“I really don’t like their policies of taking away your car, taking away your airplane flights, of ‘let’s hop a train to California,’ or ‘you’re not allowed to own cows anymore!’ ”
So bellowed President Donald Trump in El Paso, Texas, in his first campaign-style salvo against Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey’s Green New Deal resolution.
It’s worth marking the moment. Because those could be the famous last words of a one-term president who wildly underestimated the public appetite for transformative action on the triple crises of our time: imminent ecological unraveling, gaping economic inequality (including the racial and gender wealth gaps), and surging white supremacy.
Or they could be the epitaph for a habitable climate, with Trump’s lies and scare tactics succeeding in trampling this desperately needed framework; that could either help win him reelection or land us with a timid Democrat in the White House with neither the courage nor the democratic mandate for this kind of deep change. Either scenario means blowing the handful of years left to roll out the transformations required to keep temperatures below catastrophic levels.
In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its landmark report informing us that global emissions need to be slashed in half in less than twelve years, a target that simply cannot be met without the world’s largest economy playing a game-changing leadership role. If there is a new administration ready to leap into that role in January 2021, meeting those targets will still be extraordinarily difficult, but it will be technically possible—especially if large cities and states like California and New York continue to escalate their ambitions in the interim, along with the European Union, which is in the midst of its own Green New Deal debate. Losing another four years to a Republican or a corporate Democrat, and starting in 2026 is, quite simply, a joke.
So, either Trump is right and the Green New Deal is a losing political issue, one he can smear out of existence, or he is wrong and a candidate who makes the Green New Deal the centrepiece of their platform will take the Democratic primary and then defeat Trump in the general, with a clear democratic mandate to introduce wartime levels of investment to battle our triple crises from day one. That would very likely inspire the rest of the world to finally follow suit on bold climate policy, giving us all a fighting chance.
The good news is that, as I write, there are candidates vying for the leadership of the Democratic Party (most notably Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) who have not only endorsed the Green New Deal, but who also have a proven track record of standing up to the two most powerful industries trying to block it: fossil fuel companies and the banks that finance them. These leaders (and the movements that made them) understand something critical about the transition we need: It won’t all be win-win. For any of this to happen, fossil fuel companies, which have made obscene profits for many decades, will have to start losing, and losing more than just the tax breaks and subsidies to which they are so accustomed. They will also have to lose the new drilling and mining leases they want; they’ll have to be denied permits for the pipelines and export terminals they very much want to build. They will have to leave trillions of dollars’ worth of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. They may even have to divert their remaining profits to paying for the mess they knowingly made, as several lawsuits are attempting to establish.
Meanwhile, if we have smart policies in place to encourage solar panels to proliferate on rooftops, big power utilities will lose a significant portion of their profits, since their former customers will be in the energy-generation business. This would create huge opportunities for a more level economy and, ultimately, for lower utility bills—but once again, some powerful interests will have to lose, namely the huge coal-powered utilities who have no interest in watching as their onetime captive customers turn into competitors, selling power back to the grid.
Politicians willing to inflict these losses on fossil fuel companies and their allies need to be more than just not actively corrupt. They need to be up for the fight of the century—and absolutely clear about which side must win. But even then, there is one more element we must never forget: any administration attempting to implement a Green New Deal will need powerful social movements both backing them up and pushing them to do more.
Indeed, the single largest determining factor in whether a Green New Deal mobilization pulls us back from the climate cliff will be the actions taken by social movements in the coming years. Because as important as it is to elect politicians who are up for this fight, the decisive questions are not going to be settled through elections alone. At their core, they are about building political power—enough to change the calculus of what is possible.
This is the overarching lesson from those few-and-far- between chapters in history when the governments of wealthy countries agreed to introduce big changes to the building blocks of their economies. It must always be remembered that President Franklin D. Roosevelt rolled out the New Deal in the midst of a historic wave of labor unrest: There was the Teamster Rebellion and the Minneapolis general strike in 1934, the eighty-three-day shutdown of West Coast ports by longshore workers that same year, and the Flint autoworkers sit-down strikes in 1936 and 1937.
