Original image by Tola Brennan

As an economist who has been working on climate policy — and watching with dismay as we make one incremental step forward and two steps back — for more than 20 years now, I’ve observed the growing enthusiasm and debate around the Green New Deal with some interest and curiosity. The basic idea has been around for most of that time: truly addressing climate change is going to require the growth of new industries, massive investment in new infrastructure, and therefore millions of new jobs. Surely it must be possible to put together a political coalition around this.

The roadblock, of course, has been that it will also destroy or dramatically reconfigure many existing industries, and they have a wealth and political power that the envisioned new industries, however promising, simply cannot match. A very small number of people stand to lose an absolutely spectacular amount of money whenever we decide that the earth’s remaining fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground. They have actively funded a climate denial movement that has Americans more confused about climate science than they were 20 years ago, and with campaign donations, academic sponsorships, and a network of think tanks and phony grassroots groups, they have constructed a formidable political bulwark against policy progress.

More broadly, the manufacturing, construction, and transportation sectors — the backbone of American industry where the last remnants of private sector unionized jobs are located — all stand to be transformed, and so far they have tended to largely resist this disruption. At its simplest level, a Green New Deal aims to realign these political constituencies, attracting the power and imagination of labor to the prospect of investment and jobs in new industries. It’s a “new deal” in the sense that it suggests letting go of protecting old industries and going all-in on the new ones, counting on the promise of enough policy-directed investment to transition everyone who loses their job to a new one. To the extent that Governor Cuomo means anything by adopting the Green New Deal moniker to rebrand New York state climate policies, it appears to be this.

If we had started this process twenty or thirty years ago, with the kind of carbon pricing economists have long been advocating, the market might have gradually produced this realignment of industries for us, without a massive federal investment. Now that delay has made climate change an emergency, we may indeed have to invoke the kind of unusual federal role in the economy that characterized the original New Deal — or perhaps more precisely, the World War II federal mobilization of the economy that followed — in order to make change quickly enough to avert the worst climate impacts. Much of the attention and much of the criticism around the recently-proposed federal Green New Deal have focused on this radical expansion of the federal role in the economy — its “wartime socialism” approach — and the 10-year time frame it calls for overhauling the nation’s infrastructure within.

But the Green New Deal resolution put forward by newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and long-time climate policy advocate Senator Edward Markey is more ambitious even than that. It has been criticized for being a sprawling mishmash of every fantastical thing any delusional liberal might want. A federal jobs guarantee, universal healthcare, affordable housing, indigenous rights, clean water, and healthy food all appear on the list of things that will be “required”. In addition to old-style liberal economic development tools like education and training, collective bargaining rights, health and safety standards, and technology research and development, it invokes a number of new economy tools, including public banks, worker cooperatives, community ownership, and “democratic and participatory processes… led by frontline and vulnerable communities”.

The National Review has called it an “inchoate shopping list” and an “untrammeled Dear Santa letter”.

No wonder the democratic presidential candidates who said they supported it in last week’s debates were not able to not say anything very coherent about what it entailed! The National Review has called it an “inchoate shopping list” and an “untrammeled Dear Santa letter”. Is this the work of a self-impressed political novice who threw everything but the kitchen sink into her first major policy endeavor? Or conversely, a left version of the strategy shrewdly pursued by the right over last several decades to demand the outrageous and thereby steadily drag the achievable center in the desired direction? Or is it simply the result of trying to build a broad coalition by combining everything vaguely “on the left” into one package?

Maybe. But I think it’s also deeper than that. What attracted me to choose climate change as a dissertation topic all those years ago is the same thing that has made it so difficult to address — the way it is inextricably bound up with the very basis of our economy. The forces that perpetuate climate change are the same ones that have created the unprecedented abundance of goods and technology that fill our lives, and the stark inequality, growing insecurity, and increasingly inadequate housing, health care, education, and opportunities that we live with — an economy that is based on an imperative to extract resources, grow profits, and concentrate wealth.

