The Hardest Thing About the Green New Deal

The Hardest Thing About the Green New Deal

The Hardest Thing About the Green New Deal

Three new books raise the question: What does global solidarity look like at this late hour?


Mariana Enriquez grew up on the wrong side of the Riachuelo, the poisoned, lifeless waterway that separates the city of Buenos Aires from the slums to its south. “Four million people without sewers or plumbing,” she tells us. The river’s proper name, Matanzas—“Slaughter”—derives from the slaughterhouses that operated along its banks for two centuries, their animal effluence mixing with industrial and human waste to poison the waters. Among Enriquez’s earliest memories is the river’s putrid smell, which would wake her up some mornings as a child. And she remembers the floods—only they’re worse now, and more frequent, with some neighborhoods flooding twice a month: “The kids go swimming in the streets as if they were pools—the rotten water no longer bothers them.”

Sulaiman Addonia is a refugee from Eritrea. As a child he survived war and a Sudanese refugee camp before escaping to London with his older brother, who was then only 17. Now he lives in Brussels, where he founded a writing academy for fellow refugees, helping them tell their stories. His partner is a climate activist from a middle-class white family. He used to tell her: “Saving the planet you destroyed is your fight and not mine.” But these days he thinks of his family back in Eritrea, one of the world’s poorest countries—“the scorching heat they faced, the failed harvests in the region, the decimated workforce,” and “the magnificent coral reefs,” on which so many lives depend, “dying off”—and he knows the climate is everyone’s fight.

Say their names. Mariana Enriquez and Sulaiman Addonia are but two of the contributors to Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World, a new literary anthology edited by John Freeman. My descriptions come nowhere near doing justice to their stories and the power of their writing. You must read them and encounter their voices yourself—along with those of 34 other contributors, including Edwidge Danticat on Haiti, Mohammed Hanif on Pakistan, Anuradha Roy on India, and Ian Teh on China, to name just a few.

I’ll admit that this anthology brought back visceral sensations and emotions that I sometimes fear I’ve grown too numbed by my daily consumption of climate news to feel anymore. But there they were, my familiar companions: the old grief, the old rage. And, if I’m honest, the old despair that’s always lurking. There I am, reading this book on my comfy back porch in an affluent town west of Boston, feeling overwhelmed by my sense of complicity in unspeakable injustices against people, actual human beings, everywhere on Earth—and by my sense of powerlessness as an individual to stop any of it. I could tear down my solar-paneled house, live in a yurt, and convert my yard into an organic community garden, and it would make absolutely zero difference to the fates of billions whose names I’ll never know and can never say.

If I’ve learned anything over the past decade covering and engaging in the climate justice movement in this country—the same movement that has pushed the concept of, and varying proposals for, a Green New Deal to the very center of American politics—it’s that “solidarity” is complicated and often elusive. In movement circles, the word and concept of solidarity is all too often used casually, almost thoughtlessly, as if it’s a given that all of us fighting for climate justice are in solidarity with each other and with all of those, the vast majority in the Global South, who are on the front lines of climate catastrophe even now. We may believe this, and say it to ourselves and others, but most of the time it simply is not so. Or, at least, not so simple. At the global level, the only level at which humanity’s future can and will be decided, such solidarity is far from certain.

Because the idea of global solidarity—any genuine, human solidarity across borders, races, classes, and all the rest—is meaningless without effective action. That is, without action that has some chance of the desired and necessary effect, politically and economically and environmentally. And at the global level—if what one wants is climate justice—such action is eventually going to conflict with national and local priorities and politics. Even if the United States, despite the antidemocratic system standing in the way, somehow gets a government reflecting the solid majority who say they want decisive climate action, there will still be the inevitable tension between the local, national, and global. The United States (followed by Europe) owes by far the largest “climate debt” to the developing world: This country’s historic, cumulative emissions, and continuing per capita emissions, mean that Americans have used far more than their share of the atmospheric “carbon budget.” Again, if justice is what you care about, this means the United States must move faster and more radically than any other nation on Earth, whatever the cost. And while poor and working-class Americans should not bear the burden, even they are better off, and are responsible for higher per capita emissions, than the global poor—who far outnumber them.

