In delineating between the moral necessity to take practical action in light of our global climate crisis and the strategic considerations of political parties seeking to secure the support of voters, it can be concluded that the premise of a “Green New Deal” (GND) is far from guaranteed. This is true on both sides of the Atlantic. The British General Election – whilst providing a Conservative parliamentary mandate to “Get Brexit Done” – also repudiated Labour’s GND platform and reflects the polemical debate currently surrounding the matter in the United States. Political red lines therefore restrict the progression of a green Industrial Revolution. For our planet’s sake, responding to them in a spirit of pragmatism will be essential.
The Origins of the Green New Deal
The “Green New Deal” first appeared in a 2007 New York Times article penned by Pulitzer-Prize winner Thomas Friedman. In explaining his proposed solution, he refers to the record US temperatures of 2006, the hottest since 1895. The GND, he argues, stems from the grim conclusion that “there is no magic bullet for reducing our dependence on oil and emissions of greenhouse gases.”1 As such, it is built upon a broad range of programs and projects aimed at revitalising and decarbonising the world’s largest industrial economies. Friedman insists that “we need more of everything: solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power.”2 Essentially, it is argued that completely altering the functionality of electricity grids, despite being a huge industrial undertaking, is something which has the potential to drastically lower emissions and create countless well-paid jobs in the coming decades.
In 2007, Friedman suggested that strong government regulations surrounding energy efficiency and higher fossil fuel prices would be essential requirements if a GND is to be established and maintained.3 Shortly after the conceptual birth of the GND, the Obama Administration set to work on turning this into a material reality. Taking advantage of the 2009 global financial crisis, Obama signed economic-stimulus legislation including nearly $37 billion for clean-energy research and development. Shortly after, with failing car companies seeking a federal bailout, the requested funding was attached to the first greenhouse-gas standards for passenger vehicles, set to double their average fuel efficiency by 2025.4
At the domestic level, however, such reforms were piecemeal. Obama’s campaign for a comprehensive climate bill failed at the hands of a Republican Senate majority in 2010, buffered by the broader influence of the economic recession and the private interests behind oil and coal production. In 2010, Obama was forced to grapple with an unemployment rate of 9.3%, rivaled only in recent times by the dire economic circumstances Reagan was faced with in the early 1980s.5 Special interest groups naturally opposed to climate action manipulated this economic context to their advantage. Notably, the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association argued that the 2010 American Power Act “would add billions of dollars in energy costs for American families and businesses, destroy the jobs of millions of American workers and make our nation more dependent on foreign energy sources.”6
Populism and the Green New Deal
That Obama’s international approach to climate change – central to which was the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement – figures as a significant part of his political legacy, reveals a fundamental contradiction between America’s individualistic liberalism and the need for a globally coordinated response to the climate crisis gripping the planet. Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017 reinforces this. Current legislative efforts in America must therefore include a consideration of perfectly valid working-class interests and an executive branch which underestimates America’s role in combatting the most adverse impacts of climate change.
The Resolution submitted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in February 2019, bolstered by the campaigning of climate action group The Sunrise Movement, shows an awareness of this. “Recognising the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal,” this fourteen-page policy resolution calls for a ten-year “national mobilisation” to transform America into a carbon-free economy by 2030.7 As Friedman prescribes, this would mean meeting 100 percent of America’s power demand through expanding clean, renewable energy sources and establishing energy efficient “smart” power grids. Amongst other suggestions, it also proposes to overhaul pollutant transportation systems and to create a ‘more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.’8
The ambitious goals outlined by Ocasio-Cortez are far from resembling a Bill to be presented to the House and Senate: the resolution includes not one piece of legislation. Even so, the rhetorical backlash has been stunning. As ranking Republican on the Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Rob Bishop has charged that the components of the GND are “tantamount of genocide” for rural Americans.9 President Trump has described the proposal as an “extreme $100 trillion government takeover,” a claim which can be traced back to the Manhattan Institute, a think tank backed by fossil fuel investor Paul Singer and companies like ExxonMobil, demonstrating once again the prevalence of private interest in the potential derailing of climate and environmental initiatives.10 Texas Senator Ted Cruz has even linked the resolution’s sustainable agriculture proposals to the end of American meat production.11 Without doubt, these are baseless critiques which have found salience in a political environment marred by populism, private interest and Orwellian sentiments of “post-truth.” The proposed GND does not prescribe the end of meat production, nor does it suggest isolating rural communities. Despite this, such critiques must be visibly deconstructed. In other words, the technicality of the GND must be buffered by its capacity to appeal politically to the masses, especially working-class blue-collar voters wary of overly intrusive government.
