Category Archive : USA

Green New Deals must push the boundaries

Green New Deals (GNDs), of various kinds, are increasingly a feature of the global climate and ecological struggle. They are not new but today they have greater significance, writes Alan Thornett. The most important such deal to-date is one submitted to the US Congress – entitled ‘Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal’ – by the new Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, along with the veteran Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts. The proposal originated with the Sunrise Movement – a group of environmentally motivated young people in the Democratic Party – and adopted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (also known as AOC).

In Canada a ‘Pact for a Green New Deal’ has been launched and is getting wide support. There are calls for a European-wide GND and an Australian GND. In the British Labour Party a campaign for the adoption of a GND at its forthcoming conference has gained mass support and is likely be adopted though possibly in an amended form.

These initiatives are a response to the frightening pace of ecological destruction. As I write the Brazilian rain forest, the lungs of the world, its greatest a biodiversity treasure house, and is the home of indigenous peoples, is in flames. Climate records are broken at ever greater regularity. Crucial resources are running out, including fresh water and arable land. Pollution is choking the eco-systems of the planet. The oceans are now 30 per cent more acidic than in pre-industrial times. Coral reefs are dying off at an unprecedented rate. There will soon be more plastic in the oceans than fish and species are becoming extinct at a disastrous rate.

They are also a response to increasing public awareness of the ecological issues and new developments in the struggle itself, in particular the emergence of the Greta Thunberg and the (inspirational) international school students strikes she has generated, and of Extinction Rebellion, a none-violent direct-action movement that has placed the biodiversity crisis at the heart of its activities.

The AOC Deal in the US

The AOC Deal – or more precisely ‘Resolution’ because it is in the form of a resolution to Congress – has added significance because of its location in the USA, where it is a beacon of hope in the bleakest landscapes. A stark alternative to the ecocide emanating from a White House that presides over ever rising US carbon emissions whilst rolling back climate regulations enacted by the Obama administration. The Resolution has already redrawn the boundaries of the debate on the ecological crisis in the USA, prompting Trump (unsurprisingly) has branded as ‘socialist and therefore un-American’.

The Resolution was publicly launched it in Washington in February with the support of 60 members of the House, nine Senators, and several presidential candidates. The headline message stressed at the meeting was to make the USA “net carbon-neutral in ten years”, which would require huge strides in reducing the USA’s reliance on oil, gas and coal and its replacement by clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources.

Its first point of principle is that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming over the past century, causing the sea level to rise, more severe wildfires and storms, droughts, and other extreme weather events that threaten human life, healthy communities, and national infrastructure.

Its second is (crucially) that global warming above 1.5°C pre-industrial level will have catastrophic consequences. The result, it says, will be mass migration driven by climate change. Wildfires, by 2050, will burn twice as much forest area in the Western United States than was burned in the years preceding 2019. Ninety nine percent of all coral reefs on Earth will be lost. More than 350,000,000 extra people will be exposed globally to deadly heat stress by 2050. There is a risk of $1,000,000,000,000 damage to public infrastructure and coastal real estate in the United States.

These principles directly reflect the conclusions of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming, published in October last year. It was compiled by climate scientists from around the world following the failure of the Paris climate summit to fully adopt 1.5°C concluded that the previous UN target of 2°C above preindustrial levels is indeed now out of date and should be superseded by a new maximum of a 1.5°C increase – after which key elements of the crisis start to run out of control.

Cutting carbon emissions

The Resolution makes a number of proposals in terms of cutting carbon emissions including the following:
• Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources;
• To achieve zero Green House Gas (GHG) emissions through fair and just transition for all communities and workers.
• Building or upgrading to energy-efficient, distributed, and ‘‘smart’’ power grids, and working to ensure affordable access to electricity;
• Upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency;
• Working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector;
• Overhauling transportation systems to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; with clean, affordable, and accessible public transport.
• Removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, including by restoring natural ecosystems and low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, and afforestation.
• Restoring fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity and support climate resiliency.

It also recognises that a reorganisation of the economy and of society on this scale would represent a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone. It goes on to call on the Federal Government to make green technology, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries bringing about a global GND.
Bernie Sanders

The Resolution has already had an impact on next year’s presidential election campaign. Bernie Sanders, for example, who was the first presidential candidate to support the OAC Resolution, recently put forward his own ecological platform, which he sees as complementary it. He launched recently, and poignantly, whilst visiting the town of Paradise, California, the home to 26,000 people that was completely destroyed in December last year by the deadliest wildfire in the history of the state that was driven by climate change.

Sanders called for the creation of 20 million clean energy jobs and $16.3 trillion in green federal investment. He called for the decarbonisation of transportation and power generation, the two largest sources of emissions in the United States, by 2030, which would lower US emissions by 71 percent.

His plan, he said, would raise money from numerous sources including: $6.4 trillion from selling energy via power marketing authorities; $2.3 trillion from income taxes from the new jobs created under the plan, and $1.2 trillion from reducing the military expenses related to protecting oil shipping routes. Expenditure would include:
• $40 billion for a climate justice resiliency fund for under-resourced groups like Native Americans, people with disabilities, and the elderly to prepare for climate change
• $200 billion for the United Nations Green Climate Fund to help other countries reduce their emissions
• $1.52 trillion to deploy renewable energy and $852 billion for energy storage
• $526 billion for an underground high-voltage direct current power transmission network

The controversies

Crucial as the 1.5°C target is it is still far from universally accepted even on the left. The British Labour Party, for example, despite having greatly strengthened its overall ecological profile under the Corbyn leadership, has still not accepted it as its official position. When Red-Green Labour activists proposed its adoption at the AGM of SERA, Labour’s environmental section, last November, we lost the vote the 1.5°C. John McDonnell, however, in an interview in the Independent on June 13th this year said that Labour was strongly considering adopting the 1.5°C target ‘ in order to respond to the science’.

