Time for Climate Justice

In an unprecedented move that would shock millions and capture national media attention, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) joined a sit-in at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on November 13, 2018 alongside Sunrise Movement, a new environmental group led by young people who are working to make climate change a national priority. Their call: the formation of a select committee on a Green New Deal. But what exactly is the GND?

Reminiscent of the New Deal policies enacted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, the GND aims to enact a slew of programs to address climate change within the broader context of racial and socioeconomic inequality. Since its debut following the 2018 midterm elections, the GND has gained public traction; a survey by Yale University shows support for the GND among 81 percent of all registered voters.

Released on February 7, 2019 and sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the full text of the GND resolution has won the support of 89 co-sponsors in the House and 11 in the Senate. Alongside the primary call for a complete shift towards renewable energy, the plan also addresses the need for universal healthcare, increased monopoly protection, and infrastructure investments, with a focus on communities that are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change: poor and disadvantaged peoples.

The growing call for the GND represents not only a shift in popular environmentalist messaging toward an emphasis on social justice, but also the emergence of a bold new populist wing of the Democratic Party that is bringing racial and socioeconomic equality to the forefront of the Democratic agenda.

Unpacking the Green New Deal

The GND purposefully alludes to the popular New Deal policies passed under FDR. Among the 47 total programs passed as part of the New Deal were those establishing Social Security and a federal minimum wage. The New Deal aimed to address the national crisis of the time, the Great Depression. By allocating billions of dollars toward funding various social and economic programs, the New Deal ultimately succeeded in reinvigorating the economy. Similarly, the GND aims to address the greatest crisis of the 21st century, the threat of climate catastrophe, by calling for a World War II-esque economic mobilization effort. This effort entails using American industry to produce new carbon-neutral and renewable energy infrastructure while providing workers with higher wages and benefits.

While often celebrated for its progressive policies, the New Deal’s implementation actually reinforced racial disparities. Although some New Deal programs did benefit African-Americans, the New Deal was designed largely to serve the suburban white population of the United States. Infamously, the Federal Housing Administration blocked assistance for African-Americans who had applied for housing in predominantly white neighborhoods, intensifying segregation. Additionally, FDR refused to include anti-lynching laws due to concerns that this would make it harder for the New Deal to pass in the South.

The GND, by contrast, aims to fill the racial gap left by the original New Deal by acknowledging climate change’s disproportionate impact on minorities. It also specifically addresses poor people and women. In an interview with the HPR, Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, explained that the GND would address four systemic national crises: skyrocketing inequality, deepening structural racism, catastrophic climate change, and the takeover of American democracy by the ultra-rich and corporations. Initiatives such as carbon pricing, a federal jobs guarantee, universal health care, and a $15 minimum wage can all be included under this umbrella. The proposed programs would be designed to ease the stresses of an economic transition to dependence on renewable energy, while ensuring that no one is left behind. “That means financial support and training programs, for example,” explained Cassady Craighill, senior communications specialist for Greenpeace USA, in an interview with the HPR. Within a broader “focus on creating new jobs and economic opportunities,” this also means ensuring that the transitioning electricity, transportation, industrial, and building sectors “actually provide living wages — wages that sustain a family — good benefits, and job security.”

A Strategic Call for Climate Justice

Unlike other calls for environmental legislation, the GND portrays government action in a favorable light, with the potential to not only prevent catastrophic climate disaster but also build a future that is clean, safe, and equitable. “Generally, in the climate movement, the demands are all negative,” Shahid said, “meaning like ‘keep fossil fuels in the ground,’ or ‘don’t build the keystone pipeline’ or ‘don’t pass the TPP’ … Those are all necessary fights, but they aren’t visionary or forward thinking.”

The GND has maintained widespread public appeal by remaining vague about what specific programs will be included. “The fact that the Green New Deal is still sort of a nebulous idea works in our favor because it means that people on the front lines of climate change really still have an opportunity to define what it is,” said Craighill. Communities threatened by rising sea levels in Florida could advocate for more affordable housing, towns ravaged by wildfires in California could demand stricter forestry regulations, indigenous peoples in North Dakota could call for an end to oil pipelines, and coal miners in West Virginia could fight for new job training programs. The open and ambitious prospect of the GND leaves room for people from diverse industries and communities across the country to realize their environmental and economic priorities.

Tackling racial injustice and wealth inequality has also been central to the GND’s messaging, further distinguishing the proposal from more traditional calls for climate legislation. “The truth is, rich people like Trump can survive climate change,” said Craighill. Although the super rich and the largest corporations continue to contribute to climate change the most, they are more or less immune from its effects, while those who suffer the most are the poor who contribute the least. “If we don’t first reckon with the environmental injustice that is climate change,” continued Craighill, “then we won’t have made the progress that can match the scale of the climate crisis.”

Changing the Brand of Democratic Politics

The growing popularity of the GND reflects a growing populist movement within the Democratic Party. Policies such as Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and free public college that were once considered fringe ideas now seem mainstream. Justice Democrats, an organization dedicated to placing a new wave of progressive politicians in Congress and who backed Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional run, rejects corporate PAC money and supports a bold populist platform that includes the GND. Ocasio-Cortez and other recently elected Justice Democrats have already brought the new energy of their progressive agenda to Congress; their outspokenness has left their more traditional colleagues scrambling for control.

