The Green New Deal, introduced on February 7 by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey, is a long-awaited victory for the US climate movement. Finally, there’s a plan to transform the US economy at the speed and scale needed to avoid disastrous warming, while securing prosperity and justice for millions of Americans—especially those most vulnerable to climate change and most impacted by centuries of historic harm and marginalization.
Weaving together climate policy with economic and racial justice prompted some liberals to fret that the resolution is “a needlessly long wish list.” The New York Times editorial board agrees that “decarbonizing the economy is ambitious…and urgent,” but insists “step-by-step measures” like national electricity standards and “an infrastructure program” will make for a better political approach. In other words: To stop climate change, go one reform at a time and focus on energy and infrastructure. Justice, equity—admirable goals, but not practical.
Climate science itself has rebutted this gradualist argument again and again. We’re heading toward a catastrophic 3.3 degrees Celsius of warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is saying directly to policy-makers that the economic transformations needed to keep global average warming below a safe threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius will “require rapid and far-reaching transitions” which are “unprecedented in terms of scale” across major sectors.
A historic economic transition that fails to address persistent inequities is immoral and inefficient. The IPCC finds that “eradicating poverty and reducing inequality can support limiting warming to 1.5°C.” On the other hand, doing nothing to reduce inequality while climate change worsens risks sparking a vicious cycle: Disadvantaged communities will suffer disproportionately, then recover slowly and incompletely, leaving them even more vulnerable to the next crisis-fueled disaster.
That’s why including a job guarantee and Medicare for All in the Green New Deal resolution is both good ethics and effective policy design. As economists JW Mason, Sue Holmberg, and Mark Paul note, we’re “looking at [changes involving] five or ten percent of GDP, sustained over many years,” with “major effects on labor markets and income distribution.” Policies that guarantee economic security and reduce inequality make it easier to transition and build capacity at a fast-enough pace, mitigate the damage of climate impacts across society, and head off the potential backlash against environmental policies (see: France’s Yellow Vests).
But advocates also need a strategy that can win politically. And here, crucially, reforms that are only incremental come up short, with little chance of changing the underlying political dynamics that currently make the passage of any climate bill impossible. Right-wing politicians and allied industry lobbyists will obstruct any climate bill, just as they blocked every part of Obama’s agenda. They will also stoke racial resentment to stigmatize progressive policies if they need to foment more opposition. Meanwhile, too many Democrats may remain stuck in the bad habits of Reagan-era policy-making, shunning the kind of massive public-sector expansion needed to transform our economy.
Any practical plan to pass a climate bill needs to overcome these challenges. Advocates need to build enough popular support, and a big enough political coalition, to dislodge the remnants of neoliberalism in the Democratic Party, overwhelm an obstructionist GOP, and outmaneuver the right’s use of racial resentment. It won’t be easy, but the Green New Deal is the best shot we have.
Since the Reagan-Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, policy-making in the US and Europe has been dominated by an ideology of privatization, deregulation, and defunding of public goods—a set of ideas appropriately referred to as “neoliberalism.” This neoliberal consensus, as Naomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything, becomes a lethal straitjacket when governments try to stop climate change: How can we achieve net-zero emissions in the US when the only “legitimate” policy tools are creating more markets, privatizing goods, cutting taxes, or offering tax credits? If we’re serious about averting catastrophe on the timeline required, we need policies that break with neoliberalism’s “Washington Consensus,” including massive public investment in renewable and clean energy.
The step-by-step measures proposed by the Times, like new-infrastructure spending and reformed national electricity standards, are not bad policy ideas. We’ll need them all, and much, much more in a Green New Deal. We must revive the very public-sector capacities that neoliberalism destroyed. For example: Green New Dealers are looking toward a “resurrection of federal industrial policy,” the kind of New Deal “industrial pragmatism” that—not coincidentally—fell out of favor after the Reagan revolution. Managing new federal programs for investment, job training, and decarbonization likely requires “an enormous and modernized administrative structure,” points out James Goodwin, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform. Democrats will need to fight to rejuvenate federal agencies, which, also not coincidentally, have been hollowed out by decades of cuts and attacks from anti-government Reaganites.
