Realizing a Green Future
A transcript of our panel discussion on the Green New Deal and our new book Climate Action.
January 8, 2021
Jan 8, 2021
44 Min read time
A transcript of our panel discussion on the Green New Deal and our new book Climate Action.
On December 8, Boston Review and Harvard Book Store co-hosted a conversation on the Green New Deal and other strategies for dealing with the existential threat posed by climate change. The participants—including Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey—knew we would have a new President on January 20. They did not know that we would also have a new Senate. Early in the conversation, Senator Markey declared that he was more optimistic than ever before. The other participants shared Markey’s optimism. With the Georgia results in, that optimism can only grow. So read what the participants have to say about how to address the threat of climate change, and get to work.
Joshua Cohen: I want to welcome everybody to this forum jointly sponsored by Harvard Book Store and Boston Review. On behalf of the Review, which I’ve been editing and co-editing since 1991, I want to express gratitude to Harvard Book Store for providing this great opportunity.
We’re going to have a conversation about a profoundly consequential issue: the existential threat presented by climate change. I am excited to discuss ideas about a constructive response that our participants have presented as ways forward. We have an incredible group of participants: Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey; David Victor, professor at University of California, San Diego, where he co-directs the Deep Decarbonization Initiative; Alyssa Battistoni, who’s an environmental fellow at Harvard and co-author with Kate Aronoff, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal; Thea Riofrancos, one of the aforementioned co-authors of that book, who teaches political science at Providence College; and Bob Hockett, who’s the Edward Cornell professor of law at Cornell University and author of Financing the Green New Deal.
The occasion for this conversation is Boston Review’s recent publication of a fantastic book called Climate Action. The book’s lead article was written by David Victor and Chuck Sabel from Columbia Law School, followed by contributions from Alyssa, Bob, Thea, and also Katherine Coleman Flowers, Leah Stokes, David Wallace-Wells, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and a number of other equally fantastic, creative people. We’re thrilled to have Senator Markey with us as well, whose recent re-election is great news for all of us. I know how hard he fought.
I thought we’d start with you, Ed. You, along with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, introduced the Green New Deal resolution, which Bob Hockett helped to draft. The resolution called for a ten-year national mobilization that would get us to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. I wonder if you could start off with a few words about how you see the prospects for progress on the Green New Deal with a Biden administration taking office in just a few weeks.
Senator Ed Markey: Thank you, Josh. As Josh said, I was in a big race this year in Massachusetts and the initial polls had me down to congressman Kennedy. But I was running on the Green New Deal. I was running on climate action and a response to climate change equal to the magnitude of the problem. In a Democratic Primary in Massachusetts in 2018, 12 percent of the vote was aged 18–34. In 2020, 20 percent was aged 18–34. We focused on climate, we focused on racial justice, we focused on economic justice, and the turnout was absolutely amazing. Young people showed up all across the country this year, and they want fundamental change.
"I have never before been this optimistic. We’re in a position where we can make a big difference in the next four years. That’s my goal."
On February 7, 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and I introduced the Green New Deal. We had lunch in the senate dining room in the first week of December of 2018; she was elected to the House about four weeks later. She and I had lunch for about two-and-a-half hours, talking about a Green New Deal, talking about how we could frame and develop it. About eight weeks later, we released the Green New Deal.
Nothing has been the same since then. It injected an energy into that issue that had never been seen before. A lot of it was generational. Young people rose up at middle schools, high schools, and colleges across the country. Though they joined with an older generation of activists, they injected incredible amounts of passion into this issue. There’s a good reason why they did it: the planet is running a fever, and there is no emergency room. We have to engage in preventative care now. That preventative care is wind and solar energies and electric vehicles—these technologies which are already there.
A critical piece of this work is also environmental justice, which we wrote into the Green New Deal very explicitly. Anything that we do has to foreground intersectionality, put frontline communities at the front of the line, and be aware of the fact that communities of color have always been disproportionately impacted by pollution in our society. Black and brown families have historically breathed different air than suburban white families have breathed. The Green New Deal was only fourteen pages long, but so much of it was about environmental justice, not just here in the United States, but all across the planet. We focused on the people who are the most vulnerable, who are the most exposed.
For me, it was absolutely imperative that Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and I create an intergenerational compact on this. When we released it, Fox News, Exxon Mobil, and every right-wing group in the United States started attacking it immediately, calling it socialist. Well, what do you call one hundred years of tax breaks for the oil, gas, and coal industry coming out of the pockets of taxpayers all across the country? You don’t have to call that socialism, just give some of that to us. Put some of that into wind and solar energies, electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, battery storage technologies, energy conservation and energy-efficiency technologies, and we will bury the fossil fuel industry in a generation—just give us that, give us the regulatory favoritism in the tax breaks that you’ve had for one hundred years. You can call it capitalism or, if you want, you can call it socialism, but just give it to us. This is something that President-elect Joe Biden has ultimately embraced.
