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What Nancy Pelosi Gets Right About the Green New Deal

The House speaker has some wise advice for climate activists.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein was caught on video condescending to a group of school-age climate activists, telling them “there’s no way to pay for” the Green New Deal. “I’ve been in the Senate for over a quarter of a century,” the 85-year-old Democrat said. “I know what can pass and I know what can’t pass.” The political left gave her hell for it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, another longtime Democrat in Congress, tempted a similar fate with remarks to Rolling Stone in an interview published on Wednesday. Referring to climate activists who have protested at her office, the 78-year-old said, “In my day—go back 30 years or more—I was pushing strollers and carrying signs myself. I say to these people who come in, ‘I was carrying single-payer signs before you were born.’”

At first glance, these comments sound similar to Feinstein’s. But a closer look at Pelosi’s interview shows she gets it—more than her senior colleague does, anyway. Pelosi showed she understands the importance of young climate activists in organizing a mass movement, and stressed that it will take more than a few politicians to turn the Green New Deal “dream”—her words—into a reality.

A resolution introduced by Senator Ed Markey and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in early February, the Green New Deal outlines a broad plan to slow climate change by making the U.S. economy carbon neutral by 2030. It is the only widely supported plan that’s aggressive enough to slow global warming on the timescale that scientists say is necessary, but it is impossible to pass in today’s divided capital. That’s why Pelosi—who ultimately decides what the House does and doesn’t vote on—is not fully on board with it.

“It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” she said recently. “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?”

That quote led many to believe that Pelosi was dismissive of the Green New Deal and the activists who support it. The Rolling Stone interview suggests otherwise. “I’d probably be doing that myself,” she told the magazine in reference to the recent protests of her led by the Sunrise Movement. Pelosi has applauded the climate group’s efforts, leading Vox’s David Roberts—one of the media’s most prominent voices for immediate, sweeping action on climate change—to argue that “she and AOC are working together on this, not at odds.” As Pelosi told Rolling Stone, “I understand that to be an advocate you are persistent, dissatisfied and relentless. I’ve been there. I understand it. You have that responsibility as an advocate.”

But Pelosi also told Rolling Stone she has a “different responsibility as a leader”—not to shape public opinion, but to respond to it. “You have to make decisions that you’re going to reach certain goals, and some of our goals we think are achievable,” she said. Pelosi recognizes that she alone can’t convince Democrats—much less Republicans—to support something their constituents don’t want. And she can’t put a Green New Deal to a vote knowing it will lose. “That’s why public opinion is so important,” she added. “Young people know better than people who serve here in Congress that [solving climate change] is important to do.” She’s essentially imploring climate activists to gather enough support for the Green New Deal to make it palatable to elected officials.

The Green New Deal is indeed unachievable at this moment. But the politics of an issue can change in a flash. It has taken Green New Deal activists mere months to transform the climate policy conversation in Washington. Pelosi sees that—and wants them to keep it up. “We have to take it to the public, and I think it should be an important part of the presidential campaign,” she told Rolling Stone. “Everything that we’re talking about has to be elevated to the presidential level.”

Climate activists have reason to remain wary of Pelosi. She calls global warming “the challenge of this generation,” but doesn’t appear to have a strong understanding of the Green New Deal and has expressed skepticism about its ambitious reach. She told Rolling Stone that the Green New Deal resolution “goes beyond what our charge is” because it also proposes single-payer healthcare and a federal jobs guarantee. “It’s kind of, like, a broader agenda,” Pelosi said.

But that’s exactly the point: As Green New Deal supporters argue, the plan’s social proposals are essential to meeting its overall goals. It might take a few more protests outside Pelosi’s office to get her to understand that—but it’s protests across America that ultimately will make the difference.