A Brief History of the Green New Deal (So Far)
Aviva Chomsky on America’s Big Plan to Save the World
The Green New Deal refers either to a concept or to one of several different specific proposals that began circulating, primarily in the United States and Europe, in the late 2010s. The name references the New Deal of the 1930s, through which the federal government enacted a fundamental reordering of the US economy. During the Great Depression, a plethora of new government agencies, laws, and regulations were created to bring about a national recovery in agriculture and industry, including public investment in a social safety network, infrastructure, and jobs, and to enact social and economic protections for workers, farmers, and the population at large.
Green New Deal proponents say today’s climate crisis requires another profound transformation of our economy—and robust government investment and intervention to bring it about. It takes seriously the IPCC’s warning that fundamental structural change is necessary to address climate change. And it recalls the New Deal’s use of federal power to regulate and tax industry in the interest of economic redistribution and social protections: to place the common good above the profit motive, or at least to harmonize the two.
In the United States, the term Green New Deal usually refers to H.R. 109/S. 59, first introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey in February 2019. After the 2018 midterm election that brought a Democrat majority and several progressive new voices into the House of Representatives, youth activists in the Sunrise Movement demanded that Congress take action on the climate. Sunrise drew less from the mainstream environmental movement and more on recent youth mobilization ranging from Occupy Wall Street to immigrant Dreamers to #BlackLivesMatter to fossil fuel divestment campaigns. Its approach to the climate crisis, unlike that of many established environmental organizations, grew from a social justice perspective.
That fall, two hundred Sunrise Movement youth occupied the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to demand a Green New Deal. Their protests were followed by a January 2019 letter to Congress from a wide range of progressive organizations outlining their vision for climate justice. The letter called for an immediate end to fossil fuel leasing and subsidies, leading to a complete phasing out of fossil fuels in power generation, industry, and transportation. It called for immediate federal controls on CO2 emissions under the provisions of the Clean Air Act. And it announced that signers would “vigorously oppose any legislation” that “promotes corporate schemes that place profits over community burdens and benefits, including market-based mechanisms and technology options such as carbon and emissions trading and offsets, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, waste-to-energy and biomass energy.”
Many of the six hundred signers of the letter were small, local, or faith-based organizations. Large mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund were conspicuously missing from the signatories. Others, like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, 350.org, the Sunrise Movement, the Rainforest Action Network, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Amazon Watch did, however, sign on. So did the Labor Network for Sustainability, an organization drawing together the left wing of the labor movement in support of climate-change action.
By February 2019, the newly elected representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York had joined with veteran congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts to propose H.R. 109. The resolution called for massive federal commitment to a ten-year action plan on climate change—“a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era”—aimed at reducing emissions to net zero. By linking investment in technology and infrastructure to socioeconomic transformation, jobs, and protection of frontline communities, it explicitly attempted to overcome historical divisions between the labor and environmental movements and between grassroots environmental justice and mainstream “big green” organizations.
The Green New Deal (GND) proposal broke new ground by establishing an ambitious, enforceable target and embedded climate goals in socioeconomic transformation that prioritized the rights of workers and marginalized communities. But in terms of specific policy, the resolution left many issues open to future debate. In contrast to the demands in the January letter, the GND proposal called for “net-zero” emissions—meaning that it held open the door for continuing emissions and market-based policies like carbon trading and offsets. It called for meeting 100 percent of US energy needs with “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources,” implying that nuclear, biofuels, or even natural gas—options rejected by the January letter—could continue.
The right wing was quick to mock the proposal as unrealistic, fantastical, and anti-American. Fox News devoted more time to the topic than any other television news outlet. Donald Trump ridiculed the GND for supposedly eliminating “Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military.”
Critics on the left also took issue with aspects of the GND proposal. It ignores the social and environmental costs of supposedly “clean” energy. Its “social democratic fixes” based on big increases in alternative energy would still rely on resource extraction from the Global South. Some called it “green colonialism” that would “be delivered by the very same entrenched economic interests, who have willingly sacrificed both people and the climate in the pursuit of profit. But this time, the mining giants and dirty energy companies will be waving the flag of climate emergency to justify the same deathly business model.”
Contrary to Trump’s characterization, the proposal avoided confronting the role of the US military in contributing to climate change. Many on the left, though, saw the GND proposal as an opening to press for a “radical Green New Deal” that could inspire broad popular support with redistributive and social welfare programs and transform the US and global economic system.
In the fall of 2020, then-candidate Biden confused some by variously applauding the GND as a “framework,” stating that he did not support the GND, and offering his own “Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice.”
Once in office, Biden wasted no time in making climate a priority. He named John Kerry as his climate envoy, rejoined the Paris Agreement, banned new fracking leases on federal lands, and set a bold (though, to many, nowhere near bold enough) new target for reducing emissions: 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. While many celebrated these moves, critics said it was far from enough.Climate politics has been rife with grand gestures, statements, and targets, which have thus far had little effect on reducing emissions.
The new target wasn’t as bold as it might have seemed, since the Obama administration, when it signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, had already set a US target of a 28 percent reduction by 2025. Biden’s announcement seemed to align with the IPCC recommendation that global emissions fall by that amount to even hope to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But that’s a global average; big emitters actually need to reduce far more.