The strength of the Labour Party GND, which is heading for the Party conference in a few weeks-time, is that it clearly accepts the 1.5°C target and that this means achieving zero carbon emission by 2030. There were challenges to this during the debate in the branches and committees with proposals for a 2050 target date and to insert ‘net’ before zero. What will be put to conference, however, is not yet clear since there is a compositing process prior to conference where amendments will be discussed. RGL is arguing that if there is a challenge to the original there should to two options put to conference.

The AOC campaign is not clear on the 2030 deadline and ‘net’ zero either. Although a target of net-zero by 2030 had been headlined at the public launch the AOC GND the Resolution itself, as submitted to Congress, is more conservative. It says that: “Global temperatures must be kept below 1.5 °C above pre-industrialised levels to avoid the most severe impacts of a changing climate, which will require global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human sources of 40 to 60 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.”
It is true that this reflects the IPCC Report. Unfortunately, however, it reflects one of its weaknesses. The Report predicts that “the global temperature is likely rise to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052 if warming continues to increase at the current rate.” This does not make sense. First it is predicated on warming continuing at the “current rate” – which is looking increasingly unlikely. Second it proposes action on the best case scenario rather than the worst. If 1.5 °C by 2030 is a clear possibility, as the IPCC report accepts, that should be the target date, since 2050 it could be too late.

The ‘net’ zero carbon stipulation is also problem. ‘Net’ zero means achieving carbon emissions by balancing emissions with removal or sequestration, (often through offsetting) rather than eliminating carbon emissions altogether. Whilst anthropogenic sequestration can be a valid option it also opens the door to the manipulation of data and the falsification of results. ‘Net’ zero is defended in the AOC resolution by saying that it might not be possible to fully get rid of, for example, emissions from beef production or air travel before then.

It should also be said that both of these deals are vague as to what constitutes fossil fuel energy and either explicitly or implicitly accept the use of nuclear power.

Both also fail to address the issue of economic growth. With the AOC Resolution this is compounded by the name ‘New Deal’ with its reference to Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression – which was based entirely around growth. Growth, however, is not an option when it comes to saving the planet. At the average rate on economic growth of 3 per cent per year over the past 60 years the global economic would grow by a factor of sixteen in the course of a century and 250 over the course of this century and the next.

Making the polluters pay

They have another commonality as well. Whilst they both make excellent demands that point in the right direction, they both lack a high impact centralising demand capable of stopping the global temperature going above the1.5°C maximum temperature increase in the time-scale available to us and generating a mass movement around it – for example making the polluters pay for the pollution.

Fossil fuel is hard-wired into the global energy system, with massive financial, corporate and ideological resources behind it. As long as it remains the most profitable way to generate energy this strangle-hold will continue to be used. In my view an important part of breaking this stranglehold is carbon pricing – making fossil energy dramatically more expensive than renewables by heavy (and increasing) taxes on carbon based products within the framework of a socially just progressive taxation system that transfers of wealth from the rich to the poor and generates mass support in the process.

(Carbon taxes should not be confused with carbon trading as promoted by Kyoto and the UN: schemes such as the Clean Development Mechanism, the Joint Implementation Mechanism, and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. They are at best window-dressing and at worst licenses to pollute.)

The omission of carbon taxes from these proposals is unsurprising, since carbon taxes are widely opposed on the radical left. This is often on the basis that they are a market mechanism, which indeed they are, but so is taxing the rich which has long (and rightly) been supported by the radical left. The issue is not whether a tax is a market mechanism but whether, in a given circumstance, it is progressive or reactionary.

This is an important discussion. Peter Hudis, for example, in a recent article on the Red Green Labour site on June 15, argues that the most important attribute of the AOC Resolution is precisely that it has nothing to say on carbon taxes. He references, in justification, to the opposition of the Yellow Vests to Macron’s fuel tax in France, who saw it as an additional burden on the poorest in society.

Macron’s carbon tax was indeed regressive, and the reaction of the Yellow Vests was entirely predictable. This was not because carbon taxes per se are regressive, but because this one was introduced in the framework of Macron’s right-wing agenda including tax breaks for the rich and cuts to social programs. The fact that nothing had been done on the left in France to promote the idea of progressive carbon taxes did not help.

There are many ways in which carbon pricing can be used to bring down emissions rapidly and democratically. A proposal worth looking at, in my view, is the one proposed by James Hansen, the climate scientist who has done more to tackle climate change over the past 30 years than anyone else. He famously made a high profile intervention in the US Senate in 1988, which catapulted global warming and climate change into the public arena, making it an important turning point in public awareness.

Hansen proposes a fee-and-dividend system which involves placing a uniform fee (or levy) on the fossil fuel production, at the pithead, the wellhead or at the port of entry, for each ton of carbon produced. The revenue generated would be distributed, on a heavily redistributive basis towards the poor, as dividends to the population as a whole on an individual (per capita) basis – with half shares for children up to two children per family (though restricting this to two children seems problematic). Those who reduce their carbon footprint the most would stand to benefit the most.

Carbon pricing can also tackle pollution. According to Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) the 5p charge introduced in Britain in 2016 on single-use plastic bags resulted in an immediate 83 per cent reduction in plastic bag usage. More than 7 billion bags were handed out by seven main supermarkets in the year before the 5p charge but this plummeted to slightly more than 500 million in the first six months after the charge was introduced. This was also a market mechanism.

The objection often made that taxing the polluters in this way is not revolutionary enough. This is a big mistake. It is true that this does not propose global socialist revolution as the immediate answer to the ecological crisis with the time scale we have – because such a call would be meaningless. What it does propose, however, that the forces that can in the end challenge the logic of capitalism are assembled in the course of a practical struggle to defend the planet in the here and now whilst capitalism still exists.

Pushing the boundaries

Whilst the various GNDs being proposed are diverse in their scope and objectives, what is clear is that they must push the boundaries of the situation they are in. We are in an evolving and radicalising situation and GNDs need to be at the cutting edge of it.

