Roughly six million people across the planet participated in the Global Climate Strike last September, inspired by the sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and organized by a rising social movement of young people who ask why they should go to school every day when adults seem hell-bent on destroying their future. The demonstration, which spanned 163 countries and all seven continents, was the largest climate protest in history.
The surge of youth leadership is not the only reason the climate movement has gained momentum. Ecological crises made worse by global warming—devastating wildfires in Australia, ferocious hurricanes in the Caribbean—are unfolding faster and more violently than all but the most alarmed scientists and activists anticipated, even as recently as a decade ago. Back then, Barack Obama was in the White House, and while with one hand he patiently steered the nation toward the historic, if faltering, Paris Agreement of 2015, with the other he proudly helped the fossil fuel industry turn the US into the world’s leading oil producer. Most leaders of affluent countries acted in kind. They went to Davos and the United Nations and preached the gospel of resiliency and sustainability. They called for a transition to renewable energy and pledged to help developing nations adapt to the treacherous conditions produced by emissions from the developed world. Then they went about business as usual, while the people and corporations they represented continued to burn through the carbon budget and threaten species of all varieties, across the planet.
Since the Paris Agreement a torrent of frightening scientific reports and catastrophic climate events has worn away the appeal of any gradual, polite approach to reform.1 Climate advocates have found it difficult to mobilize effectively. Their demands can come across as appeals for reducing personal consumption. Cut down on air conditioning. Don’t eat meat. Fly less. Drive less. Move into a smaller home. Thus far, appeals like this have failed to inspire the global movement that we need to combat climate change.
More and more activists, including many of the Global Climate Strike participants, see the Green New Deal (GND) as our best chance for doing so. The GND was conceived in 2007 by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, but today it is most associated with New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who introduced it as a congressional resolution with Massachusetts senator Edward J. Markey in February 2019. Their resolution enumerates the core concerns of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), identifies the United States as “responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions,” states that global warming has “exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental, and economic injustices,” and warns that “climate change constitutes a direct threat to the national security of the United States”—all shocking sentences to read in a government document. More controversially, it calls for a vast set of policy objectives for American legislators, including rapid decarbonization of the economy, which would require a full federal commitment to renewable energy systems and steep taxes on fossil fuels; an enormous public works project, with new infrastructure for housing, transit, and climate security creating millions of good jobs; economic reparations for historic discrimination against indigenous communities and people of color; the right to unionize; and a guarantee of better working conditions, including family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security for all.
When the Green New Deal was introduced in Congress, the backlash was immediate, with criticisms that it was overambitious, implausible, and not worthwhile. Yet within months, every leading Democratic presidential candidate had embraced some version of the proposal. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris cosponsored the GND in the Senate.2 In the US, Canada, and much of Europe, the GND is the rare utopian idea that feels suddenly, surprisingly, plausible: structural change that, like its predecessor, FDR’s New Deal, could actually happen. Like that remarkable legislative package, the Green New Deal aims to make infrastructure the engine of transformation. It’s predicated on the idea that protecting the earth and restoring economic opportunity require rebuilding the systems that make modern life possible.
Three new books, Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Jedediah Purdy’s This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth, and Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos’s A Planet to Win, argue that nothing less than a Green New Deal will allow future generations to live well on this planet. Purdy’s is a soulful work of political theory based on a lecture he delivered at the New York Institute for the Humanities in 2018. Klein’s is a collection of incendiary essays, speeches, and dispatches from her visits to Puerto Rico, the Vatican, and the Great Barrier Reef—some of the front lines of the climate movement—that were originally published in progressive outlets like The Guardian and The Intercept over the past ten years. A Planet to Win, which includes a foreword by Klein, offers a blueprint for how a GND could transform the global political economy and an argument that nothing short of this will stave off a climate crisis.
Klein’s 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, became a touchstone of progressive climate activism. It’s the single strongest statement we have for why carbon-fueled capitalism (or “extractivism”), with its imperative of relentless growth and exploitation, is fundamentally incompatible with ecological sustainability and social justice. Klein skewers not only neoliberal policymakers and fossil fuel companies, but also “Big Green” organizations, including the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund, for accepting funds from major polluters and failing to support rapid decarbonization. Her title is her argument: if we want to escape the climate catastrophe, nothing short of radical change will do.
