The Politics and Potential of the Green New Deal
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have less than 12 years to slash our emissions in half to stand a chance of staying under 1.5 degrees Celsius average global temperature rise. It’s worth noting that those are global emissions – which means that, to keep the transition equitable, the Global North should be moving to cut emissions much faster still. “There is no documented historic precedent”, for the rapid action and scale necessary to curb climate change, wrote scientists in the report.1
“Twelve years” rang as a rallying cry for the roughly two hundred young people from the Sunrise Movement who occupied Democratic Party leader representative Nancy Pelosi’s (D‐CA) office in November, just after the 2018 midterm elections swept the Democrats back into power in the US House of Representatives.
These young activists demanded a ‘Green New Deal’: a bold and ambitious plan to address climate change and inequality, commensurate with the scale of the systemic problems facing the US and the world. Disillusioned by worsening climate impacts on their communities, crippling amounts of student debt, rising inequality, stagnating wages, and pollution choking their neighbourhoods in the name of profit, these youth articulated a desire for the Green New Deal to shepherd in a new economy designed by and serving communities on the frontlines of climate change.
Alongside the youth of Sunrise stood the soon‐to‐be‐youngest member of Congress, newly elected rep.‐elect Alexandria Ocasio‐Cortez (D‐NY). Bucking both convention and hierarchy, she confronted her own party’s leadership on one of her first days in Washington, DC, calling for an end to climate incrementalism and deadly inaction. Within days, the Green New Deal went from a little‐known rhetorical device to full‐fledged game‐changing proposal – garnering endorsements from across the progressive spectrum and being routinely attacked and disingenuously mischaracterised on Fox News and in the right‐wing media.2
What is the Green New Deal? It is not, and cannot be, simply about reducing carbon emissions. It must be ambitious enough to construct entirely new national institutions, reorganise sectors of our society, transform extractive industry into real wealth creation for communities, and rigorously rewrite the rules of the game for business and the economy at large. The non‐binding Green New Deal resolution introduced by Rep. Ocasio‐Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D‐MA) in February outlines the values that could drive the Green New Deal and some possible approaches to achieve them, but does not dive into details or specific policies. The short document outlines various goals for a 10‐year mobilisation, including access to clean air, water, health, affordable food, and nature for all; energy from “clean, renewable, zero‐emission energy sources”; millions of jobs with fair pay and the protected right to organise; massive upgrades in America’s disinvested infrastructure; access to affordable and safe housing; and retrofits for every building in the country.3
While its rise to prominence may seem surprising, the Green New Deal is informed by a broader, radical new politics rising in the American left. A new, insurgent group of Democrats elected in the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking 2016 victory is tired of the slow, rightward drift of the Democratic Party, and is pushing the envelope on a broad agenda – from the Green New Deal, to ‘Medicare‐for‐All’, to free college tuition. “There is going to be a war within the party”, states Waleed Shahid, strategic director at progressive group Justice Democrats. “We are going to lean into it”.4 Though not without substantial backlash from the party’s neoliberal establishment, the tactic seems to be working. Whereas approaches like Medicare‐for‐All or free college were polarising subjects in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, they now stand as a litmus test for 2020 presidential hopefuls.
The American right, led by the Republican Party, has already sought to undermine the ambitious climate plan, raising concern at its supposed costs and fearmongering with hyperbolic warnings that it would “take away your car, take away your airplane flights”.5 One conservative think tank ‘estimated’ the cost of a Green New Deal could be upwards of $93 trillion – although how it came by such a number is unknown, given that no specific policies have yet been outlined.6 Centrist pundits and policymakers, on the other hand, have generally been wary and called for more incremental steps to tinker with the system rather than reorganise it.7 Some have also criticised the Green New Deal’s scale and ambition, dismissing components like universal health care as unassociated with the mission of decarbonisation.8
Whatever price tag the Green New Deal may incur, the cost of inaction is incalculably higher, both in US dollars and human lives. Even with warming at 1.5 degrees or less, the World Health Organization expects that more than 350 million people will be exposed to deadly heat by 2050, with hundreds of millions more at risk if warming passes this mark.9 Moreover, the United States’ existing political and economic system—like much of the Western world—is built on a foundation of racism and exploitation of slave labor. For centuries, the U.S. has extracted the labor of, neglected, and disinvested communities of color. Structured correctly, the major investments of a Green New Deal could fundamentally alter this system and begin to partially repair this toxic legacy.
