Before Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion dragged the British public and politicians kicking and screaming towards the realities of climate change a bold new rescue plan, the Green New Deal (GND) was already gaining substantial support on both sides of the Atlantic. A proposed economic stimulus package aimed at addressing the twin calamities of rising temperatures and economic inequality, the GND in the United States is supported by some (not all) of the Democrat Party; in particular Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

PICTURE: Dave Young

What’s it all about?
Thomas Friedman gave the concept an early outing in the New York Times (2007): “If you have put a windmill in your yard or some solar panels on your roof, bless your heart. But we will only green the world when we change the very nature of the electricity grid – moving it away from dirty coal or oil to clean coal and renewables. And that is a huge industrial project.” 

Vox News summarises the core GND principles thus: “Decarbonization, jobs, and justice…”

“A 10-year national mobilization… guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security”

“Providing resources, training, and high-quality education”

“Meeting 100% of power demand through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources”

“Repairing and upgrading infrastructure… and overhauling transportation systems”

“Working collaboratively with farmers to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions”

Adherents and dissenters
Economist Stephanie Kelton argues that natural resources are limited, whereas money is an abstract concept, “a legal and social tool that should be marshalled to provide for sustainable public policies, including tax incentives and targeted taxes, a new public bank or system of regional and specialised public banks.”

However fellow academic Edward Barbier, who developed the “Global Green New Deal” proposal for the United Nations Environment Programme, opposes “a massive federal jobs program. The government would end up doing more and more of what the private sector and industry should do.”

One of the main criticisms of GND by opponents and climate change deniers is the – undoubtedly colossal – financial cost of any remedial action. 

GND is antithetical to free market zealots who view shareholder value and constant consumer-driven growth as unchallengeable absolutes. Hardly surprising since, unforgivably, that parochial financial model has been taught to the exclusion of all alternatives in university economics courses since before Francis Fukuyama unwisely proclaimed the end of history. If you think the GND impractical, try dealing with three degrees of global temperature rise…

Rebutting selective criticism
Why, asks Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, do such questions arise only in connection with useful, not wasteful ideas? What about Trump’s $2 trillion tax giveaway to billionaires in the US; or funding Trident nuclear submarines (supported by the Labour Party) in the UK? 

Isn’t the latter just a backdoor form of corporate welfare, a state financed catalyst to private sector profit? If defence spending and motorway widening can be subsidised from the public purse so too could a nationwide household insulation and solar panel programme. We’ve witnessed Quantitative Easing to bail out banks during the 2008 recession, why not QE to deal with the climate emergency? 

Public, not private
The overarching point is that the private companies in a free market cannot be trusted to provide the salvation of our planet. In future, governments will have, at the very least, to be unashamedly interventionist to alter national economies to become sustainable.

We should all alter our behaviours, but the scale of change required is beyond individual efforts. It must be systemic, and to achieve public support focus particularly on the dispossessed residents of former manufacturing and mining areas.

To implement a GND requires proactive governmental strategies to radically transform our interactions with the ecosystem; driven by a structural transformation of the finance sector through statutory legislation backed by judicial enforcement.

Growing awareness
Despite a timid BBC continually pushing green issues down the news agenda, climate change is currently high in the public consciousness. Possible solutions such as GND are currently less evident but encouragingly a political consensus on the subject is emerging among some enlightened mainstream politicians. The UK Green party has long promoted and supported GND; recently a spokesperson for a new group, Labour for a Green New Deal said: “Climate change is fundamentally about class, because it means chaos for the many while the few profit.”

This campaign calls for a region-specific green jobs guarantee, significant expansion of public ownership and democratic control of industry, as well as mass investment in public infrastructure. They are also in discussions with founding members of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led group at the forefront of GND activism in the US.

In a recent Guardian article Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas and Laura Sandys (former Conservative MP for South Thanet) said: “The climate crisis is an emergency… business as usual is now in effect a form of ‘climate appeasement’.” 

Urging other politicians to address heatwaves, droughts, and rising sea levels they suggest the UK takes a lead: “The moral authority from the world-leading cross-party Climate Change Act of 2008… allowed successive (UK) governments to have international influence. We need to increase
our ambition, set out a clear plan and make challenging decisions now.”

Glimmer of hope
Mired in Brexit and crushed by austerity, people in the UK are desperate for a unifying idea; GND – far from perfect or even fully developed – at least offers hope. Our leaders can make a difference, but they must be coherent. Credibility does not come from concurrently declaring a climate emergency and approving a new runway at Heathrow.

If the UK really wants to punch above its weight in world affairs (an oft-stated Tory party aspiration) committing to a GND provides a positive way to do so. However, a final note of caution, changing capitalism may not be sufficient, it may have to be replaced, and that’s a very different prospect.

• Further reading:

The Original New Deal

Largely based on the ideas of economist John Maynard Keynes and initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression and another man-made climate disaster, the Dust Bowl. These revolutionary Keynesian monetary policies enabled his administration to deploy fiscal policy to fund industrial, agricultural and public works projects – such as the Hoover Dam – during the 1930s, assisting the domestic economy and creating millions of jobs. 

There were similar, if less ambitious, government-funded infrastructure programmes in the UK. In Hastings, reservoirs, Bottle Alley and the boating lake were built to tackle local unemployment and improve the town. 

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