They need to be a part of the broadest possible alliance in defence of the planet. This means reaching out to the trade unions with policies based on a just transition from carbon-based jobs to jobs based on renewable energy and an environmental perspective. It means a new energy system based on solar, wind, tidal, hydro and geothermal. It means developing green production and rejecting the throwaway society. It means demanding the public ownership of industry and land as the basis for the kind of fundamental restructuring of society that is urgently needed. It means rejecting policies that stand in the way of all this such as airport and aviation expansion, the dash for gas, fracking for more gas, nuclear energy, the use of biofuels and, importantly, industrialised agriculture with its dependency on artificial fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, and anti-biotics.

All this means major changes not only to our energy superstructure but to how society is organised and to how people live their lives. Such strategic choices involved cannot just be left to governments, even a Corbyn government. Attempting to carry them through without mass support could be disastrous. These issues have to discussed by the whole movement since they will have to be implemented by the whole movement.

Alan Thornett is the author of Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism, published by Resistance Books 2019.

The Green New Deal: Realistic Proposal or Fantasy?

The Green New Deal: Realistic Proposal or Fantasy?

The Green New Deal (GND), drawn up by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, is the most ambitious and comprehensive program to deal with climate change ever made by political representatives to Congress and the U.S. public, writes Peter Hudis. It calls for making dramatic changes within the next ten years to end our reliance on fossil fuels that are warming the planet at an alarming rate. But it is not only about curbing carbon dioxide (CO2)emissions: it is most of all a proposal to set us on a path of creating an ecologically sustainable society.

The GND lays out seven major proposals for ending U.S. society’s addiction to fossil fuels—the most destructive form of addiction known on this planet:
• Dramatically expand existing renewable power sources and deploy new production capacity with the goal of meeting 100% of national power demand through renewable sources.
• Building a national, energy-efficient, “smart” grid.
• Upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety.
• Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, agricultural and other industries.
• Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and other infrastructure, and upgrading water infrastructure to ensure universal access to clean water.
• Funding massive investment in the draw-down of greenhouse gases.
• Making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries bringing about a global Green New Deal.[1]

Carrots?
These seven policy prescriptions are ambitious enough. Yet the GND goes further, by stipulating it “Shall recognize that a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” It spells this out with eight specific proposals:
• Provide all members of society the opportunity, training and education to be a full and equal participant in the transition, including through a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one.
• Diversify local and regional economies to ensure workers have the necessary tools, opportunities, and economic assistance to succeed during the energy transition.
• Require strong enforcement of labor, workplace safety, and wage standards that recognize the rights of workers to organize and unionize free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment, and creation of meaningful, quality, career employment.
• Ensure a “just transition” for all workers, low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, rural and urban communities and the front-line communities most affected by climate change, pollution and other environmental harm including by ensuring that local implementation of the transition is led from the community level.
• Protect and enforce sovereign rights and land rights of tribal nations.
• Mitigate deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth (including, without limitation, ensuring that federal and other investment will be equitably distributed to historically impoverished, low income, de-industrialized or other marginalized communities).
• Include measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs and any others as the select committee may deem appropriate to promote economic security, labor market flexibility and entrepreneurship.
• Deeply involve national and local labor unions to take a leadership role in the process of job training and worker deployment.

These eight proposals regarding full employment, universal health care, support for unions and marginalized communities, opposition to racial and gender-based discrimination, etc. may seem, on the surface, to have little to do with the GND’s central aim of radically reducing greenhouse has emissions within the next ten years. But in fact these eight proposals have a great deal to do with the seven that address ending reliance on fossil fuels. They are not some throw away meant to sneak a radical political agenda into an otherwise technical discussion of how to lower CO2 emissions. They are needed to wean U.S. society away from its addiction on fossil fuels.

Dependence?

Here is why: Climate justice can’t be achieved without changing the structures of U.S. society that make it hard to break from our reliance on fossil fuel. Over 1.4 million Americans directly work for the fossil fuel industry. It makes no sense to propose scaling back and eventually eliminating this industry unless those displaced from it are assured of jobs that pay decent wages and benefits. As Jedediah Britton-Purdy recently put it, “In the twenty-first century, environmental policy is economic policy. Keeping the two separate…is an anachronism.”[2]

Moreover, innumerable parts of our society depend on fossil fuel in addition to the gas we put in our cars. This includes building construction, packaging, and agriculture (most pesticides and fertilizers are made from fossil fuels)—even shampoo (yes, almost all of them are oil-based). Just look around you: almost everything, from the plastic tables and chairs to the Formica panels and light fixtures, are by-products of petroleum. These and many more products and the industries that make them will have to be reconfigured to drastically reduce CO2 emissions. Clearly, this cannot be done unless there is buy-in from the mass of the U.S. public—which needs affordable housing, health care, free education, and the elimination of racial and gender-based policies that maintain the status quo instead of fostering the common good. In sum, global warming is a social justice issue. If we don’t address the social injustice that is the main condition for the possibility and even the necessity of the addiction to fossil fuels, we are left without an approach to making even a dent in the problem.

Social Justice

This is already obvious from some recent events. In France, Macron’s government imposed a carbon-tax on gasoline as part of its effort to meet the international accords reached several years ago to lower greenhouse gas emissions. But it did so at the same time as reducing tax rates for the rich and cutting social programs. As a result, the Yellow Vest movement arose, initially united around a demand that the gasoline tax be revoked (their demands have have since exceeded that). It isn’t that they don’t care about global warming—many participating in the protests are farmers who see evidence of it every day. But they don’t want those already subjected to austerity measures and social marginalization to be the only ones to pay the cost of redressing climate change.

It is one of the virtues of the GND that it doesn’t include a carbon tax in its lists of proposals. The aim should not be imposing regressive taxes on the consumption of fossil fuels but rather restricting their production through a comprehensive program that can transition U.S. society from its currently ecologically unsustainable energy policies.

