Imagine a country where climate change policy is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, a majority of Americans earn a living wage working jobs that don’t destroy the planet, and Republicans pay dearly for resisting the society-wide shift. Though this is clearly not our current reality, excitement is building on the left for a policy that proponents believe could transform the US economy, along with the political narrative on climate action. That policy, which includes moving to 100 percent clean energy in ten years, is known as a “green new deal.”
It would, according to supporters, also guarantee a government-funded green job for any American who wants one. This could mean installing solar panels or wind turbines, but also making buildings more energy-efficient, removing lead from schools, growing healthy organic food, or doing “green-collar” work developing, for instance a marketing plan for non-ecosystem-wrecking companies. By some people’s definition teaching and childcare are “green jobs” too, owing to their low carbon footprint and social-fabric-building function.
At a televised town hall event in Washington, DC, on Monday with Bernie Sanders, Van Jones, Bill McKibben, and others, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—who is becoming a key green new deal pitchwoman—explained the core of the idea: “We would put a lot of people to work… that is what this is about.”
The idea of a massive stimulus package capable of shifting the US off fossil fuels is not exactly new. Thomas Friedman called for it back in 2007, and it was the logic of Barack Obama’s green stimulus package (which fell short of its ambitious promises). But current momentum for a green new deal only really began on November 13. That was when 200 activists with the millennial-led Sunrise Movement flooded the offices of House speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi to demand that she make the policy a central Democratic priority. Ocasio-Cortez showed up, a move that attracted mainstream interest.
“This proposal is just over two weeks old and we’ve already seen it gain a lot of traction,” Stephen O’Hanlon, a Sunrise organizer, told me. “Dozens of [congress] members are talking to us and are interested in the proposal.” On November 30, Ocasio-Cortez and eight other representatives, including her fellow left-wing incoming Democratic congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, held a press conference calling for House Democrats to convene a select committee on a green new deal. Dozens environmental, racial justice, and labor groups are now supporting the idea.
It goes without saying the odds of a federal green new deal being passed anytime soon are slim. President Donald Trump, along with most Republicans, doesn’t accept the reality of climate change. Even enthusiastic supporters like Naomi Klein figure that the Democratic establishment “will probably squash [it].” But people aren’t excited about a green new deal because it will immediately result in legislation—they’re inspired by the progressive vision it offers.
In the past week, I spoke with political and economic experts who think this policy could be a blueprint to fighting climate change and inequality at the same time. It has potential, they said, to build a multiracial working-class movement, make climate a key issue in 2020, and put the GOP on the defensive.
Lawrence Harris knows that a green job is not only about fixing the environment. It can also turn your life around. After serving 14 years in prison for a drug charge, Harris, who was born in the South Bronx, didn’t have many job prospects. But he now leads a team of 40 people in New York who help the city achieve a better relationship with the natural world. That might mean building big urban farms on public housing property or handing out energy efficient lightbulbs in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook; Harris's work has also included convincing a guy who held a gun at him to attend an information session for his Green City Force group.
During one job Harris coated rooftops with a sun-reflecting material, which helps the buildings conserve energy. “All these rooftops have stories,” he explained in Sierra magazine. “You find bullets on them; people have done animal sacrifices up there. But what really shook me was 40 stories up in Harlem, looking across the skyline at New Jersey. It was amazing. Not long before that I was staring at a cell wall in a maximum security prison.”
Harris’s journey was made possible by a green skills training program called Roots of Success. The program dates back to 2008, when Raquel Pinderhughes, an urban studies and planning professor at San Francisco State University, set out to see if there was a way to connect people from low-income communities in the Bay Area to well-paying jobs in a growing green economy. Pinderhughes interviewed employers in renewable energy installation, water conservation, waste management, green building, and a dozen or so other green sectors. “I asked them the question: ‘What would it take for you to hire people of lower education and skills and potentially criminal records?’” she told me.
