Earth to Congress

The world-changing potential of a Green New Deal

Livia Gershon | Longreads | December 2018 | 9 minutes (2,149 words)

In recent weeks, protesters have swept across France, burning cars, evading tear gas-wielding riot police, and spraying graffiti across the Arc de Triomphe. Called the “yellow vest” protesters for the safety gear that French law requires drivers to carry, they have drawn much of their support from the countryside. They first mobilized in mid-November, in response to a gas tax hike equivalent to 25-cents-per gallon, which was scheduled to go into effect in January to combat climate change. After not very long, they succeeded in cancelling the tax increase. Since that victory, they have continued to stage rallies, taking on President Emmanuel Macron’s overall economic program, which includes shrinking social programs and rolling back labor protections.

In the United States, conservatives were quick to describe the protests as a repudiation of any and all efforts to address climate change. “The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris,” President Trump tweeted on December 8. “Protests and riots all over France. People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment. Chanting ‘We Want Trump!’ Love France.”

There is, in reality, no reason to believe that anyone in France has chanted Trump’s name as part of the yellow vest movement. And protesters have not expressed opposition to the Paris Agreement as a whole—their official demands include adopting substantive ecological policy rather than “a few piecemeal fiscal measures,” as they wrote in a November 23 communiqué. Still, the protests point to a real danger for the most common approaches to environmental policy, which tend to involve tweaking private economic activity through taxes or regulations. Carbon taxes can be devastating to working-class people, especially outside big cities, if there’s no affordable alternative to gas-fueled cars. Rules limiting coal mining and oil drilling can wreak havoc on communities built on those industries if there are no other local sources of good jobs.

In the U.S., however, there is a chance to drastically cut carbon emissions and help the world transition to an ecologically stable path that accounts for labor interests: the Green New Deal, championed by incoming Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the young climate activists of the Sunrise Movement. The official proposal—really a plan to make a plan, by creating a select committee—won the support of 40 House members. Democratic leadership has watered down the committee’s mandate and rules, but high-profile support from senators like Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders suggest that the Green New Deal is likely to remain politically relevant in 2019 and beyond. The idea represents a rare bid to take on climate change with urgency and determination, reminiscent of the U.S. mobilization for World War II. Already, it has taken comprehensive climate policy—one that factors in working class people—out of the realm of fantasy (or street protest) and into the halls of Congress.

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The Green New Deal is, at this theoretical stage, full of promises: to completely replace power production with renewable energy; to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation; and to retrofit every residential and industrial building in the country for energy efficiency—all within ten years. Ocasio-Cortez’s outline proposed the virtual elimination of poverty by creating good jobs for all Americans, with a particular focus on workers left behind in the shift away from fossil fuels and people who have been harmed by racial, regional, and gender-based inequality. For good measure, it suggested that the committee might “include additional measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs and any others.”

That’s an awful lot. The idea of a Green New Deal has been around for a more than a decade, taking different forms to suit various political agendas, many of them far less radical than Ocasio-Cortez’s. Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, first popularized the phrase “Green New Deal” in 2007. He used it to describe a package of research, loan guarantees, carbon taxes, incentives, and regulations that he hoped would spur environmentally friendly entrepreneurship. President Obama adopted the idea as part of his electoral platform and the 2009 stimulus package, which expanded environmentally friendly infrastructure and entrepreneurship. Ultimately, though, the policy fell far short of putting the country on the road to zero emissions.

Since then, conversations about fighting global warming have typically focused on market-driven solutions, including incentives, subsidies, and, most common of all, some kind of carbon tax. The Democratic Party officially supported such a tax in its 2016 platform, and so do the minority of Republicans who are willing to acknowledge climate change as a threat. Some fossil fuel companies, like ExxonMobil, now say that they support one, too. “To me it’s a kind of smoke screen,” Matt Huber, a geography scholar at Syracuse University who has written about the potential for a Green New Deal, said. “It sort of suggests that this problem can be solved through market pricing, and I’m just not convinced that that’s the case.”

Ocasio-Cortez took up the cause as part of her primary campaign to defeat Joe Crowley, a moderate, from the left. The ambition of her Green New Deal proposal came in line with a report on global warming released in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of the United Nations. The report states that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade—the level necessary to reduce the risk of droughts, floods, and other disasters that would affect hundreds of millions of people—“would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

To reach that goal through a carbon tax, the IPCC suggests, the tax would need to be between $135 and $5,500 per ton by 2035. By comparison, the proposed hike that triggered the yellow vest protests would have brought the total carbon tax, at maximum, to the equivalent of about $100 per ton. It’s hard to imagine a tax even at the low end of the IPCC’s range proving politically palatable in most countries.

The idea of a Green New Deal has been around for a more than a decade, taking different forms to suit various political agendas.

Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who helped craft the green energy investment portion of Obama’s stimulus plan and has created green jobs plans for a number of states and countries, told me that a Green New Deal for the U.S. that aims to reduce the country’s emissions 50 percent by 2035 would probably cost 1.5 to two percent of GDP per year (though delaying investment could increase that cost). His approach would create 4.2 million jobs, he said, doing everything from building solar and wind installations to retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency. It would also shrink the fossil fuel industry with a carbon tax and regulation, but workers in those fields would be able to find new, well-paid positions that are carbon neutral. “We need to incorporate the transition side, and it has to be serious,” he said. “We have to take care of the people who are going to be harmed.”