"Anything that we do has to foreground intersectionality, put frontline communities at the front of the line, and be aware of the fact that communities of color have always been disproportionately impacted by pollution in our society."
In July, when Biden put together his new climate proposal, he asked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, to be in the room to draft the bill—a $2 trillion energy infrastructure bill with 40 percent of the money going to frontline communities and communities of color. I think it’s very telling that President-elect Biden mentions climate change in every one of his speeches now—it is one of the top four things that he’s going to be working on.
I have never before been this optimistic. I know that Biden’s policy will work if we put the right appropriation policies, tax policies, and regulatory policies in place. It will unleash activity in every city and town across the United States. For example, I have a piece of legislation, with Senator Van Hollen, in a climate bank that could leverage up to nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars’ worth of investment that would go largely to the local level, where cities and towns, housing authorities, and individual companies could apply for super low-interest loans to install the renewable technologies that they want to. This is an example of the kind of public-private partnerships that are now developing and that are going to be at the core of solving the climate problem.
Joe Biden is already promising to have 500,000 charging stations deployed in our country. He’s already promising to roll back all of Trump’s fuel economy standards and to make them match the magnitude of the problem. I’m the author of the 2007 law, which President Obama used to set 54.5 miles per gallon as the goal. Trump’s been rolling it back, but now, as you can see, Ford and General Motors are saying “No, we don’t actually believe in rolling back the standards anymore. We want to sign up with California. We want to do the right thing.” We can already begin to see the change of attitude which is occurring in the private sector. Obviously, Exxon Mobil and the remaining Koch brothers are never going to give up. But we’re in a position where we can make a big difference in the next four years. That’s my goal.
Joshua Cohen: Thanks so much, Ed, for those remarks and for doing the people’s work with Senator Warren. I just want to take a speed round of comments focused on one thing that you said. You said you’ve “never been more optimistic” than you are now. And I would really like to know whether the other participants here share that kind of optimism.
David, maybe we’ll start with you. Are you more optimistic than you’ve ever been?
David Victor: Yeah, it’s incredible. It’s been very easy to explain action on climate change for long periods of time. Now, we’re in a totally different situation. It’s probably because we now have young people and all the people who showed up to vote. There is a lot of pressure. What’s interesting to me is that there isn’t just pressure on the government; there’s also pressure on business firms. You see this more in Europe now, and that’s changing rapidly in the United States—I live in California and see this there. Firms are under pressure; they know they have to do something. The lead essay that Chuck Sabel and I wrote in this book is about how you can act when you want to do something, but you don’t really know what to do. That’s what the logic of experimentalism is all about.
"We have to make the case that the government can spend these vast resources effectively, so that the public will see the benefit of the Green New Deal and these other big infrastructure investments."
One thing I will say, to build on that briefly, is that we have to make the case for the government. The Green New Deal and these other big infrastructure investments are, in effect, about big interventions in government. When the government does this well—we’re doing it in California, for example, where I’m helping create the electric vehicle revolution— they do it in collaboration with business, but they also do not let business get away with murder. They actively run experiments. That’s why we call our theory “experimentalism.” They run peer reviews to learn quickly what works and what doesn’t work. I think we have to make the case that the government can spend these vast resources effectively, so that the public will see the benefit. They won’t just see this as a Washington program; they’ll see this as a heartland program. I think that’s essential.
Joshua Cohen: Thanks, David. Alyssa, never more optimistic than you are now?
Alyssa Battistoni: It’s a tough question because the track record has been very pessimistic on climate, so feeling even a little optimistic is always more optimistic than I’ve ever felt before. I completely agree with everything that Senator Markey said about this huge shift in climate. The climate conversation and the kinds of ideas that are on the table are very exciting, and that makes me feel optimistic. But, to be frank, I feel nervous about the gap between what our ideas are, what I think the vision is, and some of the roadblocks that remain to achieving them.
I think my main concern is the idea that we could rely on a Biden executive action-focused climate presidency. Though this is certainly better than the Trump presidency, I really think that we have to be able to do some of the things that the Green New Deal is all about. We need to show that climate action can be linked to real improvements in people’s lives in a direct way. That’s the piece that keeps me up the most: How do we get to that point where we can start to show people that we can improve social issues that are connected to climate? That is the promise of the Green New Deal to me.
Senator Markey: If I can, Josh, I would like to check in here.
Ten years ago we had 2,000 megawatts of solar energy. Then we started to be more effective at the local, state, and federal levels—Democrats largely, with some Republicans. We now have 80,000 megawatts of solar energy in the United States. Ten years ago we had 25,000 megawatts of wind energy. As of January 1, 2019, we had over 100,000. In 2020 alone we will have installed 34,000 megawatts of wind and solar energy.
