The Green New Deal program has enormous potential to generate mass popular support. But absent real leverage from labor, it’s likely to be continually watered down into a toothless slogan for NGOs
By Matt Huber
May 10, 2021
Donald Trump’s election loss was good news for climate activists. On his first day in office, he took down the White House’s climate policy web page and replaced it with his “America First Energy Plan.” On his fifth day, he signed executive orders approving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, rolling back the modest gains of the climate and indigenous anti-pipeline movements. In a speech proclaiming what he called “American energy dominance,” he excitedly announced that the country had “more than 250 years’ worth of clean, beautiful coal.” He appointed fossil fuel industry hacks to his cabinet. He sold or leased public lands at an extraordinary scale. He unleashed an unprecedented wave of deregulation rescinding more than a hundred environmental rules for industry.
While no one on the Left will fondly remember the Trump era, we have to understand what his defeat means. Donald Trump’s offensive environmental agenda — both offensive to the polite belief in science and offensive in the sense of actively pushing environmental destruction — created utter despair among environmental activists. Yet it also created a kind of delusion. The presence of “post-truth” Trump in office intensified the sense that environmental struggle is, at its core, a struggle over knowledge and science. For example, a movement of professional liberal activists organized a “March for Science,” explicitly disavowing politics. The organizers asserted the march “is not a political protest,” let alone a struggle over material control of resources. There became a sense that if we could simply eject the “denier in chief” and install a Democrat who “believes science,” we could start to take the necessary action to solve the climate and ecological crisis. The election of Joe Biden as president is stoking these hopes.
But we’ve seen this movie before. When it comes to the climate crisis, offensive Republican environmental destruction is only slightly worse than enlightened Democratic Party environmental destruction. After eight years of a pro–fossil fuel George W. Bush administration, President Barack Obama announced in a victory speech: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Yet, if anything, the age of American energy dominance was not a Trump creation but a product of the Obama era. Beyond rhetoric, fossil fuel extraction expanded much more under Obama than under Trump. The climate change believer even bragged about this in a 2018 public event: “Suddenly America is the largest oil producer . . . that was me, people . . . say thank you.”
We are entering a kind of hamster-wheel cycle of environmental politics where new horizons of hope appear simply by removing a Republican from office. Today, as in 2008, a new set of deadlines are being discussed (2035 and 2050) that are far enough away to stall dramatic action and close enough to appear scientifically credible. Yet this cycle always delays what is obviously needed: confrontation with the powerful industries responsible.
Second, there is finally a policy program with the potential to generate the kind of mass popular support needed to achieve it: the Green New Deal (GND). The program aimed to solve inequality and climate change with a straightforward working-class program based on public investment, a job guarantee, and economic rights to health care, housing, and a living wage. While the Right has consistently used class-based appeals to mobilize opposition to environmental policies, the Left has finally come up with a class-based environmental politics.
As I will detail below, however, all the excitement around the GND was predicated on the idea of the Left occupying state power; a prospect that crashed on the electoral realities of 2020. We now face a neoliberal Biden presidency and the slimmest of Democratic margins in both houses of Congress. There are still far too many right-wing Democrats who can stall a GND agenda (not to mention Biden himself). What we need now is a sober analysis of the balance of class forces to understand what is and is not possible. We also need to recognize the ongoing danger of Biden and the Democratic Party — still staunchly a party of capital — assimilating the more radical GND coalition into the dead-end conciliatory politics of compromise and half measures. With the excitement of the Bernie Sanders presidential runs behind us, our only option now is to commit to strengthening working-class organization in the workplace and beyond, where durable political commitments and power can be built.
What follows is a narrative history of the climate stalemate over the last twelve years. We still need to understand the almost inexplicable level of inaction on what many describe as the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. The last four years have built momentum toward real transformation, but the last year shows some concerning trends of movement conciliation before the fight really begins.
Obama’s Enlightened Alliance With Fossil Capital: 2008–2016
It can be easy to forget the real sense of momentum in climate politics in 2008. Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 created a clamoring sense of urgency. The planet was sending even more alarming signals: in 2007, the extent of Arctic sea ice reached a record low. Like today’s Sunrise Movement, there was a fresh activist group (350.org) organizing mass protests calling for action.