Climate change policy has always been about changing technology — changing how we produce and use energy, how we grow food, how we get from place to place, how we go about doing all the things that we do. Great technological progress has occurred in some of these areas over the last two decades, and I am optimistic that it will continue and spread. But getting to a broad and enduring coalition around committing to making these changes has also always been about bridging the divide between rich and poor, and we have only gone backwards on this part of the climate challenge.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the sticking point was figuring out how countries that had gotten rich burning fossil fuels and countries that had yet to lift most of their people out of extreme poverty could come to a workable agreement about how to cut global emissions fairly. Countries that were just gearing up industrialization were not about to agree to forgo a fossil fuel-powered manufacturing and construction boom without substantial compensation. A global carbon trading system like that envisioned to follow the Kyoto Protocol could have resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from rich to poor countries, but little progress was ever made towards such an arrangement. The Paris Climate Agreement finally made an end run around the problem by admitting that all we could really agree to was to allow each country to determine its own rate and level of decarbonization.

Twenty years on, within-country inequality has now become a potent political force, as a global wealthy class now produces 50 percent of worldwide emissions. Nearly every sector of our economy is facing crisis because the opportunities to make money and the strategies that maximize profits are not aligned with people’s real needs. Tackling climate change without addressing those crises at their source is going to make it very difficult to put together and maintain the coalition needed to dramatically reduce our collective carbon footprints.

The problem remains that while the poorest have contributed the least to climate change, this is in large part because they have not — or not yet — benefited from the wealth produced by burning fossil fuels. Their priority is not climate stability, it’s life stability. On the other side of the divide, it’s the very wealthy who have the most to lose by giving up the fossil fuel economy, and the most political power to stop it happening. We are left trying to transform the world with a coalition made up entirely of a well-meaning, environmentally-aware middle class, those who feel secure enough to risk radical change, but who are not particularly invested in the fossil fuel industry and the profitability of all the goods production and transport industries that depend on it. So far, it hasn’t been enough.

The Green New Deal is so comprehensive in its aspiration to remake the economy both because of how deeply in thrall to the industrial growth model we have been and because of how increasingly clear it has become that it has failed. To generate a truly sustainable climate transition effort — one that doesn’t invite backtrack when driving emissions ever lower becomes increasingly costly — we are going to need an approach that puts meeting people’s needs first, rather than continuing to try to fund them out of a shrinking share of the profits of an economy that are about to be heavily squeezed by the transition effort.

We need a full reorientation of the economy. That is why guaranteed jobs, housing, healthcare, and education are “required”.

We need a full reorientation of the economy. That is why guaranteed jobs, housing, healthcare, and education are “required”. And that is why ultimately we must take a fundamentally democratic approach to the economy that will broaden ownership, wealth, and control, repairing historic oppression and building capability for democratic self-governance as we go. Whatever the motivation for packing all of these things into the Green New Deal resolution, I do think it is the package that is needed to get the job done.

Cooperatives, community investment, public ownership, and other democratic economy processes will not, of themselves, guarantee sustainability. But having structures in which economic decisions get made based on the values and priorities of the participants, rather than extracting maximum profits for far-away shareholders, may make it possible. After 20 years in this field, I don’t think anything else can.

Will anything like the Green New Deal, at any of its levels of ambition, ever become federal policy? I don’t know. I hope somehow we will arrive at a concerted nationwide effort to rapidly reorient our investments into clean infrastructure. But I’m putting my efforts into working at the local level, to build the foundations of economic democracy and change from the bottom up. I think that’s essential, regardless of what happens at the federal level.

The local level is where the investments necessary to transform our infrastructure will ultimately occur. New power plants and updated power grids, overhauled transportation systems, and new manufacturing facilities will all be built here. Housing will be rehabilitated or replaced. Training for work in new industries will need to occur.

Should federal dollars become available to fund this local work, great! We will be able to do much more, much faster. I hope that our “frontline and vulnerable communities and workers” will indeed be able “to plan, implement, and administer the Green New Deal mobilization at the local level”. We should begin building up our capacity to roll out programs and investments like this now, so that we will be ready to take full advantage of federal resources if and when they become available. And if that federal money never does materialize, we are going to need that local capability even more!

For me the rise of the Green New Deal is a hopeful sign of a change in consciousness about the underpinnings of the economy. But my takeaway is that work at the local level is all the more important and timely.