The economies of scale are kicking in and the technology is getting more effective. Ten years ago we were debating putting wind turbines in Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts. Each one of those wind turbines could produce 3.6 megawatts of electricity. Vineyard Wind is now announcing that, if they can begin construction next year, each of their wind turbines will produce 13 megawatts of electricity and they can put them 15 miles out to sea.
"We’re in the midst of a pandemic, and we’re going to need a job creation program to get us out of it. We can create 5 million jobs very easily if we move to this clean energy agenda in a very telescoped timeframe."
As the economies of scale kick in, it’s not going to be, “Why do you do it?” It will be “Why don’t you do it?” Why don’t you want technologies that are less expensive, don’t have meltdowns, are consistent with our goals on climate change, and create jobs in Massachusetts and across the country? I’ll give you one other number. We had 2,000 electric vehicles total in the United States in 2009. We now have 1.5 million, and General Motors, Ford, Nissan, and Volkswagen are all making big promises about the next four or five years. This is owed to Democrats.
But now, there is the unavoidable reality that the global market has changed. In Europe they’re going to move, in China they’re moving, and we’re going to have to move if we want to stay in this market. That’s why I’m optimistic, though. I know that we have to do more to create incentives at the local, state and federal levels. That’s why Biden’s executive orders to roll back all of Trump’s anti-environment regulations and setting much higher goals for offshore wind, wind and solar energy on public land in the United States are so important. Democrats need to work with Republicans to try to create imaginative programs that we can get passed in the House and Senate and signed by President Biden. That is what I’m going to do.
I think that we have workers, jobs, and economic activity on our side. We’re in the midst of a pandemic, and we’re going to need a job creation program to get us out of it. We can create 5 million jobs very easily if we move to this clean energy agenda in a very telescoped timeframe. We now have all of the economic data that we did not have before. Now we can argue not just theory, but reality in terms of where the jobs are, where the new jobs are, and how it can be the greatest blue-collar job creation revolution in two generations in our country. That’s why I’m optimistic.
The reality is that we have demonstrated that working smarter is better than working harder. Oil, gas, or coal—that’s working harder. You have all the side effects—pollution and its health effects—which we have made the public aware of. I think that the net result of our successes at the state, federal, and local levels— a lot of it led by California and Massachusetts—is now something that’s irrefutably true and is going to give us real leverage.
Joshua Cohen: Now let me get Thea in here. We don’t have a skunk at the garden party yet. We have a room full of optimists. Thea, are you going to join the club?
Thea Riofrancos: Yeah, I’m going to join the club. It’s too infectious, the optimism. I just want to emphasize two things. One, the Green New Deal is such a watershed moment for unleashing all of this movement creativity and getting policymakers thinking about how to connect climate politics to people’s everyday material circumstances
"I think we need to be very real about the obstacles—they’re in the Senate, they’re in Exxon, they’re in many places. But I’m optimistic because of the fact that movements are keeping the pressure on."
But I also want to emphasize something Alyssa said, and maybe put a slightly different spin on it. I think we need to be very real about the obstacles—they’re in the Senate, they’re in Exxon, they’re in lots of places. This, for me, just underscores the need for continued social movement pressure, which I think is sometimes controversial among Democrats or progressives. For example, recently Sunrise targeted and was critical of Biden appointees, and that ruffled some feathers. We got the Green New Deal because of years and decades of organizing, and we’re only going to get things like the Green New Deal, in reality, if we have continued pressure on Biden and also on those in our way.
I’m optimistic because of the fact that movements are keeping the pressure on, and they’re keeping an eye on Biden even before he gets into office. And I think that they’ll continue to do so; we’ll all continue to do so, in the first one hundred days of office and up to that pivotal moment. I’m optimistic to see people still in the streets, not hanging up their hats after voting.
Senator Markey: A lot of what AOC and I discussed in our first conversation about the Green New Deal concerned the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent by the year 2050. This bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 219 to 212, but it got stalled in the Senate. I said that maybe we should write just a 14 page bill and create a movement because there was no real movement yet out there.
We have a movement now, and it’s a lot of these young people. Ultimately, it would be good if we win the two seats in Georgia—that’s what I’ll be working on so that Kamala Harris breaks the tie on every vote for the next four years.
Joshua Cohen: Ed, you’ve been leading a great charge on this for a long time and we all appreciate it. We also appreciate you not only marking out the path in the past, but talking about all those specific accomplishments that have paved the road that people are walking and running on here. Bob, I’ll let you respond and then we’ll come back to David and experimental governance.
Bob Hockett: I’m metabolically optimistic, but I can give you three reasons for being cognitively optimistic as well. The first is what the Senator mentioned in terms of the demographic story. I think it’s quite fateful that the Green New Deal resolution was introduced on February 7, 2019. That was the year that millennials officially supplanted baby boomers as the largest demographic in the country. That’s immensely significant for these purposes, because the greater part of the population is going to painfully experience the effects of climate change if we don’t reverse it really quickly. There’s a real obvious stake and that’s part of what’s generating the movement, though it’s not the whole of it.
"This is the first time in our modern history where the environmental movement converges with another very economically compelling movement."
The second reason to be cognitively optimistic is that this is the first time in our modern history where the environmental movement converges with another very economically compelling movement. That is the rediscovery of industrial policy and the recognition by many that we have to rediscover the role of the state in guiding and orchestrating ongoing national development. The biggest mistake in the economics profession, from the sixties onward, was to start thinking of development as a kind of one-off achievement. You’re undeveloped and you flip a switch and now you’re developed. But, to quote the great development economist Robert Zimmerman, also known as Bob Dylan, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” And the same is true of economies: in order for an economy to stay viable, it has to constantly be developing. We’re rediscovering that now, and we’re rediscovering industrial policy in consequence. It just so happens that modernizing, bringing our infrastructure and our industry into a state-of-the-art state again, in itself is going to be much greener because new industries and new technologies are not whale oil lamps or even kerosene lamps. New technologies, almost by definition, are greener technologies.
Finally, the third reason I have for being cognitively optimistic and not just metabolically is that I’ve recently put together a four-part plan for mobilizing and getting the Green New Deal going with a plan A and a plan B for each of the four parts. Plan A is if we get the Senate. Plan B is if we don’t get the Senate and have to use existing institutions. It’s very straightforward. What’s fascinating to me is that twenty-one members of a large number of Biden agency review teams are actually expressing interest. I’m actually in regular conversations with members of these review teams now, and that’s hugely weird for me because I was part of the Bernie team in 2016 and in 2019–2020. For all of these Biden people to actually be interested in these things that I have to suggest or recommend signals a real sea change.
Joshua Cohen: Bob, I share your metabolic optimism. But I’m glad to have some cognitive backing for it. Boston Review actually has a book coming out next fall co-produced with American Affairs on industrial policy, so we are right there with you.
I want to turn now from the discussion we’ve been having about the Green New Deal to the issues in the Climate Action book. David, as you’ve mentioned, you and Chuck Sabel wrote the lead article which defines what you call “experimental governance.” I thought maybe you could say a few words about what experimental governance is as a distinctive approach to this existential threat of climate change, and how it’s both connected with and different from the aspects of the Green New Deal that we have been discussing.
David Victor: Let’s not forget optimism, but let’s get into some of the nuts and bolts here. I think Bob has actually begun to explain this already. There’s a lot of resonance between our notion of experimentalism and the way Bob has articulated it in his essay in the book. The commitment to act and the sense of crisis is vitally important; it’s what puts pressure on government and on firms to not just do things at the margins, but to recognize that there needs to be a fundamental shift. It’s that fundamental shift that’s really essential because it forces firms, for example, to look beyond the normal playbooks and treat this as a corporate social responsibility activity (so they do not get crucified in the market or politically). This means that there is a strong motivation to explore completely transformative ideas.
"The commitment to act and the sense of crisis is vitally important; it’s what puts pressure on government and on firms to not just do things at the margins, but to recognize that there needs to be a fundamental shift."
The logic that Chuck and I lay out in our essay, which is excerpted from a book that’s coming out next year from Princeton University Press, is that there is a very distinctive process by which the search for solutions occurs. It’s usually a collaboration between business and government, where both are motivated to find solutions, yet neither can explore the whole solution set on their own. They, in effect, run many experiments in a decentralized way, then engage in active peer review. So it’s not just pure bottom up-ism (pure decentralization) and it’s not centralization and central planning (central planning and God’s plan and all central peer review), but a combination of the two, where they learn very quickly which solutions work and which don’t, and then scale them up.
That’s the essence of the idea behind experimentalism. There are two extensions of this that are relevant for tonight’s conversation. One is: What does this mean for the Green New Deal? Our argument is that we need to think about the language of the Green New Deal and all the politics and the warfare on the left, and the warfare between the centrists and the left. Some of that’s getting in the way of us recognizing that for this to work, it has to be a process that is diffused. We have to learn quickly what works and also contextualize these investments so that they actually deliver on what people care about. It’s not just carbon. It’s environmental justice and a whole range of other topics. That’s how we see the Green New Deal.
The last thing I’ll say, by way of extension, is that most of our essay is about what this means for international cooperation, where the same logic applies to the Paris Agreement. For example, if Paris is going to work it will be because it helps to catalyze experimentalism around the world. I think we’re seeing some evidence that there’s been an overemphasis on the formal legal mechanisms, and too little emphasis on the more informal processes that actually make this work. This is one of the areas where I think U.S. leadership could be really helpful, as the Biden administration articulates its climate plan and real experts on climate are now taking positions of power. We’re going to have a hard time doing a lot of things inside the country because of the concerns that Alyssa raised. But one of the things that we could offer that’s very distinctive is spending large resources effectively and learning quickly. What does that mean for a system of international cooperation that does that globally?
