Naomi Klein is the author of the best sellers No Is Not Enough, This Changes Everything, The Shock Doctrine, and No Logo. She’s a member of the board of directors of the international climate-action group 350.org. And she’s a senior correspondent for the Intercept, a contributor to The Nation, and the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University.
Jon Wiener: How would you describe the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey?
Naomi Klein: It’s a sweeping plan to radically transform how we get energy, move ourselves around, live in cities, and grow our food; and it puts justice at the center—justice broadly defined, from racial and gender justice to making sure no worker is left behind, battling inequality at every level. It’s really about multitasking. It’s about understanding that we are in a time of multiple overlapping crises, and that we are on an incredibly tight deadline when it comes to lowering greenhouse-gas emissions in time to prevent truly catastrophic warming. In order to bring people along with these necessary changes, there have to be benefits in the here-and-now in terms of the kinds of jobs that are provided and the justice that comes through.
JW: The Green New Deal, you’ve said, is not a question that will be settled through elections alone. What do you mean?
NK: In terms of winning the power to introduce a package as ambitious as the resolution, the only real historical precedent is the original New Deal. And the political dynamics that produced the original New Deal were not a benevolent politician handing reforms down from on high, from the goodness of his heart. Of course it mattered to have FDR in power instead of Herbert Hoover, but it mattered even more to have an organized population which was flexing its muscles in every conceivable way in the 1930s—from sit-down strikes in auto plants, to shutting down the ports on the West Coast, to shutting down entire cities with general strikes. And it mattered also to have more radical voices who were calling for more radical policies than the New Deal was offering, like a truly cooperative economy. All of that created the context in which FDR was able to sell the New Deal to elites. They were grudging about it, but the alternative seemed to be political revolution.
So the only way that something like this happens is if it is accompanied by a huge grassroots mobilization, where every workplace, every sector, every movement is asking, “What would a Green New Deal mean for us? What would it mean in our workplace? What would it mean for the groups that we represent?” If we are going to succeed, they need to make it their own. So it’s going to take a hell of a lot of grassroots organizing, mobilizing all of these sectors to really believe that the Green New Deal is going to make their lives better, coupled with politicians running at every level of government, including for president, with a promise to enact this on day one.
JW: Building political power, you’ve said, is about changing the calculus of what is possible. That’s a big obstacle. We saw that in a column by Gail Collins in The New York Times last week: She argued the Green New Deal is too far-reaching and instead we should focus our efforts on more manageable things like creating more electric generating capacity from solar and wind. It’s not exactly opposing the Green New Deal, but it’s certainly not helping.
NK: There is this idea that a more incrementalist policy focused just on climate would be more sellable—something that doesn’t talk about fighting inequality, and a huge jobs program, and health care for all. But what’s actually stood in the way of strong climate policy in the past has been that, in times of real economic stress, like the ones we’ve been living in, people consistently rank climate below health care and below jobs. Often it ranks last on the list of political priorities. And that’s why politicians always feel that it can be sacrificed. Obama did that. He looked at the polls and he prioritized health care. And when that led to a huge amount of pushback, he didn’t spend any political capital trying to get a cap-and-trade policy through—even though that was totally inadequate.
And the other thing that stands in the way when politicians actually do introduce climate policies, is that, if they don’t prioritize justice, the proposals are actively unjust. For example, look to Emmanuel Macron in France, where this very neoliberal president introduced a tax cut for the very, very rich at the same time that he introduced a carbon-pricing scheme that increased the cost of living for working people. Then you had an uprising, and rioting in the streets, with the yellow vest movement—precisely because, as one of the protesters put it, “The politicians care about the end of the world when we have to care about the end of the month.” I think the brilliance of the Green New Deal framework is that it doesn’t ask people to choose. It says, “We all care about the end of the world. But we also care about the end of the month. So how do we design policies that simultaneously lower emissions and lower that economic strain?” And that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.
JW: There has been opposition to climate change legislation from the Laborers International Union and some of the building trades. But one of the unions that’s been really good on this is the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
NK: I’ve been involved in a project in Canada called the Leap Manifesto, which is our people’s version of a Green New Deal, to get off fossil fuels in a hurry, but to put justice and labor protections at the center. After the Leap Manifesto came out, our team worked with that union, at their request, to come up with a plan to apply the principles of the Leap Manifesto to the Post Office—which, at that time, was facing a very real prospect of being privatized and radically downsized. So rather than just saying, “We want to keep things as they are, despite the fact that how we tend to send mail has been radically changed by Amazon and by courier services,” they said, “We want to change this service that has been at the center of communities for so long, and we want to now be at the center of a transition off of fossil fuels. We want to have postal banking, we want to have solar panels on the rooftops of every post office, we want a charging station outside, we want a fleet of vehicles that are all electric and all made domestically, and we want not just to be delivering the mail, but also to be delivering locally grown produce, checking in on the elderly, being part of the caring economy.” It’s a radical plan that’s being championed by an unabashedly progressive union. And coming back to where we started, that’s what it means to make the Green New Deal your own. We need people in every organized workplace to be getting together and imagining what their workplace would look like if they took rapid de-carbonization seriously. And asking how could it improve lives? How could it lead to a fairer economy?