This momentum built steadily up until the fall of 2008 with two world-historic events: the largest financial crash since the 1930s and the election of an insurgent candidate as US president named Barack Obama. As many point out, the origins of the very notion of a Green New Deal can be traced to this period. The November 24, 2008 issue of Time featured an image of Obama superimposed over an image of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (headline: “The New New Deal”). In fact, what Kate Aronoff and coauthors call the “faux Green New Deal” was limited in ambition. Yet we shouldn’t forget that many on the Left were already calling for a more radical version of it. In October 2008, the Nation ran a piece by Van Jones rejecting what he called “eco-elitism” in favor of “eco-populism.” He advocated “building a New Deal coalition for the new century” that would include labor unions, environmentalists, students, faith groups, and social justice activists.1
By January 2009, with the economy in free fall and the Democrats in charge of the executive and legislative branches, one couldn’t imagine more favorable conditions for transformative change. Yet even before Obama took office, his commitment to a left program to rescue the economy and climate was already in doubt. His cabinet appointees were directly advised by a Citigroup executive. Obama fought to limit the ambition of his stimulus package in order to attract Republican support. In the end, it didn’t even exceed $800 billion. Although the stimulus contained significant money for renewable energy, emissions were basically flat during his eight years in office.
In 2007’s Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency decision, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases should be regulated through the Clean Air Act, giving the Obama administration full executive authority to tackle the problem. Obama chose not to take this route. Instead, he proposed new legislation by compromising with Republicans and industry. The result was a neoliberal free-market policy: a cap on emissions combined with trading of emission credits (“cap and trade”). As Theda Skocpol shows in excruciating detail, Obama made no effort to mobilize the public but rather created a behind-closed-doors process of what she calls “corporatist bargaining”: elite negotiation between state leaders and powerful interest groups. At the core of this process was the US Climate Action Partnership — an alliance between the large environmental organizations like Environmental Defense Fund and polluting corporations such as Caterpillar and Duke Energy. The arcane market-based policy obviously generated no positive public enthusiasm. Instead, it emboldened an emergent Tea Party opposition, who deemed it “cap and tax.”
Things went from bad to worse in 2010. In spring of that year, Obama announced a major offshore drilling plan as a fig leaf to industry to garner support for the doomed “cap-and-trade” legislation. On April 2, 2010, he boasted: “It turns out . . . that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.” Eighteen days later, the largest maritime oil spill in US history (Deepwater Horizon) occurred. Even worse, after narrowly passing the House, the cap-and-trade legislation failed in the Senate, and, after Obama’s drubbing in the 2010 midterm elections, climate legislation was considered “off the table.”
Things were not any better in international climate negotiations. Again, we forget just how much optimism surrounded Obama’s election and the 2009 United Nations meeting in Copenhagen — called “Hopenhagen.” Yet it was climate believer Obama who hijacked the meeting:
“The key moment at Copenhagen was when President Barack Obama burst into a room where the leaders of all four BASIC [Brazil, South Africa, India, and China] were meeting in private, and together . . . set aside the existing negotiating texts entirely and drafted their own deal.”
They argued a binding agreement was too “top down” and that they wanted a more flexible “bottom up” (grassroots?) approach. In the end, Obama continued the United States’ long-standing role as the key barrier to international cooperation. The 2015 Paris Agreement — while historic — was simply a fulfillment of Obama’s Copenhagen vision of a purely voluntary agreement with no enforcement teeth.
This record should give us pause when considering the fledgling Biden administration. What explains Obama’s conciliatory deference to the fossil fuel industry? For an explanation, we have to look beyond the typical stories of corruption and contributions to political campaigns. As Kevin Young and coauthors argue, Obama’s subservience to the fossil fuel industry is more rooted in the “structural power of business.” Their study shows how Obama was held hostage by a sustained “capital strike” — banks holding on to cash and industries refusing to hire. On the environmental front, transformative action was blocked by a “threat, constantly reiterated by energy companies, that aggressive regulations would trigger retaliatory actions by the polluters that would disrupt the flow of investments into the energy sector on which the economy depended.” Given that we are currently experiencing another massive economic crisis — and that Biden actually received notable contributions from fossil fuel companies — the idea we can push Biden to the left through political lobbying and rhetorical persuasion is not likely.
