WASHINGTON -- The climate change activists who vaulted the Green New Deal to prominence in the 2020 presidential campaign got what they wanted this week: a Democratic front-runner moving straight in their direction. Now they have to figure out what's next.
In less than a half-year, the Green New Deal has become a rallying cry for liberal Democrats, intensifying the focus on climate change by the party's base voters and presidential contenders. But the aggressive goals and scant details left room for candidates — Joe Biden, in particular — to get credit for embracing the spirit of the Green New Deal without fully delivering what some of its activists want.
That left some environmentalists declaring a big victory and others seeing only partial progress in the climate change plan Biden announced this week. The real test, the latter group argues, is keeping the pressure on Biden and other candidates to flesh out their plans to tackle planet-warming emissions.
Their success or failure may determine how much attention climate change gets from the crowded field of Democratic hopefuls. It may also decide how far leftward the party is willing to go to address an issue that has faded from the national stage during general presidential elections but is an increasingly high priority for Democrats amid fresh warnings from scientists about the imminent consequences of global warming.
Biden's climate plan envisions $1.7 trillion in federal spending to push the nation's emissions to net zero by 2050. The Green New Deal, by contrast, seeks to fully decarbonize the economy by 2030 — and its chief backer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., predicted this week that a full-scale climate plan would cost at least $10 trillion.
Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action, said he's concerned that the former vice president got too much credit for a "somewhat anemic" investment in climate change.
Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the pro-Green New Deal Sunrise Movement, said her group is maintaining "both a level of excitement and a healthy level of skepticism" about Biden's approach.
"We would be naive to take people's words at face value at this moment," Prakash said. Instead, her group will be paying attention over the next couple of months for whether their words are "going to be backed up." The group has led the Green New Deal push and is planning a public demonstration at the second Democratic presidential debate in Detroit next month that's designed to keep climate change high on candidates' radars.
But environmental advocates who support the Green New Deal disagree on how strictly to hold Democratic candidates to a framework that amounts to a massive liberal shift in how the party talks about climate change. While climate plans from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren call for more federal spending and offer the potential for faster emissions cuts than Biden's, the former vice president already has pledged to do more on climate than former President Barack Obama's administration was able to.
Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said that a perfect climate plan is too much for activists to expect at this point.
"It's natural for there to be divided opinion," Brune said, urging Democrats to keep in mind how far they've come, with a majority of the party's presidential candidates now embracing key aims and goals of the Green New Deal that previously would have seemed impossible.
Biden's climate plan includes executive orders to help curb emissions from oil and gas extraction and increase the energy efficiency of vehicles and buildings, among other goals. Biden, who has led Democratic primary polls since he entered the campaign, also vows to "demand" that Congress act on climate change during his first year in office and to "hold them accountable" if a bill doesn't pass.
Before that happens, of course, Democrats must topple President Donald Trump in a general election that Trump is preparing to wage against the "preposterous" Green New Deal and other liberal priorities. Although Biden disappointed some Green New Deal backers, the Republican National Committee declared Biden's plan a sign that he "has officially caved to the radical left."
Christy Goldfuss, a senior vice president at the liberal Center for American Progress and former Obama administration climate adviser, warned that the Green New Deal's conservative critics "want to brand it as socialism and they want to have that fight about socialism." Democrats should push back at that rhetoric, she urged, with "a real economic message about the cost of inaction."
As for Green New Deal activists who want to keep nudging Biden to do more on climate change, which they see as inextricably linked to other economic goals such as universal health care, Goldfuss said: "There's a real risk in the energy on the left pushing candidates to feel like they can never satisfy the request."
Two candidates who have come closer than Biden to meeting the benchmarks of the Green New Deal are Warren, who pitched $2 trillion in spending on environmentally friendly manufacturing this week, and Inslee, whose highly ambitious targets include making all new cars emissions-free by 2030 and eliminating emissions from the nation's entire electrical grid five years after that. Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke has offered a $1.5 trillion climate proposal, but other major Democratic presidential candidates have yet to release detailed plans, including several Green New Deal supporters.
Yet as Green New Deal activists prepare for next month's Detroit demonstration, it's Biden — whose plan touts nuclear energy innovation and capturing carbon from fossil fuels, two ideas that have Republican support — getting the most blowback from environment-minded members of his party, befitting his front-runner status.
"I'm very concerned that his plan does not evince a willingness to confront the coal barons and tell them to stand down," Inslee told The Associated Press of Biden's plan, noting that Ocasio-Cortez has called his proposal "the gold standard."