The Green New Deal is the policy that Klein could not quite envision in This Changes Everything, and On Fire should be read as that book’s coda. Klein now sees the GND as the only realistic way to address the current climate emergency. She advocates a sweeping, comprehensive GND—one that includes an extensive social reorganization through new infrastructure, decarbonization, wealth redistribution, reparations, resource sharing, guaranteed jobs, child care, and healthcare for all. Strategies like carbon taxation, cap and trade, and urban planning for extreme weather and disasters are, she says, insufficient and doomed to fail. Klein does not propose specific policies or analyze the details of current GND proposals. But the sum total of her demands—the things we “must” do to manage the climate crisis and promote social equity—would place her somewhere to the left of AOC and Bernie Sanders. “Change everything” remains her rallying cry.
At first glance, On Fire is nowhere near as ambitious as Klein’s other books. After its rousing introduction, the book is a mishmash of short, uneven pieces on subjects ranging from suffocating wildfires on the West Coast to the 2015 papal encyclical on climate. It does not propose a master narrative to explain the current situation. It lacks the deep reporting that distinguishes her most influential work. It’s repetitive and unfairly dismissive of some genuinely difficult scientific and political questions that deserve more open debate: To what extent should we invest in or begin regulating geo-engineering projects for sunlight reflection to cool the earth or cloud brightening to refreeze warming polar regions, if they become necessary? How will states compel citizens to consume differently and reduce what are, for now, the conventional standards of good living? And how do we build the common ground that is necessary for tackling the climate crisis, and persuade people who are not already behind the Green New Deal that it’s our best hope?
Yet Klein is a talented polemicist, and On Fire is a powerful manifesto. Readers with a more scholarly disposition may be put off by her admonitions and instructions, but Klein isn’t trying to win over the seminar room or the swing voter. She wants to catalyze a movement, and her gambit is that On Fire will be as effective for today’s political fight over climate as her 1999 book, No Logo, was in the anti-globalization campaign. What it will not do is persuade skeptics, including people who care about global warming but don’t share Klein’s politics, that a GND is politically feasible, given the vehement right-wing opposition to it as well as the enormous costs associated with the Covid-19 pandemic response and recovery. It offers no coherent strategy for overcoming partisan opposition to progressive environmental and economic policies, no likely pathways to the more just, sustainable world Klein wants to build. This is unfortunate, because we’re unlikely to get a Green New Deal without a widespread, reinvigorated belief in public goods, such as programs to promote healthy cities and environments.
But the coronavirus pandemic has upended conventional politics and created possibilities for genuine social change, albeit in either direction. If ever there were an opportunity to advocate for new social and economic models, this is it.
Purdy, a legal scholar and theorist of democracy with a philosophical bent, shares Klein’s activist concerns but is deeply invested in the search for common ground. This Land Is Our Land begins with a problem of language. “In the years that I have been an adult,” Purdy writes, “homeland has grown from a word Americans did not really use to a slogan by which we are ruled.” The concept of homeland “suggests a place of deep unity, where we all come from, a kind of family.” What we have now is the very opposite: enmity, division, conflict, nationalism. Our commitment to shared things has dwindled. A society that once grew prosperous by investing in public goods, such as schools, universities, libraries, and mass transit systems, is now organized around private markets. The president declares that enormous sections of our national parks—at least one million acres in Bears Ears National Monument and some 800,000 acres in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—should no longer be protected from development, but should instead be mined for coal and uranium and drilled for oil and gas. His big idea for new infrastructure: build a wall.
