The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October 2018 report warned that averting or mitigating food shortages, wildfires, extreme weather events, coral reef die-offs and other disasters will require global human-caused carbon dioxide emissions to reach net zero—so that all remaining emissions were matched by carbon capture mechanisms-- by 2050. They acknowledged that reaching this target would require a rapid economic transformation that has “no documented historic precedent.”
Some US lawmakers are proposing a radical transformation to deal with the crisis, and they are citing a historical precedent. The “Green New Deal” invokes the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s sweeping programs to promote employment and social safety nets when the nation was crippled by the Great Depression. Those programs were denounced as radical government overreach in their day, but they helped many struggling families to survive, and a few New Deal initiatives-- including Social Security and the FDIC –remained law and are now accepted across the political spectrum.
Just what is the Green New Deal? The term was coined in 2007 by Thomas Friedman, who was suggesting steps to curb US reliance on foreign oil. In 2008-9 the UN called for a ‘Global Green New Deal’ in which developed countries would invest at least 1% of GDP in reducing carbon dependency, while developing economies should spend 1% of GDP on improving access to clean water and sanitation for the poor as well as strengthening social safety nets.
Green Party candidate Jill Stein ran on a “Green New Deal” in 2012 and 2016. In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez adopted the term during her successful campaign for the House of Representatives. In recent days lawmakers including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Ed Markey have voiced support for some form of Green New Deal, and New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has sketched out a Green New Deal for his state as part of his budget proposal. A Green New Deal is called for in an open letter to all lawmakers signed by more than 350 elected officials across America, and also in a letter to the US House of Representatives signed by more than 600 environmental groups. There are some differences between these New Deal proposals, but they share many important features.
Each Green New Deal proposal sets an ambitious target for emissions reduction. An earlier proposal from Ocasio-Cortez’s website and the Green Party plan both call for the US to move to 100% clean energy, with zero net emissions, by 2030. Cuomo’s plan calls for 100% of NY power generation to be carbon-free by 2040, and also calls for plans for overall carbon neutrality at an unspecified date. (In 2016, according to the EPA, electricity generation was the source of 28% of US carbon emissions.) The environmentalists’ letter calls for 100% renewable energy production throughout the nation by 2035.
Many Green New Deal proposals plan to meet these goals through massive investments in renewable energy production and energy efficiency, including upgrades to buildings and to the transportation grid. The Ocasio-Cortez and Green Party proposals also call for changes in the US agricultural system, which is a significant generator of greenhouse gas emissions: Ocasio-Cortez writes about localizing food production systems, and the Green Party also calls for the elimination of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. Both groups also speak of the importance of investing in small-scale local businesses and co-ops in other industries.
The Green Party plan and the environmentalists’ letter explicitly exclude nuclear power from their definition of acceptable energy sources, but nuclear power remains a contested issue among some advocates of a Green New Deal. Some advocates say that nuclear power is a necessary stopgap because renewable energy production cannot be scaled up fast enough to allow fossil fuel generation to scale down in time to prevent climate catastrophe; others point to the hazardous waste generated by nuclear production and the risk of lethal accidents.
Like the UN Global Green New Deal, the US Green New Deal is concerned with alleviating poverty and working toward economic justice as well as slowing climate change. Impoverished communities tend to suffer most from pollution and the health problems it brings; some of them have also depended on highly polluting extractive industries for their employment base. Many different Green New Deal plans mandate input from and funding to these vulnerable communities. New York’s plan sets aside money to help communities who have depended on conventional power generation transition to clean energy jobs. Green New Deal proposals also require input from tribal authorities, recognizing the needs of their communities and the insights they offer.
Some versions of the Green New Deal—including Ocasio-Cortez’s draft plan and the Green Party platform—call for full employment and a government guarantee of living-wage jobs for any worker who wants employment. The Green Party specifies that such jobs must be offered in human services fields like child care and elder care as well as in construction and energy production, so that people with varying levels of physical strength can find work. Governor Cuomo’s Green New Deal plan does not guarantee employment but does set aside funds for workforce development to help people qualify for the jobs required by the new energy economy; it also includes wage guarantees for those workers.
Whether or not there is a legal mandate for full employment, the green energy transition is likely to create jobs. In the short term, upgrading existing buildings and transportation infrastructures for greater efficiency will be a massive and labor-intensive project. In the long term, a 2014 UK study concluded, “there is a reasonable degree of evidence that in general, renewable energy and energy efficiency are more labor-intensive in terms of electricity produced than either coal- or gas-fired power plants.” A transition to more small-scale local agriculture would also require more human labor and less fossil fuel.
Ocasio-Cortez’s version of the Green New Deal also calls for social supports detached from employment, including basic income programs and universal health care. Many of her fellow Democrats at the national level who support some type of Green New Deal are also supportive of Medicare-for-all or some other expansion of publicly funded health care. In New York, Cuomo has dismissed single-payer health care as impossibly expensive, though NY offers generous Medicaid benefits.
Many critics of the Green New Deal in its several incarnations are focused on questions of how much it will cost and where the money is to come from. The Green Party points out that continued reliance on fossil fuels will lead to increased spending on disaster relief (as climate change intensifies hurricanes, wildfires and winter storms) and health care (as people require treatment for illnesses caused by pollution and extreme temperatures as well as for natural-disaster-induced injuries.) They also propose halving the military budget (pointing out that US military spending far exceeds that of any other nation, and suggesting that, without the demand for access to foreign sources of fossil fuels, we’d have much less incentive to fight wars) and sharply increasing taxation on the wealthiest Americans. Ocasio-Cortez and some of the Democrats who hold with her also back tax increases for the wealthiest.
For now there is no single clear and authoritative version of the Green New Deal: the Green Party is not in power anywhere, Governor Cuomo’s New Deal plan will have to be approved by the state legislature (which is already considering a somewhat different climate-mitigation bill with some New Deal overlaps), and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey are now working out a Green New Deal bill to present to Congress. But the national dialogue has broadened to take in the possibility of transformative change in the face of crisis. The answers may not be clear yet, but at least the vital questions are being considered.