This is a hard pill to swallow. And yet the alternative to the United States paying its global debt is a world without any hope of justice, anywhere.

So, yes, the West Coast is burning at a terrifying and unprecedented rate. Yes, Houstonians have suffered five 500-year floods in five years, and the Gulf Coast is pummeled by storm after ever more devastating storm, with the poor and racially marginalized suffering most, just as they’ve long suffered the most from fossil-fuel pollution. And yet, do any of us really think that Mariana Enriquez’s neighbors and their children in the Buenos Aires slums have any less right to a healthy, secure life than Americans lacking health care, food security, and clean air and water?

At the heart of the case for a Green New Deal, on both the national and global level, is the argument that any choice between justice and human survival is a false one. That is, in order to be politically viable—not to mention ethically defensible—any comprehensive climate strategy to prevent runaway catastrophe must combine rapid decarbonization with economic and social justice, because that’s the only way to mobilize and sustain a broad coalition to see the job through. That’s the idea, anyway, and it’s endorsed by Noam Chomsky and economist Robert Pollin in their new book, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal.

A Noam Chomsky book about the climate crisis should be a noteworthy event. And yet it’s an odd and somewhat disappointing fact that Chomsky, although he has published more than 100 books in the course of his long career—a great many of them about global injustice and the threat of war to human survival—didn’t get around to writing a book about the existential threat of global warming until the year 2020, at the age of 91, when catastrophe on some scale is already assured due to decades of inaction.

And it’s an odd and disappointing little book that Chomsky and Pollin have given us. Presented in the form of an awkward dialogue between the authors, it adds little if anything new to the climate conversation, aside from Chomsky’s trademark style. Its appearance is especially odd considering that the book’s publisher, Verso, only a year ago released A Planet to Win, co-authored by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos, which mounts the most sophisticated argument I’ve seen for an internationalist Green New Deal. The best one can say is that Chomsky and Pollin accurately convey the dire emergency and the daunting scale of the challenge we face. There’s no sugarcoating. And the book’s central point—that a global Green New Deal capable of meeting the two-degree Celsius goal set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is economically viable—is of course crucial. Unsurprisingly, Pollin’s economic case is clear and convincing, drawing on his many years of work on the subject.

It’s the authors’ political analysis, squeezed into a brief and unfocused final chapter on “political mobilization to save the planet,” that’s lacking. Chomsky rails against the denialism of Trump, the Republicans, and the fossil-fuel lobby, and the evils of neoliberalism and encroaching fascism, all of which is rather obvious, conventional fare. (Even Chomsky’s beloved anarcho-syndicalism is nothing new for the climate left, though it’s rare to see Bakunin invoked repeatedly in the pages of a sober-minded climate policy book.) But Chomsky and Pollin have little to say about how to actually mobilize a movement for a global Green New Deal or how to connect the existing movements around the world.

At this late date, it’s hard to take any climate policy book seriously if it articulates no coherent political analysis, no theory of change or understanding of social movement strategy and tactics. Incredibly, Chomsky and Pollin appear unaware of the robust climate justice movement that’s been building for more than a decade in the United States and internationally, leading in this country to the Green New Deal coalition, which has significantly shifted national climate politics (as witnessed by Joe Biden’s vastly strengthened plan). And while the authors discuss Europe’s version of a Green New Deal, there’s not even a passing mention of the actually existing Green New Deal resolution in the United States, introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey; no mention of Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal plan, with its serious global component (see Tom Athanasiou’s analysis in The Nation); no attempt to explain how their Green New Deal vision differs from others, nor any critique of the various existing proposals. It seems only fair to ask that a book about the “Green New Deal” should address, you know, the Green New Deal and the movement that’s actually fighting for it.

