clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This is an emergency, damn it

Green New Deal critics are missing the bigger picture.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) unveil the Green New Deal on February 7, 2019. 
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Earlier this month, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced a Green New Deal resolution laying out an ambitious set of goals and principles aimed at transforming and decarbonizing the US economy.

The release prompted a great deal of smart, insightful writing, but also a lot of knee-jerk and predictable cant. Conservatives called it socialist. Moderates called it extreme. Pundits called it unrealistic. Wonks scolded it over this or that omission. Political gossip columnists obsessed over missteps in the rollout.

What ties the latter reactions together, from my perspective, is that they seem oblivious to the historical moment, like thespians acting out an old, familiar play even as the theater goes up in flames around them.

To put it bluntly: This is not normal. We are not in an era of normal politics. There is no precedent for the climate crisis, its dangers or its opportunities. Above all, it calls for courage and fresh thinking.

Rather than jumping into individual responses, I want to take a step back and try to situate the Green New Deal in our current historical context, at least as I see it. Then it will be clearer why I think so many critics have missed the mark.

Sunrise Movement activists in Washington, DC.
Sunrise Movement

The context, part one: this is a fucking emergency

The earth’s climate has already warmed 1 degree Celsius from preindustrial levels, unleashing a cascade of super-charged heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, storms, water shortages, migrations, and conflicts. Climate change is not a threat; it’s here. The climate has changed.

And it is changing more rapidly than at any time in millions of years. The human race is leaving behind the climatic conditions in which all of advanced civilization developed, going back to the beginning of agriculture. We have no certainty about what will happen next, mainly because we have no certainty about what we will do, but we know the changes are bad and going to get much worse, even with concerted global action.

Without concerted global action — and with a few bad breaks on climate sensitivity, population, and fossil fuel projections — the worst-case scenarios include civilization-threatening consequences that will be utterly disastrous for most of the planet’s species.

At the moment, nobody is doing a better job of describing the tragic unfolding reality of climate change than author David Wallace-Wells, especially in his new book The Uninhabitable Earth, but also in this New York Times piece. Here’s just a paragraph of coming attractions:

As temperatures rise, this could mean many of the biggest cities in the Middle East and South Asia would become lethally hot in summer, perhaps as soon as 2050. There would be ice-free summers in the Arctic and the unstoppable disintegration of the West Antarctic’s ice sheet, which some scientists believe has already begun, threatening the world’s coastal cities with inundation. Coral reefs would mostly disappear. And there would be tens of millions of climate refugees, perhaps many more, fleeing droughts, flooding and extreme heat, and the possibility of multiple climate-driven natural disasters striking simultaneously.

All of that is expected when the global average temperature rises 2 degrees Celsius.

Senate Environment Committee Holds Confirmation Hearing For Andrew Wheeler To Become EPA Administrator
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

New EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler recently dismissed the latest IPCC report as being based on a “worst-case scenario,” which is darkly ironic, since the report is all about the dangers that lie between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming.

But 2 degrees is not the worst-case scenario. It is among the best-case scenarios. The UN thinks we’re headed for somewhere around 4 degrees by 2100. Believing that we can limit temperature rise to 2 degrees — a level of warming scientists view as catastrophic — now counts as wild-haired optimism, requiring heroic assumptions about technology development and political transformation.

The best-case scenario is very, very bad. And it gets much worse from there. From Wallace-Wells’ book:

Two degrees would be terrible, but it’s better than three, at which point Southern Europe would be in permanent drought, African droughts would last five years on average, and the areas burned annually by wildfires in the United States could quadruple, or worse, from last year’s million-plus acres. And three degrees is much better than four, at which point six natural disasters could strike a single community simultaneously; the number of climate refugees, already in the millions, could grow tenfold, or 20-fold, or more; and, globally, damages from warming could reach $600 trillion — about double all the wealth that exists in the world today.

The worst-case scenario, which, contra Wheeler, is virtually never discussed in polite political circles in the US, is, as Wallace-Wells quotes famed naturalist David Attenborough saying, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world.”

That is alarming and, if you must, “alarmist,” but as Wallace-Wells says, “being alarmed is not a sign of being hysterical; when it comes to climate change, being alarmed is what the facts demand.”

The status quo — continuing along the same trajectory, doing the same things — leads to disaster on a scale that is genuinely difficult to comprehend, involving the fate of our species and thousands of others over centuries to come. (Remember, just because our models tend to stop at 2100 doesn’t mean warming will stop then. It will just get worse.)

two degrees chart Sanford et al. (2014)

The crucial decisions that will shape our species’ future will take place over the next decade. Dramatic change is the only hope of avoiding the worst.