In America’s approach to the climate crisis, the walls that block real engagement are both mental and physical. There is, Purdy notes, the towering wall of American climate change denial, conceived, funded, and manufactured by the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, whose research scientists identified the dangers of global warming back when there was ample time to stop or reverse it. After burying these findings, oil titans seeded the policy field with think tanks and public relations firms that generated just enough skepticism to stymie the push for investment in renewable energy sources. Though Purdy doesn’t dwell on it, the oil industry’s hugely profitable public relations campaign will likely cause more death and destruction than any lobbying effort in human history.3
As climate denial becomes untenable, conservative politicians are beginning to argue that tech firms and engineers have the tools we need to adapt, so ambitious government projects to decarbonize the energy system and shift consumption patterns won’t be necessary. Senator Marco Rubio, for instance, recently acknowledged that “Florida will be forced to continue making adjustments in the coming decades because of the changing climate,” but he rejected calls for the GND and other large mitigation efforts on the specious grounds that “the world is not going to end in 12 years as some climate alarmists claim.” Instead, he promised that “through proactive adaptation alone”—by which he means protecting vulnerable areas with walls, gates, and berms, rather than reducing greenhouse gas emissions—“Americans could reduce damage caused by climate change to coastal property through 2099 by 90 percent.” This is a dangerous illusion, not only because we lack the technology (and, absent a GND, the funding) for climate-proofing coastlines, but also because even the best oceanfront defenses cannot sustain our overheated cities, our agricultural system, our water supply, or marine life, all of which are in serious danger.
Purdy believes that reckoning with climate change demands a deeper and more comprehensive overhaul of our infrastructure, and This Land Is Our Land is an invitation to imagine the new world—and the new society—that this overhaul could produce. Drawing on a growing body of scholarly work on how the built environment influences social and economic action, Purdy defines infrastructure broadly.4 First, it is the set of engineered systems, including “roads, rails, utility lines, farmland, and housing,” that help determine where and how we engage with each other. Second, it is the “immaterial systems,” such as money, laws, and constitutions, that structure the economy and “in turn shape the global carbon cycle, the food system, mineral extraction,” and so forth. Finally, it is “the basic domains and cycles of the natural world: the global atmosphere, the water cycles and waterways, the soil and its fertility.” These, of course, are no longer fully natural. The idea of the Anthropocene is that we have remade the atmosphere, the waterways, the soil, the seas—and endangered ourselves in the process.
“We are creatures of our built environment, an infrastructure species,” Purdy writes. “By changing it, we change ourselves—change what we are to one another and to the planet.”5 Just as the places, systems, and networks we built to promote urban industrialism and global financial capitalism remade us socially and politically, so too will the systems that nations build to accomodate life in the new climate.
It matters whether societies choose walls or bridges; it matters whether, and how quickly, we leave oil in the ground and harness the power of sun and wind. Seawalls, like border walls, protect those on one side at the expense of all life on the other. Since Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, much of the focus of officials and engineers has been on protecting Manhattan, whose wealth, density, and expensive critical infrastructure are increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic flooding. Some barriers—including a series of giant berms for Lower Manhattan and a five-mile seawall for Staten Island—are already in the works.6 But depending on the design, walls that spare Manhattan or even New York City as a whole could redirect storm water and sediment toward other boroughs or states. It’s nearly impossible (and impossibly expensive) to build a network of walls that protects the entire agglomeration. They would have to end somewhere. The Jersey Shore? Delaware? Virginia? Imagine the response of states, cities, and citizens abandoned in the flood zone. Consider the varieties of environmental injustice ahead.
Some of these injustices are already upon us. Even within an affluent society such as the US, richer, more politically powerful states and cities frequently command more public resources for rebuilding and adapting after storms than poorer ones. According to a recent study of policy response to the string of powerful hurricanes of 2017, “The federal government responded on a larger scale and much more quickly across measures of federal money and staffing to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, compared with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The variation in the responses was not commensurate with storm severity and need after landfall.”7
States like California and New York have far more capacity to invest in adaptation measures than do other coastal states like North Carolina, South Carolina, or Louisiana—not to mention US territories like Puerto Rico. The disparities are greater, and more grotesque, in the developing world, including the Caribbean islands, whose exploitation helped produce the wealth that affluent nations now invest in their own climate security. One of the cruelest features of the climate crisis is that poor nations, which bear so little responsibility for global warming, are most susceptible to its effects.
Purdy is aware that inequality is the enemy of both domestic and international cooperation, which any fight against climate change will require. Instead of (or, perhaps, prior to) proposing familiar policy fixes, such as a wealth tax or reparations, he suggests we revive an older ideal, the “commonwealth,” which “might be an economy where no one gets their living by degrading someone else, nor by degrading the health of the land or the larger living world,” a community in which “the flourishing of everyone and everything would sustain the flourishing of each person,” and “a way of living in deep reciprocity as well as deep equality.” Such prose may rankle those who were put off by Purdy’s early communitarian writing in For Common Things (1999), but in This Land Is Our Land he uses policy ideas, not just philosophical ones, to make the case for a GND.
