Sunrise Movement in the Halls of Congress
Sunrise Movement in the Halls of Congress Photo | Sunrise Movement

The Green New Deal Goes Viral: What’s Next Is Up to Us

Climate activists must seize the time and get to work on the Green New Deal proposal.

Every once in a while, an idea that has been blowing in the wind for years catches fire and starts a conversation that might change the world. It’s happening now with the “Green New Deal,” an elastic slogan that has become the rallying cry of climate activists who are targeting 2020 as the year Americans might embrace a plan for massive transformation of the economy to avert climate disaster, combat inequality, promote social justice, and lay the groundwork for a more just and peaceful world.

It doesn’t take an encyclopedic Bill McKibben New Yorker piece to tell us we’re in difficult straits. No longer. In a report that made headlines around the world, UN scientists have given the world a deadline of 2030 to reduce CO2 emissions by 45% if we are to avoid a grave risk of planetary ecological collapse. Nothing like such a cutback has ever been achieved in an industrialized country except when the Russian economy took a dismal nosedive after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Life expectancy plummeted, consumption of vodka soared, and CO2 emissions dipped temporarily by 39%.

We now face a daunting reality that, in the words of the October UN report, we must achieve “deep emissions reductions in all sectors” at “unprecedented speed and scale” to maintain a safe operating space for our species. Scientists say the alternative may be an unthinkable “Hothouse Earth” that would undermine the ecological underpinnings of civilized life on the planet. The scientists have also stressed that “Hothouse Earth” is not inevitable, but we are currently headed in the wrong direction. After three decades of international efforts to curtail fossil fuel consumption, CO2 emissions have increased by 60% and are accelerating in 2018 like a “speeding freight train.”

The quasi-magical arrival of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez on the political scene has given climate activists new hope that a program big enough to address the danger will become an actual subject of national debate in the time frame necessary to give us a fighting chance against climate catastrophe. Her proposal for a Select Committee for a Green New Deal (an essential and brief read, so go back and click on the hyperlink if you haven’t already read it) is gaining momentum as the highly energized progressive base of the Democratic Party confronts the triple obstacles of the Republican neofascist party, the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party, and the establishment progressives who are now running to the left but still beholden to corporate interests.

The young people of the Sunrise Movement are prepared to be disruptive in the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam War activists, and ACT-UP. They are asking, “What is your plan?” and they are not interested in answers that evade the massive shake-up the scientists say is necessary.

They are being helped by a belated effort by some of the mainstream media to make some amends for their own complicity in allowing the political elite to avoid the subject of climate change. The pundits of CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post said virtually nothing about the complete absence of debate over climate change during the 2018 midterm campaigns, when it might have had an impact on the election. It was as if a giant asteroid were heading toward Earth, as big as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, and we could not bring ourselves to talk about it.

Some of the mainstream media are now beginning to cover the planetary climate emergency, shocked into awareness by the superstorms and wildfires that are now affecting the U.S., the scientists’ warnings that ours may be the last generation able to stop climate change, and the grim spectacle of a sadistic president willing to stoke its fires. But Beltway insiders have not yet cleared their throats.

The call for a Green New Deal may be just what it takes to bring an end to the obscene silence of the political establishment. By offering an ambiguous, but potentially expansive, charter for political action, the Green New Deal invites a conversation over what kind of transformation of our economy and society would enable us to meet the targets set by the scientists while getting us off the disastrous political course of Trumpism.

The Ecoleft—from ecological socialists to frontline climate and environmental justice warriors—has an unprecedented opportunity to lead in this debate because we actually have ideas big enough to address the root cause of climate change and its connection to many other growing crises in Earth’s life systems including loss of biodiversity, acidification of the oceans, and vanishing forests. We also have ideas big enough to provide a framework for liberating society from capitalism’s insane drive to push nature and millions upon millions of human beings into an abyss. Along with the Sunrise Movement, we get to ask apologists for the capitalist system, “What is your plan?” and measure their answers against what science tells us must be done.

It’s a big moment, but we are working on a deadline as never before.

AOC’s Select Committee would be charged with coming up with a plan for the Green New Deal by January 1, 2020 and draft legislation by March 1, 2020. We have to move quickly to shape a radical proposal that would crystallize and pull together a wide list of our demands for the 2020 electoral season, a concrete program against which every candidate for office can be measured. But there is a much earlier deadline. Our ability to play a central role in the political debate in 2020 may depend on whether we can force Nancy Pelosi to appoint AOC’s proposed Select Committee when the 116th Congress convenes in January. This turns on how much power we can exert in the coming weeks.  We do not have years to begin work on the Green New Deal and we do not have months to force Pelosi’s hand.

