Activists from System Change Not Climate Change discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Green New Deal proposal, and how the left should respond.
Introduction, by John Foran. There was a saying in the Green Party — perhaps I made it up: “Two Greens, three opinions.” Ecosocialists, perhaps, tend to be slightly more in agreement with a few basic principles, or “Points of Unity.” Yet there are a number of ecosocialist responses to the Green New Deal, converging for the most part around the recognition that though it is not the Green New Deal most of us would prefer, it is the opportunity to move the paralysis of the climate change movement very far in the right — left — direction that our times so desperately need.
This is an essay in six voices, from long-time activists who participate in the North American ecosocialist network System Change Not Climate Change. Each was challenged to make their point in 500 words or less. We intend this as a constructive contribution to the wonderful storm of discussion that the Green New Deal has opened up, and we welcome your comments on the essay below, as well as in the discussion space of SCNCC.
Critical support to the Green New Deal
by Brad Hornick
For many decades, scientists have warned that the window for the kind of widespread economic, political, and policy reforms required to avert ecological catastrophe is rapidly closing. Warnings from the scientific community concerning the threat of ecological collapse are universally built around the concepts of “thresholds” and “tipping points” which explicitly refer to threats to the physical preconditions that permit life in the entire biosphere.
These warnings posit a window of opportunity that if not responded to in a dramatic and urgent manner, will be surpassed. The stakes mark a divide between the remaining potential for the exercise of purposeful human action versus the extinguishment of that potential, after which an adequate collective response to ecological crisis becomes perfectly irrelevant as more extreme changes to the climate system become self-generating, locked-in, and irreversible.
So far, authoritative scientific evidence has done nothing to move the world away from a “business-as-usual” socio-economic model that is inherently destructive. “Faster-than-expected” impacts from global warming such as extreme heat and cold, drought, floods, fire, etc. have been met with promises of technological innovation and narrow policy instruments disciplined by neo-liberal capitalism — rather than more profound political engagement and proactive emergency planning.
Today’s political and moral calculus could not be more clear. We can either “give-in” to the ruling class that guarantees a world firmly on course for imminent, intractable and catastrophic ecological and social crisis, or we can begin to recognize our predicament, mobilize, constructively critique, support, and protect the vision for an unprecedented collective response commensurable to the threat.
The challenge is an immense one. Emergency response to a crisis means there is no longer any time for gradual, incremental or “non-disruptive” reductions in emissions. Meeting the obligations that many scientists now say are critical, getting to “net zero carbon” virtually instantaneously, requires more than an immediate shut-down the planet’s fossil fuel industries.
It also implies a radical retrenchment or collapse of the dominant industries and infrastructure based upon fossil fuel production, including automobiles, aircraft, shipping, petrochemical, synthetic fabrics, construction, agribusiness, industrial agriculture, packaging, plastic production (disposables economy), and the war industries.
Such massive structural changes in our industrial base will only be productively managed if society develops the resiliency and flexibility to withstand the challenges of social transformation. Most importantly, this requires an active participation of organized labor and environmentalists to ensure all people continue to have work, food, shelter and other basic needs met.
Political organizing around the Green New Deal represents a potential breakthrough for many — a recognition of the magnitude and urgency of the social and political changes that are required for civilizational survival. Inevitably, this call to action will require popular mobilization to compensate for the power of intransigent vested corporate and political interests.
The GND stakes new ground and proposes new battle-lines for the climate justice movement to authentically challenge the priorities of capitalism over people and the planet. It will be denounced as “radical,” “idealistic,” and even “socialist” by those intent on ratcheting-up the ideological battle. Supporters and constructive critics of the GND should prepare themselves to unapologetically lead the charge.
Anyone who’s ever taught knows fear is a lousy motivator: why I will support this GND process, though it’s just the start of what is needed
by Sandra Lindberg
Trump likes to use threats. He told Texans the Green New Deal means “They’re coming for your money, and they’re coming for your freedom.” Fox News, too, warns the Green New Deal will “move the United States closer than ever to socialism,” a system Trump equates with “corruption, exploitation and decay.” Trump wants people afraid, just like poor teachers who use threats to motivate student compliance.
GND critics threaten because they are worried. Americans, especially those under 30, aren’t afraid of the word socialism any longer. Too many in the US have suffered thanks to 21st-century capitalism. GND critics fear the GND because it can bring down CO2 emissions, convert fossil fuel use to renewable energy strategies, and focus on people of color and low-income folks hit hardest by the economic disasters of 2008. The GND links improved socio-economic conditions for Americans with reduction of CO2 levels currently threatening us with an extra crispy future.