Those employers told her they were having a hard time filling entry-level positions that involved manual labor. College graduates who believed in the ideals of sustainability would work those jobs for a couple years, but then move on to do something else. Employers said they would hire the people Pinderhughes suggested, but “the answer was consistently, ‘They need to understand what we do, they need to be passionate about the mission of our work,’” she recalled.
With funding from the Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, of which an estimated $90 billion was set aside for green initiatives, Pinderhughes launched Roots of Success in 2010. The program explicitly targets people “who have been failed by the education system,” she said. It offers training in basic academic skills, teaches environmental literacy, and prepares people for entry-level positions in 125 careers. “Green jobs tend be higher paying and provide people with benefits,” she said. “So they’re better than traditional jobs.”
Roots of Success is now offered by community groups, prisons, and high schools across the country. Pinderhughes said over 23,000 people have gone through the program and the number of graduates who get jobs is “very, very high.” Yet she’s well aware this is nowhere near the scale needed to achieve the carbon cuts—the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for a full decarbonization of the economy by 2050—needed to avoid the worst-case impacts of climate change. I asked Pinderhughes what it would take to actually achieve that goal. “We know exactly what we need to do sector by sector,” she said. “We need a green new deal. We need the political will and the funding.”
Green jobs aren’t only for people in progressive coastal cities. They can also be appealing to rural regions such as central Appalachia. In recent years, US energy markets have moved away from coal in favor of natural gas, causing coal company bankruptcies and mine closures in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. The area “has seen incredible economic hardship,” Kate Boyle, deputy executive director of the environmentalist organization Appalachian Voices, told me. Over 51,000 people have lost their jobs since 2011, according to a report Appalachian Voices and other local groups released last month. “Serious environmental damage has been done, and social problems such as drug addiction continue to threaten our future,” it reads.
These groups have a plan to rebuild central Appalachia much more sustainably. It requires asking local community members what they need to thrive in the green economy, and then putting people to work. The report that Boyle helped work on has 20 examples. These included turning an abandoned strip mall next to a former coal mine in Allais, Kentucky, into affordable green housing, and growing hemp, rosemary, lavender, and other crops on reclaimed coal mine land in Wise County, Virginia. These 20 projects would cost over $38 million to get going, the report estimated, but would potentially generate $84 million in economic output and 543 new jobs. “You can just see how that would grow and scale,” Boyle said.
The politics here are complicated: Coal country is solidly Republican, and Appalachian Voices is viewed by some people “as that anti-coal group,” Boyle said, due to its years of tracking the impacts of fossil fuel development. But when Boyle sits down with people at their kitchen tables and gets them to describe a better future for their community, it puts people in a different headspace. “People don’t get asked that question historically,” she said. “It’s opened up I couldn’t tell you how many conversations that wouldn’t have happened before.” Across the political spectrum, people tell her they want projects that diversify the economy away from extracting a single resource and put people to work healing the social and environmental wounds of the coal industry’s decline.
Boyle said she’d need to hear more about Ocasio-Cortez’s green new deal to comment directly, but policies giving communities a real say in the low-carbon shift are “exactly what we need to see coming out of Washington.”
When some Democrats began announcing their support earlier this spring for a federal jobs guarantee, Sean McElwee, co-founder of a progressive think tank called Data For Progress (and a VICE contributor), asked the data analytics firm Civis Analytics to do some polling on it. About 52 percent of respondents supported the policy, while 29 percent opposed. “This is one of the most popular issues we’ve ever polled,” David Shor, a senior data scientist at Civis Analytics said at the time. Later this year, Data for Progress did its own polling and found a green jobs guarantee increased the intensity of enthusiastic 2018 voters: 55 percent said they’re more likely to vote for a candidate who runs on it. (Not that support for a green new deal was a silver bullet during the midterms—Ocasio-Cortez won a New York primary against an incumbent Democrat, but Randy Bryce, another vocal green new deal backer, lost a congressional election to a Republican in Wisconsin.)