Furthermore, as energy journalist David Roberts pointed out, climate politics has been rife with grand gestures, statements, and targets, which have thus far had little effect on reducing emissions. Until the Biden administration translates the goals into enforceable policy, his targets may have little practical effect.
Even if the US fulfilled the emissions target of 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, it would remain the world’s number-two culprit in annual emissions and number one in cumulative emissions, as well as close to the top in per capita emissions. The US Climate Action Network calculated that, to do its “fair share,” the United States would have to reduce its emissions by a shocking—but not impossible—195 percent by 2030.
Biden’s March 2021 American Jobs Plan was clearly influenced by GND goals and proposals. The plan put forward federal investment in electric vehicle production, public transit, research and development in “clean” energy (including nuclear, biofuel, and carbon capture technologies shunned by many environmentalists), building upgrades for energy efficiency, and significant guarantees for workers and affected and marginalized communities. Most GND proponents celebrated Biden’s plan, though it relies heavily on incentives for the private sector, rather than the public sector expansion advocated by the original proposal. Direct public spending, explained Kate Aronoff, would be crucial to the GND vision of building public support for ambitious climate goals.
The fossil fuel industry was quietly optimistic. Biden’s plan would direct significant funds its way for cleaning up emissions and allow the industry to continue exporting its products. The petrochemical industry doubled down on its position that fossil fuels would solve global poverty. “Without plentiful, reliable and low-cost fossil fuels, the world would be in a very different place,” an industry spokesperson insisted. “It would be less advanced, much less prosperous, have much shorter life expectancies.” But, in fact, the plan quietly assumed that the rest of the world would continue to provide the resources for the high levels of consumption in the United States.
Europeans countered with two very different road maps with confusingly similar names. The Democracy in Europe coalition, a coalition of progressive organizations and parties aimed at democratizing the EU, presented a Blueprint for Europe’s Just Transition while the European Union offered a counterproposal in its European Green Deal.
The EU’s Green Deal explicitly left out the term “new,” distancing itself from the New Deal’s commitment to an activist government promoting redistributive goals. Like H.R. 109, the EU proposal outlined goals in general terms and called for legislation to achieve them. But even as it shared just transition language with its US counterpart, the European document is clearly more growth, business, and market-oriented. Its reduction targets were less aggressive and longer term: halving emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2050. And it emphasized market-based measures, including expanding the European ETS and developing “new pricing instruments” to “ensure that the relative prices of different energy sources provide the right signals for energy efficiency.”
Regarding industry subsidies and exemptions, the proposal offered suggestions rather than mandates: “Fossil-fuel subsidies should end,” and “the Commission will look closely at the current tax exemptions including for aviation and maritime fuels and at how best to close any loopholes.” Beyond the EU, policies “may include ending global fossil fuel subsidies . . . phasing-out financing by multilateral institutions of fossil fuel infrastructure, strengthening sustainable financing, phasing out all new coal plant construction, and action to reduce methane emissions.” Or, they may not!
Europe’s reformed energy sector would phase out the use of coal and be “based largely on renewable sources” while continuing the use of natural gas with increased use of carbon capture and storage. While the proposal gave a nod to the issue of natural resource overuse and the need for recycling and a “circular economy,” it relied on “measures to encourage businesses” to move in this direction rather than regulation. It insisted—ominously, from a Third World perspective—that “access to resources is also a strategic security question for Europe’s ambition to deliver the Green Deal.”
Democracy in Europe Movement’s blueprint, the Green New Deal for Europe (GNDE), offered quite a different vision, and much greater detail. The GNDE adopted the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degrees Celsius warming target, aimed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2025, and called for economic and ecological reorganization away from a profit-and-growth economic system to one that prioritizes human needs and respects planetary boundaries.
The GNDE’s “Blueprint for Europe’s Just Transition” included detailed policy proposals for radical transformation in every sector of the economy including Green Public Works and a Europe-wide regulatory and legal framework for a just transition. It offered paths to remake infrastructure, industry, agriculture, energy, and transportation, to reduce or eliminate military spending and war, to democratize the EU with grassroots people’s assemblies to press elected leaders to action, and to challenge growth-oriented capitalism. Its advisory board included European Green, Socialist, and Communist Party veterans, as well as Jane Sanders (Bernie’s wife) and Naomi Klein.
Just one example from the GNDE Blueprint: it called for an “energy allowance” for every household granting free electricity sufficient for basic cooking and heating needs. Beyond the allowance, prices would rise steeply. The allowance addresses social justice goals by ensuring basic security. The system is redistributive because the rates rise with overuse, essentially taxing the rich at higher rates. It encourages conservation because it makes overconsumption progressively more expensive. And it creates revenues for other aspects of a just transition.
The various proposals are important because they are being promoted in some of the planet’s most polluting countries. But clearly the Green New Deal (GND) concept covers a wide range of potential policies. Some proposals rely on business-friendly, market-based incentives, while others directly challenge the fossil fuel industry and the whole fossil economy. Some aim at deep socioeconomic transformation. The strongest ones address the historic responsibility of the Global North, offer enforceable targets, and join with movements for economic transformation away from fossil capitalism.
Such coalitions and mobilization will be crucial in order to ensure that the more powerful—and most responsible for emissions—can be forced to comply with the spectrum of measures so urgently needed.
From Is Science Enough? by Aviva Chomsky, courtesy Beacon Press. Copyright 2022 Aviva Chomsky.