Although the GND does not mention how much it will cost to achieve this transition, it will clearly cost trillions of dollars. Is spending that much realistic or an utter fantasy? It is surely necessary, given that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently reported that we have 12 years to transform the global economy away from fossil fuels it we expect a livable climate for human beings. Twelve years! The clock is ticking and we cannot wait until the effects of global warming become so dire as to be irreversible. Moreover, the trillions that it will cost to transition from carbon-based to sustainable energy systems pales in comparison with the many trillions more that will have to be spent dealing with mass migrations, loss of habitats and farmland, and the need to rebuild entire cities and even countries as sea levels inundate coastal areas. It is worth keeping in mind that the global energy infrastructure is today worth $30 to $40 trillion and turns over every three or four decades. That’s a huge sum of money needed just to reproduce the carbon-based energy infrastructure we already have. Why not spend a commensurate or even greater amount to eliminate it altogether with a new system of producing energy, given that the continued use of the one we have now may spell the end of civilization as we have known it?

Lessons from history?

For these reasons, the GND is an important starting point for conceiving how to take effective action now to halt and reverse the impact of climate change. But it is only a starting point, since it has its limitations. The problems begin with its name. The Green New Deal obviously harkens back to the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, the comprehension program born in response to the Great Depression that produced the modern welfare state. While many praise its beneficial social impact, the New Deal actually did not lift the U.S. out of the Depression. World War II did. By 1944, 70 cents of every dollar spent in the U.S. went to the military. The size and role of the state expanded enormously, enabling the U.S. to marshal the power and resources needed to defeat Nazi Germany and fascist Japan. In doing so, the New Deal introduced important legislation that improved the lives of much of the populace, especially workers, and including African Americans (which is one reason Blacks switched their long-held allegiance to the Republican Party to the Democrats during the New Deal).

However, the aim of the New Deal was to save capitalism from collapse—not to transition to a new social order. Here is where the comparison with our situation today ends, since we cannot effectively deal with climate change without transitioning to a new social order. This is because capitalism has been hooked on fossil fuel for over two centuries. It is endemic to the very structure of the capitalist economy. Capitalism is a system defined by the drive to increase monetary wealth, especially in the form of profit, as an end in itself. Every business exists to make a profit; if profit rates for a particular enterprise decline relative to others, it is only a matter of time before it will be driven out of business. Fossil fuels are highly conducive for economies driven by the profit-motive since it packs an enormous amount of energy into a relatively small volume that is easily transportable from one location to another. Capital’s abstractive logic of domination, which seeks to liberate social life from natural spatial determinations for the sake of augmenting value as an end in itself, is almost inexorably drawn to fossil fuels that can be transported anywhere. It is therefore extremely unlikely that it will be possible to wean capitalism off of its addition to fossil fuel without undermining the economic principles that govern it. The GND implicitly points in this direction this, by calling for a series of changes that get in the way of the business-model pursuit of profit (such as its insistence on full employment, paying workers a living wage, providing free health care and education to all citizens, etc.). But this fits uneasily with the model of the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, which was trying to save capitalism.

When the GND was being drafted, Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez initially didn’t want to call it “the Green New Deal,” perhaps for some of these reasons. But others thought it has a catchy ring that would connect with the public. But as a result, most critics as well as supporters of the GND take the phrase literally, by thinking the same principles and policies that drove Roosevelt’s New Deal can save us from the grave threat of climate change today. But there are at least three major problems with this viewpoint.

Narrowed horizons?

The first problem is that is narrows the horizon of the debate over global warming to private interests versus government intervention, or corporations versus the state. Private industries and enterprises operate according to the profit motive. For this reason, it is argued, they lack an incentive to produce goods and servies in an ecologically healthy way. If profit rates can be maintained or increased by using carbon-based fuels, they will use them—unless prevented to do so by some outside force. That outside force is the government or state. Since government is based in the collection and distribution of revenue, it is not driven, many argue, by the profit motive. It has no inherent incentive to produce goods and services in a manner damaging to the environment—at least when it is subject to the needs of the citizenry instead of corporate interests that manipulate it to serve its ends. Since the entire economic model is based on carbon-based emissions, it will take an outside force like the state to compel businesses to act otherwise. And they need to be compelled to act very soon: otherwise, we will reach the tipping point beyond which dealing with global climate change will be outside of our reach.

Furthermore, the amount of economic resources and political power that even the largest corporate entity can muster, let alone private individuals, is minuscule compared to that of the government. The world’s largest multinational corporation, Apple, has a valuation of $800 billion—far smaller than this year’s Federal Budget of $4.5 trillion (state and local government budgets account for $3.1 trillion more). No private or business interest can match this level of resources. There would never have been a U.S. highway system without government spending (little of it came from private sources); and there would never have been the Internet, personal computers, or smart phones without government spending (the microprocessor was a product of hundreds of billions of dollars devoted to research and development by the Defense Department and NASA). And so it is when it comes to climate change: when it comes to such a huge and complex issue as moving our society away from its addiction to fossil fuels, a massive degree of government intervention in at least some form will be needed.
There is much to be said for this argument. If we face a 12-year deadline to seriously reduce carbon emissions, it isn’t going to happen by relying on the market or private individuals. Yes, we can take individual steps to reduce our consumption of meat (79% of the land devoted to agriculture in the U.S. is devoted to animal feed, which produces a huge percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions), we can use less plastic when we shop, and we can try to recycle more. But such actions, welcome as they are, cannot stop the impending catastrophe on their own. They are drops in the bucket. As Benjamin Selwyn argues, “What we need, to avert climate catastrophe is a systemic approach to comprehending and transforming the current global economy.”[3]

Transformation needed

However, it is a major mistake to frame such a transformation in terms of uncritically embracing the power of the state. First, governments are readily prone to being used by corporate and oligarchic interests for their own ends. They are not neutral formations devoid of class interests. That has always been the case, but it has never been truer than today. To give but one of many recent examples, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United has allowed a flood of corporate money—including much from the fossil fuel industry—to shape government policy. Therefore, relying on the state to curb carbon emissions won’t work with the kind of political system we have today; it will instead require a radical transformation of the entire structure of American governance. It will require nothing less than a political revolution in which the U.S. and other countries become genuine social democracies (in the original sense of that term) that serve the needs of its citizens instead of the corporate elites that preside over them. In a word, the goals of the GND require transitioning from the partial and flawed democracy we have today to a genuine or true democracy.