During this same period, mass movements, responding to the suffering of the Great Depression, demanded sweeping social programs, such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, while socialists argued that abandoned factories should be handed over to their workers and turned into cooperatives. Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author of The Jungle, ran for governor of California in 1934 on a platform arguing that the key to ending poverty was full state funding of workers’ cooperatives. He received nearly 900,000 votes, but having been viciously attacked by the right and undercut by the
Democratic establishment, he fell just short of winning the governor’s office. Growing numbers of Americans were also paying close attention to Huey Long, the populist senator from Louisiana who believed that all Americans should receive a guaranteed annual income of $2,500. Explaining why he had added more social welfare benefits to the New Deal in 1935, FDR said he wanted to “steal Long’s thunder.”
All this is a reminder that the New Deal was adopted by Roosevelt at a time of such progressive and left militancy that its programs (which seem radical by today’s standards) appeared at the time to be the only way to hold back a full-scale revolution.
A similar dynamic was at play in 1948, when the United States decided to underwrite the Marshall Plan. With Europe’s infrastructure shattered and its economies in crisis, the US government was worried that large parts of Western Europe would see the egalitarian promises of socialism as their best hope and fall under the influence of the Soviet Union. Indeed, so many Germans were drawn to socialism after the war that the Allied Powers decided to split Germany into two parts rather than risk losing it all to the Soviets.
It was in this context that the US government decided it would not rebuild Western Germany with Wild West capitalism (as it would attempt to do five decades later when the Soviet Union collapsed, with disastrous results). Rather, Germany would be rebuilt on a mixed social-democratic model, with supports for local industry, strong trade unions, and a robust welfare state. As with the New Deal, the idea was to build a market economy with enough socialist elements that a more revolutionary approach would be drained of its appeal. Carolyn Eisenberg, author of an acclaimed history of the Marshall Plan, stresses that this approach was not born of altruism. “The Soviet Union was like a loaded gun. The economy was in crisis, there was a substantial German left, and they [the West] had to win the allegiance of the German people fast.” This pressure from the left, in the form of militant movements and political parties, delivered the most progressive elements of the New Deal and the Marshall Plan. That’s important to remember because the Green New Deal plans currently on offer from political parties in North America and Europe still have significant weaknesses and will need to be toughened and expanded, just as the original New Deal was over time.
The Ocasio-Cortez and Markey resolution is a loose framework, and as much as it has been criticized in the press for including too much, the reality is that it still leaves a lot out. For instance, a Green New Deal needs to be more explicit about keeping carbon in the ground, about the central role of the US military in driving up emissions, about nuclear and coal never being “clean,” and about the debts wealthy countries like the United States and powerful corporations like Shell and Exxon owe to poorer nations that are coping with the impacts of crises they did almost nothing to create.
Most fundamentally, any credible Green New Deal needs a concrete plan for ensuring that the salaries from all the good green jobs it creates aren’t immediately poured into high-consumer lifestyles that inadvertently end up increasing emissions—a scenario where everyone has a good job and lots of disposable income and it all gets spent on throwaway crap imported from China destined for the landfill.
This is the problem with what we might call the emerging “climate Keynesianism”: the post–World War II economic boom did revive ailing economies, but it also kicked off suburban sprawl and set off a consumption tidal wave that would eventually be exported to every corner of the globe. In truth, policymakers are still dancing around the question of whether we are talking about slapping solar panels on the roof of Walmart and calling it green, or whether we are ready to have a more probing conversation about the limits of lifestyles that treat shopping as the main way to form identity, community, and culture.
That conversation is intimately connected to the kinds of investments we prioritize in our Green New Deals. What we need are transitions that recognize the hard limits on extraction and that simultaneously create new opportunities for people to improve quality of life and derive pleasure outside the endless consumption cycle, whether through publicly funded art and urban recreation or access to nature through new protections for wilderness. Crucially, that means making sure that shorter work weeks allow people the time for this kind of enjoyment, and that they are not trapped in the grind of overwork requiring the quick fixes of fast food and mind-numbing distraction.
We already know that these are the kinds of lifestyle changes and leisure activities that tangibly increase happiness and fulfillment but, particularly in the US, debates about climate action remain trapped in a paradigm that equates quality of life with personal prosperity and wealth accumulation. If the political roadblocks to a Green New Deal are to be broken, this equation will need to be broken too.
As the Guardian’s George Monbiot puts it, our planet’s resources can provide us with “private sufficiency and public luxury,” in the forms of “wonderful parks and playgrounds, public sports centres and swimming pools, galleries, allotments and public transport networks.” The earth cannot, however, sustain the impossible dream of private luxury for all. This is what economist Kate Raworth calls for in her book Doughnut Economics: “meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet” through economies that “make us thrive, whether or not they grow.”