Trump hopes fear will keep people clinging to capitalist myths. The GND offers strategies that trade fear for actions that unite us and return to us a sense that what we do matters. But there’s a hitch: the GND must remain robust and pass quickly. Jacobin Magazine writes “Actual legislation taking the kinds of action outlined in this resolution [GND] isn’t going to pass anytime soon. But that’s okay — it’s not meant to, … it set’s the bar high.” But if the GND takes decades to implement, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s vision will not get the job done for this or any other generation. Climate scientists give us ten to a dozen years to drastically reduce CO2 emissions. Without profound change to societies around the planet, temperatures will soar, and extreme developments we cannot foresee will rip human systems apart.
What Jacobin does get right, as do many on the left, is the GND’s ability to inspire people to demand radical change. The indefatigable girl from Sweden Greta Thunberg realized this a year ago: “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money.” This year Greta will be joined by striking students in 150 cities who understand that business as usual must stop. Workers are starting to demand the same.
No upticks on a computer ledger are worth more than a viable planet. Business leaders who deny climate change are out of step with a growing number of analysts in the US who understand the threat of climate change and hope to protect their profits with capitalist solutions.
Ecosocialists have an important role to play with regard to the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is forcing the national conversation to look hard at climate change, current socio-economic problems, and the way that capitalism has created this mess. Her GND is waking people up. Ecosocialists can provide specifics about current problems and how an ecosocialist approach to solutions will play out. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez needs our support. We must help her go further than even she has imagined.
Want a Green New Deal? Organize labor!
by Ted Franklin
Labor’s skepticism is the elephant in the room confronting organizers fighting for a Green New Deal ambitious enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. The Washington Postreports that the entire coal industry employs about the same number as the ski industry, yet some labor leaders continue to treat the necessity of terminating this industry as a problem that has no solution other than carbon capture technology that may never exist.
The Markey/Ocasio-Cortez GND Resolution is only a broad sketch of goals for a stream of legislation that needs to be enacted beginning in 2021. Nothing like it can be passed without a militant working-class movement demanding rapid transformation of society to address the existential threat of climate change. That movement cannot possibly be built without earning the confidence of working people that rapid decarbonization of our economy will be accompanied by programs that safeguard their well-being.
The Resolution includes numerous provisions aimed at improving life for the working class:
- creation of high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages, hire local workers, offer training and advancement opportunities, and guarantee wage and benefit parity for workers affected by the transition;
- a guaranteed job with family-sustaining wages for anyone who wants one; and
- strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment.
Despite the commitment to these demands in the GND, some national union leaders have adopted an openly hostile stance. Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), tweeted that the GND “threatens to destroy workers’ livelihoods, increase divisions and inequality, and undermine the very goals it seeks to reach” and called for a climate program that would promote nuclear energy and natural gas as bridge-fuels.
GND proponents ignore LIUNA’s antagonism at our peril. Organized labor has a way of sticking together when any union claims that its jobs are threatened. Thus, as LIUNA goes, so go the Building Trades Unions and, without formidable agitation from below, so goes the still politically potent AFL-CIO. We celebrate some unions representing nurses, transit workers, and government employees for supporting dramatic climate action. But members of these unions have no fear of losing jobs and are not the target of manipulative campaigns that pit climate action against economic security.
Lobbying Congress to enact a GND will accomplish little if we cannot organize the working class to join the fight. Ironically, despite their hostility, the building trades unions have some of the greatest opportunities for growth in a radical GND. But even if the building trades close ranks against the GND, there are tens of millions of workers to organize — at the workplace and in community struggles for social and economic justice. Organizations like Labor Network for Sustainability and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy are reaching out to rank-and-file labor activists as well as progressive union leaders to promote Labor’s key role in the climate movement. If climate activists join their efforts, we may find that Labor’s tipping point is within reach.
New green illusion or gateway to survival?
by Carol Dansereau
This is it. Either we demand what we actually need and build an in-the-streets movement to win that, or we kiss our future goodbye. The Green New Deal will be either our final illusion or a gateway to survival.
What we actually need. Certain things need to happen asap:
1. Fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. Nothing else matters if we don’t turn the spigot off.
2. We must implement a comprehensive plan including:
- Vast deployment of renewables
- Huge reductions in military activities
- A radical revamp of agriculture
- Ending the production of unneeded products and our reliance on the growth of these as a measure of economic health
And much more. For these things to happen, we need public ownership of major industries, under democratic control. Fossil fuel corporations aren’t going to put themselves out of business. And how can we possibly implement a huge and complicated plan to transform society without being in the driver’s seat?