This is where the comparison of the Green New Deal to the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s is quite misleading. The New Deal did not transform the structure of American politics; in some respects it further entrenched it. One reflection of this is the way in which Congress passed the New Deal with the support of Southern white segregationists who used it to solidify their power at the expense of African Americans. Roosevelt’s housing policy, which was a central component of the New Deal, gave federal support to racially segregated housing, which prevented blacks from buying or renting property in many parts of the country. The authors of the GND are aware of this, which is why one of its points calls for “a ‘just transition’ for all workers, low-income communities, communities of color, [and] indigenous communities…” However, far too many supporters of the GND seem to naively presume that such goals can be accomplished with the framework of existing power structures. They assume that the state is more powerful than civil society can ever be. There is no doubt that the state appears to be powerful—even infinitely powerful. However, it is not as powerful as it appears, since it is ultimately dependent on the structures of civil society. Where the latter remain unchanged, the limits of policy changes at the level of the state become evident.

Bureacratic impediments

Second, governments are notoriously bureaucratic institutions that tend to defer, delay, or indefinitely postpone implementing even the most well thought out and valuable plans and initiatives. Whereas private businesses pursue money as an end-in-itself, the state and governments promote bureaucracy as an end-in-itself (obviously this also applies to non-state entities as well, as in academia). One enthusiastic supporter of the GND, the acclaimed labor historian Jeremy Brecher, has become so enthralled of its presumed connection to Roosevelt’s New Deal that he recently proclaimed, “Government initiative is necessary to cut through inertia, bottlenecks, and bureaucratic red tape.”[4] I confess to finding it very strange to call upon government bureaucrats to cut through bureaucratic red tape; it’s sort of like asking the foxes to guard the hen house.

For these and related reasons, although the Green New Deal quite understandably originated as a legislative initiative, it cannot be allowed to remain one. If it stays as a purely legislative initiative it will die a quick death, since there is very little chance that Congress will approve it anytime in the near future—and none at all so long as Trump is in power, since he cares not a whit for the future of the planet; his only concern is the future of his and his friend’s financial investments. Climate change deniers are so much in love with their pocketbooks that they seem not even to care about the future of their own children; the live by the motto, “after me, the deluge.” However, the barrier to the GND being taken seriously in Congress isn’t limited to Trump or the Republicans, since many congressional Democrats are likewise beholden to big business; a case in point is Nancy Pelosi, who has dismissed the GND as a “green dream.”

She is wrong about this; the GND is not a mere fantasy. It sets forth a valuable series of goals that should be actively promoted with as much enthusiasm and force as we can muster. But doing so will require that we take the GND beyond the confines of its legislative origin by advancing aspects of it in our communities, social organizations, and other institutions of civil society. It must become taken up, revised, developed, and radicalized, as part of a mass social movement that is not simply an arm of one or another government agency.
Third, and most important, confining the response to global warming within the parameters of the dichotomy of private versus government, or market versus state, misses a fundamental determinant: the growth imperative that is endemic to capitalist societies. Since capitalism is based on a drive to increase monetary wealth as an end in itself, capitalist enterprises face a constant urge to grow and expand—regardless of human or natural limits. This is why efforts to control capital (either through legislative initiatives or changing administrative policies or personnel) always prove quixotic: they all rest on the assumption that capital’s growth imperative is generated by the personifications of capital instead of by capital itself. It is not the system’s representatives that drives the growth imperative, but the growth imperative that drives the representatives.

The New Deal was a clear expression of this: it aimed to redistribute greater amounts of wealth to workers and the poor as a way to pump up consumer demand as a way to achieve greater economic growth. In other words, government was used as a catalyst to spur greater capital accumulation—and it worked, at least by the time World War II came around. Not surprisingly, however, the New Deal was not aimed at protecting the environment (except when it came to fostering policies of soil conservation, but even there it was with the aim of increasing the productivity of agricultural labor). The GND is a form of ecological Keynesianism, in that it uses the power of the state to redistribute resources from the fossil fuel industry to renewable-energy industries. But it does not address how to slow down, defer, or eliminate capitalism’s growth imperative. On the contrary, it seeks to harness that imperative by using state power to encourage investments in ecological sustainable industries as against ones dominated by fossil fuels.

That may all seem well and good, but let us not forget that retrofitting every building in the U.S. to become energy efficient—as called for in the GND’s stated goals—will require an awful lot of steel, cement, and yes, petrochemical-based products. It is not so clear that this would not add to the global carbon imprint even as carbon emissions come down in other areas. Moreover, if companies can grow their businesses by earning higher profit rates with materials and technologies that are less environmentally beneficial than others, they are likely to do so. But it is not so obvious that we can blithely assume that the government can be used to block such tendencies, since the state is bound up with the logic of capital in a myriad of ways. An economic as well as political revolution will clearly be needed to wean society away from its capitalistic growth imperative. As Ashley Dawson has recently argued, the goals of the GND often seem at odds with the means that are singled out to achieve them: “Proposals for genuine ecological and social reconstruction, therefore, cannot simply substitute renewable energy for fossil fuels while leaving the current global system of spiraling production and consumption untouched. Instead, the growth based presuppositions of the New Deal and environmental Keynesianism must be challenged. What we really need, in other words, is a crash program to shrink those sectors of the economy that are environmentally destructive, while in tandem sectors that do no environmental damage are expanded.”[5] She adds, “At the end of the day, environmental Keynesianism is predicated on economic expansion; since new growth means that fresh resources need to be exploited, any environmental benefits of more efficient technology and a transition to renewable energy will ultimately be undermined, and the biocrisis will intensify.”

