When the Green New Deal Goes Global
The left’s increasingly ambitious environmental agenda is rethinking the mechanics of the international economy.
After Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a woman in her late 20s drove west from her home in New York City. She passed through Flint, Michigan, and ended up on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, where protesters had camped out to block the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they said posed a threat to local water supplies.
Inspired by what she saw, she returned to New York to oppose the incumbent Democrat in a congressional primary, beating him to become the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. On the first day of her orientation, she joined the youth-led civic Sunrise Movement in occupying the office of the speaker of the House of Representatives, the highest-ranking member of her own party. Three months later, she followed up by proposing her first piece of legislation with veteran Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey: the Green New Deal, a multitrillion-dollar plan to decarbonize the U.S. economy on the path to global net-zero emissions by 2050.
The person is, of course, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist. Her origin story tells us much about the present moment—and the West’s future politics.
First, there is the centrality of climate change, which keeps this variety of socialism blissfully distant from that of the Cold War. Ocasio-Cortez was less than a month old when the Berlin Wall fell and has no vestigial defensive reflex to the red-baiting that she still faces from her U.S. opponents.
Second, there is the will to be guided by projects originating at the grassroots and the margins—a lesson taken from the abject mismanagement of the insular and centrally controlled Democratic machine of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Third, and most expansively, there is a focus on how power runs not just through money and government—Wall Street and Washington—but through the soil, the turbine, and the mortgage lender’s redline and in places distant from influence, like North Dakota in Ocasio-Cortez’s case, although it might just as well have been Puerto Rico or Ferguson, Missouri. These are places whose stories are not told in the intervals of four-year terms but in centuries of conquest, enslavement, and resistance.
Most instructive in Ocasio-Cortez’s rise is the way it charts the whiplash pace of change in public discourse. If her election was a tremor in the political landscape, the surprisingly high levels of public support for the Green New Deal on its release have been an earthquake. A 30-year-old “former bartender,” as right-wing voices tried haplessly to smear her, is now setting the national and even international agenda. Nearly all Democratic candidates support the resolution, and the European Commission proposed its own Green Deal in December 2019. The Overton window hasn’t just shifted; it has fallen off its hinges.
Other activists and intellectuals of Ocasio-Cortez’s generation are keen not to let the moment pass. Think tanks like Common Wealth and the Institute for Public Policy Research in the U.K. and the Roosevelt Institute and People’s Policy Project in the United States are not only preparing to protest; they are preparing to govern.
What might the reign of young green socialists look like? We catch a first glimpse in the book A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, co-written by one journalist and three academics—Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos—and published in November 2019 by the storied left-wing press Verso on its imprint run by Jacobin, the U.S. magazine itself closely linked to the rise of millennial socialism. If the future looks anything like that described in the book’s pages, the answer to the question of whether the center and right have something to fear is: absolutely.
The authors take the insight of Naomi Klein from her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, that catastrophes, both natural and man-made, are often used to ram through policies that expose populations to ever greater risk. But they reverse it. “[T]he Right plans for crises meticulously,” they write. “We should, too. If we can organize in advance, we can use the openings created by the next crises to directly attack their root causes. No more crises wasted.” Whether planning for climate disaster, Brexit, or an even deeper political fracture, some leftists have proposed “disaster communism” in place of Klein’s “disaster capitalism.”
So can an open catastrophe be used to roll out large-scale transformations of property and collective life? The authors’ battle-ready tone on this score breaks with the often moralistic and soul-searching mode of some of the higher-profile climate books of the last few years. Think here of books by Jonathan Safran Foer, David Wallace-Wells, Roy Scranton, and Nathaniel Rich. Probing, informative, and often paralyzingly depressing, these books shy away from the directness of the authors of A Planet to Win. Closer to “shut it down” than “we are screwed,” their radicalism is worn proudly, born of a post-2000 era of Occupy, graduate student unionization, and Black Lives Matter. One of the authors is on the steering committee of the Ecosocialist Working Group of the Democratic Socialists of America, of which Ocasio-Cortez is also a member—an organization that has seen its rolls increase nearly
sevenfold since Trump’s election.
In place of the vague sentiment that “the enemy is us,” A Planet to Win’s authors seek out real culprits. They take for granted that we are not equally guilty for climate change. Responsibility is distributed as unevenly as the rewards of the carbon economy. It stands to reason the burden of climate repair must also fall unevenly. They draw their first concentric circle of culpability around the United States, which they refer to as “the belly of the beast” because it “remains the world’s second-largest carbon emitter, behind China. In per-capita terms, US emissions are over twice as high.” Drawing a second, smaller circle in the spirit of what could be called left-climate populism, they argue that “[f]or ethical and practical reasons, a just transition also requires naming and shaming our enemies, focusing the climate movement’s rage where it belongs: on fossil fuel CEOs and private utility executives.”