The Green New Deal Movement’s Failed Bid for State Power, 2017–April 2020
In a case of silver linings, the election of a deranged reality star as president in 2016 emboldened the Left. Having united behind the nearly successful 2016 Bernie Sanders run, Trump’s victory — combined with Hillary Clinton’s incompetent campaign — felt like the death knell of Third Way neoliberalism. Frustration with the neoliberal center pushed left environmental movements to more confidently distance themselves from standard market policies like carbon pricing. For much of the 2010s, the carbon tax was seen as common sense: it was included in Bernie Sanders’s platform, and Jacobin ran articles promoting its policy advantages. By 2017, it was clear that neoliberal market tinkering underestimated the scale of the crisis. As Aronoff put it in her formative essay “No Third Way for the Planet”: “Framing the carbon tax as a silver bullet for the planet’s ills runs a deadly serious risk of obscuring how big the changes physics demands really are.” Additionally, carbon pricing could easily be framed by the Right as “costs” to everyday working people. On cue, the 2018 French “yellow vest” movement proved you can’t implement a climate agenda through carbon taxes on the back of an already strapped working class.
A consensus formed on the climate left that we needed to construct political demands that were less about wonky market fixes and more about delivering real material benefits. In early 2018, climate activists were arguing that the GND could be the “Medicare for All of climate change.” The urgency was intensified by the famous October 2018 IPCC report, which suggested that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees required “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
The GND exploded onto the scene in mid-November 2018, when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez teamed up with the Sunrise Movement to occupy the office of Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi. This sit-in for a GND — with signs reading “Green Jobs for All” — created massive media attention and excitement in the climate policy community. It is notable that Ocasio-Cortez chose climate as her first policy intervention, just weeks before being sworn in as an elected member of Congress. She understood that the scale of the crisis contained all the elements of resurrecting a left working-class agenda: confrontation with corporate power, redistribution from the rich, and massive public investment based on a job guarantee.
After the sit-in, Ocasio-Cortez’s office, along with left think tanks like New Consensus, started working out the details of what a Green New Deal could look like. The official rollout came in February 2019, with the introduction of the nonbinding Green New Deal resolution, cosponsored by Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts senator Ed Markey. This rollout was, unfortunately, badly botched. Ocasio-Cortez’s office released an FAQ document to the media. The document — which appeared to be written by her then–chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti — was not only poorly written and sloppy but contained alienating environmentalist language like describing a long-term goal to “fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes.”
Of course, the FAQ document was immediately taken up by Fox News to paint the GND as a liberal austerity plot by elite do-gooders to take things away from the working class. Congressman Rob Bishop from Utah held an event where he accused the GND of wanting to “control [his] life” and take away his right to eat hamburgers: “If this goes through, this [hamburger] will be outlawed.” He took a bite while his allies pleaded, “Pass it around!” This event was specifically reacting to a comment by Ocasio-Cortez suggesting people could eat fewer burgers. While such a statement is undoubtedly true, it shows how difficult it is for the environmentalist left to maintain message discipline and highlight material gains. The typical scolding around what we must all give up plays directly into the Right’s hands.
Later in 2019, Bernie Sanders announced his own Green New Deal platform. Many scientists immediately heralded it as the first presidential climate plan that matched the scale of the crisis. In contrast, his apparent progressive rival Elizabeth Warren’s plan promised to green the military. Much of the pundit class focused on the plan’s price tag of $16 trillion, but its most radical and distinctive aspect was Sanders’s proposal to expand publicly owned electricity. Taking its cue from a People’s Policy Project proposal for a green Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Sanders proposed expanding the TVA, in addition to a plan to “pour funding into the four existing ‘power marketing administrations’ that are overseen by the Energy Department.” One In These Times headline read, “Bernie Sanders Calls to Seize the Means of Electricity Production.”