Just transition

I should also add that market-based economies based on private ownership of goods and services are not the only ones with a built-in growth imperative. The same was true for statist “communist” regimes, such as the USSR and China, which placed the entire society under the control of the state—while engaging in some of the most egregious ecological destruction of any system in world history. Neither private capitalism nor state-capitalism (both of which are mainly focused on quantitative output, since both adhered to the law of value and surplus value) has succeeded in curbing capitalism’s inherent growth imperative. The world surely needs economic growth and development, but one of a radically different type than has defined modern industrial societies up to this point in time. Leaving this unaddressed poses some major problems when it comes to dealing with global warming. What is making it harder to address this issue at the present moment is the new found love affair many on the Left are currently experiencing with state-directed capital investment.

As the Indigenous Environmental Network recently stated in emphasizing “the fundamental need to challenge and transform the current dominant political and economic systems that are driving forest destruction, social injustice, and the climate crisis,” “The AOC-Markey platform risks being an exercise in futility and could actually allow for increased emissions and global warming. We demand that fossil fuels be kept underground and that the subsidies and tax breaks that keep the fossil fuel industry viable be shifted towards a clear, grassroots-based Just Transition.”[6]

So what would such a Just Transition look like? Time is short, and we need effective policies now—we can’t simply wait for capitalism to be overcome to begin promoting them. So what can be done in the short term to meet the goals of the GND and beyond? I would like to conclude here with a modest proposal along these lines.

As noted, the GND lays out the goal to reduce and ultimately eliminate net carbon emissions within 10 years, and that is all well and good. Building upon but taking the GND further, let’s envision this: Every company and business is required to reduce carbon-based products or CO2emissions within a specified amount of time. If they fail to do so, say after one year, they face a hefty government penalty. If they fail to meet their targets again, the ownership right of the business is denied to the employers and the government hands over control of it to the employees. Please note that this is not nationalization: the government itself does not take them over, as has occurred in many countries over the last 100 years. The employees take them over and democratically run the company as a cooperative enterprise. Of course, these worker-owned enterprises would also face mandatory restrictions on CO2 emissions and use of carbon-based products. If they fail to meet them, the enterprise is hit with a hefty tax penalty. Since the employees now own the company and there is no separate management or ownership structure—which also means no shareholders of stocks that don’t actually work in the enterprise—the penalty can be paid only through a reduction in the workers’ paychecks. The employees now have a built-in incentive to meet the quotas, since otherwise they will earn less wages and benefits. And since every enterprise in the country is subject to the same stipulations, there is no way to evade the limits on the use of fossil fuel.

Challenging growth

Moreover, since these are worker-owned enterprises, in which the proceeds circulate back to the employees, fetters are placed upon capital’s growth imperative. Workers might use a share of the proceeds to expand the enterprise, but it is just as likely that they will use it to shorten the workweek, provide services to workers, or simply give themselves a raise. Worker-controlled enterprises tend to dampen, at least initially, the profit-driven imperative of capitalist enterprises since they are based on a different imperative—meeting the human needs of its members. However, this becomes hard to sustain if such changes are restricted to a single country, since goods traded on the world market at a lower cost of production will tend to drive worker-owned enterprises out of business. For this reason Karl Marx never believed that socialism could exist in one country. Neither can a viable transition to a carbon-free economy. Since it is a global problem it ultimately needs a global solution. Worker-owned cooperatives and enterprises are great ways to begin to get there, but they are not ends-in-themselves. The ultimate end—assuming we can mitigate climate change to the point of living long enough to get there—is the abolition of value production on a global level.

Nevertheless, on the national level, an effective transition from a carbon-based productive system could be achieved without relying exclusively on either privately owned or governmental agencies. The government provides the legal mechanism for transferring ownership of the enterprise from the capitalists to the workers, who have the motivation and incentive to care for the environment that the capitalists tend to lack. But the government is not in the driver’s seat when it comes to controlling the overall process. The people themselves do so, through forms of association and organization they forge as members of civil society. A GND of this sort would transition from a carbon-reliant model of energy production and consumption to a sustainable one based on renewal energy by taking what drives the destruction of nature and natural resources—the growth imperative of the logic of capital. Kali Akuno of the Climate Justice Alliance and director of Cooperation Jackson, a Mississippi group that grow out of the Civil Rights Movement, has referred to this as “a solidarity economy anchored by a network of cooperatives and worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises.”[7]

My argument boils down to this: In order to save and preserve what we have in common, the earth, we must transition to a form of society that respects the commons. It is not about passively waiting for such a society to miraculously arise: the commons is already here, although hidden from view by the ideologies and structures of existing society. By fighting to reclaim the commons—which includes not only the land but also the social powers at our disposal to collectively organize our lives without recourse to hierarchical forms of domination—we can transition to a new society, at the same as saving the earth itself. It seems to me that working for this would be worth the effort.

May 26, 2019

Reprinted from New Politicss

[1] See “Draft Text for Proposed Addendum to House Rules for the 116th Congress of the United States” [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jxUzp9SZ6-VB-4wSm8sselVMsqWZrSrYpYC9slHKLzo/edit#heading=h.z7x8pz4dydey]
[2] “The Green New Deal’s Realism,” by Jedehiah Britton-Purdy, The New York Times, February 16, 2019, p. A21.
[3] Benjamin Selwyn, “The Agro-Food Complex and Climate Change: Veganism or a Green New Deal?” The Bullet, April 5, 2019.
[4] Jeremy Brecher, “The Green New Deal Can Work—Here’s How,” The Bullet, April 2, 2019.
[5] Ashley Dawson, “A Greener New Deal?,” New Politics, Vol. 17, No. 2, Winter 2019.
[6] Indigenous Environmental Network, “Talking Points on the AOC-Markey Green New Deal Resolution.”
[7] See Kali Akuno, “We Have to Make Sure the ‘Green New Deal’ Doesn’t Become Green Capitalism,” Web Only, December 12, 2018.

Making the Green New Deal Real

The Green New Deal resolution introduced into Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey is a manifesto that has changed the terms of the debate over the country’s future, writes Dianne Feeley. Cutting through the Trump administration’s denials about who is responsible for the extreme weather we already face, it unites the issues of climate change with that of eroding workers’ rights, racism and growing inequality. (At the end of March, the Senate voted against the GND in what has been called a ceremonial stunt.)

