The Green New Deal and the case for a radical economic reboot

Two new books argue for profound change to break the political logjam on climate change

FILE -- Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks alongside Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) at a news conference about the Green New Deal, in Washington, Feb. 7, 2019. New York lawmakers have agreed to pass a sweeping climate plan that calls for the state to all but eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times) Credit: New York Times / Redux / eyevine For further information please contact eyevine tel: +44 (0) 20 8709 8709 e-mail:
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey (right) at a news conference about the Green New Deal in Washington in February © New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

Ever since the renowned Nasa scientist James Hansen started issuing dire public warnings about the risks of man-made climate change in the late 1980s, the same question has haunted environmental campaigners: how to get political momentum behind an “invisible” and global problem whose impacts would not be felt for many years?

Attempts to outsource the answer to some grand international bargain in succeeding decades have done little to abate the volumes of carbon still belching into the atmosphere. Wealthy countries such as the US have bridled at binding global targets, while national regulations have simply shifted emissions from wealthy countries to those with less exacting environmental rules.

Earlier this year, two American progressive politicians, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, launched the latest attempt to break the political logjam. Granted, their “Green New Deal” is more of a political brand than a practical programme. But it sets out to provide that elusive energising factor by tying climate action to the notion of greater social justice within the US.

The deal offers jobs for millions to restore US infrastructure, extends universal healthcare and proposes switching to local community-led renewable energy systems with the aim of reaching 100 per cent renewable power in the next 10 years.

The goal is to make decarbonisation a defining national mission rather than an internationally mandated chore.

It is not the first time a “Green New Deal” has been touted. But the original, cooked up by the US journalist Thomas Friedman in 2007, gained little traction.

Conceived as a mission that would bolster US energy security as well as (happily) saving the planet, it argued for a technological revolution; one where the government showered fiscal incentives to replace fossil fuels with unlimited green power.

Friedman’s was a consumer-friendly vision; one where western knowhow bailed us out without us actually having to change our lifestyles very much.

A decade on, proponents of the latest Green New Deal, such as the activist Naomi Klein, are much less optimistic about the ability — or will — of western private capital and technology to solve the world’s environmental woes. In On Fire, the longstanding critic of corporate globalisation argues for a much more comprehensive economic reboot.

“Markets play a role in this vision, but markets are not the protagonists of this story — people are,” she writes. “The workers who will build the new infrastructure, the residents who will breathe the clean air, who will live in the affordable green housing and benefit from the low cost (or free) public transit.”

Klein’s book is a collection of essays spanning the past decade, which chart her growing despair at environmental degradation and conclusion that any solution must involve radical and urgent economic change. The story moves from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in 2010, through the wildfires of western Canada, the refugee crises in Africa and the Middle East all the way to the Vatican, where Pope Francis is attempting an extraordinary “ecological conversion”. These journeys have left her with a profound mistrust of the way markets allocate resources. Klein argues that we must change more than just our energy sources; we must master our urge to dominate the natural environment — what she calls our “expansionist, extractive mind-set”.

This is partly a long-lensed critique about humanity’s relationship to nature. As a Canadian, Klein is acutely aware of her own country’s history, and the way early colonial settlers treated it as “their God-given larder”, killing first the native species, such as auks and beavers, for profit, before turning to its woodlands and mineral resources. MORE