Choosing to continue down our present path is madness. Nihilism. It is not “moderation.”

The context, part two: US politics is a dumpster fire and there is no center

It feels a little odd to have to point this out as though it’s some keen insight, but: US politics is pretty screwed up right now.

The conservative movement and the Republican Party have descended into unrestrained tribalism, rallying around what is effectively a crime boss who it now appears was elected with the help of a hostile foreign power. The media has calved in two, with an entire shadow right-wing media capturing the near-exclusive attention of movement conservatives, descending into increasingly baroque and lurid fantasies.

The president is now openly admitting to scheduling a “national emergency” because he wanted money for his wall, itself a lurid xenophobic fantasy. Meanwhile he is doing everything in his power to delay or shut down multiple federal investigations into his possible crimes. At every stage of his descent into paranoid lawlessness he has had the support of Republicans in Congress (because he lowered taxes on rich people) and the near-unanimous backing of Republican voters (because he owns the libs).

Basic norms of political conduct are crumbling on a daily basis. The country’s core institutions are under intense stress. It plays out on television and social media like an exhausting spectacle, always turned to 11.

And it all takes place in the context of Americans’ shrinking faith in their political system, which is ever-more-nakedly funneling wealth and power to the already wealthy and powerful (while protecting them from accountability) and heaping more risk and instability onto the most vulnerable.

The reactionary (largely older white male) backlash and the rising appeal of democratic socialism among the young are both, in their own ways, responses to a money-soaked, unresponsive political system.

Donald Trump is wrong that fighting climate change will cost millions of jobs and hurt the economy.
This guy.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The house is on fire. But an odd number of Democrats and pundits just seem to be whistling past it, acting out familiar roles and repeating familiar narratives, as though we’re still in an era of normal politics, as though there are still two normal parties and some coherent “center” they are both attempting to capture.

One “moderate” critique of the GND, from Jason Grumet of the Bipartisan Policy Center, is that it overreaches, threatening bipartisan cooperation. But none of these allegedly moderate critics ever explains why, after more than a decade of openly stated, unapologetic, total opposition to anything Democrats propose, the GOP would allow their opponents a victory on one of the most polarizing issues in public life.

For more than a decade, “bipartisan cooperation” has, with very few exceptions, meant inaction on climate change (and much else). And with every passing year, the Republican Party descends further into ethnonationalism and plutocracy. Why are prospects better now?

There is nothing in 21st century American politics to suggest that Republicans will join with Democrats in a dramatic transformation of the economy along more sustainable lines. At this point, it is those who propose bipartisanship as an alternative who bear the burden of proof.

There are those who believe that the structure of US politics is such that bipartisanship is the only route to substantial progress. There’s plenty of evidence and a good-faith argument to be made for that position.

But those who believe it should squarely grapple with the implications. Bipartisanship on any appreciable scale, at least based on reason and persuasion, is currently impossible in US federal politics. Republicans have made it so. If real progress is impossible without bipartisanship, then real progress is impossible, the US political system is doomed, and we will suffer the ravages of unabated climate change.

climate youths
Young people marching for the climate in 2016.
Getty Images

Oddly, one of few people to correctly grasp the stakes is New York Times columnist and longtime climate change bullshitter Bret Stephens. In his latest column, he says:

Let’s assume the most dire predictions are right and we don’t have a moment to lose in substantially decarbonizing the global economy, no matter what the financial cost or political pain. In that case, isn’t Pelosi’s incrementalist approach to climate absurdly inadequate?

Why yes. Yes it is.

Are we dealing with a problem so severe that it requires the political and economic equivalent of war socialism? Or should we think of climate change roughly the same way we think about global poverty — a serious problem we can work patiently to solve without resort to extreme measures like ending capitalism or depriving equally serious priorities of the attention they deserve?

One can quibble with whether it’s accurate to characterize the New Deal as “war socialism” — it was, after all, run primarily in partnership with private industry.

One can also quibble with whether addressing climate change will deprive other issues of attention, as opposed to working in synchrony with them. (Water, agriculture, disease, economic development — climate overlaps with all of them.)

But Stephens gets the basic question right: Is climate change a priority-one emergency, threatening progress in all other areas, as the IPCC and America’s own scientists say? Or is it a manageable problem, addressable with patient, meliorist policy?

Stephens chooses the latter. Tellingly, he offers absolutely no evidence, no reason to distrust the scientific consensus. He can’t wrap his head around the implications of the science so he simply rejects them.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that the US political status quo leads to morally unforgivable inaction. That is the baseline condition. Only something that jolts politics in a new direction, marshals some new force, tries some new strategy, has any chance of success (for the grim definitions of “success” still available).

