The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The Green New Deal

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A few days ago, the phrase “Green New Deal” suddenly splashed itself all over the news and social media. Something to do with climate change. I’d never heard of it before, but it looked promising. I wanted in–just as soon as I found out what it is.

Having done some research, I now want to share what I’ve learned and issue a Call to Action. But first, an important caveat.

What the Green New Deal Is Not

A friend of mine recently posted on social media, questioning whether the Green New Deal is economically doable. We need to be clear that such concerns are premature. The Green New Deal–let’s call it the GND–is not a bill or a policy, or even a plan. Except in a very vague way, it doesn’t have a budget, so we can’t talk yet about whether that budget makes sense. The GND is instead a group of goals.

If I announced an intention to get a PhD, “how are you going to pay for that” would be a reasonable question, but “bad idea, too expensive” would be premature because there are lots of different paths to a PhD, each path involves a different budget, and there are lots of different ways to fund pursuing a degree. Some possibilities might not be options for me, but others could be. I won’t really know until I start working out the specifics, but working out the specifics has to come AFTER forming the intention to get a PhD.

Demanding that an intention can only be entertained if it comes with a finished, workable plan is a good way to stay paralyzed.

First we have to say “averting climate disaster is our goal.” THEN we can start figuring out how to pay for it.

What the Green New Deal Is

The words “Green New Deal” refer to several different but related ideas, some rather vague, others quite specific. In general, these words are a slogan, a rallying cry towards the principle of actually taking climate change seriously–in some contexts, though, the GND is rather more than that.

The History of the Green New Deal

The phrase “Green New Deal” goes back to 2007, when two different people, one American, one British, each made vaguely similar proposals that happened to have the same name.

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist of centrist politics and a self-described “free-market guy,” originally proposed the Green New Deal as a kind of large-scale investment in innovation and development in order to respond to what was then a growing financial crisis and in order to regain American dominance as an economic and scientific powerhouse–a moon shot, in other words, with all the attendant societal benefits that implies, but with the goal being environmental sustainability, not space exploration.

Mr. Friedman has updated his ideas somewhat, but he stands by the original concept. He is a committed environmentalist personally, but believes success depends on getting non-environmentalists on board, and that the best way to do so is to tie achieving sustainability to more broadly-accepted economic goals. The basic plan is to use a combination of regulation and community development (such as building a lot more community colleges) to set certain national goals and then let local government and private enterprise try things and see what works.

At around the same time, Richard Murphy, a British political economy professor, formed a loose organization of newspaper editors, economists, and environmentalists called the Green New Deal Group. Together, they discussed the possibility that a fiscal stimulus program could resolve both the growing financial crisis and the ecological crisis. The group then issued a report offering a series of suggestions. Their approach involved massive government spending (funded through various forms of borrowing) to fund renewable energy, zero-emissions transportation, energy conservation programs, and jobs training.

Both men saw their ideas taken up, in part, by their respective governments, then discarded after the national legislatures of both countries were taken over by unfriendly majorities. The GND dropped out of the public conversation for several years.

The GND returned to public consciousness, at least in the United States, in 2017, during the campaigns for the mid-term elections of 2018. A massive progressive movement had been triggered by the campaigns–and defeats–of the year before, so multiple candidates came out calling for some version of a Green New Deal.

Again, the same term was being used for multiple, sometimes very different proposals, all of which in some way combined economic development with action on environmental issues. The idea, of course, is to draw political inspiration and, to some extent, technical inspiration, from the original New Deal enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It’s a radical idea, in other words, but not unprecedented, and it worked last time we tried it.

The Congressional Resolution

One of those progressive candidates with a Green New Deal proposal was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her election to the US House of Representatives. She has now introduced a “resolution” for consideration by the House, “Recognizing the Duty of the Federal Government to Create a Green New Deal.”