LEARNING FROM HISTORY
The reality beneath the hysteria is that the US has undertaken projects at this scale before. The Green New Deal takes its name from another transformative period of US history – the ‘New Deal’ of the 1920s, when Franklin D Roosevelt’s government took swift action to address the Great Depression.10 It was a time of significant government intervention to correct the failures of the capitalist system, serious experimentation with structural alternatives and institutions, and the willingness to take on risk in exchange for massive benefits. The original New Deal electrified 90 per cent of rural America, providing power to those who investor‐owned utilities didn’t see as profitable and hence neglected.11
The New Deal employed three million workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps, who planted over 220 million trees and stabilised major parts of the Great Plains and Midwest in which dust storms had rendered thousands of farms useless.12 It established strict new financial regulations and stabilised the banking sector for a generation. It gave workers new and enhanced rights to organise and unionise, and established widespread unemployment insurance, support for the disabled, and the federal Social Security Administration.13Perhaps most importantly and most relevantly to a Green New Deal directly opposed by the extremely powerful fossil fuel industry, the New Deal also directly confronted many of the country’s richest and most powerful individuals and corporate interests – and defeated them.14
During the second world war, the US government planned and executed a massive economic mobilisation, including price and wage controls, production quotas, and the direct seizure of factories, services, land, and other assets. “America’s response to World War II was the most extraordinary mobilisation of an idle economy in the history of the world”, Pulitzer Prize‐winning historian Doris Goodwin recalls. “During the war 17 million new civilian jobs were created, industrial productivity increased by 96 per cent… By 1944, as a result of wage increases and overtime pay, real weekly wages before taxes in manufacturing were 50 per cent higher than in 1939. The war also created entire new technologies, industries, and associated human skills”.15 To believe the US cannot effectuate a similar response to the existential crisis of climate change, less than 80 years later, reveals a dangerous lack of imagination.
While the original New Deal created millions of jobs and established beloved programmes still thriving today, it is also situated within an American legacy of racism. Many Indigenous tribes’ land rights were violated to pave the way for mega‐projects. The residential security maps created by the New Deal’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) ushered in the practice of ‘redlining’,16 which deepened segregation and cut off communities of color from home ownership opportunities for decades.17 The Green New Deal resolution acknowledges these past failures, stating that a primary goal is “stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialised communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low‐income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth”.18
POLITICS AND POSSIBILITY
At its core, the concept of a Green New Deal unleashes the possibility to think big and revitalise the imagination of the American left. It provides the opportunity to begin designing a democratic economy based on real sustainability, and to rethink placing profit above all else. A Green New Deal will contain many pieces of sweeping transformative change and operate in multitudes. Three of the many overlapping potentials for a Green New Deal include upending an economy controlled by an oligarchic, corporate elite; securing a just transition and meaningful work; and transforming communities and housing systems so people can survive and thrive to build a new, people‐centric economy.
First and foremost, the Green New Deal could help break corporate power and control over economic decision‐making. Fossil fuel corporations have historically been a leading cause of inaction on climate change. Their political power in Washington, DC (and state capitals) is legendary, as is their role in funding climate denialism.19 In 2016 alone, the fossil fuel industry spent around $260 million on political campaigns and lobbying.20 In return, it receives $20 billion in subsidies from the US each year.21 New political science research shows that the more members of Congress’ staff meet with fossil fuel lobbyists or accept their political contributions, the more these staffers underestimate the public’s support of climate policy.22 For this reason, when advocates were pushing for a select committee on a Green New Deal, a core condition of committee membership was rejecting campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry.