Political change of that scale and speed is unlikely. It’s a long shot. But it’s either long shots or climate disaster at this point.

The context, part three: grassroots energy is not fungible

What can rescue American politics from its current swirl down the toilet bowl? What can give it a jolt of life?

It won’t be a return to the late-Obama era status quo, wherein Democrats win, propose things, and Republicans block them, in a kind of politically numbing kabuki.

It won’t be another scientific report or policy paper. It won’t be another clever “framing” or promising poll result. It won’t be any number or combination of words. It can only happen through power.

And the need for power is not symmetrical. Conservatives defend the status quo and the interests of incumbents. In all of politics, but especially in US politics, preserving the status quo is easier than changing it. It is easier to block and destroy things than to pass and build them. Conservatives have a lower bar for success and the reliable backing of those who benefit most from the status quo.

The left will never win the money game. The right’s billionaires are united in advocating for their interest in lower taxes, less regulation, and less accountability. The left’s are more likely to pick vanity causes or candidates. They love social causes but are far less likely than their counterparts on the right to focus on economic issues or redistribution, in part because many of them are quasi-libertarian tech bros who believe they are smarter than governments and better able to “change the world” if left to their billions.

And of course, government by the whims of the wealthy is problematic in and of itself.

That leaves people power.

Sunrise Movement protest
Sunrise activists invade House offices.
Nelson Klein, Sunrise Movement

Here’s the only way any of this works: You develop a vision of politics that puts ordinary people at the center and gives them a tangible stake in the country’s future, a share in its enormous wealth, and a role to play in its greater purpose. Then organize people around that vision and demand it from elected representatives. If elected representatives don’t push for it, make sure they get primaried or defeated. If you want bipartisanship, get it because politicians in purple districts and states are scared to cross you, not because you led them to the sweet light of reason.

That’s the only prospect I know of for climate action on a sufficient scale. (Seriously, if you know of another, email me.)

Into this milieu comes a youth movement that takes a Democratic Party disengaged and unambitious on climate change and smacks it upside the head. It puts the ultimate goal — to completely decarbonize the US economy in a just and equitable way — on the mainstream Democratic agenda for the first time ever. It accomplishes all this in the course of a few short months.

So here it is: some people power, the most rare and precious commodity for anyone hoping to advance progressive goals.

The conservative response, of course, was entirely predictable. The right reacted exactly as they have reacted to every proposal for social progress since the turn of the 20th century: they denounced it as socialism. You may remember that reaction from unions, Social Security, Medicare, air and water quality regulations, workplace safety standards, seat belts, labeling laws on cigarettes, or Obamacare.

And they lied about it, projecting a whole series of hyperbolic ideological fantasies — it will ban cows and airplanes and SUVs, oh my!

Again: as inevitable as the tides.

But what of people who share the goal of decarbonizing the US economy in a just and equitable way? How should they react?

Should they scold the young activists over ambiguous wording in the resolution? Over failures in the rollout, including the erroneous FAQ that was posted to AOC’s site and then taken down? Over asking for too much — too much justice, too much equity, too many guarantees and promises for ordinary people? Over their failure to properly weight this or that favored technology or policy?

There was so much of this, a stale pageant of Very Serious gestures operating in bizarre indifference to the urgency of current circumstances.

These activists are people in their 20s and early 30s facing a looming catastrophe that previous generations — the very ones busy scolding them for their excess idealism — failed utterly to prevent or address. They are winging it, putting together a plan for economic transformation on the fly, like an overdue college project, because nobody else stepped up to do it.

As Wallace-Wells often points out, the majority of the carbon dioxide that is now in the atmosphere has been emitted since 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen first testified to Congress about climate change. This crisis has largely been created in the space of a generation, by people around the world who knew, or should have known, what they were doing.

These young people, the ones who will live with the snowballing damage, want the US to marshal its full resources to tackle the problem, to transform its economy without leaving anyone behind. It takes a lot of gall for the very people responsible for the current desperate situation to tell them they’re asking for too much, that they should settle down and let the adults handle it.

And it’s incredibly short-sighted. A wave of grassroots enthusiasm like this isn’t fungible. It can’t be returned to the kitchen in exchange for a new one with the perfect mix of policy and rhetorical ingredients. It is lightning in a bottle, easily squandered.

There isn’t much time left to wait for another one. Smart leaders who share the broad goal of equitable decarbonization will amplify and deploy grassroots energy while it’s available. The policy details can be worked out later.

Speaking of which, why not try to make sure the policy takes shape in a smart way? Why not be constructive?

