Green Capitalism Is Not Enough

Joe Biden's inauguration has been heralded as a victory for environmentalists – but his presidency will prove definitively that there are no moderate solutions to the climate crisis. A Green New Deal is our only hope.

Over the last few years, the Green New Deal has entered the consciousness of socialists around the world. Perhaps due to it being popularised so effectively by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement, it sometimes surprises people to learn how the phrase emerged in Britain, when a group of economists sought to influence the make-up of the stimulus package introduced by Gordon Brown in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

That year, the Green New Deal Group, which included the economist Ann Pettifor, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas, Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott, and a range of environmental campaigners, released a report with the New Economics Foundation. Its key recommendations included investing in a decentralised low-carbon energy system, skilling up a ‘carbon army’ of workers to undertake this investment, and introducing carbon taxes to disincentivise fossil fuel usage.

But alongside these modest goals could be found more radical aims, like breaking up the big banks, reintroducing capital controls, and clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion. What they produced was a relatively ambitious statement about how to rebuild an economy — especially when compared to what was considered to be mainstream political discourse during that period.

In the end, New Labour did not implement their recommendations. Gordon Brown lived up to his name and implemented a standard ‘brown’ stimulus package, despite ample evidence that green stimulus packages create three times as many jobs. Soon, he would have ceded power to a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition awash with the rhetoric of ‘balancing the books’. And when Ed Miliband succeeded his leadership with a promise of austerity-lite, the political aims of socialists and progressives shifted towards demanding little more than a return to the post-war Keynesian consensus.

As a result, the next few years saw the focus of climate radicalism shift across the Atlantic. In states like California which was already beginning to feel the impact of climate breakdown — campaigners demanded a radical Green New Deal and skilfully pressured various politicians into conceding some of their demands. But it was not until 2018, when Ocasio-Cortez was unexpectedly elected to Congress, that the idea of the Green New Deal went mainstream.

Ocasio-Cortez met with some of the members of the initial Green New Deal Group to discuss putting their proposals into practice, and worked with campaigners in the Sunrise Movement and the Justice Democrats to thrust the idea into the centre of political debate. Alongside Ed Markey, Ocasio-Cortez unveiled the first Green New Deal bill last year, while the Sunrise Movement used direct action protest, including staging a sit-in of the office of Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi, to ensure these demands could not be ignored. With Extinction Rebellion and school climate strikers already driving attention towards the issue of climate breakdown, the timing could not have been better.

The United States movement for climate justice ricocheted back over the Atlantic, leading to the creation of groups like Labour for a Green New Deal, and ultimately the adoption of a series of pledges—framed as the Green Industrial Revolution—in the Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto. Sanders placed an equally significant emphasis on the Green New Deal in his campaign to become the Democratic Party nominee in 2019, and Ocasio-Cortez endorsed his bid for President.

A Plan, In Short

Between the USA and Britain, the idea of the Green New Deal has become much more nebulous than the concrete proposals made by the Green New Deal Group. But it has much greater ambition: the Green New Deal has expanded to encompass issues like ownership, governance, internationalism, race, migration, and ecology. Crucially, the original commitments on breaking the power of finance, promoting green investment, and reforming the tax system take more focus in today’s plans than those of a decade ago.

On the question of ownership, the Common Wealth think tank has put forward proposals for the nationalisation of the fossil fuel industry — proposals that have been echoed by campaigners in the US. These calls became particularly pronounced when at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the price of oil collapsed, leaving the possibility of shares in many oil companies to be purchased very cheaply. Similar demands were in Labour’s 2019 manifesto, which included a commitment to nationalising major energy companies to support a green industrial strategy and reduce fuel bill costs.

On governance, there is a growing consensus that the institutional framework that underpins the Green New Deal must be democratic. Common Wealth has argued for the creation of a Green New Deal commission that could bring together ‘communities at the sharp end of environmental and industrial change as well as unions, businesses, technology experts, and scientists’ to develop collective solutions to the problem of climate breakdown. In the USA, The Democracy Collaborative think tank has argued for the creation of an ‘energy democracy’ through policies like rolling out a community-owned power administration.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) also released a report in 2019 on how to finance a global Green New Deal. The problem, the report argued, is that it would be easier for some countries to finance it than others — and that the states most able to access financing would not always be those most at risk from climate breakdown. UNCTAD argued for a ‘globally coordinated’ investment strategy, ‘led by the public sector and with a focus on structural transformation and environmental recovery’. Policies like resource and technology transfers and a new global climate bank would ensure all states were able to introduce ambitious green new deals.

In the USA, many organisations have called for the Green New Deal to include reparations and other measures to promote racial justice. The original New Deal, many campaigners point out, took place in the era of segregation and did little directly to tackle racial inequalities. Meanwhile, as Black Lives Matter UK protesters blocked the runway at Heathrow Airport last year, they drew attention to the fact that people of colour in poorer, more polluted and environmentally hazardous areas are most likely to be affected by the degradation associated with climate breakdown.

Growing concentrations of greenhouse gases are by no means the only major threat to environmental sustainability, either. From the nitrogen cycle to the water cycle, we’re facing the breakdown of all the ecological systems that sustain human life. Campaigners like George Monbiot have argued for ambitious plans to ‘rewild’ large parts of the UK to resurrect the planet’s natural ‘carbon sinks’ while supporting biodiversity. The spread of a pandemic whose emergence can partly be attributed to unsustainable agricultural practices has also shone the spotlight on our food systems.

And when it comes to the original proposals for breaking the power of finance, investing in decarbonisation and reforming the tax system, one of the original Green New Deal Group members, Ann Pettifor, has argued for ‘an end to the toxic ideology and institutions of capitalism’ in her recent book, The Case for the Green New Deal, while in a recent interview with Tribune’s A World to Win podcast, Naomi Klein described the Green New Deal as a ‘Marshall Plan for Planet Earth’.

Biden and the Planet

While the intellectual legacy that Corbyn and Sanders left behind was impressive, the great movements behind these figureheads foundered on the rocks of establishment power. On reflection, it is easy to call it naïve for socialists to believe that the national ruling classes of two of the most powerful capitalist states would ever have allowed popular democratic socialist movements to come within an inch of power.

But it is also naïve to argue that the last ten years of campaigning have made no difference. It’s difficult to imagine Joe Biden’s proposal to invest $2 trillion into green energy, transport, and construction to rebuild and decarbonise the American economy happening without Green New Dealers setting the boundaries of political debate. Central to these plans are the rejuvenation of America’s decaying infrastructure, creating jobs, and reducing emissions by promoting clean, green transport in a country notorious for domestic air travel. He has even proposed that disadvantaged communities will receive 40 per cent of proposed funding, and pledging to reverse Trump’s corporation tax cuts. One of his first acts in office was to return the US to the Paris Climate Accords.

But on A World to Win, Naomi Klein was sceptical. When asked whether Biden will deliver anything approaching the scale of the Green New Deal proposed by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey, Klein answered firmly: ‘absolutely not’. She went on: ‘I think the real measure of what we can expect is who Biden surrounds himself with.’ On this front, Klein cautioned against taking the same ‘wait and see’ approach she says environmentalists took with Obama: the movement needs to act now to ensure figures like Ocasio-Cortez are in influential positions.

From historical experience, it’s clear that the most likely outcome of Biden’s victory is the continuation of the status quo. The approach of his administration is likely to be very similar to the Obama administration in which he served. Foreign policy will remain the same, Biden won’t depart from Obama’s legacy on healthcare reform, and the approach to criminal justice and policing won’t challenge the USA’s unique form of carceral capitalism.

On the economy, Biden is likely to replicate Obama’s post-2008 approach to reflating the economy — delivering a generic stimulus package that may be slightly more focused on decarbonisation, but which won’t firmly take on the interests of fossil fuel companies. There may be moves on taxation—reversing Trump’s astonishingly unfair tax cuts would be an easy win—but Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax will remain a non-starter.

It’s clear why some on the left in the US have refused to support Biden. For many, a continuation of business-as-usual amounts to a death sentence — whether that be the black Americans likely to be murdered with impunity by police in the coming years, those whose extortionate medical bills force them to suicide, or those who find themselves trying to survive on the streets after being evicted. In the long run, the health of the planet we call home is at stake without radical action.

And yet it is for these urgent and pressing reasons that the Left must not give up fighting for a better world. Biden is not going to deliver the change that the USA needs. But the development of the Green New Deal as an idea shows that even under the most hostile conditions, our campaigning can make a difference. It’s not always easy to see the concrete outcomes of a direct action, a protest, or a media campaign. But when done right, these things do make a difference.

While these ‘one to many’ interventions will remain important over the coming years to hold Biden to account, perhaps the most important campaigns that the US left can involve itself in will be the ‘one to one’ interventions most familiar among community organisers and in the labour movement. Rather than simply broadcasting our political messages, it is critically important for the Left to be out there supporting communities whose lives are literally on the line.

In the USA, that means supporting Black Lives Matter protesters fighting for justice and community protection. It means getting involved in the tenants’ movement and supporting organisations like ACORN to resist evictions and push against the power of corporate landlords. And it means getting active in the labour movement to resist the job losses and attacks on pay and conditions undoubtedly coming down the line.

Environmentalists may not see these kinds of activities as their wheelhouse. Many might be more inclined to put their faith in Biden to deliver on his promises. Failing that, the fallback option is always the ‘citizens assemblies’ constantly touted by Extinction Rebellion in the name of resisting the ‘politicisation’ of environmentalism.

But it is going to become abundantly clear over the coming years that the economic, political, and social systems that structure our collective existence have become a threat to human life itself. Perhaps the best thing to come out of a Biden America will be a spark of realisation among much of the climate-conscious, but not overtly political, population: not even $2 trillion can save the planet from capitalism.