Sanders’s plan was exceptional because — unlike much public power activism that focuses on local control or municipalization — it sought large-scale nationwide restructuring of the electricity industry toward public control and planning. This is exactly the approach we need, since we are not likely to “municipalize” individual utilities one community at a time. Neoliberals criticized this plan because it would create a public option for electricity that distorted the market. As Third Way energy expert Joshua Freed put it, “What the Sanders proposal would do is create an 800-pound federally owned power gorilla that would make it very hard for the existing generators to compete.” Given that it is those very same generators who continue to burn fossil fuels to make profit for investors, isn’t that exactly the point? No other Democratic Party contenders, however, were willing to say this out loud.
As we know, Sunrise and the larger climate movement got behind the Sanders campaign — but it failed. This loss had unavoidable implications for the entire Green New Deal project that had gained such momentum between 2018 and 2020. I offer three critical appraisals. First, the GND was a breakthrough for environmental politics in its assertion of a working-class program. Yet we should keep in mind a difference articulated by trade unionist Andrew Murray — and repeated by Leo Panitch and coauthors — between a “class-focused” and a “class-rooted” politics. The recent resurgence of the Left — what Anton Jäger calls “left populism” — is clearly a politics for and not of the working class. This was decidedly the case with the Green New Deal. It was a brilliant policy framework but still one formulated by academics, think tanks, and NGO professionals: a politics of the professional class for the working class. Perhaps most of the energy behind GND organizing was driven by aspirant professionals: high school and college students involved in the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, and the student climate strike. Although Sunrise boasts an army of young activists and employs militant language, it was itself born from the environmental NGO complex — its origins include a $50,000 grant and office space from the Sierra Club Foundation in 2017. It also runs a political action committee (PAC) that raised $2.3 million in the 2020 election cycle.
Second, much of the organizing between 2017 and 2020 was predicated on the intoxicating promise of the Left winning state power — particularly at the executive level. Prior to defeat, Panitch and coauthors excitedly described the Corbyn and Sanders movements: “Nothing like this has happened in at least three generations.” They speculated about what a “socialist-led government” would face and suggested that much of the Left was still marked by a “failure to prepare adequately for the challenge of transforming state apparatuses.” Similarly, Mike McCarthy, writing in Jacobin, warned that “our first 100 days could be a nightmare.” Now, the nightmare is simply the harsh electoral realities. But the entire GND program had to be delivered through the state. This was so alluring because, as Christian Parenti and Andreas Malm rightly argue, it is hard to imagine such a scale of transformation being achieved without the coercive and fiscal power of the state. After all, it was the state that delivered the original New Deal — much of which consisted of tremendous new investments in energy infrastructure.
Third, the theory of change was backward. Sanders had promised that, once in office, he would awaken the sleeping giant of the working class and build an extra-electoral mass movement to confront Wall Street, health insurance conglomerates, and the fossil fuel industry. It was unique that the “organizer in chief” understood that he alone could not implement his agenda. Yet Sanders himself probably suspected that winning state power before achieving mass working-class organization is not how it works. The necessary hordes of formerly disillusioned working-class voters did not turn out in the primaries as we hoped. Quite the opposite — the threat of Sanders led to a turnout surge among suburban liberals and people Matt Karp termed “Halliburton Democrats.” Too much of the existing working class is still beset by apathetic cynicism, or what the late Mark Fisher called “reflexive impotence”: “[People] know things are bad, but . . . know they can’t do anything about it.”
It is clear that a working-class politics — let alone a “socialist-led government” — cannot be conjured from nothing. We will need to build capable working-class organizations first (e.g., strong unions, media, and other infrastructure), before we can expect to vie for state power. As Jane McAlevey asserts, there are still no shortcuts to building power. The Green New Deal and Bernie Sanders’s campaign were always a shortcut. Given the intense timeline we are facing on climate change, they were a shortcut worth pursuing.
