Earlier this month, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has introduced a Green New Deal resolution laying down an ambitious set of goals and principles aimed at transforming and decarbonizing the US economy
The release has prompted a lot 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 are obsessed over missteps in rollout.
What do the latter reactions together, from my perspective, is that they seem oblivious to the historical moment, like the thespians acting out an old, familiar play even as the theater goes up in flames around them. 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'd like to take a step back and try to locate the Green New Deal in our current historical context, at least as I see it. (1
The context, part one: this is a fucking emergency
The earth's climate has already warmed 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels and is exacerbating a cascade of 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's changing more quickly than ever in millions of years. The human race is leaving behind the climatic conditions in which all 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 a concerted global action – and with some 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 this time, he is not 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 largest cities in 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 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, floods 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. ” style=”object-position: 50% 50%” data-upload-width=”5472″ src=”https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/A9CZ50P8-SAO7C3OeLcd-gxwRfE=/0x0:5472×3648/1200×0/filters:focal(0x0:5472×3648):no_upscale()/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/14289805/1095005714.jpg.jpg”/>
New EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler recently dismissed the latest IPCC report as being based he and the 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 are headed for somewhere around 4 degrees by 2100. Believing that we can limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees – a level of warming scientists view as catastrophic – now counts as wild-haired optimism, requiring heroic assumptions about technological 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 are 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; (19659023) The worst-case scenario, which, against Wheeler, is practically never discussed in polite political circles in the US, is, as Wallace-Wells quotes the famed naturalist David Attenborough saying, "the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world."
That's 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 a disaster on a scale that is truly difficult to comprehend, involving the fate of our species and thousands of others over the centuries to come. (Remember, just because our models tend to stop at 2100 does not mean warming will stop then.)
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 our present path is madness. Nihilism. It is not, for fucksake, "moderation."
The context, part two: US politics is a dumpster fire and there is no center
It feels a little odd to have this point as if 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 now appears to have been 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 the movement conservatives, descending into increasingly baroque and lurid fantasies.
The president is now openly admitting scheduling and "national emergency" because he wanted money for his wall, himself a lurid xenophobic fantasy. Meanwhile he is doing everything in his power to delay or shut down multiple federal investigations into his possible crimes. He has the support of Republicans in the Congress (because he has lowered taxes on rich people) and the near-unanimous backing of Republican voters (because he owns the libs).
Basic norms of political conduct is 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 the Americans' shrinking faith in their political system, which is ever-more-nakedly funneling wealth and power the already wealthy and powerful (while protecting them from accountability) and heaping more risk and instability to 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.
The house is on fire. But a strange number of Democrats and pundits just seem to be whistling past it, acting out familiar roles and repeating familiar narratives, as though we are still in an era of normal politics, as though there are still two normal parties and some coherent " center "they are both trying to capture.
One "moderate" critique of 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 declared, unapologetic, total opposition to anything Democrats suggest, the GOP would allow their opponents to win over 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 the 21st century American politics to suggest that Republicans will join Democrats in a dramatic transformation of the economy along more sustainable lines.
There are those who believe that the structure of US politics is such that bipartisanship is 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 bipartisan, then the real political progress is impossible, the US political system is doomed, and we will suffer the ravages of unabated climate change.
Oddly, one of the few people to grasp the stakes is the 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 do not have a moment to lose in substantially decarbonizing the global economy, no matter what the financial cost or political pain. In that case, is not Pelosi's incremental 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 would we think of climate change roughly the same way we think about global poverty – a serious problem we can work patiently to solve without resorting to extreme measures such as ending capitalism or depriving equally serious priorities of the attention they deserve
One can quibble with whether it is accurate to characterize New Deal as "war socialism" – it was, after all, run primarily in partnership with the private industry.
hello buds! it's time for our next session of "debunking myths about #GreenNewDeal ." (19459003) – Rhiana Gunn-Wright (@rgunns)
] February 19, 2019
One can also quibble with whether addressing climate change will deprive other issues of attention, as opposed to working in sync with them.
But Stephens is getting the basic question right: Climate change is a priority, one of the most urgent, threatening progress in all other areas, as 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 not wrap his head around the implications of 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 definition of "success" still available).
Political change of that scale and speed is unlikely. It's a long shot.
The context, part three: grassroots energy is not fungible
What can rescue American politics from its current swirl down the toilet bowl?
It will not be a return to the late-Obama Era status quo, where Democrats win, propose things, and Republicans block them, in a kind of politically numbing kabuki.
It will not be another scientific report or policy paper. It will not be another smart "frame" or a promising poll result. It will not 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 the incumbents. In all 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 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, partly 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.
Sunrise protests ” style=”object-position: 50% 50%” data-upload-width=”1616″ src=”https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/ADSOGDERlPpBJ2RBF-lEK7eMntA=/0x0:1616×1080/1200×0/filters:focal(0x0:1616×1080):no_upscale()/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/13442700/46110762_2519330018084877_7058783565634338816_o.jpg”/>
And of course, government by the whims of the wealthy is problematic in and of itself.
Here's the most likely way of doing this: 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 do not 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 have led them to the sweet light of reason
That's the only prospect I know of for climate action on a sufficient scale.
In this milieu has come a youth movement that takes a Democratic Party disengaged and unambitious on climate change and smacks it upside down, ultimately by proposing the Green New Deal. 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. All 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 had 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, safety belts, labeling laws on cigarettes, or Obamacare.
And they're projecting a series of hyperbolic claims – it would ban cows and airplanes and SUVs! – on it.
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 would they react
Should they scold the young activists over ambiguous wording in the resolution? Over the failures in 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 favorite technology or policy?
These activists are people in their 20s and early 30s facing a looming catastrophe that previous generations – the very they 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, most of the carbon dioxide that is now in the atmosphere has been emitted since 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen first testified to the Congress on 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, those who will live with the snowballing damage, want US to marshal its full resources to tackle the problem, transforming 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 are asking for too much, that they should settle down and let the adults handle it.
And it's incredibly short-sighted. A waves of grassroots enthusiasm like this is not fungible. It can not 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 is not much time left to wait for another one. Smart leaders who share the broad goal of fair decarbonisation 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
Explainers on the GND! (link: https://t.co/sPQAwAXO5u)
Do not worry – policy deets are coming! But for now, it's important to focus on three main Qs:
1) Why we need economic mobilization on the scale of WWII
3) How to pay for it
The New Consensus (@newconsensus) February 9, 2019
The context, part four: The Green New Deal is not what people say it is
The GND resolution is not a policy or a series of policies. It is a set of goals, aspirations, and principles. It deliberately puts the vision on the front and leaves the policymaking for later.
Nonetheless, many commentators have simply chosen to pretend it is a policy or project policy on it. "The government would put a sector after sector under partial or complete federal control," says David Brooks in the New York Times, and "oversee the renovation of every building in America."
Nor is and the prohibition on nuclear power. Nor is the prohibition on carbon taxes. All of these are things that various critics have projected on it.
Neither, as even some sympathetic critics have charged, it's just a "laundry list" of things progressives happen like. As the Atlantic's Rob Meyer argues in this excellent piece, 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 in correcting market failures (at least rhetorically – in practice, the industrial policy has never stopped, it has just been 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 power of procurement, among other means. (19659098) Works Progress Administration poster, circa 1935.  Wikipedia
Industrial policy has been the norm in 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 policies. It is only in the last 40 years 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 decarbonisation targets for electricity, transport, industry and buildings, there is 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 towards the most vulnerable communities.
It says to Americans: we're 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 not be threatened with homelessness or lack of healthcare. We're going to make this big thing together, all of us, and through it we'll lift each other up.
That message will not please America's oligarchs. It sounds completely "unrealistic" given the narrow boundaries of the possible in Washington, DC. But it can inspire ordinary people and get them invested in solving climate change. And if there is another way to get a broad swathe of Americans fired about climate change, I have not heard it, surely 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.
But to the extent Democrats and pundits are simply looking at 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 a disaster.
Give the GND a chance
So, that's the context here: a world swooping 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 articulated 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 is not 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 these 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, they are 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 ego and our personal brands and strive for solidarity, to build the largest and most powerful social force behind the only kind of rapid transition that can hope to inspire other countries and forestall the worst of climate change.
If there is a swift, large-scale change in the US, a country with a political system practically built to prevent such things, it probably will not look exactly like any of us want. In fact, the odds are against it happening at all. So it does not seem like a time to be cavalier about the opportunities that come along.
The kids are out there, organized, demanding a solution. Let's try to give them one.