The Ocasio-Cortez Green New Deal proposal promised to go further, including a job guarantee that would pay workers a living wage. It also made an overture to “deeply involve” labor unions in training and deploying workers. When Data for Progress, a left-wing think tank, modeled a plan with a similar scope, it projected the creation of ten million jobs over ten years.

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Given the scale of a progressive vision for a Green New Deal, it’s worth looking at one of the most ambitious U.S. government projects ever: the mobilization for World War II. Federal spending jumped from under ten percent of GDP in 1939 to more than 40 percent in 1944. That’s a much bigger shift than any Green New Deal would bring, but active U.S. involvement in the war lasted only four years. Imagine the 2020s and 2030s as a less intense, more protracted battle against an existential climate threat.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the U.S. would take up arms against the Nazis. But in 1939, that wasn’t at all clear. After Germany invaded Poland that year, prompting Great Britain and France to declare war, nearly half of Americans said the U.S. shouldn’t get involved, even if the Allied Powers were losing. Even after France fell, 79 percent wanted to stay out of the war.

Like climate change deniers today, many opponents of World War II doubted the scope of the problem. Charles Lindbergh, celebrity pilot and spokesman for the isolationist America First Committee, argued that a German victory was inevitable and that the Nazis really weren’t so bad anyway. (A 1938 survey found that 65 percent of Americans believed that the Nazi persecution of Jews was at least partly the fault of the Jews themselves.)

And, like the yellow vest protesters in France and the residents of U.S. towns facing the threat of economic disaster if coal and oil industries suddenly disappear, many Americans in 1939 worried about the economic cost of entering, at an unprecedented scale, a foreign fight. In July 1941, most Americans believed that the war would be followed by another great depression. Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara has written that, when President Franklin Roosevelt ramped up military production to aid the Allies, the heads of large manufacturing corporations were hesitant to take on the contracts, as they worried about the increased taxes and federal power that would come with military programs. Some were also sympathetic to America First, or at least hesitant to pick a fight with the isolationists; many were reluctant to bet on the unstable demand from the war effort. “I don’t believe that manufacturers are anxious for war business,” Harvey Campbell, of the Detroit Board of Commerce, said in 1940. “They would rather see a steady line of production and employment.”

Labor is a key force behind the drive for a Green New Deal.

 

Labor leaders like Walter Reuther, of the United Auto Workers, seized the moment to push for curbs on laissez faire capitalism, helping yoke private industry to a centralized economic plan. Most unions tied their fate to Roosevelt’s agenda, agreeing to no-strike pledges and putting their backs into the war effort. They were rewarded with perhaps the most labor-friendly economy in U.S. history. Unions went from representing fifteen percent of U.S. workers in 1937 to twenty-seven percent in 1945. The government capped corporate profits. Full employment, combined with government and union anti-discrimination programs, brought new opportunities for black and female workers. Employers eager to retain workers in the face of wartime wage freezes began offering pensions and health insurance.

We can’t go back to 1947, and most of us wouldn’t want to. The era brought segregated suburbs, anti-communist witch hunts against labor and civil rights organizers, and an environmentally disastrous dependence on cars. But the war, in combination with the New Deal that preceded it, established a stable economic order and, crucially, widespread faith in the federal government.

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Today, labor is a key force behind the drive for a Green New Deal. Much of Pollin’s research, for example, has been commissioned by unions and their supporters. But the unions of 2018 are much smaller and less powerful than their counterparts of 1939, and no Democratic leader has anything like FDR’s popularity. Enacting a comprehensive plan to fight climate change, poverty, and inequality will require strong alliances. Such an effort must bring together environmental activists, communities that have long depended on fossil fuel industries, and economic justice campaigns like the Fight for $15 and the teachers who mobilized across red states in 2017. It will also take collective action, like the sit-ins, which the Sunrise Movement has been holding at Democratic leadership offices.

It will also require more people to vote, in order to persuade the Democratic Party that this level of investment in economically responsible climate policy is a winning strategy. A minority of Americans voted in the 2018 midterms; working-class people and the young are particularly likely to sit out elections. But, Huber said, an agenda with the ambition of a Green New Deal might help bring more of the to the polls. “I’m a big believer that Democrats could do better just by turning out more working-class and poor people,” he told me. “As the Republicans know, the more people vote, the more they lose.”

The good news is, despite decades of anti-green rhetoric from fossil fuel companies and conservative politicians, environmental action is far more popular now than military action was in 1939. Nearly 70 percent of Americans—including 64 percent of Republicans—say that the U.S. should work with other nations to curb climate change, and 55 percent support the idea of a green jobs guarantee.

A Green New Deal—something on the scale of the Ocasio-Cortez outline, with systemic economic changes beyond subsidies and incentives—could utterly transform what comes after it, much as World War II did. It remains to be see what kind of change Congress can usher in.

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Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for the Guardian, the Boston GlobeHuffPostAeon and other places.

Editor: Betsy Morais

Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel