The Green New Deal: Moving climate change (back) up the agenda

The Green New Deal is causing a political stir in the States at the moment. But what is it and what does it mean?

Lucy Haines

27 Feb 2019 4 mins read time

The Green New Deal is causing a political stir in the States at the moment. But what is it and what does it mean?

What is the Green New Deal?

The Green New Deal is a proposed framework to tackle climate change and stimulate the economy in the United States. Formulated by a group of progressive Democrats, it calls for investment in clean energy jobs and infrastructure in order to not only decarbonize the economy, but to make it more just.

It is an ambitious plan and intentionally reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal in 1930s to restore prosperity after the Great Depression. The plan comes at a time when many are starting to awaken to the deepening climate crisis and the need for great ambition if we are to avoid catastrophe.

Why now?

In 2009 the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the last most significant piece of legislation relating to climate, died on the Senate floor. In 2017 a President promising to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was elected. In recent years climate has not been able to make it to the front line of the legislative agenda and federal legislation regulating greenhouse gas emissions is being repealed. The Green New Deal feels a little different if only for the timing and the debate it is igniting. Why?

In October the IPCC released their much-anticipated report on 1.5 degree warming and it made for unsettling reading. It made clear that the time for discussion is long past, we have less than 12 years to slow down a runaway climate train. In November the National Climate Assessment report reinforced this view, stating that the US economy would bear a huge cost as a consequence of climate change.

Studies are also starting to show that American people are concerned about climate change. Once a distant and intangible problem to most, many Americans are now already living with the impacts – from Californian wildfires, to extreme weather and rising sea levels. In addition to this, a growing movement of young people are mobilising in the States and around the world, actively demonstrating for politicians to consider their future and demanding more climate action to protect it.

Then there is the political context: a controversial President polarising views and sparking impassioned debate on the economy and the environment (among many other topics) and a recent win for the Democrats in the mid-terms for the House of Representatives. The Democrats have been criticized for a lack of ambition, of playing it safe and generally not stepping up. Progressives, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AKA AOC) taking the limelight, have now determined to bring climate change to the forefront, to benefit the planet and stimulate economic growth in the transition to a low carbon economy.

Just how ambitious is it?

It’s ambitious. While it remains a high-level framework, the ultimate objective is to provide context for the US to effectively tackle climate change. Here are some of the broader ambitions of the plan:

  • Meet 100% of power demand by renewables – The plan aims to decarbonize the economy in 10 years. Considering the US is still 80% reliant on fossil fuels, genuine ambition, such as this, is needed to transition to a low carbon economy.
  • Upgrade existing buildings for maximum energy efficiency
  • Improve the transportation system – this includes investing in zero emission vehicle infrastructure and the expansion of the high-speed rail to reduce dependency on flights.
  • Investments in tech solutions to remove Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions from the atmosphere and reduce pollution
  • Working with farmers to reduce GHG emissions as much as technologically feasible in agriculture
  • Creation of green jobs – all of the above are expected to meet the ambition of a guaranteed job for anyone able and willing to work by stimulating a greener economy. The plan also sets out further extensive ambitions relating to improvements to health care and benefits, economic security and tackling historic inequalities.

There is no detail as to how all of this is going to be realised or paid for. Commentators have pointed out that the cost of mitigating climate change will be far exceeded by the costs of clearing up the damage. It is therefore, igniting strong debate but even the most critical will find it increasingly hard to deny that resilience to climate change should be a priority no matter what your political persuasion.

What happens now?

Ultimately, realising the New Green Deal will require an unprecedented amount of political will and engineering. At this stage it is little more than a list of ideals but there is no doubt that it is putting the climate change discussion front and center at what could be a pivotal time in US politics. So, whilst this does not mean impending legislation yet, it does mean climate change is firmly back on the political agenda.

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