Joshua Cohen: Thanks, David. Alyssa, you have a response to David and Chuck in the book, and you express some enthusiasm for their case about the limits of Paris. Maybe “we’ll always have Paris,” as Humphrey Bogart said, but maybe it’s not everything it’s cracked up to be. You say you have two concerns about their vision. One, that you think that they don’t deal effectively with the opposition fossil fuel companies pose. Two, that they’re not engaged enough with the issue of popular support. I wonder if you could say something about that.
And let me take one question from the audience as well: “What can we do to reduce the likelihood that the Green New Deal becomes a divisive political issue, like mask-wearing during the pandemic?” How do you get that popular support without getting even more opposition?
"There's no way around confronting the fossil fuel industry. If we build out green energy but we’re still using fossil fuels, then it will not matter."
Alyssa Battistoni: I’ll start with the fossil fuel piece. As you say, I really did appreciate the shift away from treating Paris as a sort of be-all and end-all of climate politics. I’m very sympathetic to the call for experimentalist governance and experimentalist projects. I was concerned about the major examples, such as the Montreal Protocol to phase out CFCs, which happened in 1987 and has been a model for international climate action ever since. What is most concerning to me about that is the significant difference between CFCs and fossil fuels. I really think we have to look directly at the fossil fuel industry. CFCs were a relatively niche chemical, not to mention that other chemicals could be used in their place that were more profitable for many of the industries involved. CFCs weren’t the lifeblood of the global economy; fossil fuels are. We have to consider whether we can trust fossil fuel companies to come to the table as good faith actors. I see absolutely no evidence that we should do that. They have been notorious funders of climate denial in the United States and globally, and they’ve tried to scuttle past international agreements. To be frank, even the Green New Deal resolution—this is one of its weaknesses—doesn’t really say anything about moving away from fossil fuels. Even though Senator Markey laid out this progression of the development of green energy over the past decade or so, over that same period, the United States has also become the world’s largest producer of oil through the huge expansion of fracking.
These are really big problems. If we build out green energy but we’re still using fossil fuels, then it doesn’t really matter. That was the Obama strategy, he added clean energy, but he also kept proposing that we really take on oil and gas. We have to do that; there’s no way around confronting the fossil fuel industry.
The other piece of it is: How do we build a counter power to the fossil fuel industry? That’s where building popular power comes in, and that’s what the Green New Deal can do, but also where we can use experimentalist projects. The Green New Deal is a very big idea and has a lot of pieces. Thea, I, our co-authors, and other people who were in the conversation think of it not as a one-and-done piece of legislation, but as a multi-stage process and a new era for politics.
On the controversy piece, I’m not particularly wedded to it being called the Green New Deal. I would rather have it implemented than it be called the Green New Deal. I think the implementation currently happening opens a lot of opportunities. For example, we’ve seen many oil producers go bankrupt over the course of this year. This is a great time to do something like a big green jobs program to show oil and gas industry workers that there is a viable green jobs path and that we can really make that just transition happen. There’s been a lot of talk about green jobs, but I think workers are rightfully skeptical that that will actually happen. Right now we have this opportunity to actively hire those people into green jobs and start delivering on some of these long-term promises. I see this as an experimental model, where you don’t have to deliver the entire jewel at once—you can have other aspects of it that build support and future constituencies for continued action, because we’re going to need to have multiple waves of this over many years. We can’t just sneak something through the Senate on a cobbled together agreement. I would just draw attention to that as one potential model.
"The Green New Deal is a very big idea and has a lot of pieces—we should view it as a multi-stage process and a new era for politics."
Now, to address the problem raised about how we can avoid a COVID repeat. I think COVID turned into a safety versus economy question, where wearing masks became this hot button issue. But Trump not only messed up the COVID response from a public health angle, but also failed to provide ongoing income support to address small business crises, city and state budget crises, and all of these other crises that had economic repercussions that worried people because of the lockdown. So we need to address this public health crisis, but we have to do that in a way that makes sure people can pay their rent, buy food, and get by. I’m worried that it will fall into the same thing with climate unless we have a real vision for how to bring those pieces of climate action and economic concerns together.
Joshua Cohen: Thanks so much for that. I’m sure that the issues you just raised are going to thread through some of the things that Bob will talk about in reflecting on experimentalist governance.
Thea, in your piece you talk about an issue that’s been a big theme in this conversation. There’s these two big political tasks: to build the movement for socio-economic equality and then build the anti-extractive movement. I’m going to quote from you here, “Despite the potential for conflict between them, these two projects are fundamentally intertwined.” I wonder if you could say something on both sides of that: What are the potentials for conflict? And how are they both intertwined and at war with one another?
Thea Riofrancos: Thank you so much. I’m going to answer your question in the order that you posed it, but I just want to say one thing first. I think the genius of the Green New Deal’s framing is that it invites us to think about how they’re intertwined. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a long history of conflict (for example, in the U.S. tension around labor and environment, which Alyssa is more of an expert on than me). I think there are overly dramatized ways that make coalition building around a just transition more difficult than it needs to be. We are familiar with these tensions in the United States, but I look at this in the case of Latin America. Though obviously a different region, I think it raises important questions for us leftists to grapple with.
My piece looks at the early 2000s, around 2014, when there was this really incredible moment in Latin America and lots of left-wing governments came to power. This was incredible, because in the previous decades the notion of market-driven development that Bob mentioned earlier had been the prevailing theory guiding the economic policy of governments in the region. There was a complete change with progressive governments coming to power at once. What’s interesting is that movements didn’t demobilize; they kept pressing those governments, in different ways and toward different ends in different contexts. In the case that I examine in Ecuador, they pressed the government on environmental issues. The main points of conflict between movements in Ecuador and the left-wing government were resource extraction, environmental harm, pollution, and contamination, which are all related to the extractive model of economic development that prevails across the Global South where there’s intensified resource extraction, often to serve consumers in the Global North.
Protest movements said, “We got you into power, Correa,” (the president at the time), “and now, we are going to hold you accountable on the issue of resource extraction.” There was deep polarization. To echo something David said earlier, it was similar to a sort of warfare in the Democratic Party; this was an intra-left debate. It was a leftist in power, and it was leftists in the streets. The government was saying, “Well, we have historically high prices for oil and minerals, and there’s a lot of poverty in Ecuador, and we need to use those revenues to address social needs,” which is also something movements had demanded in the past. So, the government had a coherent argument as well.
"For the Global South, especially for low-income oil and mineral exporting states, there is a fundamental tension between the material needs of poor people and environmental needs, and indigenous communities and environmental justice communities. These cannot be solved without regional and global shifts."
In the book I conclude that both of these—having leftist governments in power that can address people’s material needs through policy and vociferous anti-extractive protest—are necessary. Without the anti-extraction protests in Ecuador, there would have been more rapacious resource extraction. They managed to stall several projects that would have contributed to local environmental harm and to climate change through deep tropical deforestation (the second most important cause of climate change after fossil fuel burning). But as many on the panel have already pointed out, without having the left in power, to Alyssa’s point, you can’t convince people that you can address these existential crises in ways that actually materially benefit them. You can’t build popular support.
The issue in Ecuador—this immediately highlights the contrast between the United States and Ecuador—is that this wasn’t really a solvable problem because Ecuador occupies a peripheral position in the global economy and is an oil exporter that doesn’t have other immediate economic resources to transition to. This highlights the problem with global power relations; even a leftist government in power in Ecuador couldn’t address environmental concerns without forsaking the revenues that would address people’s material concerns.
The United States is not in that position. However, I think that this speaks to the fact that, for the Global South and especially for low income oil and mineral exporting states, there is a fundamental tension between the material needs of poor people and environmental needs, and indigenous communities and environmental justice communities. These cannot be solved without regional and global shifts, both through shifting away from a fossil fuel-dependent economy, and also posing some urgent, but also radical-sounding demands around global debt and the economic constraints that Global South countries find themselves in.
One of the reasons I’m hopeful about the Green New Deal is that it might shift the global political economy and open up more space. Ultimately, I think we should think of things such as canceling sovereign debt as a demand that is part of the Green New Deal or a Global Green New Deal. That’s a big, ambitious thing. But I just want to put it on the table because I think that tensions that feel very irreconcilable in certain contexts are less irreconcilable in the United States. I think we need to think globally about those global power relations so that every country in the world can embark on a just transition.
Joshua Cohen: Thank you so much for adding the global piece, Thea.
Bob, there’s a question from the audience that leads directly into the question that I wanted to ask you concerning your response in the book: “How do you see the public, private, and community sectors interacting in the fight for climate mitigation?” In your piece in the book, you are enthusiastic about experimentalism, you say that that’s what the Green New Deal was about and that you kind of helped to design it. You also talk about how Sunrise, Justice Democrats, and others are building collections of local projects to hand off to President Biden, and not just as a kind of heap of ideas, but as a “structured synthesis,” that comes out of those local conversations that connects local action with national and, as Thea says, global. Could you say more about this? How are projects being generated and how are they being synthesized into what you call the national Green New Deal binder?
Bob Hockett: This sort of picks up themes that David, Alyssa, and Thea laid out. Maybe the best way to approach it is by looking at the phrase “Green New Deal.” Not only does it capture the green side of things by using the word “green” and the industrial policy side of things by the phrase “New Deal,” but it also implicitly carries something else with that phrase “New Deal.” We could think of the New Deal, on the one hand, as a massive case of industrial policy done continentally and done right. But we can also think of it as a political process. The Green New Deal, to pick up a theme that Alyssa noted, was not a one-and-done thing. There wasn’t a big piece of legislation that was passed called the New Deal Act. It was a rolling sequence of enactments, each one of which built on its predecessors and the lessons learned from their successes and failures. The Green New Deal is a bit like the original New Deal in that it’s also a process that will unfold over the course of a decade.