“A Phase of Alignment”? April 2020–December 2020
The most notable collaboration was the Unity Task Force on Climate Change — one of six task forces intended to unite the Biden and Sanders wings of the party. This task force included Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise cofounder Varshini Prakash, as well as establishment figures like John Kerry and conservative Democrats like Pennsylvania representative Conor Lamb. Out of the negotiations came Biden’s climate plan in July, which was heralded for its historic ambition. It featured a goal of spending $2 trillion and completely decarbonizing the electric sector by 2035. The plan seemed to signal Biden’s endorsement of the Green New Deal, but two months later, both Biden and his vice presidential pick, Kamala Harris, refused to admit this on the debate stages.
Since Biden’s win, Sunrise and other GND advocates have been laser-focused on his cabinet appointments. Biden has created two new cabinet-level climate positions and wants to put climate at the center of all the cabinet agencies’ activities. The appointment of New Mexico representative Deb Haaland as interior secretary — an indigenous woman and a supporter of the Green New Deal and Medicare for All — was probably the most significant win on this front. But, overall, the New York Times reports, “Mr. Biden remains a centrist, establishment politician. And he is crafting a centrist, establishment administration.” If Obama’s cabinet picks represented a right-wing administration handpicked by Citigroup, Biden promises a move to the center-right. The once-militant GND movement also shifted to less confrontational and choreographed rallies meant to “push” Biden left. As a journalist reported at a late-November rally, “Their posture was less confrontational than two years ago.”
To give credit, the GND movement has clearly shifted the “Overton window” of what is possible in climate politics. From 2008 through 2016, the main policy debate was between neoliberal market schemes — either carbon tax or cap and trade. It is quite impressive to see that Biden’s plan doesn’t even mention carbon pricing and focuses much more on public investment and “good union jobs.” Yet simply granting radical GND activists “a seat at the table” will in no way guarantee them the power to implement their agenda. The fact is that Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan is just as unlikely to pass Congress as Obama’s cap-and-trade legislation was (even with the Senate). The Democrats’ Overton window only appears to shift what can be proposed, not what can be implemented.
Biden appears poised to reproduce Obama’s commitment to what Skocpol called “corporatist bargaining” — bringing all the stakeholders to the table, including the affected industries. As Jane McAlevey reminds us, this “confuse[s] access for power.” It is this kind of bargaining that leads to industry-friendly half measures like cap and trade or the Affordable Care Act. Even Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve and the new Treasury secretary — a pick that progressives have largely welcomed — is a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council: a collaboration with major oil and gas firms that remains committed to carbon pricing as the sensible approach to solving the climate crisis. Just recently, Biden’s pick for “climate envoy,” John Kerry, was quoted as saying about oil companies, “I’m reaching out to them because I want to hear from them . . . I’m listening to what their needs are.”
Of course, any climate action should focus on those most directly affected by climate risks. But this is less of a real material pledge to these communities than it is a concession to the GND activists’ core moral sensibilities. Indeed, the language of justice, frontline communities, and centering the most marginalized — what I call “livelihood environmentalism” — is like moralistic catnip for this activist base. While this language inundates grant applications and academic jobs, poor and marginalized communities continue to face the injustice of disproportionate environmental risks. They still lack the kind of broad-based coalition — that is, power — to take on capitalist energy firms that threaten their livelihoods. Moreover, the entire plan to devote 40 percent of spending to frontline communities would amount to means testing in practice. Who qualifies as “frontline”? Who speaks for particular communities? Biden’s plan calls for a “Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool to help identify these disadvantaged communities.” I’m sure the communities deemed not “disadvantaged” enough by this tool will find it a fair process.
The most concerning part of the activist focus on “frontline justice” is that it reinforces the sense among most people that GND politics is not for them. Given that 57 percent of Americans believe climate change will not affect them personally, I doubt many consider themselves part of a “frontline community.” This kind of policy would potentially ignite the same kind of class resentment that is aimed toward targeted state benefits, while the majority are left to languish. We want the kind of political power to deliver climate action that addresses those most affected, but in order to win, we need a program that appeals to the broadest base possible. It seems GND activists should go back to the basics on the posters they brandished in Pelosi’s office: “Green Jobs for All.”
Decade of the Green New Deal?