“The basic idea is that a jobs guarantee is popular and green shit is popular,” said McElwee. “Combine them together and you get that synergistic popularity.” He told me the appeal is not hard to see during a time when 80 percent of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck doing jobs without benefits or security. “There are a lot of people in the United States who want to work but can’t find jobs,” McElwee said. “There are also a lot of people in the United States who have shitty jobs and would like to have better ones. And we also have a lot of work that needs to be done.”
The political calculus is somewhat different than the policy calculus: To oppose the green new deal, the logic goes, Republicans have to be not just against climate change solutions, but against jobs. Opponets are choosing to focus on the cost of the policy. “Green New Deal? Sounds like a lot of red ink,” Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado told Politico last month. Exact costs for Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal haven’t yet been calculated, but Green Party leader Jill Stein has said a green new deal may require “revenues between $700 billion to $1 trillion annually.” While that is undoubtedly a gigantic and perhaps intimidating number, some proponents argue dwelling on costs misses a larger point. “Politicians need to reject the urge to ask, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’” wrote former Bernie Sanders economic advisor Stephanie Kelton and others in a HuffPost op-ed. “A better question is: What’s the best use of public money?”
I asked McElwee how a green new deal, assuming that current enthusiasm for it doesn’t fizzle out, could impact the 2020 presidential election. “A candidate who does this I think would have a leg up in the Democratic primary,” he said. “No one has an idea big enough to solve the [climate] problem that we face.” That candidate, he argued, “would have a chance to energize young people,” who polling suggests care especially about climate change and social inequities. He also argues a green new deal could also resonate in some rural areas: “I think there are a lot of voters who are like, ‘You know what, I fucking hate Democrats, but I do like the idea of, you know, a new reservoir in my town and some people getting paid to do that.’”
As the recent midterm elections made clear, the dominant policy framework for fighting climate change—set a price on carbon emissions to push the market to invest in solutions—is politically fragile. Though Democrats did well, ballot initiatives aimed at fighting climate change performed poorly, and only part of the blame can be placed on the deep-pocketed opposition from oil and gas companies. “A policy like cap and trade or a revenue neutral carbon fee and dividend are so dizzyingly complex it is difficult to explain to the average working person how exactly it will improve their lives,” Matt Huber, an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University, wrote recently on Verso. But a green new deal could speak to people’s material needs. “That’s why I’m so excited by it,” Huber told me. “If you want to win on climate you have to create very clear, easy-to-understand messages that appeal to the vast majority of people.”
For decades, Republicans have successfully slowed aggressive action on climate change with a simple but effective message: It will screw the economy. I pushed Huber to sketch out the most fantastical, best-case scenario for an alternative vision. Supposing that a Democratic administration in, say, 2021 or 2022, were to bring in a green new deal that showed tangible benefits to people in the Bay Area, central Appalachia, New York City, and everywhere in between—“if that were to happen,” he said, putting heavy emphasis on the “if”—it could “become incredibly popular.”
This, he thinks, could transform the political map. “All the Democrats have to do to build a many-decade majority and take over Washington is turn out that extra 10 percent of working class voters that don’t bother going to the polls in elections,” Huber argued. In this balls-to-the-wall optimistic scenario, he said, “then you just crush every Republican.”
If this political project seems unlikely to come to fruition, it’s also secondary to the primary goal of a green new deal: avoiding some of the worst, most catastrophic, damage from climate change. Currently, the concept of shifting to 100 percent clean energy in the US by 2030 sounds impossible. But Huber explained that in 1935, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s original New Deal, just 10 percent of the rural US had access to electricity. By 1950, it was up to 90 percent. “History shows that, especially with our country being the richest and having the most wealth and resources to deploy, we can do massive transformational things,” Huber said. And with time to act quickly ticking down, those may be the only options we have left.
Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.