In this regard, there is much to learn from Indigenous-led movements in Bolivia and Ecuador that have placed at the center of their calls for ecological transformation the concept of buen vivir, a focus on the right to a good life as opposed to the more-and-more life of ever escalating consumption and planned obsolescence.
Opponents of the Green New Deal can be counted on to continue spreading fear that what is being proposed is an austere future marked by nonstop deprivation and government controls. The response cannot be to deny that there will be changes to the way the wealthiest 10–20 percent of humanity has come to live. There will be changes, there will be areas where we in this category must contract—including air travel, meat consumption, and profligate energy use—but there will also be new pleasures and new spaces where we can build abundance.
As we have these difficult debates, we also need to remember that the health of our planet is the single greatest determining factor in the quality of all our lives. And having waded through more than my share of wreckage after hurricanes and superstorms, from Katrina to Sandy to Maria, and inhaled too much air choked with the particulates from too many spontaneously combusting forests, I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.
All this is why there must be rigorous checks and balances— including regular carbon audits—built in to every country’s Green New Deal to make sure that we actually hit the steep emission reduction targets mandated by science. If we simply assume that by switching to renewables and building energy-efficient housing it will happen on its own, we could end up in the supremely ironic situation of kicking off a Green New Deal emissions spike.
In short, the Green New Deal will necessarily be a work in progress, one that is only as robust as the social movements, unions, scientists, and local communities that are pushing for it to live up to its promise. Right now, civil society is nowhere near as strong or as organized as it was in the 1930s, when the huge concessions of the New Deal era were won—though there are certainly signs of strength, from movements against mass incarceration and deportations, to #MeToo, to the wave of teachers’ strikes, to Indigenous led pipeline blockades, to fossil fuel divestment, to the Women’s Marches, to School Strikes for Climate, to the Sunrise Movement, to the momentum for Medicare for All, and much more.
Still, there remains a long way to go to build the kind of outside power required to win and protect a truly transformational Green New Deal, which is why it is so crucial that we use the existing framework as a potent tool to build that power—a vision to both unite movements that are not currently in conversation with one another and to dramatically expand all their bases.
Central to that project is turning what is being derided as a left-wing “laundry list” or “wish list” into an irresistible story of the future, connecting the dots among the many parts of daily life that stand to be transformed, from health care to employment, daycare to jail cell, clean air to leisure time.
Right now, the Green New Deal is being characterized as an unrelated grab bag because most of us have been trained to avoid a systemic and historical analysis of capitalism and to divide pretty much every crisis our system produces (economic inequality, violence against women, white supremacy, unending wars, ecological unraveling) into walled-off silos. From within that rigid mind-set, it’s easy to dismiss a sweeping and intersectional vision like the Green New Deal as a green-tinted “laundry list” of everything the left has ever wanted.
For this reason, one of the most pressing tasks ahead is to use every tool possible to make the case for how our overlapping crises are indeed inextricably linked—and can be overcome only with a holistic vision for social and economic transformation. We can point out, for instance, that no matter how fast we move to lower emissions, it is going to get hotter and storms are going to get fiercer. When those storms bash up against health care systems that have been starved by decades of austerity, thousands pay the price with their lives, as they so tragically did in post-Maria Puerto Rico. That’s why putting universal health care in the Green New Deal is not an opportunistic add-on—it’s an essential part of how we will keep our humanity in the stormy future ahead.
And there are many more connections to be drawn. Those complaining about climate policy being weighed down by supposedly unrelated demands for child care and free postsecondary education would do well to remember that the caring professions (most of them dominated by women) are relatively low carbon and can be made even more so with smart planning. In other words, they deserve to be seen as “green jobs,” with the same protections, the same investments, and the same living wages as male- dominated workforces in the renewables, efficiency, and public transit sectors. Meanwhile, to make those sectors less male-dominated, family leave and pay equity are a must, which is why both are included in the Green New Deal resolution. We have been trained to see our issues in silos; they never belonged there.
Drawing out these connections in ways that capture the public imagination will take a massive exercise in participatory democracy. A first step is for workers in every sector (hospitals, schools, universities, tech, manufacturing, media, and more) to make their own plans for how to rapidly decarbonize while furthering the Green New Deal’s mission to eliminate poverty, create good jobs, and close the racial and gender wealth divides. The Green New Deal resolution explicitly calls for this kind of democratic, decentralized leadership, and making it happen would go a long way toward building the broad base of support this framework will need to take on the powerful elite forces that are already lining up against it.
