The Green New Deal will need to be subject to constant vigilance and pressure—from experts who understand exactly what it will take, and from social movements that have decades of experience bearing the brunt of false climate solutions.
This is article is adapted from the author’s chapter in We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style, a new anthology edited by Kate Aronoff, Michael Kazin, and Peter Dreier and published by The New Press. You can get a copy of the book here.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2019, right-wing luminaries set their sights tightly focused on two targets: the Green New Deal and democratic socialism—for them, one and the same. “It’s a watermelon,” ousted Trump White House adviser Sebastian Gorka summarized with his usual theatrics. “Green on the outside, deep, deep communist red on the inside. . . . They want to take your pickup truck, they want to rebuild your home, they want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”
Like climate change deniers’ claims that global warming is a Marxist plot to steal American freedom, the idea of a Green New Deal is nothing new. And both are experiencing a revival.
In late 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark report informing us that global emissions need to be slashed roughly in half in less than twelve years, a target that simply cannot be met without the world’s largest economy playing a game-changing leadership role. Once Democrats took back the House that year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi let it be known that her plan for meeting this historic moment was to convene a toothless committee to further study the endlessly studied crisis. Shortly after the midterm election, but before the swearing in, young climate activists with the Sunrise Movement let it be known that they weren’t having any of it. Demanding a Green New Deal, Sunrise invited 200 people to stage protests on Capitol Hill, where they were supported by several incoming members of Congress, including Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib (who spoke at one of the Sunrise rallies), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—like Tlaib, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America—who famously visited their sit-in of Pelosi’s office.
Riding the tide of momentum, and working with Sunrise, Ocasio-Cortez’s office made Pelosi a counteroffer for how to meet the climate challenge in 2019: rather than expending all their political energy on a carbon-pricing scheme that was sure to be politically unpopular while failing to bring down emissions with anything like the speed required, the new Congress should have a select committee on the Green New Deal that would, over the course of a year, create a detailed plan to get off fossil fuels in the United States by 2030, taking full advantage of what the proposal called the “historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States.”
That select committee was not created. Yet within four months, more than 100 members of Congress and virtually every 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful had joined the call for a Green New Deal, an economy-wide mobilization for decarbonization along a science-based timeline. After decades of either silence or cautious moderation on climate change from Democrats, young activists and lawmakers had rewritten the rules of the possible in a matter of days.
To those outside the climate justice movement, the speed seemed dizzying. Yet the ground for this momentum has been prepared for decades—with models for community-owned and community-controlled renewable energy; with justice-based labor market transitions that make sure no worker is left behind; with a deepening analysis of the intersections between systemic racism, armed conflict, and climate disruption; with improved green tech and breakthroughs in clean public transit; with the thriving fossil-fuel divestment movement; with model legislation driven at the state and city level that shows how carbon pricing—if progressively designed—can fight racial and gender exclusion; and much more.
What had been missing until 2019 was the top-level political power to roll out the best of these models all at once, with the focus and velocity that both science and justice demand. That is the great promise of a comprehensive Green New Deal in the largest economy on earth.
Which is why the CPAC crowd is right to worry. Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t actually coming for their hamburgers, but the Green New Deal was a true threat to their half-century-long ideological project. No wonder Gorka’s speech came with a full-throated call to arms: “You are on the front lines of the war against communism coming back to America under the guise of democratic socialism.”
Naomi Klein is Senior Correspondent for The Intercept, a Puffin Writing Fellow at Type Media Center, and the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author, most recently, of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.
This essay is adapted from the author’s chapter in We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style, a new anthology edited by Kate Aronoff, Michael Kazin, and Peter Dreier and published by The New Press.