Only a Green New Deal Can Save Us
The crisis of climate change is too important to leave in the hands of billionaires.
AT THE END of 2018, the Green New Deal (GND) was suddenly on the tip of everyone’s tongue thanks to everyone’s favorite new congresswoman from the Bronx, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But the Green New Deal isn’t a new idea. It’s been bandied about by United Nations economists, Barack Obama, the US Green Party, and even New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (who claims he coined the phrase — Friedman’s version was so unabashedly capitalist that he pitched wind and solar on the grounds that “the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature is Father Greed”).
Now the GND is back. This time around, Father Greed is a lot less popular, and Mother Nature looks a lot more dangerous. In the past few years, extreme weather has battered the US, with 2017’s Katrina, Irma, and Harvey, and now apocalyptic wildfires in California, topping a long list of disasters. And the fall 2018 climate science report, on our tight window to decarbonize, focused minds across the country.
Today’s GND is wildly popular, with the idea polling over 80 percent support in both parties — among those who have heard of it. Just as many respondents haven’t.
Support for action on climate has long been broad but shallow. So what exactly would a GND entail? What should it entail?
This Jacobin series takes up those questions from a left perspective and with no illusions about the climate science. Time’s running short: this is the moment to start a broad debate on the practical challenges and possibilities of fast, transformative change. The Left can’t afford to sit out the biggest debate in half a century over how to restructure the economy. And we can’t leave saving the species from climatic catastrophe to a handful of politicians, their congressional staffers, and allied think tanks, however good their intentions.
We can draw on a rich history of radical ideas, like the vision put forth by workers and communities in the Just Transition movement of the 1980s, which sought to counter the Reagan-constructed dichotomy between good jobs and environmental protection. But what will determine how the GND plays out is more than ideas — it’s who has the power to implement them.
THIS TIME, the GND’s most visible and compelling champion isn’t a cliché-spouting columnist, but a democratic socialist with the political savvy to match her principles: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Within just a few weeks, AOC has reshaped the political landscape, putting everything from the GND to a 70 percent marginal income tax on the table. Her draft vision of a GND calls for a massive increase in federal government spending, paired with a job guarantee, to decarbonize the entire US economy by 2030. So far, so good.
But the details are still vague. Which makes it easy to sign onto: politicians from Cory Booker to Michael Bloomberg are signalling tentative support for a GND. We’ve seen the same dynamic with Medicare for All — including the inevitable backtracking. There’s new energy in the Democratic Party, but Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to grant a Select Committee on a GND real power reveals the party’s limits.
Growing but ambiguous interest in climate investment is no guarantee that the climate action we get will be big enough, fast enough, or egalitarian enough to prevent climate catastrophe and improve people’s lives in the process. Only a broad coalition built around short-term material gains for working people can muster the political power to force huge change and keep the planet habitable in the long term.
The good news is that after decades of political marginalization, the socialist left is gaining momentum. The task is to link the upswell of political mobilization across the country, much of which is implicitly advancing GND principles, to the political savvy of the new wave of insurgent Democrats and an explicit, fleshed-out GND agenda.
This January, teachers in Los Angeles struck and won major concessions that will improve their working conditions and students’ learning conditions — better pay, more teachers, more librarians, and more green space. Such achievements are central to a no-carbon good life for all: the “Red for Ed” movement is also green. Shortly after, air traffic controllers and flight attendants showed their disruptive power in forcing Trump to reopen the government — exactly the kind of militant worker organizing we need more of to build public power.
But a grand coalition for the GND will take more than simple red-green arithmetic, proclaiming that union militancy + wind power = eco-socialism. We must be more rigorous in identifying the campaigns, ideas, and projects that will win over unions suspicious of anything green after years of environmental scapegoating for job losses; mobilize the vast majority of non-union workers; and, connect to community- and issue-based campaigns around housing precarity, racial justice, gender equality, indigenous sovereignty, and more — and do it all fast.
THE ORIGINAL NEW DEAL offers both inspiration and cautionary lessons. As a set of policies, it created the foundation of the American welfare state as we know it. For the first time in American history, the government took responsibility for ensuring social welfare, in the process curbing the power of capital and recognizing labor’s right to collective bargaining. Huge new public programs undertook interventions in industrial policy and employed millions in work ranging from bridgebuilding to public art.
Today, the New Deal seems radical compared to the past forty years of neoliberalism. But for socialists, it saved capitalism from itself. Brokering a class compromise that ensured decades of labor peace, it recreated the conditions for economic growth and, eventually, an era of mass consumption that substituted the credit card for the union card.