Referring to the historical lineage of the GND suggests this is not an impossible task. The 2019 Resolution harkens back to Roosevelt’s unprecedented expansion of the federal government in the 1930s. Interestingly, an integral part of FDR’s New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which focused on environmental conservation work. This, argues historian Neil Maher, provides a strong precedent for environmental protection and job creation to be pursued simultaneously. For Maher, the prevalence of the Civilian Conservation Corps created a broad, working-class constituency for a green agenda in the twentieth century.12 Ocasio-Cortez also alludes to the enormous middle class created by the reforms of the 1930s, yet also highlights ‘many members of frontline and vulnerable communities’ who were excluded from the socioeconomic benefits of this national mobilisation, including migrants, rural populations and people of colour.13 If the GND is to ameliorate the hardships these groups face, it will require the broad working-class consensus which FDR’s New Deal was able to galvanise. Essentially, moral aims of preventing further environmental degradation and tackling structural inequality will still require a measure of political pragmatism if they are to be realised.
The Green New Deal in Transatlantic Perspective
As we enter the 2020s, economic depression in the ilk of the Wall Street Crash seems distant. On these grounds, the American Left seeks to usher in a greener politics for the benefit of all. What remains to be seen, however, is whether these necessary systemic changes will actually resonate with a national electorate.
The recent British General Election suggests that this may not be the case. Although Brexit-centric, exit polls illustrated a broad dismissal of Labour’s GND platform and a general absence of engagement with environmental policy. The policies underpinning Labour’s GND mirror those promoted by the American Left, with an emphasis on phasing out fossil fuels, investing in green, renewable energy and ensuring access to universal services, particularly health care and education.14 Through considering the dismantling of Labour’s “Red Wall” across England, the significance of political strategy in the US regarding the GND can be elucidated.
The Conservative gain of century-old Labour seats like Rother Valley, as well as working class strongholds across northern England and the Midlands, demonstrated more than a general shift to the right of the political spectrum.15 In an election dominated by Brexit, the opposition was simply unable to confidently promote the benefits of a GND to the nation’s working class. In many of Labour’s lost constituencies, votes for the Green Party were also consistently low. In Workington, a former Labour seat in northern England, Corbyn’s GND platform lost 12% of the 2017 vote share, whilst the Green Party received fewer votes than Independents, the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party.16 These recent results exemplify two systemic dynamics which threaten the Green Industrial Revolution our climate crisis calls for: a distrust amongst working class voters vis-à-vis government’s expansion and a broader lack of environmental awareness within national electorates as a whole. Given that a GND, be that in the US or UK, would require increased taxation and fundamental changes to employment structures, pragmatism will need to be deployed in order to ensure that sweeping environmental reforms are politically viable when presented to voters.
To be sure, there is recognition of this. Returning to the Resolution submitted to Congress in early 2019, the final four pages are devoted to describing the process of a fair and just transition for workers during the expansion of renewable energy. This outlines a transparent and inclusive process of consultation with frontline and vulnerable communities, as well as labour unions and businesses, with the aim of smooth implementation at the local level.17 Importantly, there is an emphasis on the retention of American jobs, the growth of domestic manufacturing and securing the consent of indigenous peoples. On these grounds, a 2019 survey carried out by the Yale Climate Change Communication program found that 81% of voters back a GND.18 Dozens of Democrats have also pledged their support, including 2020 contenders Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. However, as things stand, a GND is politically impossible, thus reinforcing the significance of this year’s US Presidential Election.