After World War II, many European governments carried out projects of lustration, purging and punishing those who had collaborated with fascist regimes. The authors of A Planet to Win seem motivated by the same spirit. Their targets of expropriation, however, are not only players in fossil fuels. The book’s lead author tweeted recently that “the green new deal doesn’t need bill gates’s money but it’s gonna feel sooo good to take it.” The pugnacious rhetoric ricochets through the book, even surfacing as direct threats: “Fossil fuel executives in particular should consider themselves lucky if all we do is take their companies,” they write. “They should be tried for crimes against humanity.”
The authors also offer a dazzling array of constructive projects to accompany the green transition’s doling out of economic retribution. Perhaps most vividly depicted is their vision of the future city. They call for “10 million public, beautiful, mixed-income, no-carbon homes” over the next 10 years. The building industries, widely considered a natural enemy of green concerns, are treated by the authors as the opposite—they are potential beneficiaries of new publicly funded projects like windmills and solar arrays that fuel local demand for their skills. So-called “sunflower homes” on smart grids will turn off electricity “for short blips to lower energy use at peak times.” Publicly owned “fleets of nimble electric minivans” will “accommodate late-night lovers, strollers, wheelchairs, and walkers”; “limited equity co-operatives and community land trusts” will emerge “alongside housing built and governed by local authorities,” and abandoned buildings in places like Baltimore and Philadelphia will be rehabbed and turned into “locally managed land trusts.”
As grand as some of the schemes can sound, the authors use compelling historical analogies to defend their plausibility. Like Klein, they recall the era between the New Deal and wartime mobilization. They offer the astounding example of the world’s largest factory being built in Michigan in less than a year in the 1940s, eventually producing a B-24 bomber every hour. They are aware that the missing element in redirecting the enormous ship of the U.S. economy is less technological capacity than political will—a commodity that can be neither produced and distributed from above nor accumulated adequately through small acts of conscientiousness or consumer choice. “Herculean change,” they point out, “isn’t the specialty of market nudges.” It will have to be big, and it will have to be collective.
All moments of political and economic transformation look impossible until they happen. That does not make them inevitable, but it does mean strategy is paramount, as the authors recognize. Rather than putting the onus on individuals to change their personal habits to slow climate change and then blaming them when they fail, the authors know that scapegoating the poor and underresourced leads only to backlash of the kind seen in the yellow vest movement in France. Conditions need to be created first where people have the access to services that allow them to lead greener lives.
Moral superiority, they point out, is often misplaced anyway. The rich do more harm than the poor. Per capita carbon footprints in New York City’s affluent Greenwich Village are two to three times higher than those in the Bronx. Part of the struggle is identifying previously neglected allies. “[T]he working class women of color who populate the housing movements that are fighting against gentrification and demanding affordable density,” they write, “are in fact low-carbon protagonists—whether they talk about climate or not.”
Time and again, the authors find their solutions in collective rather than individual action. They oppose the impulse to opt out, breaking with the libertarian dreams of clean energy islands that are often the shared endpoint of ecopolitics on both the left and right. The hyperlocal ex-hippie in Vermont mirrors the survivalist in Idaho; neither is a viable standard-bearer for the climate left. Instead, the challenge can only be confronted at scale. The authors offer a vision of flexibility. Microgrids nested inside a continental power grid will gather green energy where it is sunny or windy and then disperse it to cloudier or calmer places. Public ownership of the national energy grid is one of the book’s many concrete demands and should be a signature proposal for any leftist U.S. politician.
Based on the book’s front end, one could quibble that the authors’ discussion stays too close to the United States, looking abroad primarily to admire the people’s palaces of Red Vienna and the public buses of Helsinki, in the familiar mode of Sanders’s paeans to Scandinavia. The focus shifts drastically, though, in a final chapter on “recharging internationalism” based on Riofrancos’s ethnographic research in Chile’s lithium fields. Here, the book confronts some of the deepest difficulties of climate transition but also offers an inspiring new way of thinking about global politics and organizing social movements.
The key phrase for this chapter is “supply chain justice.” Think of it as a globalization of the Standing Rock model that inspired both Ocasio-Cortez and the book’s authors. Because the territory of the Oceti Sakowin people is, all at once, a place of human residence, a transit point for mineral resources, an ecosystem, and a site of fraught overlapping forms of governance, any pursuit of social justice must follow all the threads: the gas, the groundwater, the history, the lines of legal redress, the future means of redistributing profit, and the past means of absconding with it.
The authors directly confront the fact that a renewable energy transition will mean less of some forms of extraction but more of others, including the cobalt, lithium, nickel, and graphite required for batteries. How then to avoid past patterns whereby tapping new reservoirs of energy has deepened, rather than reversed, inequalities? Whether through damming, drilling, or logging, historically marginalized populations have seen their territory devastated with little compensation beyond poorly paid menial labor. “More than half the world’s supply [of cobalt] is currently sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo,” the authors offer as one example, “from hand-dug mines worked by children, with scant protection of workers’ safety.” The authors believe this is unnecessary. “Our core premise,” they write, “is that nodes of the vast supply chains of the renewable transition are potential sites of solidarity across borders.”