We also need guaranteed economic security for every person, including good jobs, good incomes, free health care, and more. To support and shape planet-saving initiatives people can’t be beholden to corporate employers.
What we might get instead. A GND law based on the current Resolution will likely fall well short of what’s needed:
- Fossil fuel extraction may continue. (The Resolution doesn’t mention fossil fuels. Historically they’ve skyrocketed even as renewables were promoted, including under Democrats.)
- Certain green projects will advance but we won’t see the truly comprehensive plan we need.
- Unneeded products will still be massively produced. GHGs from these and from “green capitalism” could rise. The Resolution promotes “massive growth in clean manufacturing,” only limiting emissions to what is “technologically feasible.”
- Military activity will remain a major source of GHGs.
Some say that even a highly flawed GND deserves support, because it moves us forward. But gains could be canceled by losses from manufacturing, wars, fossil fuel extraction, etc. More importantly some progress is not enough. We need enormous progress to avoid catastrophe. Perfect is not the enemy of the good here. The good is the enemy of survival.
Gateway to survival. We should declare enthusiastic support for the GND concept, while noting that the current language is entirely inadequate and must be strengthened. The GND must incorporate what we actually need.
We must prioritize building a working-class movement capable of mass strikes and other militant actions.
Lobbying and electoral strategies are ineffective in the absence of such a movement. Ultimately, this organizing will also birth the political party we need. We should regularly expose Democratic Party betrayals to facilitate that.
Building a working-class movement is the only way forward. We must connect with unions, other workers, indigenous peoples, disproportionately affected communities, students, and groups focused on issues like poverty and health care. We must commit to economic security for all as a non-negotiable element of any GND we support. And we must work with our allies to flesh out what a Green New Deal looks like in our localities and beyond.
Environmental justice and the Green New Deal
by Jennifer Scarlott
The Green New Deal (GND), like some sort of eco-superhero, has arrived at the eleventh hour. Naomi Klein writes hopefully of it as a plan to address global warming that at long last matches the scale of the crisis. Klein (co-author of the GND-esque “Leap Manifesto”) has reason for optimism — a GND is not a single policy intervention, but a systemic approach to transform our economy and energy system and build sustainable, democratically-empowered communities.
The point of the concept is in its name — “green” and “New Deal.” It marries the need for decarbonization to a reimagining of a just and fair society embodied in slogans like “climate justice” and “Just Transition.” The GND concept has arisen from many quarters, including decades of work by Environmental Justice (EJ) groups, the Green Party (which insists on defunding the military in order to fund life), and, more recently, the Sunrise Movement as well as rebellious politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have brought visibility to the concept.
Both decarbonization and justice are crucial. Since climate change is engendered by a ruling class that exists via a class that is ruled, decarbonization won’t happen without creation of a just and equitable economics and society.
While thanking Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey for beginning the process of changing the national climate crisis conversation, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) states, “as our communities who live on the frontline of the climate crisis have been saying for generations, the most impactful way to address the problem [of fossil fuels] is to leave them in the ground.” The IEN is concerned that the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Markey resolution does not fully take on the fossil fuel industry nor the “fundamental need to challenge and transform the dominant political and economic systems driving social injustice and the climate crisis.”
We are just at the beginning of the national conversation that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Markey have launched in Congress. As the debate over binding GND legislation moves forward, all “stakeholders” must look to the wisdom, experience, and leadership of frontline Environmental Justice organizations like the IEN, the Climate Justice Alliance, Cooperation Jackson, and many others.
If fossil-capitalism is to lose the fight, it must be met by eco-socialism embodied in the strongest possible counterforce of EJ organizations and allies. The fight is on to implement words crafted by the Environmental Justice movement in the 1980s and still found, ironically, on the EPA website:
Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.
If people, organizations, and communities that have long suffered the effects of environmental racism lead the crafting of Green New Deal legislation — partnered by allies who have not suffered on the frontlines but who actively support those that have — there will be reason to hope.
The art and magic of the non-reformist reform
by John Foran
People say that something happens when the time is right. But the truth is more that the right people show up and make it happen. And that people have shown up and are making the Green New Deal happen right now is the biggest news and event in the climate justice movement in the United States since Standing Rock.
And it wouldn’t have happened without Standing Rock, without the Keystone fight, without the Green Party’s Jill Stein running on its namesake in 2012 and 2016, without Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, without the Climate Mobilization’s call for a climate emergency and World-War 2-style mobilization that made its way into the 2016 Democratic platform thanks to Bill McKibben and key others, and that now the Sunrise movement, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders are carrying into the highest seats of government in the neoliberal capitalist dystopia known as the Trump Administration.