The Significance of 2020
Ultimately, the 2020 election may compound America’s general dereliction of responsibility in combatting climate change if a political strategy aimed at America’s working classes is not supported by the American Left unanimously. This will require clear and consistent demonstration of how a GND can stimulate the economy and improve the everyday lives of the ordinary worker. This would allow proponents of the GND to bypass a Republican Party which is currently unlikely to support measures which would require an acknowledgement of the climate crisis and increased federal spending to match.
It may seem cynical to reinforce the necessity of political strategy at a time when Australia continues to grapple with its worst bushfires for decades. However, the system change required to combat crises of this magnitude will first require power change. This is certainly the case if the United States is to lead a coordinated, international response to what can no longer be dismissed. Despite this, Friedman’s introduction of a GND in 2007 is at complete odds with White House policy in 2020, given Trump’s recent introduction of planned revisions to the 50-year old National Environmental Policy Act. Crucially, such revisions would exempt major infrastructure projects from environmental review and relax rules that limit emissions from coal plants.19
As such, the precedent set by FDR’s sweeping socioeconomic reforms in the 1930s suggests a Green New Deal also has the potential to combat the most adverse impacts of climate change. However, this is surrounded by political red lines. Working class concern that such reforms will threaten jobs and livelihoods appears to reinforce liberal, anti-regulation sentiments which currently permeate government on both sides of the Atlantic. If the ambitious and necessary goals of the Green New Deal are to be achieved before climate change eclipses human control, responding to these stated red lines with pragmatism and a clear political strategy, capable of establishing national consensus and securing working-class support, will be essential.
Michael is a History & International Relations 2nd year student at King’s College London, originally from the North of England. His areas of interest include nuclear proliferation, state and cultural identity and its crossover with human rights, as well as modern American history.
- Friedman, T. L. (2007, January 19). A Warning From the Garden. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/19/opinion/19friedman.html.
- Tollefson, J. (2016). Obama’s science legacy: climate (policy) hots up. Nature, 536 (7617), 387. DOI: 10.1038/536387a
- Weiss, D. J. (2013, May 7). Anatomy of a Senate Climate Bill Death. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2010/10/12/8569/anatomy-of-a-senate-climate-bill-death/
- Ocasio-Cortez, A. (2019, February 7). H. Res 109, 116th Congress 1st Session, “Recognising the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.” Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/hres109/BILLS-116hres109ih.pdf.
- Milman, O. (2019, March 30). Ocasio-Cortez says Green New Deal critics are making ‘fools of themselves’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/mar/30/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-green-new-deal-republicans.
- Anderson, D. (2019, September 12). Who’s behind Trump’s claim the Green New Deal will cost $100 trillion? Retrieved from https://www.energyandpolicy.org/green-new-deal-cost/
- Milman. Ocasio-Cortez says Green New Deal critics are making ‘fools of themselves’.
- Maher, N. M. (2002). A New Deal Body Politic: Landscape, Labor, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Environmental History, 7 (3), 435. doi: 10.2307/3985917
- Ocasio-Cortez. H. Res 109, 116th Congress 1st Session.
- The Green New Deal Explained. Retrieved from https://www.labourgnd.uk/gnd-explained.
- Jamie Johnson; Izzy Lyons; Ashley Kirk. (2019, December 13). The 24 Labour heartland seats lost to the Tories for the first time in decades. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/12/13/stunning-tory-seat-victories-2019-general-election/
- Election results 2019: Conservatives win Workington from Labour. (2019, December 13). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/election-2019-50748773.
- Ocasio Cortez. H. Res 109, 116th Congress 1st Session.
- Holden, E. (2018, December 29). What is the Green New Deal and is it technically possible? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/29/green-new-deal-plans-proposal-ocasio-cortez-sunrise-movement.
- Friedman, L. (2020, January 9). Trump’s Move Against Landmark Environmental Law Caps a Relentless Agenda. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/09/climate/trump-nepa-environment.html?auth=logingoogle&campaign_id=60&instance_id=0®i_id&segment_id=20179&user_id=821389e8c5e38c1f4fff1d10b048954a.