The Green New Deal, he writes, is best thought of as a jobs program; so, too, are the Department of Homeland Security and other large government projects: the Defense Department spent $250 billion on private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2007 and 2017, for instance, and the US continues to subsidize the oil and gas industry. An ambitious infrastructure project designed for sustainability, therefore, is actually consistent with recent American policy. What’s different about the GND, he says, “is the recognition that, in the Anthropocene, remaking the economy and remaking our relation to ecology are two sides of the same change.”
Ending fossil fuel subsidies is just the beginning. Purdy condemns states and the federal government for lax regulation of industrial agriculture, mining, and water management that result in dangerous pollution. He calls for shoring up massively popular environmental protections, including the Clean Water Act, that the Trump administration is rolling back. More innovatively, he insists that activists and policymakers recognize environmental injustices that are not usually framed as environmental. The Farm Bill, for instance, provides $65 billion in subsidies every five years to an industry that’s been quick to produce unhealthy food made from corn syrup and soybean oil, but slow to reduce carbon emissions or promote nutritious diets. Climate policy, Purdy understands, is not just what happens at the Environmental Protection Agency; it’s what we do with public transit, public housing, and public works. The Green New Deal is what brings everything together.
A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal is a collective endeavor, written by four young intellectuals (a journalist, a sociologist, and two political scientists) who are part of the climate movement they’re studying, and the tone of this short book is urgent and pragmatic. It’s also refreshingly optimistic and future-oriented, filled with specific ideas for how to decarbonize the energy system, build affordable housing and public transportation, expand parks and public recreation facilities, and renegotiate global trade regimes so that human rights and public health are properly valued. “Fighting for a new world starts with imagining it viscerally,” the authors write. Their portrait of a planet transformed by a GND is designed to spark that effort.
Aronoff, Battistoni, Cohen, and Riofrancos are motivated by the troublesome fact that we have very little time—roughly the ten years spanning the 2020s—to decarbonize the economy, lest we pump so much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere that catastrophic warming becomes irreversible. Following Bill McKibben, they note that the only way to do this is by burying fossil fuels, including those that are already primed for distribution. Taxing carbon to increase its price may help a little, but “a carbon price low enough to be politically viable won’t be high enough to transform global energy markets.”
What do we need in order to transform the energy system? First, the authors say, we need to pressure market analysts to factor the runaway costs of climate collapse into their valuations of fossil fuel companies. (This is already beginning to happen, thanks to the warnings of climate scientists and the fossil fuel divestment movement.) Second, we need the government to buy up majority shares of (devalued) energy company shares and quickly cut gas, oil, and coal production. (This seems far-fetched, given American political culture.) Third, we need a managed transition to renewable energy, so that current workers in the industry, and the communities that depend on them, gain security instead of losing ground. All of this, they concede, conflicts with the current direction of US energy policy. But they believe most Americans are eager for a radical break from our dirty sources of power, provided that the transition does not compromise reliable service or significantly increase prices. “We need to directly take on the fossil fuel companies and private utilities whose business models rest on making the planet uninhabitable,” they write. “We can’t avoid a confrontation.”
Industrial policy, not energy policy, is the key to making a politically appealing GND, and the most exciting parts of A Planet to Win describe what we can build in the name of sustainability, not what we need to bury. The authors worry about the fate of those who labor in the coal, oil, and gas sectors, and about the potent Republican political strategy of pitting workers against environmentalists. Their response is a rousing call for public works projects that would employ millions of people while also remaking more sustainable systems for electricity and transit. They propose building “10 million beautiful, public, no-carbon homes over the next 10 years, in cities, suburbs, reservations, and towns, in the most transit-rich and walkable areas.” Ambitious, yes. Realistic? Only if progressive states like California and New York change their retrograde zoning policies and eliminate the “Not in My Backyard” building restrictions that limit density in desirable areas. During the New Deal, the authors recall, “workers hired under the Works Progress Administration constructed 651,000 miles of highway and 124,000 bridges…. They built 125,000 public buildings, including 41,300 schools, and 469 airports. They built 8,000 parks, and 18,000 playgrounds and athletic fields.” Most Americans still rely on these aging resources.
