One month before the young Sunrise Movement activists first occupied the office of then-soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in November 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report that had a greater impact than any publication in the thirty-one-year history of the organization. The report examined the implications of keeping the increase in planetary warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7°F). Given the worsening disasters we are already seeing with about 1°C of warming, it found that keeping temperatures below the 1.5°C threshold is humanity’s best chance of avoiding truly catastrophic unraveling.
Doing that would be extremely difficult. According to the UN World Meteorological Organization, we are on a path to warming the world by 3–5°C by the end of the century. To keep the warming below 1.5°C would require, the IPCC authors found, cutting global emissions approximately in half in a mere twelve years and getting to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Not just in one country but in every major economy. And because carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has already dramatically surpassed safe levels, it would also require drawing a great deal of that down, whether through unproven and expensive carbon-capture technologies or the old-fashioned ways: by planting billions of trees and other carbon-sequestering vegetation.
Pulling off this high-speed pollution phaseout, the report establishes, is not possible with singular technocratic approaches like carbon taxes, though those tools must play a part. Rather, it requires deliberately and immediately changing how our societies produce energy, how we grow our food, how we move around, and how our buildings are constructed. What is needed, the report’s summary states in its first sentence, is “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
It was against this backdrop that 2019’s cascade of large and militant climate mobilizations unfolded. Again and again at the strikes and protests, we heard the words “We have only twelve years.” Thanks to the IPCC’s unequivocal clarity, as well as direct and repeated experience with unprecedented weather, our conceptualization of this crisis is shifting. Many more people are beginning to grasp that the fight is not for some abstraction called “the Earth.” We are fighting for our lives. And we don’t have twelve years anymore; now we have only eleven. Soon, it will be just ten.
As powerful a motivator as the IPCC report is, perhaps even more important are the calls from many different quarters in the United States and around the world for governments to respond to the climate crisis with a sweeping Green New Deal. The idea is a simple one: in the process of transforming the infrastructure of our societies at the speed and scale that scientists have called for, humanity has a once-in-a-century chance to fix an economic model that is failing the majority of people on multiple fronts. In tackling the climate crisis, we can create hundreds of millions of good jobs around the world, invest in the most systematically excluded communities and nations, guarantee health care and child care, and much more: a Green New Deal could instill a sense of collective, higher purpose—a set of concrete goals that we are all working toward together.
In scale if not specifics, the Green New Deal proposal takes its inspiration from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original New Deal, which responded to the misery and breakdown of the Great Depression with a flurry of policies and public investments, from introducing Social Security and minimum wage laws, to breaking up the banks, to electrifying rural America and building a wave of low-cost housing in cities, to planting trees and establishing soil protection programs in regions ravaged by the Dust Bowl.
There are, among emission-reduction experts, long-running debates about which precedents from history to invoke to help inspire the kind of sweeping, economy-wide transformations the climate crisis demands. Many do favor FDR’s New Deal, because it showed how radically both a society’s infrastructure and its governing values can be altered in the span of a decade. More than 10 million people were directly employed by the government; most of rural America got electricity for the first time; hundreds of thousands of new buildings and structures were built; 2.3 billion trees were planted; 800 new state parks were developed; and hundreds of thousands of public works of art were created.
But the failures and limitations are also well known. The New Deal fell short of pulling the US economy out of economic depression, its main goal, and its programs overwhelmingly favored white, male workers. Agricultural and domestic workers (many of them black) were left out, and New Deal relief agencies, particularly in the Southern states, were notorious for their biases against unemployed African-American and Mexican-American families.
In part because of these failures, some insist that the only historical precedents that show the scale and speed of change required in the face of the climate crisis are the World War II mobilizations that saw Western powers transforming their manufacturing sectors and consumption patterns to fight Hitler’s Germany. It was certainly a dizzying level of change: factories were retooled to produce ships, planes, and weapons. To free up food and fuel for the military, citizens changed their lifestyles dramatically: in Britain, driving for anything other than necessity virtually ceased; between 1938 and 1944, use of public transit went up by 87 percent in the United States and by 95 percent in Canada. In 1943, in the United States, twenty million households (representing three-fifths of the population) had “Victory gardens” in their yards, growing fresh vegetables that accounted for 42 percent of all those consumed that year.
Others argue that a better analogy than the war effort itself was the reconstruction afterward—specifically, the Marshall Plan, a kind of New Deal for Western and southern Europe. In West Germany, the US government spent billions to rebuild a mixed economy that would have broad-based support and would undercut the rising support for socialism (while providing a growing market for US exports). That meant direct job creation by the state, huge investment in the public sector, subsidies for German firms, and support for strong labor unions. The effort was widely regarded as Washington’s most successful diplomatic initiative.
