Winning the Green New Deal we need

December 12, 2018

Zachary Alexis argues that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s proposal provides activists with an opportunity to organize a powerful social movement against climate change.

A NEW proposal for a Green New Deal is breathing life into the climate justice movement.

Incoming Democratic Rep. and Democratic Socialist of America member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is pushing for a large-scale, government-led transformation of U.S. energy systems away from fossil fuels by 2030, with a plan intended to benefit the working class and communities of color in the U.S.

In tandem, activists for climate justice have kick-started a new wave of protest. Hundreds of activists from the Sunrise Movement are taking action this week in Washington, D.C., to support Ocasio Cortez’s proposal.

These protests are aimed squarely at the top leadership of the Democratic Party, which so far has rebuffed efforts to get the party to refuse donations from the fossil fuel industry and sign on to the Green New Deal plan.

Protesters demand a Green New Deal outside the offices of leading House Democrats
Protesters demand a Green New Deal outside the offices of leading House Democrats (Becker1999 | flickr)

Sunrise activists made a media splash last month when 200 of them occupied future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s congressional offices — an action whose profile was boosted when both Ocasio-Cortez and fellow incoming democratic socialist Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who has a record of fighting for climate justice against the Koch Brothers in Detroit — showed up to support it.

This week’s Sunrise actions are the latest in a surge of protest in the U.S. and elsewhere as activists push forward with a new sense of urgency driven by a landslide of sobering news about climate change.

This year has seen a series of alarming and deadly disasters fueled by climate change, including the summer’s deadly heat wave and wildfires in Europe, a brutal season of typhoons in the Pacific, Atlantic Hurricanes Florence and Michael and the recent wildfires in California.

Several mainstream institutions have issued recent dire warnings on climate, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) SR15 report, Volume II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment and the Global Carbon Project’s release of new data showing that global emissions increased again in 2018 — led by emissions growth in China, India and the U.S.

In Britain, activists have kicked off a new campaign called Extinction Rebellion, which, like Sunrise, relies on high-visibility sit-ins and civil disobedience. Meanwhile, thousands of protesters in Poland took to the streets as global elites gathered for the COP24 climate meetings — the latest UN-led effort to unite world governments to address the climate crisis.

IN THIS context, the Green New Deal proposal is a welcome development. Though somewhat opaque — calling for a special committee within the House of Representatives rather than a piece of legislation — Ocasio Cortez’s proposal lays out a framework for a suite of climate solutions far to the left of anything mainstream Washington could have dreamed up.

It’s an initiative that, in the words of Sunrise Movement founder Varshini Prakash, “matches the scale and urgency” of the climate crisis.

According to the proposal, a Select Committee for a Green New Deal would have one year to develop an official plan, as well as accompanying legislation, for a large-scale economic, political and social mobilization around climate change in the U.S. The proposal lays out seven basic goals to be achieved by 2030, including:

100 percent of U.S. energy from renewable sources

Upgrades to building stock for increased energy efficiency, comfort and safety

Decarbonizing transportation, manufacturing and agriculture while improving infrastructure

Massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases

Making “green” industries a major export of the U.S. to help other countries transition to carbon-neutral economies

These goals should be achieved, according to the proposal, via public-financing mechanisms and public and cooperative ownership structures, with an added goal “to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States,” using measures such as:

Guarantees to all workers of a living wage job, basic income and universal health care

Support to regions and communities that currently depend on the fossil fuel industry

Protection of Indigenous nations and communities

Mitigation of the “deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth” by prioritizing solutions for communities most affected by climate change, pollution and other environmental harm

The select committee would be required to produce Green New Deal legislation in line with this vision by early 2020 — in time to be a topic of debate for the next U.S. presidential election.

SOCIALISTS CAN and should disagree with Ocasio-Cortez’s ahistorical and uncritical praise of the original New Deal — including how it was a reluctant response to mass social upheaval and made disastrous concessions to racism.

But we should also recognize the Green New Deal (GND) proposal as a tremendous opportunity to organize around the most comprehensive and radical climate reform proposal put forward to date on a national level — not just in the U.S., but possibly anywhere.

Proposals for a GND have been floating around for years, most notably in Green Party campaigns run by Jill Stein and Howie Hawkins.

In content, the GND framework shares a great deal with the Just Transition and Million Climate Jobs proposals developed by environmental justice groups and labor unions in South Africa and around the world.

The basic idea is to combine safeguarding the environment by lowering carbon emissions with government-sponsored economic stimulus activity to create jobs, improve people’s material well-being, and address historic racial and economic inequalities.