The resolution affirms the overwhelming scientific consensus that these are human caused. Further, since the United States is responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions, it demands that this society must take the lead in “reducing emissions through economic transformation.”

Noting that climate crisis is just one of many crises we face, it points to declining living standards, wage stagnation, a large racial divide and gender gap. It states that we now have the greatest income inequality since a century ago. It then proposes a 10-year national mobilization to tackle these issues comprehensively. But in offering a way forward, the details are nonetheless vague.

Corporate politicians ranging from centrist Democrats to the Republican establishment have commented that the proposal is too broad, too expensive, too utopian. Trump labelled it socialist and therefore “un-American.”

A video posted by Sunrise, the group pushing for passage of the Green New Deal resolution, shows an exchange between Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and a group of 14-17 year olds.

When told that scientists have given us a decade to drastically cut carbon emissions, she replied “Well, it’s not going to get turned around in ten years.”

Feinstein then lectured them about the art of the possible. They responded by pointing out they would be living with the consequences of a devastated planet. The video of their encounter was viewed 1.4 million times within its first few hours online. Most viewers saw a seasoned politician challenged by young people who know only a bold plan has a chance of averting disaster.

It’s clear that a broad political debate has opened. In fact, it is clear that politicians running for office in 2019 and 2020 will be forced to discuss what must be done to drastically reduce fossil fuels and at the same time reduce inequality.

This is a sea change from the 2016 election when Bernie Sanders raised climate change as the most important issue facing the country, the only “major party” candidate to do so.

A People’s GND

Since the introduction of the GND resolution, other manifestos and statements have emerged. The recently revived activist scientists’ network, Science for the People, calls for a “People’s Green New Deal” campaign, issuing a short statement of support but warning that there will be pressure to water down the heart of the resolution. It proposes five points in order to maintain and strengthen such a mobilization:

• “We promote solutions and struggles that educate, organize, mobilize and directly empower working class people, Indigenous Peoples, historically oppressed communities, and migrants displaced by climate disaster, in their everyday lives.

• “We aim to collaborate with all of those who have developed the core ideas of the Green New Deal over the years and decades, particularly to ensure we understand the role of militarism in the climate crisis, and to fight for globally just solutions.

• “We stand with frontline communities demanding equitable solutions to the climate crisis, so that no member of our society will be forgotten or unjustly bear the costs of climate change.

• “We stand with trade unions demanding a Just Transition and the creation of millions of green jobs, so that all people may be able to support their families with dignity.

• “We call for a transformation of the economy which redistributes resources from those who led us into this crisis in the first place.” (See https://scienceforthepeople.org/peoples-green-new-deal/)

This statement introduces into the discussion several important issues. First, it emphasizes that change will come through working people and their communities rather than from on high. In fact, it is the corporate elite and their buddies in Congress who have caused this crisis. It is highly unlikely, in the words of the resolution, that businesses will be “working on the Green New Deal Mobilization.”

Second, there is necessary humility about where the core ideas come from — they were not invented by politicians, but come from an environmental justice movement that drew the connections among environmental degradation, the workers who suffer severe health conditions as a result of their unsafe jobs and the communities in which these mines, factories and agricultural industries exist. (See https://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html)

Third, the statement calls for deepening the GND resolution’s commitment to frontline communities and workers by calling for a serious discussion about the role of the military. It underscores the resolution’s introduction of the idea that there must be a “just transition” for workers and their communities. The economic transition cannot demand sacrifice from workers and communities.

The articulation of these principles broaden the GND resolution and point a way forward by emphasizing the need to deepen the political discussion. It takes us beyond the “art of the possible” to the values of solidarity, equality, justice and democracy. Although the “People’s Green New Deal” doesn’t raise specific demands around immigration or U.S. responsibility to the Global South, the ideas it raises challenge us to do so.

Likewise, it doesn’t specifically call for a drastic reduction or abolishing of the military budget and the militarization of neighborhoods and schools, but calls for a discussion. Many Americans believe the military is necessary, although they are not aware that it consumes the lion’s share of the discretionary federal budget, supports authoritarian rule around the globe and prevents the possibility of social programs.

This can’t afford to be a leisurely discussion because without dismantling the 700 U.S. bases around the world, along with junking nuclear weapons and the military machine, there is no possibility for a transformation. Just eliminating U.S. military production would reduce CO2 by 70-80 million tons a year.

Not only does the military budget hamper our ability to take on a Green New Deal campaign, but military production is where we can begin to whack carbon emissions.

The People’s Green New Deal Campaign notes the danger of watering down the resolution. Rather than pledging to “keep the coal in the hole and the oil in the soil,” the resolution fails to define specific energy sources. It refers merely to “clean, renewable and zero-emission” energy and seemingly suggests that efficiency by itself will bring us close to our goal. Further, the resolution qualifies the goal by stating “as much as is technologically feasible” four separate times.

Making It Real

In contrast, the Green Party’s plan, first developed nearly a decade ago, calls for 100% renewable energy by 2030, with renewables defined as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal, not gas, biomass or nuclear power. Given the United States’ responsibility as a leading industrialized society, eliminating greenhouse gas emission has to be a serious priority. It also means giving preference to the public sector.

Many cities and towns own their own water and lighting systems; these are the basis for moving to 100% renewable energy. In order to accomplish this task, profit-making utilities will have to be quickly phased out. Again, the Green Party plan is specific: a Renewable Energy Administration would treat energy not as a commodity to be purchased but as a public good. (See https://www.gp.org/green_new_deal)

Since the Congressional GND resolution is simply a statement, not a bill, watering down can occur by proposing technical fixes, whether through carbon fees or employing carbon-capture technology to solve the problem. But there is no quick fix to greenhouse gases and the broader issue of pollution.

As the Climate Justice Alliance points out, “to truly address the interlinked crises of a faltering democracy, growing wealth disparity and community devastation caused by climate change and industrial pollution, we must reduce emissions at their source.

