poor families and instituted widespread reforms to the economy. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/Reuters)

While Trump's voter base may include many climate deniers, others have witnessed the effects of drought, floods, forest fires and freak winter storms and realize something must be done. Conservatives, too, worry about the world their children will inherit.

According to David McLaughlin, a Canadian climate change specialist for the International Institute of Sustainable Development and adviser to former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, the current version of the Green New Deal could not have come about without three factors.

One is the charismatic Ocasio-Cortez. Another is the increasingly undeniable scientific evidence that climate change is affecting our planet. But the third necessary ingredient, he says, was Trump himself.

Impossible without Trump?

"Can you imagine it having this kind of radical breadth to it in terms of trying to remake American society and economy without two years of Donald Trump?" asked McLaughlin.

"We have to recognize that the landscape for climate issues has radically shifted in the last two years."

But in its current form, he said, the Ocasio-Cortez plan is not a viable blueprint, simply because it would never get through Congress. He called it classic Christmas tree politics.

"The tree has been decorated with so many ornaments, from health care to living wages to family farms, that the whole tree risks falling over."
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington honours the president behind the original New Deal. Roosevelt held office from 1933 until his death in 1945. (Reuters)

But societal transformations are not born fully formed. Debate continues within the Democratic Party over exactly what the final Green New Deal will contain. Yes or no to nuclear? What will the private sector role be ? How much could taxpayers be convinced to spend?

In the past, massive defence spending has been predicated on the idea that the threat exceeds the cost. As the impact of climate change becomes more apparent, something similar could happen.

So far, most of the Democratic presidential candidates have backed a version of the Green New Deal, perhaps seeing it as an aspirational starting point that can be moulded or cherry picked on the campaign trail. Without a climate plan of its own, the Trump administration can do nothing but oppose.

The original New Deal, introduced by Democratic Party hero and four-term president Franklin Delano Roosevelt amid the poverty of the Great Depression, is seen as part of a social revolution that redistributed opportunity and — along with massive spending on the terrible Second World War that followed — set the country up for decades of economic success.   

The Democrats will be trying to make the case that the Green New Deal, in whatever form it finally takes, will do something similar.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

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About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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