This is not straightforward, they acknowledge. Many residents of Chile’s capital city of Santiago are enthusiastic about efforts to expand extraction of the country’s lithium deposits as part of a project of “resource nationalism”; many indigenous groups, by contrast, would prefer no lithium extraction at all because of its disruptive effects on their homes. The task for a properly socialist policy is formidable: It requires addressing the needs and demands of actors all along the global value chain, rather than focusing only on the demand-side solution of subsidizing middle-class consumers to opt for a new Tesla instead of a Subaru.
The authors have some suggestions about how to create a more egalitarian redistribution along a value chain that usually tilts to the developed countries of the global north. They follow other progressives in calling for a revision of intellectual property law to force U.S. companies to share technology with Chilean firms, for example, and adopt extraction methods that do not damage the local biosphere. They suggest using the Alien Tort Claims Act to try U.S. firms in domestic courts for violations of environmental law and indigenous rights abroad. They recognize that strengthening ties between climate activists in the global north and south is necessary to gain larger visibility.
The authors’ vision in the book is bracing. But given their laudable desire to write a point-by-point program for the climate left, some questions are left hanging. Perhaps the biggest matter is that of enforcement. Who will be the green cop for the global Green New Deal? Although the authors pay little attention to the alter-globalization movement of the 1990s, there are many ways in which the world has been here before. It is instructive to compare the two moments, as the climate left is, in many ways, the alter-globalization movement’s rightful heir. This is signaled most clearly in the foreword written by Klein, the patron saint of the earlier wave of activists in Seattle; Porto Alegre, Brazil; and Quebec City. Klein was the enfant terrible then, writing the book No Logo when she was 29 years old. That book also took a pugilist’s stance, with the subtitle “taking aim at the brand bullies.” She was also a pioneer of the climate left with her 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.
Like A Planet to Win, the alter-globalization movement of the 1990s called for stronger labor and environmental standards to be added to revised trade agreements. Such rhetoric, although ritualistically invoked by Democratic lawmakers, has had little effect against the overwhelming impulse of the multilateral institutions of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement to liberalize trade after the 1990s. Pursuing the climate left’s vision will require thinking more concretely about what state-to-state institutions beyond the nation will be required to secure it. Just as some commentators have begun to demand green quantitative easing from the world’s central banks, should we also be bold enough to imagine a green WTO, which would use the tools of dispute settlement and punitive countermeasures to police the behavior of individual states according to their carbon emissions? This is what Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann have called for in their recent book,
Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future.
Yet recall that some of the strongest opponents of labor and environmental standards from the 1990s onward came from the same quarter: the global south itself, whose national representatives protested that talk of green and fair trade was code for suppressing the growth dreams of the poorer nations. In the 1990s, as in A Planet to Win, the conundrum was often solved by appealing beyond the border to indigenous actors. In the 1990s, it was the insurgents of Chiapas in southern Mexico; here, it is the residents of Chile’s Atacama Desert. The authors cite the 1970s demands for a New International Economic Order as an example of a different way of organizing the world economy. Emboldened by the vulnerability of Western nations to the oil embargo, a coalition of poorer nations in the United Nations attempted to leverage resource power, passing a 1974 resolution in the United Nations General Assembly demanding commodity stabilization agreements, drastically increased development aid flows, and colonial reparations. The defeat of demands for a new, more equal world economy is often remembered as a historic failure. Yet the New International Economic Order’s demands, however egalitarian at a state-to-state level, were premised entirely on the dream of endless carbon-fueled growth we now see as folly and paid no attention to inequality within their own borders.
The world’s population at large will have to be persuaded of the urgency of the threat and the possibility of a better future. Then sovereign leaders will have to be convinced to make commitments far beyond those of the risibly inadequate Paris and Kyoto agreements—themselves, of course, symbols for the right-wing of scandalously betrayed sovereignty. It makes sense that the fraught history of decades of climate negotiation that culminated in those agreements is not surveyed in the book—it’s depressing and stops miles short of the authors’ expansive vision of rethinking state capacity and property relations.
Yet staring the problem of global governance in the face may not be avoidable. International lawyers often appeal to a scene in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus is lashed to the mast to prevent seduction by the sirens. They speak of the need for governments likewise to be “bound to the mast” to prevent them from straying from past commitments, whether it be to human rights or free trade. Must governments be lashed more tightly to a green mast now? If not, how to discipline the actions of climate rogues? If so, how to prepare for and even preempt the inevitable backlash against green supranationalism? Much depends on the unpredicted and unpredictable transformations of the Ocasio-Cortez moment rolling onward—a movement that the authors are both staking their hopes on and to which they are adding their own formidable force.
A Planet to Win is the American kernel of a vision for a post-carbon future, and its optimism is inspiring. But taking the Green New Deal global will also mean entering the scrum of state-to-state politics, where national leaders are less likely to be moved by visions of fleets of electric buses and more likely to be wary of green as a new shade of U.S. empire. Finding the hinge between supply chain justice and international diplomacy will be a task hard enough to keep us all busy for as long as our heads remain above water.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 print issue.