This is a resolution, not a law. If passed, it will only mean that the House (and then, hopefully, the Senate) agrees on a certain group of goals. Figuring out how to enact those goals will come later. And yet, Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s Resolution is not a vague leaning or a generic slogan. Her language specifies several important ideas, not all of which are part of every Green New Deal proposal out there:

  • Taking the problem seriously¬†Climatologists tell us that we must radically cut our emissions in the next few years if we are to avoid catastrophe, so Ms. Ocasio-Cortez calls for making those recommended cuts–in contrast to many political leaders who, even if pro-climate, call for only gradual change that will not avert catastrophe.
  • An alliance with labor, rather than management Economic development and prosperity can be defined in any number of ways, including the size and vigor of the economy as a whole or the profit margins of the super-wealthy, but Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is very clear that her sympathies lie first with the economic interests of the masses. Her version of the GBD includes a massive government jobs program aimed at making sure everybody who wants to work can do so at a living wage. The original New Deal also included a massive jobs program, one that was, arguably, wildly successful.
  • A focus on justice Ms. Ocasio-Cortez calls for “transparent and inclusive consultation. collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities,” among others, presumably referring to racial and ethnic minorities and low-income people, all of whom are especially vulnerable to climate change. Here, they are supposed to be among the architects of the solution, not merely its hopeful beneficiaries. The language of the proposal also includes specific social justice protections, including for indigenous peoples.
  • The inclusion of government spending Not all versions of the GND involve much government spending. Mr. Friedman’s version, remember, was (and remains) largely organized around incentivizing free-market solutions. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, in contrast, is proposing an unabashed massive spending program–the language of the Resolution does not specify where the money is supposed to come from, but an associated website asserts that new taxes will not be necessary. It’s worth noting, though, that taxes on the wealthy were once much higher than they are now, and the country did not seem to suffer–and there is a good argument to be made that running up a deficit as part of such an organized plan would help the country, and did help the country in the original New Deal.

I don’t know whether Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s approach will work, but I don’t know that it won’t, and it parallels an approach taken before that did work. And hers is currently the only approach being taken by anyone at the Federal level that even attempts to avert unthinkable disaster.

You can read the full text of the Resolution here.

Consider the Alternative

Whether the GND Resolution is technically or economically feasible remains to be seen. Personally, I think it can work, but as noted earlier, it’s too soon to tell. Whether it is politically feasible…?

A year ago, six months ago, I would have thought not. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s approach is unabashedly leftist, and the United States has been swinging to the right for a generation, now. That anyone would even propose a massive government spending program as a solution for anything seems bizarre, if only because public discourse has been dominated for so long by the assumption that small government and balanced budgets are the way to go.

But there is no real proof that a small government and a balanced budget are capable of delivering on anything promised of them. The modern era has not seen a genuine attempt at either, only a shift of government attention and spending away from regulation, research, and social safety nets and towards the military, law enforcement, and corporate welfare. So maybe “fiscal responsibility” as often defined is a good thing, but maybe it isn’t. We don’t really know.

In contrast, the original New Deal worked.

It’s also worth remembering that those who think life is expensive should consider the alternative. Climate change is expensive and getting more so all the time–and spending on disaster recovery and so forth is not an investment, it’s just a cost. There will be no return, no upside, not in the long haul.

The question we must answer–and must answer now–is what we want for the world 30 years from now? Do we want to be facing existential threats to the country from escalating infrastructure losses, public health problems, and mounting national security threats, or do we want to buy ourselves hope at any cost?

I don’t think the Green New Deal is going to trash the national economy–I think the country will be dramatically enriched, in both metaphoric and literal ways. But so what if it isn’t?

If I could guarantee my little nephew a 40th birthday only by bankrupting myself personally, I’d do it. Frankly, I don’t see why the country as a whole should not stand ready to do the equivalent.

Steps to Take

The Green New Deal as proposed by Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is the first really serious attempt I’ve seen to address climate change by the United States. Given the lateness of the hour, it may also be the last. There is time and room to adjust the concept going forward, but we have to go forward now.

This is it.

The most immediate step is to contact your congresspeople and ask them to co-sponsor the Green New Deal Resolution (or to thank them, if they have done so already).

The Green New Deal is being championed by an organization called the Sunrise Movement, a generally non-partizan, “neither right nor left but forward” group with what looks like a comprehensive, multi-year plan that should result in legislation on the desk of a climate-friendly president in just a few years.

I highly recommend offering them whatever help you can. It’s go-time.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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