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Where is Rural in the Green New Deal?

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Jeremy Ornstein of Watertown, Mass., center, cheers on fellow environmental activists as they occupy the office of Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the incoming majority leader, as they try to pressure Democratic support for a sweeping agenda to fight climate change, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Among the packed agenda of the 2019 Democrat-held House, one particular project went from barely noticed to hotly debated almost overnight: The Green New Deal (GND).

The deal is an ambitious social, economic and industrial reform program being proposed as a potential catch-all solution to current climate change regulations and rising social inequities. But those solutions are mainly addressed through an extremely broad set of reforms, investments and infrastructure projects.

Ranging from “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition,” investments in infrastructure and industries of the future, to promoting “justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future and repairing historic oppression,” the list of aspirational goals appears to critics as directionless in its mission.

The ideas addressed in this bold vision for a complete federal policy overhaul are not all entirely new concepts, but only with the new class of fresh Congressmen and Congresswomen sworn in after the 2018 midterms has this particular package begun to garner mainstream attention.

The measures have become a lightning rod for Republican criticism of Democrats, as well as a litmus test for Democratic Presidential hopefuls, who need to walk a fine line in order to satisfy a younger, more radical electorate without scaring away moderate voters.

Apart from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been a leading voice promoting the issue, over 40 Representatives have voiced their support.

You can’t spell the GND without rural

Here in Appalachia, economic identity is based around extractive economies, putting these concerns right in the crosshairs of the Green New Deal. But the vague promises of the GND proposal and lack of direct involvement with the rural communities presents a problem to many rural organizers.

“As I was thinking and reading about the GND, a couple things stuck out to me and, of course, one of them is that rural does not appear to be mentioned at all,” Whitney Kimball-Coe, Director at Tennessee-based Center for Rural Strategies, told 100 Days in a phone conversation.

Kimball-Coe urges policymakers to remember the work that’s already being done on the ground.

“Rural communities are already starting to address issues of climate change, and there’s local efforts that are honoring the local talent, the local knowledge and local culture of those places […] so don’t disregard the work that has already been done at the local level by putting a federal plan on top of it,” said Kimball-Coe.

(We reached out to Democratic community leaders and Representatives, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams and Rep. Kathy Castor, the Chair of Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, asking about the inclusion of Appalachian and rural communities into the GND debate, but all have declined to comment.)

100 Days talked to Greg Carlock of Data for Progress, lead author of the policy report outlining the GND vision. When asked about protections for rural communities, he proposed an “umbrella bill where workers from these traditional energy sectors are eligible for benefits, so regardless of your location, or maybe it is location specific, or regardless of industry […] you can apply for certain benefits if you can show that this transition has reached a hardship. You’ve been laid off and because of the industry that laid you off it opens up way more benefits than traditional unemployment.”

He likened it to the benefits provided for the 9/11 first responders, who suffered from work conditions at the sites of terrorist attacks in New York City.

“[…] we also need things that address the positive side of the transition that’s pulling them into new growth areas. Whether it’s targeting certain subsidies or programs in these communities, a positive injection of resources,” he added.

“GND will be a 10-year plan […] with a special eye for communities that have historically relied on fossil fuels, because we know we need to ensure economic security and healthy communities for those who have been on the frontlines of extraction for so long,” Erin Bridges, fundraising director for the Sunrise Movement, told 100 Days in a phone interview. The Sunrise Movement, along with the Justice Democrats and the New Consensus, is one of the major think tanks responsible for organizing and crafting the policy behind the GND vision.

“We are very much looking to have communities who are on the frontlines of extraction and climate disaster be playing crucial roles in crafting the policy itself […] we really want them involved in crafting policy,” she added.

But, according to Kimball-Coe, “It’s crickets out here.”

“We’re all trying to figure out how to translate it [the GND] for rural audiences, if it’s even going anywhere, does it even have legs and should we be spending all our time, capital and energy to track it and follow it and make sure we’re part of it,” she said.