The GND movement claims we are now entering the decade of the Green New Deal — but we have nowhere close to the power to do so. Could we? I close by enumerating three strategic avenues to building this kind of power. First, the Left has largely lost its bid for state power, but we cannot abandon the state. Now that the Democrats run both houses of Congress, the terrain will shift slightly in our favor. Many on the progressive left are laying out specific executive-level policies that a Biden administration can deliver. For example, New Consensus proposes that the Federal Reserve could inject liquidity into actual regional investment projects to solve the climate crisis. We should push this kind of agenda as far as we can. Moreover, socialists have had most success winning state and local office; how this cadre attempts to deliver a working-class agenda in the face of devastating budget austerity will likely be the decisive battle of the year ahead.
Second, history shows that large-scale political transformations only happen through extra-parliamentary disruption. This was recently proven in 2018 during the West Virginia teachers’ strike. Teachers could have attempted to pass their reforms by running progressive candidates and proposing legislation. Instead, they organized popular support, shut down schools, and won their demands in about two weeks. The radical climate movement — especially Sunrise — is still an almost entirely electoral movement. It marshaled tremendous volunteer capacity to get out the vote for Biden and other candidates, but what will happen to this energy when Biden and the Democrats predictably fall short?
The environmental movement must think harder about strategic disruption. As the case of West Virginia shows, if you don’t have the public on your side, disruption is easily maligned. Environmental direct-action protests have long alienated workers and unions in the targeted industries. Extinction Rebellion famously shut down a working-class commuter train in London, facing public backlash and ridicule. The climate movement has continually engaged in polite, explicitly nondisruptive protests (e.g., the 2014 People’s Climate March). It is encouraging to see the youth movement reclaim the language of the strike, but the 2019 Global Climate Strike was purely voluntary. The activist call for the strike openly admitted that it lacked any teeth: “We are well aware that . . . this strike . . . won’t change the course of events.”
Socialists know there is one form of disruption that has the strategic capacity to force elites to respond to radical demands: labor strikes. As Jane McAlevey argues, “There’s just no better way to create a crisis than a 100 percent withdrawal of labor.” The Massachusetts Teachers Association called for a national teachers’ strike for a Green New Deal in the summer of 2019. Calling for such a strike is very different than organizing one, but this is the kind of action we need to think about taking.
Third, if the GND movement is going to move beyond its professional-class activist spaces, it will need to begin building organization and consciousness directly in working-class communities — starting in the trade union movement. It is quite disturbing to consider how many unions came out against the GND; a platform based on economic justice and combating inequality. One basic problem is that the GND architects didn’t consult with unions in the formation of the core ideas and policies. A union-based climate movement should recognize what the labor movement has always understood: certain sectors of the economy are strategic to organize in. Jane McAlevey recounts how the CIO focused on steel and coal in the 1930s, and today, she proposes health care, education, and logistics. For climate, it is clear that any rational pathway to 100 percent decarbonization goes through the electric utility sector. This “electrify everything” strategy means cleaning up electricity and electrifying residential heating, transportation, and industrial heat. Yet few GND activists have pointed out that the electric utility sector is already one of the most unionized in the entire economy — in fact, the electric power generation, transmission, and distribution sector has 26.3 percent union membership. These workers are represented by unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Utility Workers Union of America. The GND movement could try to win these unions to their side in order to transform the very sector at the core of the problem. One IBEW member has already proposed a rank-and-file strategy for a Green New Deal.
On the other hand, the renewable energy industry, specifically solar and wind, are notoriously nonunion — at 4 percent union density for solar photovoltaic technology and 6 percent for concentrated solar and wind — and almost entirely run for profit by private capital. The GND movement needs to engage with the electricity unions, arguing that unless a long-term strategy ensures the energy transition is controlled by project labor agreements and union labor, it will be destroyed by a form of “green capitalism.”
The tenor of the moment is to say “we’ve only got five or ten years left” because of the depth of the climate emergency. That kind of slogan was designed to get people to see how serious things are. But as a political strategy it is a dead end. We can’t think in those terms, no matter how desperate the climate situation. We have to be able to think in terms of ten, fifteen or twenty years. There is fundamental class and organisational rebuilding to be done. It takes time.
— Leo Panitch, March 2020
Published at www.jacobinmag.com