Since its ascension in 2018, the Green New Deal has defined the terms of the global climate debate. Perhaps no other climate policy in history has been as successful. Democrats and Republicans alike have been judged by how closely they seem to hew to it. The Sunrise Movement, the highest-profile American climate-activism group, rallies for it. Abroad, the European Union has dubbed its 1-trillion-euro attempt to decarbonize its economy “the European Green Deal.” And on the histrionic fields of social media, progressives ask how society can afford flooded subways, horrific droughts, deadly heat waves, and uncontrollable wildfires but not pay for a Green New Deal.

Even now, as Democrats in Congress and the White House wrangle over the terms of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, the Green New Deal leers from the sidelines. How does the bipartisan infrastructure deal differ from the Green New Deal? Will the partisan reconciliation bill amount to a Green New Deal?

With so much ballyhoo, it’s become easy to miss the central, implacable fact about the Green New Deal: It does not exist.

By this, I don’t mean that it hasn’t passed. I mean something more fundamental: Nobody has written it down. Three years after the idea of a Green New Deal broke into the mainstream, you can’t find an authoritative and detailed list of Green New Deal policies anywhere. There is no handbook, no draft legislation, no official report that articulates what belongs in a Green New Deal and what doesn’t.

This is more than just an academic point. It means that tens of thousands of Americans want very badly to see Congress adopt a political program that definitionally cannot pass, because there is no “it” for lawmakers to vote on. It means that Biden’s infrastructure package cannot be compared with the Green New Deal, because the contrast will not find purchase. It means that at a moment of historic possibility, American climate politics still has one leg stuck in the spectral and symbolic, when it should be knee-deep in the real.

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(Posting this here as we will discuss an idea about this in GEM #3)