As these new progressives shake up Congress, their push for a GND has met organized opposition from within the Democratic Party and its centrist leadership. Although climate change is a central issue in the Democratic Party platform, not every Democrat has enthusiastically signed onto the idea for a GND. Only 45 out of 235 House Democrats publicly supported establishing a select committee for a GND before Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the decision to create the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis last December.

To the dismay of the GND coalition, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis created by Pelosi will not have concrete legislative authority and is unable to issue subpoenas or bring bills to a vote on the House floor. Nor will the committee bar members who receive campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry, a key component of Sunrise Movement’s proposal. To lead the committee, Pelosi appointed Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), a Congresswoman who had not previously signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. Following pushback from progressives, however, Castor has since pledged to reject all future fossil fuel contributions.

“What we are seeing now is not an honest, rigorous discussion between public intellectuals and scientists,” Shahid said of the Democratic politics around the GND. “Instead, what we are seeing at Washington is a battle over turf [and] over norms” with more senior Democrats reluctant to relinquish legislative power to progressive newcomers.

This reluctance was on clear display last December when Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) purposefully blocked Justice Democrat Ro Khanna’s (D-Calif.) bill to bring broadband internet access to rural communities over a personal dispute on Khanna’s support for a GND. Pallone is the chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, which is usually tasked with climate-change legislation. He has been adamantly against the formation of a committee for a GND, arguing that it would hinder progress in existing committees. Pallone and other members of Congress from committees such as Natural Resources and Transportation — Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), respectively — have also questioned the GND committee’s necessity.

Whether the GND’s opposition is rooted mainly in ideological concerns or ‘turf wars,’ centrist Democrats are already feeling electoral pushback from the pro-GND movement. Recently, Beto O’Rourke, a potential candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, was widely scrutinized by progressives over his vote to lift offshore oil drilling bans and his violation of the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. “We’re now living in a stage where it is a political liability to deny climate change,” said Craighill, “but it could also be a political liability to not support serious proposals to solve it and that is a good thing for all of us and definitely because we have more progressive people in the [Democratic] Party and in Congress.”

While the Democrats continue disputing the merits of a GND, the policy seems fully capable of appealing to independents and Republicans. Yale University found that 64 percent of registered Republican voters surveyed expressed support for the GND. Additionally, the GND has large implications for the agricultural industry, which accounts for approximately 9 percent of all U.S. GHG emissions and is largely Republican. The GND’s appeal to this sector reflects the possibility of new and vital support for emerging Democrats’ progressive policies if they are willing to listen to the concerns of those traditionally outside of their voter base.

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, told the HPR that the GND’s broad agenda has had a mixed reception with farmers. He stressed the importance of including public funding for technological research and development in the GND and that the GND’s components must be science-based and justifiable. Reducing the carbon footprint of the agricultural industry starts with farmers adopting more environmentally sound techniques, such as the planting of cover crops, multi-species farming, and enhanced crop rotations. However, “given the economic stress that agriculture is facing today, many farmers are in a position where they can’t afford to do these things,” Johnson said. “If you want to make progress, we strongly believe that we need to get the incentives right, so that climate change can be dealt with in a meaningful fashion, with sort of a minimum of regulatory requirements but a maximum of incentive-based practices.” Strong financial incentives could encourage farmers to adopt more sustainable practices. These incentivized practices would be both environmentally effective and minimally burdensome for farmers, creating a low-risk and high-reward situation.

A Race Against Time

“The IPCC report that warns we only have 11 years left now to solve climate change also says that we can solve it,” Craighill stated. “We do have reasons for hope … this is a real ‘make or break’ moment for our climate right now.”

While the time to take effective action on climate change appears to be running out, the fight to do so is far from over. The United Nations’ IPCC report and the latest National Climate Assessment, which forecasted hundreds of billions of dollars in climate-related damage to the United States by the end of the century due to intensified natural disasters and harms to public health, have brought a renewed sense of urgency to activist groups and environmental organizations. Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement, and other progressive organizations are mobilizing the public and pressuring politicians to be climate leaders.

“Young people know that we’ll be the ones to carry the burden of climate disaster. We don’t have time for games over turf and norms and what’s respectable or the right procedure,” said Shahid. The next decade of climate policy will shape the world in which today’s youth lead their adult lives.

With major implications for what future climate legislation will bring, the 2020 election may prove crucial in determining who and how many will survive climate disaster. Many Americans will be looking for bold climate leadership in the 2020 presidential slate. While traditional environmental groups may be more inclined to work with existing procedures and support centrist Democrats, Justice Democrats and outspoken members of Congress like Ocasio-Cortez are not shying away from debate. For them and their supporters, business-as-usual politics and watered-down climate legislation simply will not cut it anymore. With hundreds of billions of dollars on the line, millions of lives at risk, and entire ecosystems in danger, the GND may be a part of the very solution to climate injustice and catastrophe that the world so desperately needs.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Matthew T. Rader

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