Meet the scholar crafting the ‘Green New Deal’

By Hannah Northey | 11/27/2018 01:12 PM EST

Think of it as the policy muscle behind the promised “Green New Deal.”

Demond Drummer and Rhiana Gunn-Wright are leaders of a new policy nonprofit called the New Consensus.

Demond Drummer and Rhiana Gunn-Wright are leaders of a new policy nonprofit called the New Consensus. University of Chicago (Drummer); Gunn-Wright/LinkedIn

Think of it as the policy muscle behind the promised "Green New Deal."

A policy group is being formed to support an energized progressive movement that’s taken Capitol Hill by storm under the leadership of Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

It’s called the New Consensus.


The 501c(3) nonprofit is in the process of being formed to provide a policy platform that will underpin the ambitious — and increasingly politically popular — Green New Deal aimed at weaning the United States off fossil fuels, boosting renewables and clean energy jobs, and building a "smart" grid.

Front and center will be Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a 29-year-old Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar who will serve as the group’s policy director working to flesh out details of the plan.

She’s working alongside Demond Drummer, an organizer and tech guru slated to serve as New Consensus’ executive director. Drummer is also the co-founder and executive director of CoderSpace, a youth tech mentoring and education program on Chicago’s South Side.

Gunn-Wright said during an interview she’s already busy fleshing out the multipronged plan that’s received national attention and revved up Democrats who recently won back the lower chamber. Gunn-Wright said she plans to release her policy in phases over time before heading to Capitol Hill.

"It’s not your run-of-the-mill think tank; the aim is for it to be more agile, a bit less of a sitting research entity and more of a critical problem solver," she said. "With the progressive left and all of these new, big ideas that could make people’s lives better, the holdup is how to make it happen, how to pay for it."

For Gunn-Wright, a Chicago native, the work is a continuation of her focus on the intersection of policy and politics.

She most recently served as a policy director for the campaign of Democrat Abdul El-Sayed, a first-time candidate who captured the attention of progressives across the nation in the Michigan Democratic gubernatorial primary. El-Sayed ran on an ambitious clean energy platform that called for a shift to all renewables by 2030.

Although Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, a former Michigan state senator who served as minority leader there, bested him to serve as the state’s governor, El-Sayed later endorsed Whitmer and vowed to push a progressive agenda on the Hill.

Gunn-Wright said the campaign served as a training ground, her first time running a policy team and doing field work — know-how she plans to bring to New Consensus.

"I learned on that campaign that the best way to equip a progressive idea is to do the work of figuring out ‘how,’ so that’s what I think we’re bringing to the Green New Deal," she said. "We’ll be the ‘how’ shop."

Emerging policies

The first tranche of New Consensus’ policies aims to mobilize the United States to tackle climate change.

That includes the creation of a "climate mobilization office"; ramping up funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, the Energy Department’s research arm; and the creation of a green bank to fund clean energy innovations.

The aim is for those policies to be taken up by lawmakers or a newly revived Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in the House that Ocasio-Cortez has called for. Under the platform the incoming lawmaker laid out on her website, the committee would produce a draft of the plan by Jan. 1, 2020, and finalize legislation no later than March 1, 2020.

Gunn-Wright said a "climate mobilization office" would serve as a hub for planning and administering an economic mobilization to address the threat of climate change. Whether that will be an office or an agency hasn’t been decided.

New Consensus, she added, is drawing inspiration from frameworks set up during World War II used to coordinate government agencies involved in the war effort.

Another focus: boosting funding for ARPA-E. The thought, Gunn-Wright said, is to ensure ARPA-E’s funding is on par with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Also on the table is the creation of a "green bank," a public bank that would be used to invest in zero-carbon technologies under development in the public and private sector that need to be commercialized. The bank would be designed to offer financial enhancements and support to communities that haven’t had access to clean energy and transportation, she added.

"We do know what we want a green bank to do and how we’d design it, we just need to design that work at a federal level," Gunn-Wright said.

And that’s just the beginning.

Gunn-Wright during the interview outlined the broad framing and structure for a host of future policy ideas focused on decarbonizing the economy, creating climate or green jobs, and ensuring all sectors of the U.S. economy can benefit from a carbonless or zero-carbon economy.

But she also acknowledged the difficulty the progressive movement faces in pushing such an ambitious idea through a Republican-controlled White House and Senate. The urgency of looming climate catastrophe — as evidenced by recent government reports the Trump administration has dismissed — will fuel her work regardless of political pushback, said Gunn-Wright.

"The truth is, the best chances for success are with a Democratic president, House and Senate," she said. "But the reality of what’s happening won’t change. Climate change is happening, and people will die. It’s not going to get easier; the reports will only become more damning and the need for action more urgent."

Part of her policy work will be figuring out the mechanism to pay for such a sweeping and ambitious deal. But Drummer said mechanisms are already being fleshed out.

"Right now we’re focused on what needs to be done and how all the pieces fit together," Drummer said. "Then we will focus on how to pay for it. To be clear: It’s a question of how we will pay for it — not if we can afford to pay for it. America can afford what we decide to do."