But there are signs that the fossil fuel industry’s power is beginning to erode in the Democratic party. New polling by a coalition of groups including Data for Progress found that 45 per cent of all Americans support their representatives rejecting fossil fuel money, including strong majorities of Democrats and independent voters.23 More and more politicians, including presidential hopefuls like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D‐NY), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D‐MA), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‐VT), are rejecting fossil fuel money to assure voters that they’re representing people, not billionaire polluters.24 This is more than symbolic – rejecting the influence of the fossil fuel industry makes it much more likely that politicians enacting a Green New Deal will include the necessary steps to stop industry expansion and wind down fossil fuel production in a managed, equitable fashion that protects communities and workers. 25
Cutting out the influence of campaign contributions and lobbying is an important step, but we must also eliminate the hangover of neoliberalism embedded in US culture and build capacity for a transformational alternative. A Green New Deal could return foundational parts of the US economy back to community and public control. Energy and fossil fuel infrastructure is an instructive example. Today’s utilities are largely privately‐owned fossil fuel‐based companies that viciously guard their conventional investments, exploit rates for shareholder profit, and contribute millions to campaigns to stop climate action. During the original New Deal, a huge number of cooperatively and publicly‐owned utilities were created through the Rural Electrification Administration to address a market failure. Through the Green New Deal, a similar agency for current‐day purposes could be developed, allowing municipalities, communities, or even entire states to take back their energy grid.26
Second, the Green New Deal could help design a just transition for workers. It could make investments to create good jobs and provide a clear transition plan to a carbon‐free, thriving economy where people have meaningful work. In an era in which unions are constantly targeted and stripped of power, the labor movement has understandably been vigilant in protecting its current territory, making it wary of the ongoing energy transition.27 Although renewable sector jobs are growing exponentially – solar jobs have grown 168 per cent in the past seven years – they have largely not been unionised, and feature much lower pay than current fossil fuel jobs.28 Given the anticipated opposition of the business community, the support of organised labor will be critical to building support for a Green New Deal, both in the Democratic Party and more generally. To win labour’s support as well as strengthen a safe and secure working sector, a Green New Deal must centre and prioritise explicit pro‐labour policies. If it does so, a Green New Deal could be a critical vehicle to rebuild the power of unions in the US.
In addition to embedding pro‐labour policies in all parts of a Green New Deal, a jobs guarantee could be enacted to provide everyone with the right to work. Such a guarantee would legally obligate the federal government to provide a job at a livable wage to every member of society who wants one. The Green New Deal’s promise to totally restructure much of the economy will require a huge quantity of work hours.29 This type of jobs programme would not only push corporations to provide higher labour standards to attract talent – it would also give unions a better bargaining position for contracts. A jobs guarantee would not only provide the work hours and power to rebuild our infrastructure for sustainability, it would also give workers the freedom to leave jobs where they feel threatened, harassed, or stuck without an alternative. Tied together, a jobs guarantee and more protected rights to organise would be major steps to building the equitable workforce needed for a just transition to a carbon‐free economy.
Third, a Green New Deal would be a huge infrastructure bill with the potential to re‐centre how neighbourhoods interact. Not only is US infrastructure old, dilapidated, and disinvested, but it is also firmly entrenched in a carbon‐based economy. Research shows that housing inequality is one of the biggest contributors to economic inequality, in addition to the building sector itself acting as a major carbon emitter.30 A Green New Deal could give us the opportunity to tackle crumbling infrastructure, eliminate discriminatory housing practices, and build healthy, vibrant communities with shared and collective ownership.
In the original New Deal, the Resettlement Administration designed entire towns based on the Garden Cities of To‐Morrow concept.31 Contrasting the suburban surge of the 1920s, this new approach sought to create cohesive communities, with townhouses and apartment buildings in proximity to workplaces and downtown grocery stores to develop ‘social cohesion’.32 Importantly, though, infrastructure was intentionally built to segregate along class and colour lines.33 As just one example, the Resettlement Authority refused to let Black families settle in Greenbelt, Maryland – one of the towns designed by the Authority and built with Black labour.34 Over time, those segregation lines have been reinforced by neglect and transitioned into hotspots of environmental injustice, with polluting infrastructure and highways cutting through Black backyards.35 A Green New Deal is an opportunity to design away racist infrastructure and build for carbon‐free resiliency.
Daniel Aldana Cohen writes about a goal of 10 million no‐carbon homes in 10 years, using social housing as a foundational approach. “A huge build‐out of high quality, beautifully designed, meticulously financed public housing, with diversity of design and governance structure, would meet millions of people’s housing needs and create tens of thousands of skilled jobs in the no‐carbon construction sector for decades”.36 This blends the deep needs of retrofitting for energy efficiency, building out necessary affordable housing as climate change and flooding shifts realistic housing location, and achieving accessible housing through social ownership in a time when homeownership or even being able to pay rent is often difficult to achieve for many people.37
As momentum for transformative climate action spreads across the globe, this energy for a Green New Deal has not been constrained to the borders of the United States. Nor should it be, since climate chaos doesn’t respect borders and must be collectively acted upon. In the UK, the Green Party’s single member of parliament, Caroline Lucas, has co‐sponsored a bill on the Green New Deal, while Labour Party members recently announced a campaign for a Green New Deal to decarbonise the economy, create green jobs, and invest in public infrastructure. As UK group Labour for the New Deal puts it: “Climate change is fundamentally about class, because it means chaos for the many while the few profit”.38
Like the US, the UK has spent a generation struggling with both the real impacts and mental constraints of a system based on austerity. Similar as well is a new, vibrant wave of political energy willing to imagine sweeping action to tackle the power structures that have facilitated climate inaction, phase out the fossil fuel industry with a careful transition to protect communities and workers, and redistribute wealth. Neither the US nor the UK can go at it alone; we must be in relationship with one another, pushing the boundaries of our politics to demand climate and economic justice across borders. We have less than twelve years to fight for 1.5 degrees. We can and must cross‐pollinate and learn from each other’s experiences to achieve the transformative change we need.