Each precedent has its own glaring weaknesses and contradictions. The biggest limitation with all these historical comparisons, from the New Deal to the Marshall Plan, is that, together, they succeeded in kick-starting and hugely expanding the high-carbon lifestyle of suburban sprawl and disposable consumption that is at the heart of today’s climate crisis. The tough truth, as the IPCC’s report stated, is that “there is no historical precedent for the scale of the necessary transitions, in particular in a socially and economically sustainable way”—a reference to the fact that global emissions have only ever dropped significantly during times of deep economic crisis, such as the Great Depression and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that the wars that spurred rapid social transformations were humanitarian and ecological disasters.
My own view is that as flawed as each historical analogy necessarily is, each is still useful to study and invoke. Every one, in its own way, presents a sharp contrast to the tepid market-based approaches—whether carbon trading, offsetting, or taxing—that have characterized government responses to the climate crisis for decades. The New Deal, the World War II mobilizations, and the Marshall Plan all remind us that another approach to profound crisis was always possible and still is today. Faced with the collective emergencies that punctuated those decades, the response was to enlist entire societies, from individual consumers to workers to large manufacturers to every level of government, in deep transformations with clear common goals.
These precedents remind us of something equally important: we don’t need to figure out every detail before we begin. Every one of these earlier mobilizations contained multiple false starts, improvisations, and course corrections. What matters is that we begin the process right away. As Greta Thunberg says, “We cannot solve an emergency without treating it like an emergency.” We have to “act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
That does not mean we simply need a New Deal painted green, or a Marshall Plan with solar panels. We need changes of a different quality and character. We need wind and solar power that is widely distributed and, where possible, community-owned, rather than the New Deal’s highly centralized, monopolistic river-damming hydro and fossil-fuel power. We need beautifully designed, racially integrated, zero-carbon urban housing, built with democratic input from communities of color, rather than the sprawling white suburbs and racially segregated urban housing projects of the postwar period. We need to devolve power and resources to indigenous communities, smallholder farmers, ranchers, and sustainable fishing folk so they can lead a process of planting billions of trees, rehabilitating wetlands, and renewing soil—rather than handing over control of conservation to the military and federal agencies, as was overwhelmingly the case in the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
The various plans that have emerged for a Green New Deal-style transformation envision a future where the difficult work of transition has been embraced, including sacrifices in profligate consumption. But in exchange, day-to-day life for working people will have been improved in countless ways, with more time for leisure and art, truly accessible and affordable public transit and housing, yawning racial and gender wealth gaps closed at last, and city life that is not an unending battle against traffic, noise, and pollution.
The Green New Deal’s roots-up approach to the climate crisis is not itself new—it reflects a vision that has been at the center of the global climate justice movement for years. What is new is there is now a bloc of politicians in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, some just a decade older than the young climate activists in the streets, ready to translate the urgency of the climate crisis into policy. Most prominent among this new political breed is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, at twenty-nine, became the youngest woman ever elected to the US Congress in 2018. Introducing a Green New Deal was part of the platform she ran on. Three months later, she and Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, stood in front of the Capitol and launched a formal resolution for a Green New Deal, outlining the main planks of the transformation.
As part of this sweeping transition, their plan calls for huge investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and clean transportation. It states that workers moving from high-carbon industries to green ones should have their wage levels and benefits protected, and it guarantees a job to all who want to work. It also calls for the communities who have borne the toxic brunt of dirty industries, so many of them indigenous, black, and brown, not only to benefit from the transitions but to help design them at the local level. And as if all this weren’t enough, it folds in key demands from the growing democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party: free universal health care, childcare, and higher education.
Of course, rolling out a Green New Deal would have large costs as well, and the plan’s advocates have pointed to a variety of ways this can be financed. Ocasio-Cortez has said that the US version should be financed the way any previous emergency spending has been: by the US Congress simply authorizing the funds, backstopped by the Treasury of the world’s currency of last resort. According to New Consensus, a think tank closely associated with her policy proposals, because “the Green New Deal will produce new goods and services to keep pace with and absorb new expenditures, there is no more reason to let fear about financing halt progress here than there was to let it halt wars or tax cuts.”
There are, moreover, all kinds of ways to raise financing, including means that attack untenable levels of wealth concentration and shift the burden to those most responsible for climate pollution. And it’s not hard to figure out who that is. We know, thanks to research from the Climate Accountability Institute, that a whopping 71 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced to just one hundred corporate and state fossil-fuel giants, dubbed the “Carbon Majors.” In light of this, there are a variety of “polluter pays” measures that can be taken to ensure that those most responsible for this crisis do the most to underwrite the transition—through legal damages, through higher royalties, and by having their subsidies slashed. Direct fossil-fuel subsidies are worth about $775 billion a year globally, and more than $20 billion in the United States alone.
The very first thing that should happen is for these subsidies to be shifted to investments in renewables and efficiency. It isn’t only the fossil-fuel companies that have put their own super-profits ahead of the safety of our species for decades; so have the financial institutions that underwrote those investments, in full knowledge of the risks. Which is why, in addition to eliminating fossil-fuel subsidies, governments can insist on getting a much fairer share of the financial sector’s vast earnings by imposing a transaction tax, which, according to the European Parliament, could raise $650 billion globally.
