As the Senate conducted a vote on the Green New Deal this week, Sen. Lamar Alexander championed a Republican counterproposal that draws on the history of the production of nuclear weapons.
The Tennessee Republican proposed the “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” this week, borrowing branding from the secret government project to build atomic bombs.
Alexander, who will not run for re-election in 2020, broke with Republican ranks to acknowledge the urgency of action on climate change, but also sought to divert responsibility from U.S. energy production to foreign countries.
“It will strengthen our economy. It will raise family incomes. This strategy also recognizes that when it comes to climate change, China, India and other developing countries are the problem. American innovation is the answer,” Alexander said in a floor speech Monday.
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While Alexander has not yet put forward bill text, he outlined the proposal’s broad goals — which he calls the “Ten Grand Challenges” — in a Fox News editorial.
Alexander placed an emphasis on nuclear energy.
“Within the next five years, we need to build one or more advanced reactors to demonstrate the capabilities they may bring — lower cost, increased safety and less nuclear waste,” he wrote.
Like the Green New Deal, Alexander’s proposal cites a historical precedent for large-scale industrial investment.
But unlike the New Deal, the Manhattan Project investment was made toward weapons that killed and wounded nearly a quarter-million Japanese people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“If you’re not calling for a secret project that will result in the creation of and use of a weapon of mass destruction, you’re not really calling for a Manhattan Project,” said Alex Wellerstein, a historian of nuclear technology at Stevens Institute of Technology. “Call for a ‘Moon Shot’ if you want to call for something that will just be expensive and large and do something improbable. Don’t call for something that resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties.”
And there is some irony in a senator naming a key policy initiative after a project that was long concealed from Congress.
“The irony of the Manhattan Project is that the scientist-administrators, the War Department, and President Roosevelt conspired to keep Congress out of the loop on it entirely,” Wellerstein said. “The Manhattan Project was a direct and deliberate subversion of the concepts of separation of powers, democratic oversight, and democratic deliberation.”
Alexander’s proposal comes against the backdrop of a vote on the Green New Deal on Tuesday.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced the Green New Deal resolution in the Republican-controlled Senate in a gambit to test Democrats’ dedication to the ambitious plan outlined by Democrats Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Democrats voted “present” on the cloture vote, allowing senators to skirt what they considered a sham vote on the progressive policy. But they criticized Republicans for not advancing their own solutions to climate change.
While the Green New Deal proposes a transformation of the economy in order to phase out fossil fuels completely, the Manhattan Project states a vaguer goal of forging “a path toward dealing with climate change, and at the same time produce large amounts of reliable, clean energy that lifts family incomes in our country and around the world.”
Alexander acknowledged that he formulated the idea in response to the momentum gathering behind the Green New Deal in an interview with National Public Radio this week.
“At this point, would you say that you feel like there has been a shift in the way people talk about this? And is that, in part, because of the Green New Deal proposal?” asked host Audie Cornish.
“I would answer that yes,” Alexander answered. “I think it’s such a radical proposal and has attracted so much derision and caused so many Democrats political problems that it’s caused Republicans to jump into the fray and say, ‘OK. We’ve got a better idea.’”
Alexander, who sits on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing energy and water development, has accepted roughly $198,000 from oil and gas interests since 2013, according to the nonpartisan campaign contribution tracking website OpenSecrets.
Also watch: Mike Lee makes fun of the Green New Deal using Reagan riding a dinosaur, Star Wars tauntauns and Sharknado