Like Klein and Purdy, the authors of A Planet to Win champion a guaranteed jobs program. They also advocate restoring workers’ right to unionize. They see enormous needs for work in construction, maintenance, education, recreation, health care, child care, and ecological care. “The economic question is whether this work can be done profitably,” they proclaim. “Much of it, we submit, cannot.” As they see it, though, the current mode of production, based on extraction, exclusion, and exploitation, is even more ruinous. “For better and for worse,” they argue, “our choice now is between eco-socialism or eco-apartheid.” If we only have one decade to fix things, it’s time to chart a course. “We need to pose a simple question,” they conclude. “Which side are you on?”
Since this is an election year, we may soon have an answer. In the primaries, Democratic voters had an option to support candidates whose version of a Green New Deal looked similar to the one that the books discussed here champion. Instead, they chose Joe Biden, who has endorsed the GND framework but dismissed its bold call for rapid decarbonization as unrealistic; refused to incorporate public works, housing, and jobs programs into his environmental plan; and left the details of his sustainability commitments vague.
Some voters may believe that this is pragmatic. Surprisingly, surveys of American voters conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic suggest that a growing majority are open to a Green New Deal that pairs public spending and employment programs with efforts to combat climate change. In October YouGov and Data for Progress released the results of a national poll about how registered voters from both parties view different aspects of the plan. As The Atlantic reported, 59 percent of all respondents—and 52 percent of white voters without a college degree, a group once assumed to be against environmental programs—said they would strongly or somewhat support $1.5 trillion in federal spending to build wind and solar energy systems; 60 percent support investing more than $1 trillion “to weatherize homes and buildings to make them more energy-efficient and reduce energy bills”; and 60 percent support a ten-year, $2 trillion green-manufacturing scheme that would “aggressively encourage large American manufacturing firms to specialize in solar panels, wind turbines, and other climate-friendly technologies.” These are expensive proposals, and it’s not clear how much support they will get in a post-pandemic political climate. But already, social policies in all domains are up for grabs, and big investments in long-term public health and ecological sustainability may soon become very popular.
The authors of the books reviewed here make persuasive cases that we need a robust Green New Deal before it’s too late. But an equally strong case for it comes from our early experience with Covid-19. For years, governments ignored scientists’ urgent pleas to develop a coronavirus vaccine and a stronger global preparedness plan. Today everyone recognizes the value of these projects, but, alas, it’s too late to help. Protecting ourselves from global warming is more difficult and expensive. Now, at least, we can more easily see the cost of inaction. We are fighting to survive one preventable emergency, and no matter what happens, the climate crisis awaits.
—March 26, 2020
Nancy Pelosi has since introduced, and the House has passed, the Climate Action Now Act, sponsored by representative Kathy Castor of Florida, which would ensure that the US honors its Paris Agreement commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even if it pulls out. For now, the bill is mainly symbolic, because of opposition from both the Senate and President Trump. ↩
We know this story already, thanks in large part to Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, who tell it well in their 2010 book and 2015 companion film, Merchants of Doubt, and to Nathaniel Rich’s 2019 book, Losing Earth: A Recent History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). ↩
The most influential scholarly work on infrastructure includes William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (Norton, 1991) and the late Susan Leigh Star’s “Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 43, No. 3 (1999). ↩
The “infrastructure species” idea is developed in Purdy’s excellent book After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). ↩
The US Army Corp of Engineers was considering building a massive retractable gate stretching across the mouth of New York Harbor that would wall the city off from the sea in the event of a storm, though the plan was recently abandoned after being criticized by Trump. Although the gate was of dubious efficacy, the real significance of the decision is that the Trump administration has cut off a potentially large stream of federal funds to New York City’s adaptation efforts. ↩
C.E. Willison, P.M. Singer, M.S. Creary, et al., “Quantifying Inequities in US Federal Response to Hurricane Disaster in Texas and Florida Compared with Puerto Rico,” BMJ Global Health, January 18, 2019. ↩