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…
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