It is significant that this sort of proposal is now ruffling feathers of establishment politicians in Washington. Like the rising Medicare for All movement, the Green New Deal is an indication of the left’s growth and expanding ideological reach in U.S. society.

Recent polling shows a deep well of untapped popular support for GND-type proposals. In this moment of incredible urgency around environmental degradation, socialists everywhere should celebrate the fact that movement-friendly politicians are creating space for activists to rally around a positive vision for the climate future we want.

As leading environmental activist and writer Naomi Klein put it in The Intercept:

We now have a something that has been sorely missing: a concrete plan on the table, complete with a science-based timeline, that is not only coming from social movements on the outside of government, but which also has a sizable (and growing) bloc of committed champions inside the House of Representatives.

YET WHILE it is backed by movement energy and cleverly designed to force Democratic Party leaders to take a stand and not hide behind their favorite bogeyman of “Republican obstructionism,” Ocasio-Cortez’s plan has contradictions.

By linking its timeline to the next presidential election, the proposal ties climate activists’ hopes to the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party. And it’s far from clear whether all of the GND’s new supporters in the Democratic Party are going to be as “committed champions” as Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez in pushing this fight through a hostile party leadership.

On the one hand, the Green New Deal proposal puts forward a radical vision for breaking with existing social and economic practices and power structures. On the other hand, it does so in a way that reinforces the legitimacy of those very same power structures.

This is a contradiction that the movement needs to work through — and it is one that demands the active engagement of socialists, fighting for movement independence and against compromises in the name of political expediency.

We should already recognize that activists can draw the right lessons to advance the struggle, as reflected in Sunrise’s aggressive targeting of top Democratic leaders. Shortly after Sunrise’s first sit-in at Pelosi’s office, the group issued a statement that read, in part:

Words are not enough. 42 have perished in Pelosi’s own home state of California from drought-driven fires in the last few days alone. Her solution is to resurrect a committee with no funding and no power to take legislative action. Ten years ago, Democrats tried this tepid strategy. Before a comprehensive plan was even finalized, fossil fuel executives and lobbyists swarmed to the table, diluting every proposal...

What we need now are leaders ready to pass legislation that matches the scale and urgency of this crisis... All appointed members to this committee must reject campaign contributions from fossil fuel CEOs. If Pelosi fails to issue this mandate, it’s time to step aside.

In this way, struggles around a Green New Deal can expose the uncomfortable co-existence of a new socialist movement growing up in close connection to a Democratic Party that opposes its proposals and activities.

Activists are challenging liberal politicians who talk a good game on climate, but who have yet to support the transformative changes that are obviously needed — and who are compromised by ties to the fossil fuel industry. This is a significant step forward — one that will continue to develop in a positive direction if the struggle grows, and with the active participation of more socialists.

Rather than the left retreating into despair or cynicism given the latest climate news, the movement needs our energy, involvement and politics more than ever.

SOCIALISTS SHOULD think creatively about how to deepen this new wave of struggle.

As Naomi Klein and others have pointed out, Ocasio-Cortez’s committee has little chance of becoming reality — despite garnering support from 22 other members of Congress as of this writing. Already, Democratic Party bigwigs — almost all of whom take significant donations from carbon-intensive industries — have pushed back against the plan, calling it “unrealistic” and “technologically impossible.”

Without the growth of a sustained movement that builds on the work of Sunrise to challenge the status quo, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal runs the risk of joining a long tradition of doomed legislation put forward by progressive Democrats in order to bolster their left-wing credibility while operating inside a largely hostile party.

If the new House Democratic leadership torpedoes the Green New Deal committee, we should consider Naomi Klein’s suggestion to “set up some sort of parallel Constituent Assembly-like body to get the plan drafted anyway.”

As Klein writes, the movement has a growing “infrastructure of scientific, technical, [and] political...expertise” to draw on for such efforts. One can envision a process of organizing popular convergences that gather testimony from left-wing scientists and economists, community members, labor activists, migrants displaced by disaster and many others — and that synthesize this testimony into a national proposal for a Green New Deal.

In recent years, as more people have gravitated toward left-wing ideas and combative social struggles, new organizations like Science for the People and The Red Nation have emerged that are helping to solidify these gains. These groups will likely play a role in our future climate struggles, as will others that have not yet come into existence.

Socialists today should do our best to knit together these forces, build new relationships and make the vision of a movement-led Green New Deal a reality.

We, alongside thousands of other climate activists, should take Ocasio-Cortez’s words to heart when she said that climate struggles are likely to be

the civil rights movement of our generation...The only way we are going to get out of this situation is by choosing to be courageous...[W]e can use the transition to 100 percent renewable energy as the vehicle to truly deliver and establish economic, social and racial justice in the United States.

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