California Already Has a Green New Deal. Here’s How It Works

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Republicans in the Senate uniformly voted against the Green New Deal earlier this week. President Donald Trump thinks it can help him win re-election. And conservative pundits on cable news regularly rail against it.

But 3,000 miles away, the former Republican mayor of Fresno, a conservative hub of California’s Central Valley, sounds very different.

When Ashley Swearengin talks about her economic development plans, she ends up describing policies that align with the principles of the Green New Deal: rethinking how the city does business to address climate change while dealing with a range of other social ills. Her plan includes rethinking the city’s development patterns, zoning code and transportation infrastructure while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and addressing a slew of environmental problems.

“This is the response to the realities of climate change,” she says, adding, “not just change but also the existing environmental burden that this corner of the state bears.”

Fresno is not alone. Officials in cities across California and in state government have for years been implementing a hodgepodge of programs aligned with the principles of a Green New Deal and, many of them say, California could be a model for how such a program could work at the national level.

“What we’ve done so far in California could be used as a model,” says Kevin de León, who pushed through several key pieces of climate legislation as president pro tempore of the state senate, “not just for the sub-nationals but for national governments throughout the world.”

The federal Green New Deal resolution, introduced by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, calls for a “mobilization” to move the country to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades while also addressing a number of social ills. For now, it’s more of a battle cry than a concrete set of policies.

In California, the spirit of the Green New Deal has been alive for years, if not described in those exact words.

Just as the Green New Deal is meant to be more of an umbrella for an aggressive approach to fighting climate change on multiple fronts, California does not have a silver bullet on its climate policy. Instead, officials in the deep-blue state have done everything from building high-speed rail to funding for clean energy research and development to rules requiring green initiatives that aid low-income communities. All of those programs are in service of the state’s overall target, set last year, of hitting net-zero emissions by 2045.

Perhaps the most central program to California’s internal climate fight is its five-year-old cap-and-trade program. The first of its kind in the country, the program sets a cap on carbon-dioxide emissions in multiple sectors and requires companies to pay if they emit too much. That money is then used for a variety of clean energy projects, and, thanks to a follow-up law, a quarter of the funding is used to the benefit of disadvantaged communities such as Fresno.

The results of the state’s focus on equity in its clean and green push are already visible on the ground. In Oakland, a group called Rising Sun prepares workers to hold green jobs just as the state implements a requirement that all new homes are net zero. In Fresno,a public-private partnership is deploying a fleet of electric vehicles as a van pool for underserved areas.

The $7 million program, funded by cap-and-trade dollars, is designed to improve access for low-income communities while reducing emissions.

“Obviously, the use of electric vehicles and GHG (greenhouse gas) reduction technologies in our equipment is good for the environment,” says Tara Lynn Gray, president of Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce, who is leading the project. “But even more than that, we see it as a social justice project, and an economic justice project.”

Importantly, this portfolio of programs has paid dividends in the state’s bigger push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, the state said that it had reduced its emissions to 1990 levels, achieving that goal much sooner than the state’s original 2020 target. Californians emit less on a per capita basis than any state except New York, according to Energy Information Administration data, even though many of them commute over long distances.

The Green New Deal spirit also thrives at the city and county level. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti described his decision in February to cancel plans for three new gas-fired power plants as “the Green New Deal, not in concept, not in the future, but now.” The city has a goal of reducing emissions 45% by 2025, and the city’s electric utility is studying how it can chart a path to 100% renewable energy. At the same, the city’s sustainability program includes other measures to clean up communities and create green jobs.

“This is the type of work that we’ve been doing in L.A. for a long time,” says Lauren Faber, the city’s chief sustainability officer. “It’s sort of the urban Green New Deal.”

Critics of a federal Green New Deal like to point to its estimated multi-trillion-dollar price tag and suggest that such a program would kill the economy. “It’s more money than you have in the world,” Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity this week.

But California officials say their state’s success offers an obvious rebuttal: the state’s economy is larger than that of all but four countries and continues to grow alongside that of the rest of the country. In fact, they say, the savings from avoided health costs, avoided costs of climate-proofing the state and the creation of green jobs, easily outweigh the cost. “It’s not just about reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” says Matt Petersen, president of the city-supported Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator. “It’s about creating jobs, about creating new companies and a new economy.”

Still, there are significant differences between the text of the federal Green New Deal resolution and the suite of programs happening on the ground in California. The Green New Deal calls for emissions reductions at a faster pace, a difficult ask given the notoriously slow nature of the federal government and some of the technical realities, and includes policies are not central o slowing climate change like the universal health care plank.

At the same time, the framers of the federal Green New Deal resolution seemed determined to abandon anything that could be perceived as too moderate. There’s no reference to carbon pricing, a component that many environmental advocates see as a mistake given its bipartisan appeal and its simplicity.

And the Green New Deal framers have largely left big business, key players in U.S. politics, out of the conversation. That’s a “missed opportunity,” says Vien Truong, president of Green for All, a progressive environmental group, “When we began to see businesses involved in the California fight,” she says, “we were able to move much further along and much faster.”

Leaders of the effort for a federal Green New Deal may or may not heed that advice as they grapple with their next steps. The Senate voted down the measure this week in a symbolic vote, and Democrats are working to figure out what piecemeal climate legislation they may be able to pass in the coming two years with a divided Congress and a Republican president. At they same time, they are also gearing up for a big legislative push in 2021 in the event that Democrats regain the White House.

In the meantime, no matter what happens at the federal level, states like California — and a handful of others where bold climate policies have gained traction in recent years — offer a big opportunity to experiment. And, supporters say, that’s what the Green New Deal is all about.

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