A rising star in the Democratic Party's progressive faction, South Bay Rep. Ro Khanna spoke on Saturday to promote the Green New Deal legislation, describing the aspirational package as an economic imperative for the U.S.
Speaking to a rapt audience at the Sierra Club Loma Prieta chapter's Climate Action Leadership Forum, Khanna delivered the ringing endorsement of the green movement -- in his own way. In his talk, Khanna largely avoided the doomsday scenarios of climate change, and instead portrayed a pivot to clean energy as the only sensible economic approach for the nation's future. To ignore it would mean ceding the entire industry of clean and renewable energy to America's rivals, particularly China, he said.
“Even if you haven't read the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report ... surely you can agree that America should lead the world in the 21st century in technology and energy,” he said. “This can resonate with every part of the country concerned about our future.”
It was a theme that will likely be brought up again and again as the crowded Democratic primary race heats up, and candidates work to appeal to a broad range of voters. In that contest, Khanna has already thrown his support wholeheartedly behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, and he currently serves as the Sanders campaign co-chair.
Khanna didn't mention that his embrace of the Green New Deal was at odds with some other heavyweights in the California Democratic Party. The legislation, authored by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (MA), presents a sweeping proposal to combat climate change by making the U.S. carbon neutral within just over a decade. As if that wasn't ambitious enough, the Green New Deal also includes goals for universal healthcare, housing and economic security. But the legislation is non-binding and it has largely served as a progressive litmus test for Democrats.
This is especially true for the younger generations who see climate change as an existential threat. Thousands of Bay Area students in March walked out of class to protest inaction on climate change.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has expressed skepticism, particularly about its ambitious scope that could prove infeasible. Sen. Dianne Feinstein infamously pointed out to school children that, climate catastrophe notwithstanding, the cost of the Green New Deal made it a political non-starter. Both Pelosi and Feinstein have endorsed less ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions.
The cost of the Green New Deal is subject to debate. Khanna criticized an estimate by the American Action Forum that a full rollout of the Green New Deal could cost as much as $93 trillion. Instead, he seized on other high-cost federal priorities, such as the $40 billion annual cost of military occupation in Afghanistan. For a fraction of the military's budget for overseas operations, the country could have provided high-speed internet nationwide or free college tuition, Khanna said.
It was important to draw a line between climate change and recent environmental disasters, such as California's spate of wildfires, but Khanna said it was also crucial to frame the issue in economic terms.
“We need one final additional step: convincing people climate change is not just an issue of survival of the planet or that we're preventing extraordinary disasters,” he said. “But also whoever wins the clean technology race is going to win the 21st century in terms of its economic future.”