And there are plenty more connections to be made. A job guarantee, far from an unrelated socialist addendum, is a critical part of achieving a rapid and just transition. It would immediately lower the intense pressure on workers to take the kinds of jobs that destabilize our planet because all would be free to take the time needed to retrain and find work in one of the many sectors that will be dramatically expanding.
All these so-called bread-and-butter provisions (for job security, health care, child care, education, and housing) are fundamentally about creating a context in which the rampant economic insecurity of our age is addressed at the source. And that has everything to do with our capacity to cope with climate disruption, because the more secure people feel, knowing that their families will not want for food, medicine, and shelter, the less vulnerable they will be to the forces of racist demagoguery that will prey on the fears that invariably accompany times of great change. Put another way, this is how we are going to address the crisis of empathy in a warming world.
One last connection I will mention has to do with the concept of “repair.” The resolution calls for creating well-paying jobs, “restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems,” and “cleaning up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites, ensuring economic development and sustainability on those sites.”
There are many such sites across the United States, entire landscapes that have been left to rot after they were no longer useful to frackers, miners, and drillers. It’s a lot like how this culture treats people. It’s certainly how we have been trained to treat our stuff—use it once, or until it breaks, then throw it away and buy some more. It’s similar to what has been done to so many workers in the neoliberal period: they are used up and then abandoned to addiction and despair. It’s what the entire carceral state is about: locking up huge sectors of the population who are more economically valuable as prison laborers and numbers on the spreadsheet of a private prison than they are as free workers.
There is a grand story to be told here about the duty to repair— to repair our relationship with the earth and with one another. Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair. Repairing the land. Repairing our stuff. Fearlessly repairing our relationships within our countries and between them.
We must always remember that the fossil fuel era began in violent kleptocracy, with those two foundational thefts of stolen people and stolen land that kick-started a new age of seemingly endless expansion. The route to renewal runs through reckoning and repair: reckoning with our past and repairing relationships with the people who paid the steepest price of the first Industrial Revolution.
These failures to confront difficult truths have long made a mockery of any notion of a collective “we”; only when we reckon with them will our societies be liberated to find our collective purpose. In fact, delivering that sense of common purpose is perhaps the Green New Deal’s greatest promise. Because it isn’t only the planet’s life support systems that are unraveling before our eyes. So too is our social fabric, on so many fronts at once.
The signs of fracture are all around—from the rise of fake news and unhinged conspiracy theories to the hardened arteries of our body politic. In this context, a Green New Deal, precisely because of its sweeping scale, ambition, and urgency, could be the collective purpose that finally helps overcome many of these divides.
It’s not a magic cure for racism or misogyny or homophobia or transphobia—we still have to confront those evils head on. But if it became law, despite all the powers arrayed against it, it would give a great many of us a sense of working together toward something bigger than ourselves. Something we are all a part of creating. And it would give us a shared destination—somewhere distinctly better than where we are now. That kind of shared mission is something our late capitalist culture badly needs right now.
If these kinds of deeper connections between fractured people and a fast-warming planet seem far beyond the scope of policymakers, it’s worth thinking back to the absolutely central role of artists during the New Deal era. Playwrights, photographers, muralists, and novelists were all part of telling the story of what was possible. For the Green New Deal to succeed, we, too, will need the skills and expertise of many different kinds of storytellers: artists, psychologists, faith leaders, historians, and more.
The Green New Deal framework has a way to go before everyone sees their future in it. Mistakes have already been made, and more will be made along the way. But none of this is as important as what this fast-growing political project gets exactly right.
The Green New Deal will need to be subject to constant vigilance and pressure from experts who understand exactly what it will take to lower our emissions as rapidly as science demands, and from social movements that have decades of experience bearing the brunt of pollution and false climate solutions. But in remaining vigilant, we also have to be careful not to lose sight of the big picture: that this is a potential lifeline that we all have a sacred and moral responsibility to reach for.
The young organizers in the Sunrise Movement, who have done so much to galvanize the Green New Deal momentum, talk about our collective moment as one filled with both “promise and peril.” That is exactly right. And everything that happens from here on should hold one in each hand.
The is an extract from On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein.