Why Ed Markey, the Co-Sponsor of the Green New Deal, May Be Hopeful For Its Chances
The Green New Deal is generally treated as a wild-eyed scheme of the Congressional Democrats’ liberal youth caucus, most particularly of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But, if she is the fresh face behind the “aspirational” climate fix that was put on the nation’s table in February, proposing significant new public works and policies to move America away from carbon, what about the seventysomething Edward Markey, who joined her to introduce the resolution in the U.S. Senate? Ocasio-Cortez is twenty-nine, and Markey was a barely older thirty when he first showed up in Washington—in 1976, thirteen years before the New York City congresswoman was born. That year, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, from Massachusetts. (He was reëlected to the House nineteen times and then took over John Kerry’s Senate seat, in a special election, in 2013, and was reëlected the following year.) It took the young Markey somewhat longer than it has Ocasio-Cortez, but he also stepped out with a bold initiative aimed at saving the planet from catastrophe. His proposal, too, was initially derided as wild-eyed—but its outcome suggests a hopeful scope of possibility for the Green New Deal.
Markey has a long record of fighting for environmental protections. In 2009, he and Representative Henry Waxman, of California, introduced the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which sought to create a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse emissions. It narrowly passed the House, then failed in the Senate. In 2018, Markey earned a perfect score from the League of Conservation Voters. But what first gained him attention was the so-called Nuclear Freeze resolution, which he introduced in the House in March of 1982. (The resolution was co-sponsored in the House by the Democrats Silvio Conte, of Maryland, and Jonathan B. Bingham, of New York; it was introduced in the Senate by Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Mark Hatfield, Republican of Oregon.) That time, too, Markey took his cues, and the text for his resolution, from a woman, the peace activist Randall Forsberg, who, two years earlier, while working on a doctorate in international studies at M.I.T., had composed a one-page manifesto titled, “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race.”
Forsberg, known as Randy, went on to have a distinguished career as a disarmament advocate, before dying of cancer, in 2007, but her signal achievement remained the manifesto, which demanded an end to the ever-mounting accumulation of nukes. In the early nineteen-eighties, the arsenals of the Soviet Union and the United States were approaching a total of sixty thousand warheads and bombs—and that figure counted only deployed weapons, not those that were stockpiled. The United States alone was producing five new nuclear weapons every day. Tensions between Leonid Brezhnev’s Moscow and Ronald Reagan’s Washington, after the collapse of détente and the start of a huge U.S. arms buildup, were at fever pitch.
Currents of the anti-nuke groundswell had been set in motion by activists who put Forsberg’s resolution before hundreds of municipalities and civic organizations, and by writers like Jonathan Schell, whose book “The Fate of The Earth,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, made the idea of nuclear threat palpable to a vast population. The Freeze Resolution generated enough support in the House of Representatives to nearly pass that spring (it passed a year later), and that June, when nearly a million people gathered in New York’s Central Park to demand an arms-race halt, Markey was the only politician to address the crowd. After that rally, the Nuclear Freeze campaign took off, bringing the grassroots movement to a climax that ultimately changed the politics of nuclear weapons, transforming the aspiration of even policy hawks from arms “limitation” (as in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) to arms “reduction” (as in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). This means that Markey played a key role in moving the weights on the scale from the side of nuclear confrontation to that of negotiation, helping to achieve the tipping point that led to the nonviolent end of the Cold War—even if that transformation has lately been undermined by the present Administration’s moves to reignite the nuclear-arms race.
Those events aren’t just a long-ago political victory on another front, unrelated to the climate crisis that the Green New Deal addresses. In fact, the Freeze resolution was a kind of instigator of the new proposal. The environmental science that now sounds the alarm about the warming atmosphere accelerated in the era of the Freeze campaign, in tandem with studies that were assessing the planetary effects of nuclear war, especially the anticipated phenomenon, promoted by Carl Sagan, known as “nuclear winter.” This narrative pivots on the irony of such temperature references—the “freeze” and the “winter”—which led eventually to an understanding of catastrophic warming. As Jill Lepore wrote in her 2018 history of the United States, “These Truths,” the debate over a nuclear winter “established the themes and battle lines of the debate over climate change, which would rage well into the twenty-first century, long after the Cold War had ended.”
Last Tuesday, the Republican-led Senate made a mockery of the Green New Deal by forcing, without discussion, an up-or-down “bluff vote” on the resolution. Referencing a climate deniers’ laugh line about livestock flatulence, in reference to the resolution’s mention of the high levels of methane that farm animals produce, Senator Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, called the proposal an “assault on cars, cows, and combustion.” Markey replied, “Climate change is not a joke. Mocking it and comparing it to cartoon characters while the Midwest is flooded and people have died because of climate-related extreme weather is shameful.” On Wednesday, in the House, Ocasio-Cortez delivered an impassioned response to Representative Sean Duffy’s dismissal of the deal as a fantasy for “rich liberals.” The next day, at a rally for President Trump, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the crowd took to chanting a new mantra: “A.O.C. sucks.”
The Green New Deal proposal calls for “a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era.” The Nuclear Freeze era has relevance, too, as a reminder of what is possible. Even as the pragmatic Democratic leadership shies away from the full-bore ambitions of the Green New Deal—more modestly proposing, for example, to salvage U.S. support for the Paris Climate Accord—the politics of environmental catastrophe have already shifted. When a wave of public recognition begins to crest, what is mocked, or even condescendingly dismissed as merely aspirational, can yet redefine American purposes. It happened before.