Why a Green New Deal needs a Deep Green Movement – part 1

The Green New Deal presents an opportunity to practice the kind of intersectional policy making that has been at the heart of racial justice movements for decades.

Gurpreet Bola Chaitanya Kumar
10 April 2019, 12.34pm
Image: Steve Rhodes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the US, the Green New Deal (GND) has proved itself to be an injection of a new imagination of the future, where we have prevented the worst effects of climate change and also created an economy that that no longer relies on extraction and exploitation.

Here in the UK, proponents of a GND – including ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’, economic think tanks such as the New Economics Foundation and the youth strikers – are making themselves known. As two social justice activists, the narrative around movement-led political action is heartening. It opens up the opportunity to practice intersectional policy making that has been central to racial justice movements for decades. This piece is written for those inspired by the GND, and who want to see equity and justice at its core.

In the first of the two part-series, we explore the strategy required to bring about a politically rigorous Green New Deal. In the second, we reflect on what that demands of us in our practice and processes as a movement, and how we stay accountable in our commitments towards intersectionality.

Does the UK even need a Green New Deal?

The short answer is yes. If you have any doubts, read this scare-your-pants-off piece from David Wallace Wells. Climate change, he says, is worse than you think, and the complex challenges it brings are hard to get our heads around, let alone bear. Nothing short of transformative change will do, but of course the more important questions are: what are GNDs objectives, what can it achieve and who will lead us there?

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Looking at the GND resolution in the US, the overarching aim is to recognise and respond to the climate crisis with measures that are commensurate to the scale of the challenge. “We have twelve years to fight this thing” could not feel more real. And unlike our historic political responses to climate change; central to the GND is an assurance that the first to benefit from the transition are precarious workers, impacted communities and communities connected to the Global South. In short: justice and equity become equally valuable indicators alongside carbon emission reduction.

Climate politics in the UK

For climate campaigners in the US, it isn't just about pushing for the right policy or revising climate targets upwards, the need is far greater: to get Republicans out and elect a Democrat that is radically ambitious on social and environmental justice. It is this context that has tied the Sunrise Movement so tightly to the Justice Democrats, in an electoral campaign strategy that is centered on ousting Trump. The GND has therefore become a kind of sorting exercise for Democrats, who will inevitably face the question: "do you support the Green New Deal, and what is your climate change plan?".

The politics of the US, and all the “crisitunities” it presents, cannot however be easily translated in the same way in the UK. First, whilst our situation is challenging here, there are some political foundations to work with: we boast of a cross-party legislation on climate change from ten years ago, rapidly falling carbon emissions and high public support for clean energy. But with government’s recent decisions to permit fracking for gas, expand Heathrow airport, open new coal mines, scrap any meaningful action on energy efficiency and provide more tax breaks to drill for gas in the north sea, our so-called “climate leadership” that politicians often fall back on can seem totally irrelevant.

However, is there something that can be learned from the tactics employed by US organisers to push climate change into mainstream politics here in the UK?

Building a public mandate

In the UK, hundreds of MPs have signed a letter calling on the government to set a 'net zero' emissions target before 2050. Achieving this goal is no small task, but it's doubtful that MPs appreciate what this entails. Emission reductions seen so far have been achieved in the electricity sector as we installed more renewable energy and took out a few heavily polluting coal plants, but all of this was done largely unbeknownst to the general public. The much harder stage is ahead, where emission reductions need to take place in people's homes and neighborhoods, through their radiators and cars, and this cannot possibly be done without a wider public buy-in. We certainly don’t see many MP’s regularly communicating on climate change to their constituents, even if they exhibit rare eloquence on the subject in the Houses of Parliament. We may feel aggrieved at the lack of political focus on climate change, but we have also failed to talk about it in a way that is tangible and real to the lived experience of our communities.

The movements backing a GND need to think hard about building the public mandate that fuels political action, leading to a more robust public engagement and creating a virtuous cycle where five year political lifelines, economic slowdowns or the scenes like the ones we've seen on the streets of France by Jilets Jaunes do not derail sustained climate justice action. Polls in the UK might indicate strong desire in the general public to build more renewables and tackle climate change, but individual policies like carbon pricing haven't been tested yet. Sceptics will leap on the opportunity to thrash a plan that even smells like big state intervention into individual lives unless they get the sense that the public is really demanding it, and we actively hear that constituents are lobbying their decision-makers to stay on top of their commitments.

Combining health, inequality, workers rights and housing with the low carbon transition, the current Labour party is where the GND will most likely incubate and find a political outlet. To be effective, it should not remain there. As the current opposition party, Labour has an immense responsibility to drive home the urgency of climate change and build that case for a New Deal style action. Merely claiming to be a better alternative to the Conservatives and expecting the government to crumble from the Brexit chaos is not a sustainable strategy, as is evidenced in their dismal showing in most recent polls, especially when you'd imagine them to be romping home by now.

The Labour Party has recently become more vocal in its ambition on climate change, but it’s largely been through its recent launch of the member-led Green New Deal initiative. Their manifesto speaks of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030 alongside a just society. This is bold thinking but, beyond this, Labour must address how it will build this missing public mandate, especially when it is considered that 14 million people voted for the conservative party in 2017 on a manifesto that did not put any significant weight on climate change. Where opportunities have arisen in the past to intersect GND-style policies, like in Labour’s recently published industrial strategy, they make little mention of climate change as a cross cutting issue other than the intention to meet the UK's climate targets. Their approach to nationalising key parts of the energy sector remains vague and highly contested within the party.

A need for intersectional policies

The GND is NOT a policy prescription. Instead, it is turning into a litmus test for politicians, particularly for Democrats in the US. Whilst the resolution is all encompassing and powerful, its political strength also lies in its relative lack of detail and its agnosticism towards any specific technology or approach to climate solutions. To become effective for the UK, where the political landscape is significantly different, and more amenable, we’ll need to work out what we want the Green New Deal to be (or indeed, not be).

Unsurprisingly, early public supporters of the resolution were activist groups that rightly demanded an end to “techno-fixes” such as carbon capture and storage, geo-engineering, nuclear energy and carbon markets. It’s too easy for policy makers to dismiss such views but these demands are an important reminder of the risks we face when policies land in the “markets-solve-all problems” basket. Ultimately, if we are to make GND politically salient and technically feasible, those designing the policies will need to ask themselves what we can most expect from politicians and policy makers when they sit down to operationalise it in a 10 year timeframe.

Conversely, if we are to expect everyone to be brought on board immediately with wholesale state intervention, we are also mistaken. One conservative voice in the energy and climate sector, Michael Liebriech, recently wrote a piece that viewed GND as ‘trumpism with climate characteristics’. Whether one considers this as a legitimate concern or not, it will inevitably be something that needs to be responded to. The opportunity here is that the weight of science and the pressure of social injustices, when framed and advocated for carefully, can speak to a much larger base than the ideological tropes that segregate us. This again goes back to what leadership looks like, which relationships they already hold, what stories they tell, who to, and who they have the potential to further connect with. We take deep inspiration from Rhiana Gunn-Wright leading an intersectional policy practice in the US with integrity and accountability.

To speak frankly, people of colour communities, particularly those that have direct experience of classism and racism in the workplace, are tired of being left out of policy discussions. If politics is going to be transformed, the policies that make up the GND will be designed by the communities it seeks to support. The kind of urgent action we need will mean that a different kind of leadership must be handed the baton and trusted in a political space. In this way, homegrown politics will bring whole new groups of people into an inclusive political space that makes radical political acts feel measurable and adequate in the context of runaway climate change.

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