Even the New Deal’s liberal promise of moderate equality was betrayed by the reproduction of gender and racial inequalities. Because the New Deal coalition relied on Southern Democrats, its labor protections excluded domestic and agricultural workers, reinscribing patriarchy and a racial division of labor. And New Deal housing policy laid the foundation for lasting segregation and the massive wealth gap that divides white and black Americans to this day.
Nor was the original New Deal an environmental model. Yes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal investment in the Civilian Conservation Corps helped restore forests and other ecosystems all across the country and should be revitalized today. Urban investments in public goods, from public swimming pools to experimental theatre in working-class black communities, are a model of sustainable urbanism. And a surprisingly democratic engagement with Puerto Rico, after a brutal 1932 storm, still stands as a model for post-disaster recovery.
But, along with the mobilization for World War II, the New Deal model yielded an unprecedented era of fossil-fueled growth, accelerating environmental devastation. The segregated suburbs that flowed from the New Deal were also an ecological disaster. White Americans fled the cities for a landscape of leaky homes, car-choked blacktop, and giant malls. Suburbs’ demography is today more complex, but their ecological costs are still daunting.
And yet, we find ourselves turning back to the New Deal example. Two of its core features stand out as particularly useful today.
The first was the spirit of bold, public experimentation, led by the federal government but responsive to militant mobilization, and often fostering local democracy. Looking to the original New Deal, we can appreciate how practical its efforts were in the very best sense: getting things done. Its second core feature was its scale. From massive landscape interventions through programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority, to the millions or unemployed put to work by social service agencies, the New Deal went big.
It transformed American life in profound ways, from how people worked to how they grew old. It remade life in the factory and family and it reshaped forests and farms. It literally rebuilt the country, and a good chunk of the global economy along with it.
Not all of those changes were for the good. But today, facing down a merciless climate timeline, when “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are called for, a New Deal scope of ambition is what we need. The GND can’t just be a bill or two. It needs to be the framework for politics for the next few decades.
That fight starts now. It must be ambitious. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy isn’t enough if we leave untouched the patterns of production and consumption, housing and transit, agriculture and trade that fuel global capitalism. If you could press a button that decarbonized the world in an instant, we’d still be facing massive ecological crises: a great extinction, planetary deforestation, rampant freshwater pollution, plastic contamination of rivers and oceans, a wrecked nitrogen cycle, and mountains and islands of garbage.
We need to challenge a capitalist growth model premised on racial and gendered hierarchies, colonial extraction, and environmental destruction. That doesn’t necessarily mean pitching the GND as an anti-capitalist proposal, although Republicans will surely do that for us. There’s a huge amount we can do in the next few years to make climate progress under capitalism, while gathering strength to press for more.
But we do need to think creatively about the world we want to build in the long-term — and who will build it. The white male breadwinner and his family were at the heart of the original New Deal; the GND is a vision for today’s multi-racial working class — women of color working in the low-carbon care and education sectors, immigrant workers whose ranks will grow as climate change wreaks havoc across the globe, the growing number of people who can’t afford to live on meager wages.
The GND’s big ideas transcend what feels immediately feasible, offering a vision to expand the sense of possibility and motivate action: guaranteed jobs, ubiquitous wind and solar. But leaning into the nitty gritty helps refine both the world we hope to build and the political strategy for getting there.
That’s why we’re running pieces digging into the politics of what a truly transformative GND would look like. We’re at the beginning of a long and complicated fight. The series’ contributions reflect the scope of what it will take to win it — green energy and good jobs, to start, but also taking on the fossil fuel industry and green tech’s extractive underbelly, the significance of indigenous leadership and the revitalized labor movement, struggles for energy democracy and racial justice, demands for public goods from finance to housing to transit, and more. These days, all politics is climate politics.
Nothing will shape the lives of working people in the decades ahead more than climate change. Extreme weather is coming. But the greatest changes will come in how we respond. How quickly, how intensely, and how democratically we decarbonize prosperity will be the economic story of the century.
If billionaires steer climate investment to protect their wealth and private luxuries, it may be the last century we get. The alternative is to build another world on our one planet, harnessing wind, sun, and water to smash the hierarchies that oppress us and win back our future.
Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times.
Daniel Aldana Cohen is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Carbon Collaborative, or (SC)2.
Alyssa Battistoni is an editor at Jacobin and a PhD student in political science at Yale University.
Thea Riofrancos is an assistant professor of political science at Providence College.