Chomsky and Pollin do, however, find space in this slim book to offer their timid, conditional support of civil disobedience as a movement tactic. For the most part they doubt its “effectiveness”—as if the climate justice movement hasn’t already proven its efficacy over the past decade. Indeed, today’s Green New Deal movement in North America was built on years of relentless nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience, from the coal fields to the fracking fields, from coal plants and oil refineries to tar sands and fracked-gas pipelines. To ignore this central aspect of movement history is to ignore the centrality of frontline communities—Indigenous, Black and brown, poor and working-class white—and young people of all backgrounds in the struggle to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

If you want to know why the “kids” are angry, and why young people are willing to go to jail to fight for their future, it’s because their elders—including intellectuals across the entire political spectrum—have failed them for what is now three decades. They have every right to be pissed off and to demand the kind of political revolution a Green New Deal requires.

Some of that passion comes through in Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can, a new collection of essays edited by the Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash and Guido Girgenti. With strong contributions from a superb cast of contributors—among others, David Wallace-Wells, Kate Aronoff, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Joseph Stiglitz, Julian Brave Noisecat, the Rev. William J. Barber II, and Waleed Shahid—this is the volume that should serve as the definitive introduction to the Green New Deal and the coalition of movements behind it. Even so, it addresses only the US, not the global context.

Lest we forget, the IPCC makes clear that to have any chance of staying “well below” two degrees of warming, preventing huge swaths of the Global South from becoming uninhabitable—and allowing developing countries some shot at a livable future—global greenhouse emissions must fall by half in the next 10 years, and must be all but eliminated by around 2050. The speed and scale of that global shift—truly revolutionary—is almost unimaginable, not for economic (as Pollin shows) but for political reasons, given the unprecedented level of national and international coordination it would require. And as noted, it’s a necessity that the United States, Europe, and other Global North economies decarbonize much sooner, if only because they have the technological and economic capability, even as they help mobilize and finance the energy transition in the developing world. This is basic stuff, Climate 101—and it’s why the Sunrise-backed Green New Deal calls for a 10-year mobilization to decarbonize the US economy as far as technically possible, a far tighter timeline than Biden’s and the Democrats’, who aim for 2050. Whether or not a 10-year time frame is actually feasible—and we won’t know until we try—the point is that only an all-out effort on that scale by the United States and Europe will offer the hope of meeting the ultimate global emissions target for mid-century.

It’s one thing to rehearse these numbers and point out that this is what the world’s climate scientists tell us is necessary to salvage a habitable planet. It’s another thing entirely to ask poor and working-class Americans, or anyone who has lost a job and faces economic insecurity, to take a giant leap of faith that the Green New Deal’s promises of jobs, universal health care, racial and environmental justice, and just-transition policies for workers and communities will be fulfilled. Given the political system we’ve got, why should anyone believe they will? The truth is, nobody knows exactly how a comprehensive Green New Deal will play out, or if it’s even possible. And where there are looming unknowns, especially for economically vulnerable people, there will be fear. Most Americans are still more afraid of losing their paycheck than losing the planet. As the French Yellow Vest (gilets jaunes) movement, rebelling against President Emmanuel Macron’s ill-conceived and regressive fuel tax, memorably put it: “You talk about the end of the world. We’re talking about the end of the month.”

And then there is that vast portion of humanity only trying to get through another day.

It’s impossible to predict whether the movement for a Green New Deal in the United States, with its emerging coalition of labor unions, racial and environmental justice movements, and a galvanized generation of young people, can spearhead a democratic, bottom-up political revolution to overcome the obstacles of our antidemocratic system. First, there’s a make-or-break election to be won—and defended—in November. Beyond that, all we can say with any degree of certainty is that the struggle for a genuine political revolution in this country, to achieve that radical 10-year mobilization, is what global solidarity must look like now.

No such revolution will be possible unless we’re willing to truly level with the public about the dire situation and what those of us in the wealthiest countries owe the rest of the world. Because it will require more of each of us, a higher level of commitment, than anyone in our national climate politics is yet asking: a willingness to sacrifice, to take risks, to tell the truth no matter how ugly and no matter the consequences. It’s going to take all of this on the part of far more people, from all walks of life, than we’ve ever seen in our nation’s history. And if there aren’t enough of us willing to take that leap, then we’ll soon have to acknowledge that “climate justice” and “global solidarity” are empty phrases—and that Mariana Enriquez’s and Sulaiman Addonia’s families, and those of countless people like them, are on their own.

Ad Policy