Bernie Sanders gets it and has reached out to Ocasio Cortez. Sanders was already at work on draft legislation that one of his aides recently described as having “the aroma of a Green New Deal,” but, by all signs, Sanders is now ready to go full-out GND, having sponsored a town hall this week at which Ocasio Cortez outshone other luminaries like Bill McKibben and Van Jones who were on the bill.

The time for radical voices to be heard is now. Richard Smith, one of the cofounders of System Change Not Climate Change (SCNCC) and a member of Democratic Socialists of America’s Ecosocialist Working Group, has written a proposal to make the Green New Deal ambitious enough to provide a path to limit global warming to the 1.5°C temperature rise that science says we must aim for. Smith calls for declaration of a state of emergency, a ban on all new extraction of fossil fuels, rationing of gasoline and diesel, a ban on production of new fossil-fuel vehicles and nationalization of the fossil fuel industry to phase it out. To offset the loss of jobs, he proposes a New Deal-style jobs programs to re-employ at equivalent wages and benefits those who are thrown out of work as well a nationally planned phase-in of renewable electric generation, massive expansion of public transit, adoption of regenerative agriculture in place of factory farming, and other job-creating, climate-saving undertakings. Smith makes the case that nothing less than a crash program along the lines he proposes will meet the call of United Nations Secretary General António Guterres to “do what the science demands before it’s too late.

In October, Nathan J. Robinson, editor of Current Affairs, posted an article, “What is the climate equivalent of Medicare for All,” pleading that “whatever it is, we need to start talking about it nonstop.” Robinson touts a Green New Deal proposal drafted by Greg Carlock, Emily Mangan, and Sean McElwee, which is replete with details. Activists interested in penciling out their own conceptions may find the Carlock-Mangan-McElwee plan thought-provoking.

Amid the ferment, it’s important to remember that even House liberals of the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic caucus are resistant to change. Many talk as if the Obama years were a period of green enlightenment, a fallacy that Carol Dansereau, organizer of a new SCNCC chapter in Seattle, demolishes in her piece, “Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity.”  Dansereau calls it time to leave dangerous delusions about Democrats behind.

NBC News published an opinion piece by Kate Aronoff who raised the same question about the sincerity of progressive Democrats in confronting the climate crisis. Her article leads off with a scorching review of Nancy Pelosi’s first response to the demands for the next Congress to center climate change among its priorities:

California is on fire, and the Democrats just won back the House. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — whose district sits not far from the flames — took this historic opportunity to propose a bold solution: reviving a toothless, decade-old committee to, as the New York Times reported, “educate the public about the impact of more frequent extreme weather events.”

“Lordy,” as James Comey might say. And it’s not just House leadership that proposes to fiddle while Rome burns. The Huffington Post reports that the House Progressive Caucus, some of whose members covet their own advancement within the House power structure, is not moving quickly to back Ocasio Cortez’s proposed Select Committee which would be authorized to hold hearings and draft legislation, powers that might interfere with their own perceived prerogratives.

There is also the ever-present danger that the “Green New Deal” will quickly become a catch phrase by which corporate Dems pay lipservice to a popular idea they plan to gut behind closed doors. Leftists (notably, the Green Party) have talked up a Green New Deal for years, but the Green New Deal does not belong exclusively to the Left. Indeed, Wikipedia reports, “An early influential use of the term Green New Deal, which gave it prominence in the US and well beyond, was by [billionaire] journalist Thomas L. Friedman” back in 2007. We can be certain that any attempt to pursue a radical agenda that would incorporate economic and social justice into a plan to combat climate change would not be Friedman’s cup of tea. No ruling elite willingly gives up power and the Friedmans of the world will not willingly cede definition of the Green New Deal to the Left.

Those of us who are hoping the Green New Deal will lead to profound social change can learn from the class struggle that swirled around the 1930s New Deal. Verso Books has posted an illuminating piece, “Building a ‘Green New Deal’: Lessons From the Original New Deal” by Matt Huber, a geography professor and another DSA activist. Huber reminds us that the New Deal was made through mass working class protest and revolt, was built on an antagonistic politics of wealth redistribution from the rich, was very popular, and brought energy to the people.

If thoughts like those bring a smile to your lips, it’s time to hammer on the Democrats to “do what the science demands” and empower AOC’s Select Committee “before it’s too late.”

Ted Franklin is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, System Change Not Climate Change, and Labor Network for Sustainability.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission