The 2020s Must Be the Decade of the Green New Deal

These three essential books explain why a people-first approach to addressing climate change is the only way forward

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

InIn 2006, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth seemed to finally rouse popular culture to the threat of climate change. It was shown to community groups, in schools, and even won an Academy Award for best documentary feature. Yet the film — and the host of “green” culture products it inspired — largely presented fighting climate change as a consumer-driven, individual pursuit. We were encouraged to recycle, replace light bulbs and appliances, make expensive renovations, and switch to renewable power.

Today, as uncontrollable fires ravage Australia and scientists warn we have until the end of the decade to radically transform our way of life, it’s clear that waiting for every consumer to change their purchasing habits won’t cut it. If we’re to have a chance at avoiding the worst-case warming scenarios, we’re going to need bold ideas like those espoused in the Green New Deal (GND) — ideas that would rapidly get us off fossil fuels, create a robust social safety net, and put decision-making power in the hands of communities.

The democratic element is key. We’ve been treated to a decade of aloof billionaires promising that electric sports cars and solar-powered mansions would save us from climate apocalypse as they criss-crossed the world in private jets without having their promises interrogated. But futures imagined by billionaires are designed for billionaires, and we’re in desperate need of futures by and for regular people. We’ve entered the make-or-break decade, our final shot to avoid the worst-case scenarios of a warmer world. It’s more crucial than ever that we engender mass climate action, and it’s imperative that any political project put people first. The Green New Deal can do that.

OnOn November 13, 2018, 150 members of the Sunrise Movement occupied the office of Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi to demand urgent climate action. The demonstration likely wouldn’t have received much attention, but newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed up and gave a fiery speech that effectively launched the Green New Deal.

The GND’s program of social, economic, and climate justice was designed to fundamentally transform American society on a scale not seen since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. With initiatives to renovate buildings across the country, build a network of high-speed trains, and create public utilities to swiftly transition to renewable energy, the Green New Deal recognizes that swift change requires state action. But people won’t be left to adjust on their own. The plan includes a just transition for workers in affected industries like fossil fuels, and it would expand the social safety net with guaranteed public health insurance, mass construction of public and social housing, and an employment guarantee so anyone can get a good job helping in the effort.

Sunrise activists and backers like AOC not only emphasized that the Green New Deal would mean reviving communities in places like the Rust Belt — communities that had been crippled by economic decay — and that climate-proofing buildings and economies would materially improve their lives. Proponents also argued that the power to decide the future of their communities should rest in the communities’ hands, not in the boardrooms of Wall Street or Washington, D.C. Imagine, Green New Deal backers say, instead of having unaccountable, private utilities that cheap out on infrastructure to boost profits, setting off massive fires like PG&E has done in California, utilities were publicly owned and residents had a say in how they were managed, allowing them to provide input on decisions and feel pride in the new renewables being built in their communities. It’s proven to be a popular message — with 60% of voters supporting it, according to one poll last year.

Since that moment, nearly all of the Democratic presidential nominees have registered their support of some version of a Green New Deal, movements around the world have been inspired to develop their own ambitious climate proposals, and a range of books have hit shelves to make the case for the radical program. The Green New Deal came to dominate the climate policy discussions through 2019; now, as climate change fuels more destructive natural disasters around the world, the case needs to be made that only an ambitious, transformative proposal can offer hope for the future while protecting us from the worst possible outcomes. And these books make versions of that very case.

In The Case for the Green New Deal, economist Ann Pettifor lays out the case for building a monetary system fit for a GND. Pettifor, who coined the name “Green New Deal,” spent a decade researching her system, and subsequently helped AOC develop her now-famous proposal. She argues that the current set of rules governing international trade and investment is designed to serve a small class of people who move vast amounts of money around the world in search of the highest returns, while effectively promoting the privatization of public services and decimation of local economies. To address that, she advocates placing controls on those transfers of large sums of money, which would give national governments more leverage to invest in the domestic economy for a swift green transition, and challenges our obsession with economic growth — largely a post-World War II development.

Images: Verso; Naomi Klein

If Pettifor provides crucial technical know-how needed to successfully implement such an ambitious program, then the activist Naomi Klein backs it up with the moral case for action in On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, a collection of essays inspired by and written during a decade of climate activism.

To Klein, the author of works like No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, our choice is not between the status quo or a Green New Deal, but between climate barbarism, a dystopic future that would “rank the relative value of human lives in order to justify the monstrous discarding of huge swaths of humanity,” and a fundamental transformation of our social and economic model. A failure to substantively and swiftly address climate change will only fuel racist border policies designed to keep out refugees fleeing its life-altering effects, the beginnings of which we already see on the border between the United States and Mexico, in Europe, and the Pacific. Easy technological fixes won’t save us either, as the sector has become addicted “to the algorithms of envy, relentless corporate surveillance, and spiraling online misogyny and white supremacy,” as Klein writes.

But in A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos show us how a Green New Deal just might.

InIn the foreword to A Planet to Win, Klein reminds us that previous working-class policy breakthroughs during the Great Depression and the civil rights movement were not handed down by elites, but were the product of demands from below that were dismissed as “impossible and impractical” — until they became reality. Each of those moments “were times of rupture when the utopian imagination was unleashed — times when people dared to dream big, out loud, in public, together.” Now we’ve arrived at another.

By resurrecting the memory of the New Deal, AOC, Bernie Sanders, grassroots organizations, and other supporters are challenging the narratives that justify a market-fundamentalist and billionaire-friendly project with new stories that force us to recall how public investment can be deployed in the service of the social good. Today’s movements are drawing from the past, just as demonstrators in the Gilded Age were inspired by the Paris Commune, the two-month period in 1871 when the working class took control of the city. The guillotine memes on Twitter and TikTok imploring viewers to “eat the rich” take the ideas of the French Revolution and remix them for our present moment. Yet the Green New Deal isn’t simply pulling from the past — it’s inspiring a brighter future.

The writers of A Planet to Win slam “the erudite self-loathing of so much climate writing in the liberal press,” and assert the need for a radical Green New Deal fueled by “unions, social movements, Indigenous peoples, racial justice groups, and others to take back public power from the elites who’ve presided over the climate emergency.” It’s hard not to agree, in light of the fact that yet another effort to secure global climate progress was stymied by major polluters at last year’s UN climate talks. Their radical approach means tackling “root causes rather than merely addressing symptoms,” and that means not shying away from the challenges ahead.

One of the biggest is how to reduce the carbon footprint of transport, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The dominant view, often voiced by corporate titans who would profit from overhauling the vehicle fleet and higher-income people who don’t want to mix with other commuters, is that we need to switch to electric vehicles. But that also ignores the harm created by automobiles. Over 36,000 people were killed by cars in the United States in 2017, and the least-threatening road users — poor, young, elderly, minorities — are disproportionately affected. And while getting everyone in an electric car would reduce tailpipe emissions, building all those batteries would generate a mining boom centered in developing countries, outsourcing the burden to those workers, communities, and their local environments.

By contrast, social movements and racial justice groups have been pushing for massive investments in public transit as the solution to transport emissions. While electric vehicle subsidies primarily benefit high-income households, transit investments usually benefit low-income and minority groups most. Transit also moves people much more efficiently through urban space, and the more people take it, the fewer cars would be in the way of buses. At a time when New York City is hiring a ton of new transit cops, these groups are rightfully asking why, in the face a climate emergency, that money isn’t going to making transit free and increasing service, instead of penalizing people who are already too poor to afford the fare.

Dismantling the fossil fuel industry, overhauling work, challenging misleading technological solutions, and grappling with the oppression and pollution baked into international supply chains will not be easy, but in A Planet to Win the authors assert that together, anything is possible — and you believe them.

AAronoff, Battistoni, Aldana Cohen, and Riofrancos are not calling for complex, focus-group-tested policies developed by technocrats with little connection to people’s lived reality. They present clear plans focused not just on reviving communities, but giving local people the power to seize their destinies. Elites who say climate change is too abstract for people to understand are wrong; the problem is that people have been “stripped of their power,” which is why the goal “isn’t to give Washington, D.C., more power for centralization’s sake, but for federal spending to empower communities at various scales to better control their own lives.”

For local communities to wield that power in service of change, they must be free to imagine a better future, and one of the ways to do that is to revive programs that provide support for working-class artists. Klein reminds us in On Fire that the arts funding in the New Deal challenged “the prevalent idea that art belonged exclusively to the wealthy” by supporting “tens of thousands of painters, musicians, photographers, playwrights, filmmakers, actors, authors, and a huge array of craftspeople,” who produced nearly 475,000 works of visual art and 225,000 musical performances seen by 150 million Americans. At a time when art has become a store of wealth for billionaires and the creative industries have been consolidated by massive corporations, a commitment to arts funding directed at the working class would be transformative in ways we can scarcely imagine. But even in advance of that, the Green New Deal is producing visions of a hopeful future.

A Planet to Win spends most of its time focusing on the next 10 years, but it opens with a disaster response scenario that illustrates how a renewed public sector combined with the climate mitigation plans in the Green New Deal could create a very different outcome if another Katrina-sized hurricane were to hit New Orleans. It’s an example of a climate narrative that’s far too rare, combining “scientific realism with positive political and technological change,” but the hope created by the Green New Deal is starting to generate more of them. In August, AOC released two posters in the style of the New Deal era that showed trains speeding through a Bronx forest dotted with wind turbines and a park in Queens bringing together families, friends, and workers. They followed an even more powerful video, positioned as a “message from the future,” narrated by AOC and illustrated by Molly Crabapple, that described just how much the Green New Deal could succeed in transforming American society.

TThe Green New Deal is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally overhaul the social, economic, and environmental status quo. While Pettifor offers valuable advice on crafting a new monetary and fiscal framework for such an endeavor, and Klein recounts the past decade of climate developments, Aronoff, Battistoni, Aldana Cohen, and Riofrancos urgently and concisely broaden our political horizons. They’re not distracted by abstract visions of 2050 and beyond, but lay out how a radical Green New Deal could give power back to regular people while addressing the climate crisis over the course of this decade.

No longer will we need to settle for bankrupt futures put forward by billionaires who do little more than greenwash their unsustainable consumption patterns and protect themselves ahead of the climate apocalypse they’re fueling. For the first time in decades, regular people are being given the tools to imagine and action their own future — and with scientists warning we have less than 10 years to get our house in order, we can’t afford to let it pass.

A Planet to Win declares “the age of climate gradualism is over.” It’s time to embrace a radical Green New Deal and take back the future.

Critic of tech futures and host of Tech Won’t Save Us:

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