The Climate Movement’s Decades-Long Path to the Green New Deal

The Climate Movement’s Decades-Long Path to the Green New Deal

How the climate movement learned to play politics.

Sunrise Movement activists rally in support of the Green New Deal on Capitol Hill, December 10, 2018. (Photo by Ken Schles, courtesy of Sunrise Movement)

That the public sector must be massively mobilized in the fight against climate change has long been a bugbear of the right. But the failure to conceive of just how large a role the federal government will have to play in combating climate change has been the left’s own climate denial. The chasm between our present addiction to fossil fuels and the decarbonized economy the world needs is so daunting that it has proven easier to chant “we have the solutions” than it has been to build the political power to win in government.

Hence the Pollyannaish mood among mainstream politicians slapping energy credits on the problem. But Teslas and carbon taxes are unsatisfying responses to a crisis that, as the world’s scientists remind us, threatens to eradicate life on earth. Faced with the prospect of annihilation, however gradual it may be, half-measures do not inspire faith.

For much of its history, the climate movement has failed to offer a viable way beyond this impasse. Its organizers and institutions have consistently refused to confront the crisis as a crisis, preferring to view it either as capitalism’s natural conclusion or as a policy problem to be solved by the right wonks. This refusal constitutes, among other things, a refusal of politics—a refusal to articulate grievance through strategic interventions for power that pit a public protagonist against a public villain. Politics that does not contest for power is merely a performance; politics that does so without strategy is a bad performance. It is no exaggeration to say that the climate movement of the past decade has been an apolitical movement for refusing to engage with the basic mechanisms of power.

What the occupation of Nancy Pelosi’s office in November 2018, staged by members of the youth-led Sunrise Movement and joined by then-representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, marked was a definitive break with the depoliticized strategy of the climate movement’s past (full disclosure: I’ve been involved with Sunrise since the movement’s launch in 2017). The protest put forward a demand for the total transformation of the economy, not through incrementalist reforms or some kind of messianic, revolutionary episode, but through comprehensive federal legislation: the Green New Deal.

The speed at which the Green New Deal has gone from fringe proposal to tentative pillar of many leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates’ platforms suggests that there is a desire among the majority of Americans for a different approach to climate politics. The Green New Deal makes fighting climate change a political project at a moment when the Democratic Party’s left-flank is resurgent for the first time in a generation. Perhaps paradoxically, a political approach to fighting climate change has, in a moment of political crisis, become a source of hope.

 

The fight for the Green New Deal constitutes a sea change in the climate movement’s modus operandi. Decades removed from the mass politics of the first Earth Day and nearer to when the surveillance state was limited to infiltrating eco-terrorist dens, the mainstream climate movement under George W. Bush worked in self-conscious opposition to politics. The rightful purview of atmospheric gases was science and technology; the squabbles of partisanship could only hold back progress. When Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work bringing popular attention to climate change, he averred that the “climate crisis is not a political issue.” Climatologist James Hansen, who first testified about the threat of global warming in Congress in 1988, echoed the former vice president’s commitment to y-axes, telling reporters that “climate change should not be a political matter.”

Hansen announced his science-first analysis ahead of a nonpartisan campaign to mobilize the youth vote in November 2008. Launched by the Energy Action Coalition, a council of environmental groups that served as nexus of youth climate organizing in the later Bush years, Power Vote named youth as a political identity without the political commitment. As a 501c3 nonprofit, Energy Action Coalition could not campaign for candidates; its electoral analysis was legally limited to bromides about turning every politician into a “climate hero.” In one informational pamphlet, Power Vote dismissed the possibility of victory through partisan politics entirely: “we know that we get lasting change by putting sustained political pressure on elected officials no matter who is in office.” Meant as a bracing call to arms in the spirit of “power to the people,” this admission betrayed an electoral agnosticism antithetical to waging politics. If sustained grassroots pressure was the only source of lasting change, then whoever occupied office was irrelevant. The subtext? Real progress on climate would never come from above. The Obama years proved this right.