“Allowing for neoliberal constructs such as Net Zero emissions, which equate carbon emission offsets and technology investments with real emissions reductions at source, would only exacerbate existing pollution burdens on frontline communities.

“Such loopholes for carbon markets and unproven techno-fixes only serve to line the coffers of the polluting corporations, while increasing (not reducing) harm to our communities. Our communities can no longer be used as sacrifice zones.” (See https://climatejusticealliance.org/gnd/)

This means saying “No” to the construction of new fossil fuel systems — pipelines, coal ports, etc. It means moving quickly to build public mass transit and ending production of gas guzzlers. It means prioritizing community and worker participation in redesigning and repurposing our manufacturing capacity.

Such a drastic reorganization of the economy requires a full-throttled campaign. It may involve not only retraining workers to new jobs, but the reduction of the work week to 30 hours for 40 hours pay.

AFL-CIO Labor Councils in Alameda, San Diego and Imperial Counties in California have called for support to the GND along with a few local unions. However, most unions are terrified that that in the transition, workers and their families will get the short end of the straw.

That’s how every other restructuring in U.S. history has occurred. There must be a commitment to compensate for job losses and to extensive retraining. “Just transition” must be a guarantee.

Another issue that is rarely discussed in U.S.-based statements is the reality that we must reject the mantra of “growth.” We do not need more things every year!

Hopefully, through this mobilization of our energy we discover happiness is in having control over our lives. This means not only democratic planning and a guarantee against displacement, but having quality public services — housing, health, transportation and education for starters — available to all.

The Democratic Socialists of America’s ecosocialist statement of guiding principles notes, “The future is a public good, not a private luxury.” (See https://ecosocialists.dsausa.org/2019/02/28/gnd-principles/)

Some of these statements and manifestos raise the issue of a radical redistribution of the economy, but while this is certainly true, in fact we must go even further. Capitalism is built on profit, exploitation and growth for its own sake. To change this dynamic, it will be necessary to develop an economy based on new, fundamental ecosocialist principles.

“The capitalist destruction of the environment and the ecosocialist alternative,” a Fourth International statement which Solidarity members participated in writing, was adopted in April 2018. It is a wide-ranging summary of the issues we face: http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article5452. It ends by noting:

“These urgent ecological demands can favor a process of radicalization under the condition that we refuse to limit their objectives by obeying the capitalist market or accepting the ‘competitiveness’ argument.

“Each small victory, each partial advance can immediately bring us to a higher and more radical demand. These struggles on concrete problems are important, not only because partial victories in themselves are welcome, but also because they contribute to the growth of an ecological and socialist consciousness, and promote autonomy and self-organization from below.

This autonomy and this self-organization are the necessary and decisive preconditions for a radical transformation of the world. This means a revolutionary transformation is only possible through the self-emancipation of the oppressed and the exploited: workers and peasants, women, indigenous communities, and all stigmatized because of their race, religion or nationality.

“The leading elites of the system, retrenched behind their barricades, are incredibly powerful while the forces of radical opposition are small. Their development into a mass movement of unprecedented size, is the only hope to stop the catastrophic course of capitalist growth.

This will allow us to invent a desirable form of life, more rich in human qualities, a new society based on the values of human dignity, solidarity, freedom and respect for Mother Nature.”

April 23 2019

Against the Current

In Landmark ‘Necessity Defense’ Trial, Valve Turners Will Argue Saving the Planet Justified Tar Sand Pipeline Shutdown

“If we really go out there and sit down in front of the machine, eventually they can no longer operate it. And at this point, that is our only option.”

Three activists whose landmark trial is set to begin in Minnesota state court on Monday for their 2016 multi-state #ShutItDown action—which temporarily disabled all tar sands pipelines crossing the U.S.-Canada border—will argue the action was necessary because of the threat that fossil fuels pose to the planet.

Rejecting a challenge from state prosecutors in April, an appeals court ruled that the “valve turners” can present a “necessity defense“—and bring in top climate experts to testify. In June, the Minnesota Supreme Court denied prosecutors’ petition to appeal that ruling.

The necessity defense “is a plea that, yes technically we committed a crime, but we did it to prevent a greater harm,” explained Annette Klapstein, a retired attorney from the Seattle area and one of the valve turners on trial.

“We cannot work through our political system, because its values are nothing but profit,” she told The Nation. “We live in an oligarchy, not a democracy.”

“It’s very much in the interest of the capitalist political system to make us feel powerless, to make us feel that we can’t do anything,” she added, but “ultimately, they cannot win if we do not consent. If we really withdraw our consent, if we really go out there and sit down in front of the machine, eventually they can no longer operate it. And at this point, that is our only option.”

Klapstein and Emily Nesbitt Johnston are facing felony charges under Minnesota law for shutting down Enbridge Energy’s Line 4 and Line 67. While Benjamin Joldersma, who assisted them, also faces charges in the case, the state has dropped trespassing charges against videographer Steve Liptay.

The Nation reports that Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens and Harvard Law School’s Lawrence Lessig are among the expert witnesses slated to testify. Dr. James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who has been called “the father of modern climate change awareness,” and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben will also testify in case, according to the activist group Climate Direct Action.

“These people deserve our respect and support,” McKibben said on Twitter about the valve turners in Minnesota on Friday.

This will be the first of the valve turner cases where those on trial can present a necessity defense, as judges in three states have barred fellow activists from doing so. In Washington, Ken Ward was found guilty of second degree burglary after his first trial ended with a hung jury. The judge used a “first-time offender waiver” to sentence him to two days in jail, which was fulfilled by time in custody after he was arrested for the 2016 action.

In North Dakota, Michael Foster was convicted of two felonies and a misdemeanor, and sentenced to three years in prison, though he only served six months and was released in August. Sam Jessup, who livestreamed Foster’s action, was convicted of a felony and a misdemeanor, and received a two-year deferred sentence with supervised probation. In Montana, Leonard Higgins was found guilty of a felony and misdemeanor. He received a three-year deferred sentence.

Common Dreams