And then there is the military. If the military budgets of the top ten military spenders in the world were cut by 25 percent, that would free up $325 billion annually, according to numbers reported by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute—funds that could be spent on energy transition and preparing communities for the extreme weather ahead. Meanwhile, a mere 1 percent billionaire’s tax could raise $45 billion a year worldwide, according to the United Nations—not to mention the money that would be raised through an international effort to close down tax havens. In 2015, the estimated private financial wealth of individuals stashed unreported in tax havens around the globe was somewhere between $24 trillion and $36 trillion, according to James S. Henry, a senior adviser with the UK-based Tax Justice Network. Shutting down some of those havens would go a very long way toward covering the price tag of this desperately needed industrial transition.
On the other side of this equation, the accelerated timeline of the US Green New Deal will turn it into a jobs machine. Even without federal support—indeed, with active sabotage from the White House—the green economy is already creating many more jobs than oil and gas. According to the 2018 US Energy and Employment Report, jobs in wind, solar energy efficiency, and other clean energy sectors outnumbered fossil jobs by a rate of three to one. That is happening thanks to a combination of state and municipal incentives and the plummeting costs of renewables. A Green New Deal would boost this industrial boom while ensuring that the jobs have salaries and benefits comparable to those offered in the oil and gas sector.
There is no shortage of research to support this potential. For instance, a 2019 study on the job impacts of a Green New Deal-style program in the state of Colorado found that many more jobs would be created than lost. The study, published by the Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute at University of Massachusetts–Amherst, looked at what it would take for the state to achieve a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. It found that roughly 585 non-management jobs would be lost but that, with an investment of $14.5 billion a year in clean energy, “Colorado will generate about 100,000 jobs per year in the state.”
There are many more studies with similarly striking findings. A plan put forward by the US BlueGreen Alliance, a body that brings together unions and environmentalists, estimated that a $40 billion annual investment in public transit and high-speed rail for six years would produce more than 3.7 million jobs during that period. And according to a report for the European Transport Workers Federation, comprehensive policies to reduce emissions in the transport sector by 80 percent would create seven million new jobs across the continent, while another five million clean energy jobs in Europe could slash electricity production emissions by 90 percent.
The various versions of a Green New Deal that have emerged in the past year have something crucial in common. Where previous policies were minor tweaks to incentives that were designed to cause minimal disruption to the system, a Green New Deal approach is a major operating system upgrade, a plan to roll up our sleeves and get the job done. Markets play a role in this vision, but markets are not the protagonists of this story—people are: the workers who will build the new infrastructure, the residents who will breathe the clean air, who will live in the new affordable green housing and benefit from the low-cost (or free) public transit.
None of this means that every climate policy must dismantle capitalism or else it should be dismissed (as some critics have absurdly claimed). We need every action possible to bring down emissions, and we need them all now. But it does mean, as the IPCC has so forcefully confirmed, that we will not get the job done unless we are willing to embrace systemic economic and social change.
And let’s not forget that over the past three decades, one of the greatest obstacles to making sustained progress on climate action has been the volatility of the market. During good economic times, there is usually some willingness to entertain environmental policies that mean paying a bit more for gas, electricity, and “green” products. But again and again, this willingness has understandably evaporated as soon as the economy hit a painful downturn. And that may be the greatest benefit of modeling our climate approach after FDR’s New Deal, the most famous economic stimulus of all time, one born in the teeth of the worst economic crisis in modern history.
When the global economy enters another downturn or crisis, which it surely will, support for a Green New Deal will not plummet as has been the case with every other major green initiative during past recessions. Instead, support can be expected to increase, since a large-scale stimulus with the power to create millions of jobs will become the greatest hope of addressing people’s economic pain.
By far the greatest obstacle we are up against is hopelessness, a feeling that it’s all too late, we’ve left it too long, and we’ll never get the job done on such a short timeline. And all of that would be true if the process of transformation were starting from scratch. But the truth is that there are tens of thousands of people, and a great many organizations, that have been preparing for a Green New Deal-style breakthrough for decades (centuries in the case of indigenous communities that have been protecting their ways of life). These forces have been quietly building local models and testing policies for how to put justice at the center of our climate response—in how we protect forests, generate renewable energy, design public transit, and much more.
“Who is society?” demanded then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1987 to justify her relentless attacks on social services. “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” That bleak view of humanity—that we are nothing more than a collection of atomized individuals and nuclear families, unable to do anything of value together except wage war—has had a stranglehold over the public imagination for a long time. No wonder so many of us believed we could never rise to the climate challenge.
But more than thirty years later, as surely as the glaciers are melting and the ice sheets are breaking apart, that free-market ideology is dissolving, too. In its place, a new vision of what humanity can be is emerging. It is coming from the streets, from the schools, from workplaces, and even from inside houses of government. It’s a vision that says that all of us, combined, make up the fabric of society. And when the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.
This essay is adapted from the introduction and epilogue to On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, by Naomi Klein, published by Simon and Schuster.