The actual Resolution is pretty damn good at connecting the dots of the triple crisis: rampant inequality caused by too many decades of capitalist globalization, the disintegration of the political system and people’s faith that it could be used for good, and the culture of militarism that plagues our society from the most intimate personal relationships to the criminal militarism of our foreign policy, Republican and Democratic. Oh, and there’s a climate catastrophe with its terrifying inevitability besetting us as well.
And even better, we have a golden opportunity for a chance to transform everything in a radical direction of real equality between rich and poor, people of color and white people, folks of every gender, coming together for deep political participation in a non-violent climate justice-transition to whatever lies beyond capitalism, and towards — dare we utter the words? — an intersectional democratic ecosocialism.
The idea of a Green New Deal and the reality of the movement that is building around it gives us hope on which to bend the hearts and consciousness of United States residents around the biggest existential problem that humanity, and especially the younger generation which is carrying its banner will ever face.
It is the dream of building the multigenerational, intersectional social movement that global climate justice movement has harbored for over fifteen years.
It is the moment and campaign to radicalize youth in the United States and the climate justice movement in general to consider ecosocialism, radical climate justice … and system change not climate change.
Maybe it’s even time for a new kind of party to push for a universal basic income and more than a living wage, community empowerment and resilience, the speedy demise of the fossil fuel industry (but not its workers), universal health care (a basic human right), free education for all — in a word, a movement toward socialism and climate democracy. Let us make of this precious opportunity the catalyst for a convergence of social movements, community initiatives, and new political vehicles in a mighty blow for the world we want, the world we deserve, and the world we will make!
First published in Resilience.org, February 26, 2019
About the authors
Carol Dansereau is an environmental attorney/organizer based in Seattle. Her years as a nonprofit staff-person include a decade helping farm workers fight pesticides, another decade at the Washington Toxics Coalition, and stints with environmental organizations in D.C. and Michigan. Dansereau now organizes free from the censorship associated with nonprofit employment. She joined System Change Not Climate Change to connect with others who understand that we can’t create a just and sustainable world without first getting beyond capitalism. Dansereau is the author of What It Will Take: Rejecting Dead-ends and False Friends in the Fight for the Earth.
John Foran is Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he teaches courses on climate change and climate justice, activism and movements for radical social change, and issues of development and globalization beyond capitalism. He is the author of Fragile Resistance: Social Transformation in Iran from 1500 to the Revolution (1993) and Taking Power: On the Origins of Revolutions in the Third World (2005). His research and activism are now centered within the global climate justice movement, and much of it can be found at the Climate Justice Project and the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory.
Ted Franklin is an activist in Oakland, California. After joining Liberation News Service as a radical journalist for a four-year stint 50 years ago, he became a press operator, got fired for union organizing, co-founded Inkworks Press (a union printing and publishing collective), and worked as a union lawyer for 22 years. In recent years, he has organized with System Change Not Climate Change, Democratic Socialists of America’s Ecosocialist Working Group, and No Coal in Oakland, a grassroots group that has fought construction of a coal export terminal in Oakland for the past four years.
Brad Hornick is a writer, activist and student completing a PhD in Sociology at Simon Fraser University with interests in the political economy of ecological crisis. Brad’s writing has appeared in rabble.ca, socialistproject.ca, and ricochet.media, and several other publications in addition to Resilience. He has worked as staff at the David Suzuki Foundation and run a communications and design business with more than sixty different organizations, primarily environmental NGOs. He was the webmaster and editor for the System Change Not Climate Change ecosocialist network, a founder of Climate Convergence and the Vancouver’s Global Warming Cafes.
Sandra Lindberg is a writer/activist in Decatur Illinos. Her ecosocialist views grew from conversations with her Swedish father about socialism, and the troubling environmental stories people told her when she traveled the US as a theatre performer and teacher. While Associate Professor of Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan University, she founded No New Nukes to block plans for a second nuclear reactor in Central Illinois — an effort that succeeded. A local socialist reading group helped deepen her understanding of communism, socialism, and ecosocialism. These friends also introduced her to SCNCC, where she has been a contributor for several years. Her writing can be found at System Change Not Climate Change and Solidarity’s Against the Current.
Jennifer Scarlott is a founding member of Bronx Climate Justice North (BCJN) and North Bronx Racial Justice (NBxRJ). BCJN is a grassroots community organization working in solidarity with justice organizations throughout the Bronx. It is the Bronx affiliate of 350.org. BCJN and NBxRJ prioritize the justice intersectionalities of global warming and anti-racism. Jennifer is a member of System Change Not Climate Change.