More Politicians Like Dianne Feinstein, Please
Sen. Dianne Feinstein was the target of a shaming campaign this weekend when Sunrise, a youth-based environmental movement, promoted a video of her speaking brusquely to a group of children about the Green New Deal resolution. The edited two-minute video, in which Feinstein comes off worse than in the full 15-minute exchange also shared by Sunrise, has racked up nearly 9 million views on Twitter, more than any Democrat’s 2020 presidential campaign announcement video.
Many viewers surely agree with Sunrise’s characterization -- a senator treating committed, caring children “with smugness + disrespect,” justifying “why young people desperately want new leadership in Congress.” But we could use more politicians like Feinstein, who don’t pat constituents on the head and fill them up with hot air, and instead actually engage and share their expertise, however unvarnished.
Feinstein responds to the children’s heartfelt plea to support the Green New Deal by letting them know “we have our own Green New Deal.” As the group argues that the version sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a moral necessity, Feinstein has a flash of defensiveness, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing. You come in here, and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that.”
Of course, the safe thing for a politician to do when faced with group of kid-lobbyists is thank them for participating in the democratic process, promise to take a look at whatever they are proposing, and move on with your day. Feinstein — as an 85-year-old who beat back an electoral challenge from the left last year and probably will never appear on the ballot again — felt no obligation to do the safe thing. She chose to show the children how the democratic process really works.
She explained that “there’s no way to pay for” the resolution they were promoting (the group protested Feinstein’s assertion, perhaps not knowing that Ocasio-Cortez has argued that the Green New Deal should be financed with deficit spending) and that it can’t pass the Senate because it lacks Republican support. She offered them copies of her own resolution; when asked how it differs from the Markey/Ocasio-Cortez version, she said it was “precisely drafted [and] written by people that have spent their lives working on this that really believe you can get something done.” She didn’t go into specifics but offered future engagement, saying, “You can take a look it, and if you have a problem with it, you can let me know, but I think it has a much better chance of passing.”
Feinstein’s timeline is less rigid than that of the Green New Deal. Instead of a breakneck 10-year plan to end fossil fuel use, Feinstein proposes to “reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero as soon as possible and by no later than 2050.” Whereas the Green New Deal is silent on pricing carbon pollution — in deference to some leftists who argue that carbon taxes and “cap-and-trade” systems are too market-oriented — Feinstein makes it central to her plan, directing the revenue generated back to taxpayers and to “spur new zero-emission investments.”
One of the tense exchanges in the video shows the children urgently lecturing Feinstein that “some scientists have said that we have 12 years to turn this around,” and Feinstein counter-lecturing, “[I]t’s not going to get turned around in 10 years,” then still more lecturing from the grown-up chaperones that the children are “going to be living with these consequences” from climate change.
Climate activist Bill McKibben, reacting to the video in the New Yorker, sided with the “youth [who] carry the moral authority” and scoffed at Feinstein’s “mid-century conversion to renewable energy” as “insufficient.” “Scientists have told us what we must do and by when,” writes McKibben. In fact, the timeline debate is not that simple.
As NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel told Axios last month, “12 years isn't a deadline, and climate change isn't a cliff we fall off — it's a slope we slide down. We don't have 12 years to prevent climate change — we have no time. It's already here. And even under a business-as-usual scenario, the world isn't going to end in exactly 12 years." Climatologist Gavin Schmidt of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies added, “All the time-limited frames are bulls---. … The thing to push back against is the implicit framing that there is some magic global mean temperature or total emissions that separate 'fine' from 'catastrophic.' There just isn't.”
These statements, which recognize we are already feeling the impacts of climate change, aren’t meant to encourage lollygagging by our politicians. But they do open up the policy debate to more possibilities than a 10-year Green New Deal or global annihilation. Feinstein, being a practiced legislator, recognizes that flexible policies that can be phased in and adjusted over time have a better chance of being enacted than absolutist policies promising rapid, radical upheaval of our economy. That’s why she didn’t flinch at the attempted moral scolding.
In the full video, you can tell Feinstein is not trying to be a jerk, even though she is curt at times. She takes the time to talk with the children. She patiently shares her views and reads the letter the children presented. And at the end, she even helps one of the teenage activists apply for an internship with her.
What she doesn’t do is patronize or pander. She talks straight, treating them as the mature activists they are striving to be, and having faith they can handle a lesson in what real democracy looks like.
This is not an example of a stodgy legislator collecting dust and thumbing her nose at the public while the world burns. This is an example of a very active legislator who has a different opinion and strategy on how to solve the climate crisis than some on the activist left. It may be surprising that she had the gumption to make those differences plain to a group of children, but perhaps because it, those children will grow up to be tougher, smarter activists.