The context, part four: the Green New Deal is not what people are saying it is

The GND resolution is not a policy or a series of policies. It is a set of goals, aspirations, and principles. It purposefully puts the vision up front and leaves the policymaking for later.

Nonetheless, many commentators have simply chosen to pretend it is policy, or project policy on it. “The government would put sector after sector under partial or complete federal control,” frets David Brooks in the New York Times, and “oversee the renovation of every building in America.” None of this is in the resolution.

Nor is a prohibition on nuclear power. Nor is a prohibition on carbon taxes. All of these are things various critics have projected on it.

Neither, as even some sympathetic critics have charged, is it simply a “laundry list” of things progressives happen to like. As the Atlantic’s Rob Meyer argues in this excellent piece (truly: read it), the GND is an expression of a coherent and very American economic philosophy: good old industrial policy.

Actively guiding the economy went out of fashion with the Reagan revolution. Since then, US policymakers have generally restrained themselves to correcting market failures (at least rhetorically — in practice, industrial policy never stopped, it just got buried in the tax code or omnibus bills).

The premise of industrial policy is that the market needs direction and that government should direct it, through public spending, tax policy, regulations, public-private partnerships, and the power of procurement, among other means. (Check out the reading list on the website of New Consensus, the think tank shaping GND policy, for a sense of the policy antecedents and rationales.)

WPA poster, 1935
Works Progress Administration poster, circa 1935.

Industrial policy has been the norm in the US, as in most developed countries, for most of its life. Most of the technological advances produced by the US economy have their roots in such policy. It is only in the last 40 years or so that the conservative movement, behind a well-funded media and advocacy apparatus, convinced Americans that the government is “broke” and that public intervention in the economy is presumptively illegitimate.

Part of good industrial policy is shielding ordinary people from the sometimes harsh consequences of economic transformation. The New Deal did that fairly well with land grants, bonds, and job programs, but all its programs were biased strongly in favor of white men.

The GND does not want to repeat those mistakes. So alongside the decarbonization targets for electricity, transportation, industry, and buildings are a series of provisions ensuring that everyone can get a job, that everyone can access health care regardless of their job situation, and that the benefits of public investment will be channeled toward the most vulnerable communities.

It says to Americans: we are going to do something really big, fast, disruptive, and ambitious, but during the transition, you will not be left behind or forgotten. You will be able to find a job and a role to play; you will be not be threatened with homelessness or lack of healthcare. We are going to do this big thing together, all of us, and through it we will lift each other up.

That message will not please America’s oligarchs. It sounds entirely “unrealistic” given the narrow bounds of the possible in Washington, DC. But it can inspire ordinary people and get them invested in solving climate change. And if there’s another way to get a broad swathe of Americans fired up about climate change, I haven’t heard it, certainly not from the legion of GND armchair critics.

To be sure, many economists still oppose industrial policy, and perhaps some Democrats and pundits simply prefer those economists. Perhaps they really are ideologically devoted to market mechanisms and market mechanisms alone.

But to the extent Democrats and pundits are simply looking at the GND through the lens of recent US policy and political dynamics, they need to step back and think bigger. The whole point of this is to try something new, something different — because, again, the current trajectory leads to disaster.

Give the GND a chance

So that’s the context here: a world tipping over into catastrophe, a political system under siege by reactionary plutocrats, a rare wave of well-organized grassroots enthusiasm, and a guiding document that does nothing but articulate goals that any climate-informed progressive ought to share.

Given all that, for those who acknowledge the importance of decarbonizing the economy and recognize how cosmically difficult it is going to be, maybe nitpicking and scolding isn’t the way to go. Maybe the moment calls for a constructive and additive spirit.

The GND remains a statement of aspirations. All the concrete work of policymaking lies ahead. There will be room for carbon prices and R&D spending and performance standards and housing density and all the rest of the vast menu of options for reducing emissions. None of those policy debates have been preempted or silenced.

And yes, there are any number of ways it could go off the rails, politically or substantively. Everyone is free, nay, encouraged to use their critical judgment.

But the circumstances we find ourselves in are extraordinary and desperate. Above all, they call upon all of us to put aside our egos and our personal brands and strive for solidarity, to build the biggest and most powerful social force possible behind the only kind of rapid transition that can hope to inspire other countries and forestall the worst of climate change.

If there is to be swift, large-scale change in the US, a country with a political system practically built to prevent such things, it probably won’t look exactly like any of us want. In fact, the odds are against it happening at all. So this doesn’t seem like a time to be cavalier about the opportunities that do come along.

The kids are out there, organized, demanding a solution. Let’s try to give them one.