Another attribute of the New Deal that was very imperfectly executed was that it was meant to be bottom-up democratic as much as it was top-down technocratic. In other words, there was a great deal of local participation in the determination of the most compelling needs, and hence, the most urgently needed projects for the New Deal to pursue. That was partly owing to the sort of idealism of a lot of the New Dealers, but it was also owing to a very simple and straightforward political calculation that really resonates with some of the points that Thea just made and with aspects of the Sunrise movement, the Justice Democrats, the DSA, and other organizations that are part of the grassroots of the Green New Deal as well. The New Deal was successful in part because it had projects going on in literally every congressional district of the country. Every district had at least one New Deal project. That was, on the one hand, good politics; it was savvy, smart, and a way of getting a broad base of support.
"The New Deal was successful in part because it had projects going on in literally every congressional district of the country. This is the idea behind the Green New Deal as well."
That being said, it was notoriously racist and sexist in its implementation. But I would suggest, and I doubt that many people would disagree with this, that that was more bug than feature. That was owing to the fact that you had racists implementing it. It wasn’t written into the DNA of the New Deal itself. We have the capacity this time around to ensure that it doesn’t have those elements, if for no other reason than that the Democratic Party no longer has to make peace with Southern Democrat Jim Crowers. All the Jim Crowers are Republicans now, and it seems like all the Republicans are Jim Crowers as well. We can pretty much figure out a way to peel away the few non-Jim Crowers in the Republican Party, and then we can form an actual majority coalition that goes forward.
Now getting back to the more specific question that you asked, Josh, one of the great advantages of the role that the Sunrise movement, the Justice Democrats, the DSA, and other groups are playing in all of this is that it’s very easy for all of us who are part of the movement to connect with our colleagues. I’m a member of the Ithaca Sunrise Group and the New York City Sunrise Group, because I live in both cities. It’s easy for us to connect with our comrades in other chapters all over the country and then arrange for there to be Town Hall meetings, repeat such meetings in every locality of the country, and hold meetings to figure out what’s most urgently needed.
We say, imagine someone is going to give you a million dollars, or $500 or $600 million depending on the size of the locality—what would you want to do with that to upgrade the economy in this area in a way that’s consistent with planetary survival, racial justice, and environmental justice? We then compile these wishes into binders that we call “the Green New Deal Wish List Project.” The hope is that over time we will refine this. This essentially is the bottom-up aspect. The top-down aspect, obviously, is that you need some kind of coordination at the national level so that projects in one locality are not operating at cross purposes with projects in another locality. Similarly, you don’t want unnecessary duplication. If you have one large metro area that wants to do X project, and it is already going to do it for this smaller village that’s part of the greater metro area, then why have it twice? In other words, you need some kind of a coalition and some kind of collaborative synthesis. That is at the top. I compare this to the role of the orchestra conductor. The conductor doesn’t tell people what to do or play, but they keep time to ensure that everybody is in sync.
Joshua Cohen: Thanks so much for that. We have a huge number of great questions in the Q&A and I want to put one on the table: Where does nuclear power fit into your sense of the solution to the climate problem? David, maybe you could begin?
David Victor: Volumes of needed energy are huge, and we need a lot of low carbon energy. A lot of it’s going to be renewables, but not all of it, and nuclear is a contender. It’s really important in this country to distinguish between the existing fleet of nuclear plants, where the economics of keeping them open as low carbon solutions are very clear in almost every case, versus new build where the costs are pretty high.
This is an area where experimentalism is now playing a big role because nuclear plants used to be built so that they just ran flat out all the time. Now, in the places that have the most renewables, the operators of the plants—France is a great example—are learning how to run the plant up and down during the day so that in effect, the plants become clean, firm power that helps integrate renewables. That’s very clear from all of the modeling of power grids: if you want to bring a lot of renewables on the grid, you need clean, firm power to help integrate it to help deal with long periods of wind and solar drought. Nuclear is one contender for playing that role, and in the value of that role, it goes up dramatically.
Joshua Cohen: I was particularly drawn to a question from David Hughes, who’s written some fantastic stuff for Boston Review. “The question is: In Spain and Germany, rural protest has virtually halted the installation of new onshore wind farms. What can we learn from this sobering experience in Europe?”
Thea Riofrancos: I’ve learned from a bit of comparative research on how communities respond to wind projects that the policies and the relationships make all the difference. There’s no reason to believe that people just don’t like wind, right? They don’t like projects that come out of nowhere from firms that never consulted anybody, that they don’t economically benefit from, don’t have any ownership stakes in, and don’t get any jobs from. But when all of those values are positive, when there is some form of community ownership, when there’s some kind of economic dividend, when there’s job creation, and when there’s community involvement in the design and deployment of the project, generally they go well. I’m simplifying a bit, but that’s what I’ve come to understand.