For Peter Hille, President of Kentucky-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) and one of the majority witnesses at the recent hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, the fact that he was able to have his case stated in front of the representatives, some of whom openly supported the GND resolution, is a necessary and a welcome step forward.

“Nobody called me up six months ago and said ‘hey, we’re thinking about this thing we’re gonna call ‘The Green New Deal,’ what you think should be in it?,’” Hille said.

But, “submitting oral and written testimony into the Congressional record is a little bit more direct input that the Representatives has asked us for over the last several years,” he added.

Although officially MACED doesn’t have a position on the GND, Hille recognizes that some of its proposals are aligned with his organization’s work and could do a lot of good for the community it serves.

The policy

There are very few, if any, actual policy proposals in the Green New Deal.

But Carlock’s report doesn’t present any actual policies, only policy goals, and more importantly, it fails to acknowledge rural America as frontlines of the climate change.

Carlock mentioned many ideas and potential solutions, with the same larger-than-life ambition that the proponents of the GND say is necessary to face the advancing climate change.

Carlock said that outreach and communication with the rural communities is not his focus right now and pointed to local, state and federal governments as administrative bodies that would be responsible for providing incentives, like new infrastructure or tax breaks.

“I wouldn’t say the Green New Deal has enumerated any specific policies on that question,” Carlock admitted when asked how, specifically, any of that were to happen, but the consensus is it will have to be all hands on deck.

Carlock sees the need for more research. When asked about the ambitious timeline, he doesn’t really have an answer: “I fully acknowledge the difficulties in exploring those questions and how you implement that at a scale that’s being proposed.”

Weaponizing the Green New Deal

The Green New Deal has become another talking point in a hyper-partisan debate.

Kimball-Coe shared the sense of immediate politicization as well. “I live in a rural area and a conversation about the GND is already politicized before it’s even unpacked. I even question how we’re going to get beyond that piece of it to even talk about the content,” she told 100 Days.

Back in February, 100 Days reported on the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee hearing on ways to transition from coal economies. Despite the majority witnesses having no direct connection to the GND, the bulk of Republican members focused their energy on attacking the proposal and coercing its defense from witnesses.

Recently, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders released a statement, which read in part: “Democrats are harassing the President to distract from their radical agenda of making America a socialist country, killing babies after they’re born and pushing a ‘green new deal’ that would destroy jobs and bankrupt America.”

Even within the Democratic camp, there are fissures and arguments. Media latches on to moments like this, where veteran California Senator, Diane Feinstein, was confronted by activists over the proposal.

“We were really, really angry at the Democratic leadership for watering down our demands […] our demands were that we get the select committee on a GND and that every single person who was on that committee would have taken “no fossil fuel money pledge” and wouldn’t be beholden to the interest of the fossil fuel billionaires,” Bridges of the Sunrise Movement told 100 Days.

Instead, Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida runs the committee on climate crisis. The Sunrise Movements doesn’t intend to back down from its demand for a pledge.

That attitude could be seen as an indication of deeper divide growing within the Democratic ranks that seems to be splitting along the line of the radical left and more moderate liberals.

So far, it seems that the climate issues have been claimed by the more radical camp that represents mostly younger, progressive voters from coastal, urban areas. The GND, apart from being an aspirational program, is being actively treated as a tool for galvanizing those voters ahead of the 2020 presidential race.

“We’re really looking to build support for the GND in every corner of the country and truly cement it as a litmus test for every single politician in this country, especially those who are seeking the presidency,” Bridges said.

“We’re taking our timeline very seriously […] In 2019 we’re going to build the public and political power behind this policy, in 2020 we’re going to take on the Presidency so that in 2021 we can pass this legislation,” she added.

According to Carlock, we could start seeing individual bills slowly roll out of the House later this month and into the summer. He also suggested that some of the presidential hopefuls might be presenting complete GND programs down the line.

And it could be that the biggest success so far is putting climate change issues front and center of the political debate in America. It is still early and the question remains if the predominantly rural parts of the country, like Appalachia, will have a seat at the drafting table.

Transparency note: Center for Rural Strategies is the publisher of our partner publication The Daily Yonder.