- 1 IPCC (2018) ‘Summary for policymakers’, Global Warming of 1.5°C, World Meteorological Organization. https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf
- 2 Reiman E (2019) ‘Fox news host accuse Alexandria Ocasio‐Cortez of admitting to civilizational suicide after the congresswoman asks if it is okay to have children with the threat of climate change’, Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/fox-news-hosts-say-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-wants-to-get-rid-of-kids-2019-2; See also: https://www.sunrisemovement.org/gnd
- 3 US Congress, House (2019) Recognizing the duty of the federal government to create a Green New Deal,116th Congress, 1st session, introduced in House 7 February 2019.https://apps.npr.org/documents/document.html?id=5731829-Ocasio-Cortez-Green-New-Deal-Resolution
- 4 Freedlander D (2019) ‘There is going to be a war in the party. We are going to lean into it’, Politico. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/02/04/the‐insurgents‐behind‐alexandria‐ocasio‐cortez‐224542
- 5 Wilkie C (2019) ‘Donald Trump attacks Alexandria Ocasio‐Cortez’s Green New Deal at a campaign rally in a preview of things to come in the 2020 election’, CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/12/trump-targets-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-green-new-deal-in-campaign-speech.html
- 6 Colman Z (2019) ‘The bogus number at the center of the GOP Green New Deal attacks’, Politico. https://www.politico.com/story/2019/03/10/republican-green-new-deal-attack-1250859
- 7 Editorial Board (2019) ‘Want a Green New Deal? Here’s a better one’, Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/want-a-green-new-deal-heres-a-better-one/2019/02/24/2d7e491c-36d2-11e9-af5b-b51b7ff322e9_story.html?utm_term=.ce7e1b8aee0b
- 8 Roberts D (2019) ‘The Green New Deal and the case against incremental climate policy’, Vox. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/3/28/18283514/green-new-deal-climate-policy
- 9 Ebi K, Campbell‐Lendrum D and Wyns A (2018) The 1.5 Health Report, World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/globalchange/181008_the_1_5_healthreport.pdf
- 10 Waxman O B (2019) ‘How FDR’s New Deal laid the groundwork for the Green New Deal – in good ways and bad’, Time. http://time.com/5524723/green-new-deal-history/
- 11 Rural Electric Cooperatives (no date) ‘Our History’, webpage. https://www.electric.coop/our-organization/history/
- 12 Woolner D B (2010) ‘FDR and the New Deal response to an environmental catastrophe’, article, Roosevelt Institute. http://rooseveltinstitute.org/fdr-and-new-deal-response-environmental-catastrophe/
- 13 Paul C A (2017) ‘President Roosevelt’s New Deal’, Social Welfare History Project, Virginia Commonwealth University. https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/the-new-deal/
- 14 Roosevelt Institute (2009) ‘How FDR took on the forces of wealth and power’, blog post. http://rooseveltinstitute.org/how-fdr-took-forces-wealth-and-power/
- 15 Goodwin D (1992) ‘The way we won: America’s breakthrough during World War II’, American Prospect. https://prospect.org/article/way-we-won-americas-economic-breakthrough-during-world-war-ii
- 16 “The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), created “Residential Security” maps of major American cities. These maps document how loan officers, appraisers and real estate professionals evaluated mortgage lending risk during the era immediately before the surge of suburbanization in the 1950’s. Neighborhoods considered high risk or “Hazardous” were often “redlined” by lending institutions, denying them access to capital investment which could improve the housing and economic opportunity of residents.” Mitchell B (2018) HOLC ‘redlining’ maps: The persistent structure of segregation and economic inequality, National Community Reinvestment Coalition [NCRC]. https://ncrc.org/holc/
- 17 Ibid
- 18 US Congress, House, Recognizing the duty of the federal government to create a Green New Deal, 116th Congress, 1st session, introduced in House 7 February 2019.https://apps.npr.org/documents/document.html?id=5731829-Ocasio-Cortez-Green-New-Deal-Resolution
