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Dianne Feinstein Is a Bigger Climate Threat Than Trump

Only a bold plan like the Green New Deal can slow global warming, and that won't happen if powerful Democrats keep calling for moderation.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

As climate change worsens, so does President Donald Trump’s denial. On Sunday, The Washington Post reported that his administration is assembling a panel of fringe, industry-funded scientists who “represent the Trump administration’s most forceful effort to date to challenge the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are helping drive global warming and that the world could face dire consequences unless countries curb their carbon output over the next few decades.”

As Trump denies, though, Democrats delay. On Friday, in an encounter caught on video, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein told a group of teenage and preteen climate activists that she won’t support the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to fight climate change introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey earlier this month. “There’s no way to pay for it,” she said, referring to the plan’s pledge to decarbonize the U.S. economy by the year 2030.

The children pleaded with Feinstein to be “brave” and to think about their future. “We’re the ones who are going to be impacted,” one girl pleaded. The 85-year-old insisted she understood, citing her seven grandchildren, but then dashed the schoolchildren’s hopes. “I’ve been in the Senate for over a quarter of a century,” she said, “and I know what can pass and I know what can’t pass.” Later, Feinstein put out a statement calling climate change one of her top priorities and released a draft resolution of her alternative to the Green New Deal.

Feinstein is not a climate villain on par with Trump. She has a 90 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters, while Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris agreement and his EPA is methodically attempting to undo everything it accomplished under President Barack Obama. But the California senator is the bigger threat to the left’s goal of slowing climate change before it’s too late.

The Earth has already warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius due to greenhouse gases released by mankind. Some scientists say the warming must remain below 1.5 degrees Celsius—or 2 degrees Celsius, according to others—to avoid an irreversible catastrophe. Meeting that goal will require the boldest action imaginable. There are bolder plans imaginable than the Green New Deal, but it’s certainly the boldest action that a significant number of politicians have ever backed.

“The Green New Deal is one of the largest interventions in U.S. industrial policy in a long time,” Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who helped draft Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, told The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer. The proposal calls for government funding to kickstart a green industrial revolution, replacing America’s gas-powered cars with electric ones, installing high-speed rail across the country, and converting the electricity system to renewables—all within the next 12 years.

The Green New Deal is impossible to pass in a divided government, which is precisely why it’s been criticized by Democratic leaders like Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who recently dismissed the Green New Deal as “the green dream, or whatever they call it.”

What’s the alternative, then? Feinstein’s counterproposal would do little to make a difference. It seeks to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050—an acceptable goal, albeit 20 years later than the Green New Deal’s. But to achieve this, Feinstein’s resolution only proposes three things: re-implementing myriad Obama-era climate regulations, re-joining the Paris agreement, and implementing a national price on carbon. “It’s not that these things are wrong,” environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker over the weekend. It’s that they are insufficient, impossibly so.”

The problem with Democrats like Feinstein is that they make a big show of calling for action on climate change. And yet, their solutions prove they don’t grasp that climate change is, as Dave Roberts put it for Vox, “a fucking emergency.” They don’t grasp, as David Wallace-Wells writes in his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, that 2 degrees Celsius means “tens of millions of climate refugees, perhaps many more, fleeing droughts, flooding and extreme heat, and the possibility of multiple climate-driven natural disasters striking simultaneously.”

Meek policies, like those proposed by Feinstein, will ensure at least 3 degrees of warming. By that point, Wallace-Wells writes, “Southern Europe would be in permanent drought, African droughts would last five years on average, and the areas burned annually by wildfires in the United States could quadruple, or worse, from last year’s million-plus acres.” Hopefully things will not reach 4 degrees, where “six natural disasters could strike a single community simultaneously; the number of climate refugees, already in the millions, could grow tenfold, or 20-fold, or more; and, globally, damages from warming could reach $600 trillion—about double all the wealth that exists in the world today.”

Right now, even with emissions reductions already in place, the world is well on its way to 4 degree Celsius, according to the United Nations. Democrats like Feinstein are right to be concerned that something like the Green New Deal won’t pass, but their alternative does about as much to prevent this future as Trump’s policies do to worsen it. Trump’s climate denial, and Feinstein’s climate advocacy, both have a negligible impact on a problem of this scale. This emergency calls for wholesale societal change.

Passing such a monumental plan will indeed require support from Republicans. But the Democratic fracturing over the Green New Deal ensures the GOP will continue to do nothing. When the proposal first gained steam among Democratic voters, but before the party’s leaders were pressed for their position on it, some conservatives argued that Republicans needed to come up with an alternative. As Feinstein and Pelosi signal that the Green New Deal is dead in the water, though, Republicans have an excuse to ignore the issue altogether. They can sit back and watch the Democrats tear each other apart over the issue, while the clock runs out on addressing the most challenging crisis of our time.

Given this partisan reality, there’s only one conceivable path for success in slowing global warming: Voters have to kick Republicans out of office. To have any chance of enacting meaningful climate legislation, Democrats not only must control the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate; they must be in complete agreement about what needs to be done. Feinstein’s scolding of schoolchildren suggests that the Democratic Party would squander that opportunity instead, killing the last real chance for bold action. That’s not all it would kill, either.