"People don’t like projects that come out of nowhere, from firms that never consulted anybody, that don’t economically benefit them, that they don’t have ownership stakes in, and that they don’t get any jobs from."
What might speak at a deeper level is whether there is a tension between the speed and scale of deployment and democracy? I think that, on the flip side, when projects don’t have that element of democracy, both politically and economically in terms of the distribution of benefits, then people protest them, so then they don’t go forward at all. Even if it takes a little more time to build in those elements, ultimately, you’ll get more deployment if you can design projects that people will accept.
Joshua Cohen: Thank you. Do you, Alyssa and others as well, have a sense for the ways that the just transition that was being discussed earlier can bring folks along who might otherwise work against the Green New Deal? We have so much evidence that folks will still vote against progressive policies, even when they benefit from them. This seems the hardest thing to overcome as the Green New Deal’s legislative processes get going. What’s your thinking about that?
Alyssa Battistoni: It’s a tough question. I think there’s always going to be some people who you have to overwhelm at the ballot box, and others who are not going to come around. You have to just accept that and say, “Okay, how do we beat the fossil fuel industry? How do we win enough people over to our side to institute this legislative program?” That is true for some number of people. But I also think there’s more room to move people than maybe the question suggests. Maybe people vote against some policies that would benefit them, but there’s also a lot of mismatch between who people vote in terms of politicians and policies.
We saw this, for example, in the most recent election in Florida, where Donald Trump won the state, but voters overwhelmingly voted for a $15 minimum wage, which is a progressive democratic policy that’s been put on the table by unions and progressive activists in the Democratic Party. If you look at a lot of the components of the Green New Deal, they’re popular in polls, and we all know that we don’t want to lean too hard on polls, but there actually is substantial support for a lot of the pieces. There has been a lot of progress within the labor movement on the just transition—green jobs specifically—and there’s still tensions within the labor movement, but I think there’s a lot more support for the green jobs program.
Also, the number of fossil fuel workers themselves is relatively small in the scheme of things. Those workers are not going to become a totemic issue for a jobs versus environment kind of issue. I think we need to both figure out how we transition those folks, but also how not to be distracted by some of the groups who take up a lot of space and discourse, but may not be the driving determinants of whether we can get things passed or make these things happen.
Bob Hockett: One more example really quickly here, Josh. The traditional environmental movement probably wouldn’t have been associated in people’s minds with public housing. We probably would have thought, well, that’s sort of a luxury problem that luxuriating people concern themselves with. But now that’s very obviously not the case. One of the first major pieces of legislation that I helped AOC’s folks with after the Green New Deal resolution was the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act. A lot of people may not realize how much is in the way of environmental abatement work and environmental repurposing. Rebuilding is left to be done in public housing complexes in every major metro area of the country. There’s a lot of room for improvement, and a lot of room for what we call a “green capture.” But it’s also a fantastic democratic housing opportunity as well, because in order to make all of this stuff happen, we’ve tried to design it so that the residents themselves will be taking charge. There will be new positions within the housing units, whereby people organize in order to oversee the actual refurbishment and the rehabilitation of their own units. What’s amazing is that there must be one hundred more examples that people haven’t thought of. It really is sector by sector, with a huge multitude of sectors that are going to be covered.
Joshua Cohen: Thanks very much for that, Alyssa and Bob. David, I’m going to give you the last word.
David Victor: It’s been a great pleasure to write this piece, work with your team, and work with all the respondents. The discussion has been profoundly insightful. I’ll say two things. One is, I’m really struck by how the politics are very plastic, that industrial groups that we used to think would be opposed to this—utilities that burn coal, for example—have figured out new interests, how to become wireless companies, and are now thrilled about renewables. The pressure is working; it’s showing companies that they have to make transformative change.
"The climate problem is a global problem. U.S. emissions are 15 percent or so of global emissions. We must act here. We have to find ways to replicate leadership and success, and the Green New Deal is one of the ideas that’s taking off."
The second thing I want to close with is, the politics in the country are difficult. Even if both seats in Georgia go to the Democrats, the median voter in the Senate is going to be, you know, Joe Manchin or Mark Kelly, not Green New Dealers. But, to me, one of the most striking things to watch is this idea taking off in other countries. We now have a European Green Deal with many of the same elements, and it’s actually happening. We have a Korean Green Deal. The climate problem is a global problem. U.S. emissions are 15 percent or so of global emissions, and so we must act here. We have to find ways to replicate leadership and success, and the Green New Deal is one of the ideas that’s taking off.
Joshua Cohen: Thanks so much for those concluding comments, David, and thanks, everybody, for participating in the conversation.
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January 08, 2021
44 Min read time