- 19 Sullivan K (2019) ‘US government knew climate risks in 1970s, Energy Advisory Group Documents’, Climate Liability News. https://www.climateliabilitynews.org/2019/03/18/national-petroleum-council-climate-change/
- 20 Oil Change International (accessed 10 April 2019) ‘No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge’, webpage. http://nofossilfuelmoney.org
- 21 Redman J (2019) ‘Dirty energy dominance: dependent on denial’, Oil Change International. http://priceofoil.org/2017/10/03/dirty-energy-dominance-us-subsidies/
- 22 Hertel‐Fernandez A, Mildenberger M and Stokes L C (2018) ‘Legislative staff and representation in Congress’, American Political Science Review, 113(1). https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-political-science-review/article/legislative-staff-and-representation-in-congress/D7735FCF39B843B9F3269FD39362FD66
- 23 Data for Progress (2019) ‘Voters strongly support bold climate solutions’, memo. https://www.dataforprogress.org/the-green-new-deal-is-popular
- 24 No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge (accessed 10 April 2019) ‘Presidential Candidate Signers’, webpage. http://nofossilfuelmoney.org/presidential-signers/
- 25 Trout K (2019) Drilling towards disaster: Why US oil and gas expansion s incompatible with climate limits, Oil Change International. http://priceofoil.org/2019/01/16/report-drilling-towards-disaster/
- 26 Koeppel J, Veazy L and Bozuwa J (2019) ‘Community ownership of power administration’, Next System Project, article. https://thenextsystem.org/copa
- 27 Biest P (2019) ‘The AFL‐CIO has no love for the Green New Deal’, Splinter. https://splinternews.com/the-afl-cio-has-no-love-for-the-green-new-deal-1833240108
- 28 The Solar Foundation (2018) National Solar Job Census. https://www.thesolarfoundation.org/national/
- 29 Carlock G, Mangan E and McElwee S (2018) A Green New Deal, Data for Progress. http://filesforprogress.org/pdfs/Green_New_Deal.pdf
- 30 Florida R (2018) ‘Is housing inequality the main driver off economic inequality?’, CityLab. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/04/is-housing-inequality-the-main-driver-of-economic-inequality/557984/; US Green Buildings Council (2018) ‘Buildings and Climate’, resource. https://www.eesi.org/files/climate.pdf
- 31 The garden cities idea was conceived by the clerk and inventor, Ebeneezer Howard. A reaction to the poor and unhealthy housing which had proliferated as a result of industrialisation and rapid growth, the concept of garden cities was of ‘model’ communities which would bring together the best features of town and country while avoiding the disadvantages of both. Chris Gossop (2016) ‘From Garden Cities to New Towns’, 42nd ISoCaRP Congress 2006. http://www.isocarp.net/data/case_studies/760.pdf
- 32 Kolson Hurley A (2019) ‘How the Green New Deal could retrofit suburbs’, CityLab. https://www.citylab.com/perspective/2019/02/green-new-deal-greenbelt-suburbs-climate-change/582445/
- 33 Nodjimbadem K (2017) ‘The racial segregation of American cities was anything but accidental’, Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-federal-government-intentionally-racially-segregated-american-cities-180963494/
- 34 Kolson Hurley A (2019) ‘How the Green New Deal could retrofit suburbs’, CityLab. https://www.citylab.com/perspective/2019/02/green-new-deal-greenbelt-suburbs-climate-change/582445/
- 35 Bullard R D (1946) Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Westview Press
- 36 Aldana Cohen D (2019) ‘A Green New Deal for Housing’, Jacobin Magazine. https://jacobinmag.com/2019/02/green-new-deal-housing-ocasio-cortez-climate
- 37 Milman O (2016) ‘13 million along US coast could see homes swamped by 2100, study finds’, Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/14/climate-change-us-coast-homes-2100-great-migration; Gowan P and Cooper R (2018) Social housing in the United States, People’s Policy Project. https://www.peoplespolicyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/SocialHousing.pdf
- 38 Taylor M (2019) ‘Labour members launch Green New Deal inspired by US activists’, Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/mar/22/labour-members-launch-green-new-deal-inspired-by-us-activists
Johanna Bozuwa is a research associate with The Democracy Collaborative.