The Democratic Party is the only major party in the US capable of enacting the kinds of policies needed to avert catastrophic warming—but many of its leaders and policy-makers have not yet shaken off the neoliberal straitjacket. A strategy of piecemeal reforms will not stop climate change—and will do nothing to push Democrats toward a new policy framework.
Advocates need to build a political coalition that can support Democratic lawmakers who join Green New Dealers—while also overcoming right-wing opposition. The need to build a coalition that goes beyond the environmental movement is a lesson many advocates took from the failure of the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), the coalition that led the push for cap-and-trade from 2008 to 2010.
Political scientist Theda Skocpol autopsied USCAP and found that its “insider-grand-bargaining” strategy, built on the hope that a bill crafted by both environmentalists and corporations could win bipartisan support, allowed fossil-fuel corporations inside USCAP to play a double game of compromise and countermobilization. They pushed the legislation to be “as favorable as possible to their industry” while also “participating in business associations likely to lobby against” the final bill. The climate advocates, however, had no source of power outside the coalition itself; there were “no popularly rooted pressures” on lawmakers except fossil-fuel businesses and the Tea Party, leaving environmentalists powerless against a mobilized opposition.
Even rosy accounts of the USCAP strategy, like Eric Pooley’s The Climate War, show bipartisan strategies derailed again and again by staunch opposition from GOP leaders who grew increasingly hostile to any hint of bipartisanship. In one illustrative scene, after climate campaigners hoping to “depolarize this issue” air an ad featuring Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi, Gingrich launches a “Drill Here, Drill Now” petition—and blames Democrats for rising gas prices.
“The only way to counter [the] right-wing” Skocpol warns, “is to build a broad popular movement to tackle climate change,” which means linking climate policy “to the everyday values and economic concerns of ordinary American families struggling [with] stagnating incomes,” so that advocates can “draw masses of ordinary citizens into the transition to a green economy.” When Republicans and fossil-fuel barons inevitably try to kill a bill, advocates need a counterweight big enough to tip the balance—and stiffen the spines of Democrats and purple-state lawmakers.
The Green New Deal resolution is the first kernel of a policy framework that can sustain a popular movement. Climate change won’t be stopped with one bill. We’ll need many laws, over many years, to mitigate this crisis. And that means we need a vision that ties togethers a broad coalition that can endure and win.
When the right wants to tarnish the Green New Deal, they’ll likely use their favored tactic for stigmatizing progressive policies: stoking racial resentment. As Ian Haney-López and Heather McGhee argue, this has been the right’s strategy for nearly half a century: “Beginning in the 1970s, conservatives deployed a highly racialized strategy that relentlessly linked public institutions to undeserving minorities” and weakened white support for New Deal liberalism. Whether or not climate advocates explicitly discuss race and racial justice, the right wing is going to bring it up anyway. Already, conservatives are framing the Green New Deal as a handout to people “unwilling to work.”
In response, we need climate policies that explicitly advance the cause of racial justice—not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because it will build a broader, more popular movement. The think tank Demos found that making race explicit in progressive messaging about job creation and social programs wins more support from both the progressive base (largely women and people of color) and “persuadables”—Americans who shift between liberal and conservative views.
Telling a story that’s not just about the environment, but also about guaranteeing equality and prosperity to all Americans—white, black, and brown—will win more support for climate policy. But to be effective, the messaging needs to be true—the policies themselves need to advance racial justice.
There’s no easy path to passing comprehensive climate policy through Congress on the timeline science demands. But gradual change is the same as losing, and as a strategy, it also fails to solve the challenges of right-wing opposition and inert neoliberalism in the Democratic establishment.
By tying climate policy to economic prosperity and racial justice, the Green New Deal could underpin a vast coalition that has a chance of overcoming these challenges. This is especially true if it sustains the broad support it initially received: 81 percent of Americans–including 64 percent of Republicans–backed the Green New Deal in 2018, and its policies garner support even among moderates and Obama-Trump voters. This momentum has led some Republican senators to acknowledge that climate change is real and propose their own ideas for clean-energy development.
But public support and momentum are always shifting. The right wing and fossil-fuel barons will try to strangle this movement. Good strategy means preparing for the inevitable, building a bigger popular movement, and taking what could be our last, best shot at comprehensively and equitably averting catastrophe.