The "Green New Deal" may have begun in the UK - but it's seizing America, and encouraging new initiatives everywhere
In the conventional wisdom about governance and policy, there’s a real shift going on around climate crisis. Or to quote the Institute for Public Policy Research’s preferred term - left-of-centre, but not the most dramatic of organisations - “climate breakdown”.
Close to the Labour Party in the counsel it gives, but not exclusively tied to it, the IPPR has just brought out a report called “This Is A Crisis: Facing Up To The Age of Environmental Breakdown” [PDF here]. The language and concepts are still as equable and aimed at mastery as ever - but it fully recognises the absolute urgency of the moment, danger signs on environmental limits incessantly flashing behind the prose.
In terms of its intended audience, it tries to talk to policy makers and governors in terms of climate breakdown as a “risk” factor - something that administrators understand they must calculate and make provision for. Yet the “risk” here, as the report soberly points out, is of a much bigger unravelling of our way of life:
The consequences of environmental breakdown for societies and economies are unprecedented in their scale, speed, severity and complexity. As the IPCC has noted in the case of climate change, the actions required to mitigate breakdown are structural, involving deep and rapid economic, social and political change across all of society and every nation on Earth
This scale of structural change is unprecedented in human history. All the while, these changes will have to occur at a time of growing socioeconomic instability, including a changing international order, the development of new technologies, shifting consumer habits and the rise of nativist and nationalist politics – all of which will interact with the consequences of environmental breakdown
Taken together, these factors are creating a new, complex, interrelated “domain of risk” facing decision-makers, which is systemic, compounding, and non- linear. This new risk domain has considerable consequences for virtually all areas of policy and politics at all levels, from local communities
to international institutions. It is different to previous risk domains – such as that experienced in the Cold War, with the risk of political standoff leading to a nuclear exchange, or the present growing risk of another major financial crisis. [This is] because it is largely driven by natural processes that are, increasingly, out of the control of human action and which are characterised by large levels of uncertainty.
It will interact with existing risk, multiplying the chance and severity of crisis, potentially driving a ‘perfect storm’ of interrelated challenges. As such, adequately responding to the domain of risk created by the age of environmental breakdown may be the greatest challenge ever faced by global society.
Yet the emergence of such a domain of risk and how to respond to it is almost entirely absent from mainstream political and policy debates.
More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.
The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.
There are many agents, from all parts of society, straining to formulate a big enough story to reinforce and motivate the vast range of actions required to address the IPPC’s 12-year (but starting NOW) deadline for a catastrophic tipping-point on global warming. We track them here regularly (see our sustainability, environment and climate change categories/tags).
The Green New Deal is the latest of these, promoted by the quasar of American progressive politics at the moment, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As Adam Ramsay has pointed out, it is a surprise to see how a concept travels - from a notion from the New Economics Foundation think tank in 2008, to something deserving of Donald Trump’s blundering contempt.
It has “come home”, as it were - originally inspired by the New Deal, proposed by the US president Franklin D. Roosevelt after the Great Financial Crash of 1929, which earmarked money to be spend on vast infrastructure projects, making the country more efficient and employing millions.
Today, the Green New Deal promises the same deal - massive constructive and masses of employment - in order that the US benefits from a hard shift to low or zero carbon living.
Naomi Klein in her intercept article makes this crucial point:
I have written before about why the old New Deal, despite its failings, remains a useful touchstone for the kind of sweeping climate mobilization that is our only hope of lowering emissions in time. In large part, this is because there are so few historical precedents we can look to (other than top-down military mobilizations) that show how every sector of life, from forestry to education to the arts to housing to electrification, can be transformed under the umbrella of a single, society-wide mission.
Which is why it is so critical to remember that none of it would have happened without massive pressure from social movements. FDR rolled out the New Deal in the midst of a historic wave of labor unrest: There was the Teamsters’ rebellion and Minneapolis general strike in 1934, the 83-day shutdown of the West Coast by longshore workers that same year, and the Flint sit-down autoworkers strikes in 1936 and 1937.
During this same period, mass movements, responding to the suffering of the Great Depression, demanded sweeping social programs, such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, while socialists argued that abandoned factories should be handed over to their workers and turned into cooperatives.
Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author of “The Jungle,” ran for governor of California in 1934 on a platform arguing that the key to ending poverty was full state funding of workers’ cooperatives. He received nearly 900,000 votes, but having been viciously attacked by the right and undercut by the Democratic establishment, he fell just short of winning the governor’s office.
All of this is a reminder that the New Deal was adopted by Roosevelt at a time of such progressive and left militancy that its programs — which seem radical by today’s standards — appeared at the time to be the only way to hold back a full-scale revolution.
Yet this has to happen at a local level of activism and building. Klein notes this great initiative:
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has developed a bold plan to turn every post office in Canada into a hub for a just green transition. Think solar panels on the roof, charging stations out front, a fleet of domestically manufactured electric vehicles from which union members don’t just deliver mail, but also local produce and medicine, and check in on seniors — all supported by the proceeds of postal banking.
For more on the Green New Deal in the US, read Paul Mason’s column in the New Statesman.