Paradoxically, a political approach to fighting climate change has, in a moment of political crisis, become a source of hope.

To get a sense of just how far removed the climate discourse in 2009 was from naming the specific actors responsible for climate change, we need only ask Donald Trump. Though hard to believe, the real estate mogul signed an open letter in the New York Times ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit urging “meaningful and effective” climate action. The coalition behind the letter, businessleaders4environmentalchange.us, did not specify a policy to lower “emissions targets,” but Beltway wisdom of the day held that only one mechanism had a decent shot becoming law: an emissions trading program known as cap-and-trade.

This market tweak may have proven a modest success in mitigating carbon emissions, but it neither met the immediacy of the crisis nor inspired its supporters to greater political participation. Not for lack of trying: only weeks after Obama’s inauguration, Energy Action Coalition called Power Shift 2009, a gathering of 12,000 young people in Washington, D.C. for what it called the “largest citizen lobby day in history.” By June, Energy Action Coalition was mobilizing its youth base to pass a cap-and-trade bill through the House of Representatives.

In calling on legislators to pass a technocratic bit of market reform, the youth of the climate movement demonstrated an understanding of political power alien to their more institutional brethren. It was, unfortunately, far from enough to pass the bill. The D.C. environmental policy shops privileged backroom deals over popular mobilizations. Big Green groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council, partnering with industry CEOs, chose expediency over strategy in their attempts to bring federal climate legislation to fruition. When corporate interests bailed on the alliance, the cap-and-trade bill, already riddled with exemptions, lacked a constituency to defend it. It foundered. By eschewing the public contest for power in politics in favor of the private transactions of business, the Big Greens left the Democratic Party to defending the validity of science for years.

 

The subtitle on the cover of Naomi Klein’s fourth book, This Changes Everything, sums up the lessons that the younger activists of the climate movement drew from the cap-and-trade fight. The stark sans-serif of “capitalism vs. the climate” conveyed with almost cartoonish gravity this generation’s radicalization against its establishment counterparts. In four words, Klein distilled the confrontational impulses of the climate movement’s new politics—to name the enemy in the broadest possible terms, and fight without compromise.

It’s worth noting how Klein came to give climate change, in her words, “the crisis treatment.” One of the anti-globalization movement’s leading intellectuals, Klein understood firsthand how masses of citizens taking direct action could force a reckoning between the people and the elite. But it was not until she understood climate change as a galvanizing force for scaled solutionsa Marshall Plan for the earth, as described by the Bolivian ambassador to the World Trade Organization, a shock doctrine for the left, a Green New Dealthat Klein began to view the crisis as a political struggle. In the wake of Great Recession, she writes, “we had all just watched as trillions of dollars were marshaled in a moment when our elites decided to declare a crisis.” A mass movement need only apply the same logic to climate change in order to turn it into “the best argument progressives have ever had to demand the rebuilding and reviving of local economies.”

The technocratic capture of climate policy at the time, however, meant that Big Green’s response to the crisis was neither positive nor galvanizing. Failing to summon the requisite moral urgency, the environmental institutions that tried to broker the cap-and-trade deal between business and bureaucracy disillusioned the younger members of the movement from the possibility of substantial government action on climate. For many, the task, henceforth, was the destruction of the system writ large.

This Changes Everything signaled the rise of the movement’s more radical faction. More confrontation was necessary to fight the corporate interests that had scuttled previous climate efforts. Driven by protests against fossil fuel infrastructure by indigenous peoples and environmental justice organizations, the movement found a public enemy in the carbon industry. Whereas the institutions backing cap-and-trade centered the climate debate around individual consumer choices amid tweaks to the market, this more combative generation began to frame the crisis as a battle between corporations and the people, capitalism versus the climate. The campaigns against the Keystone XL pipeline and fossil fuel investments inverted responsibility from consumer to supplier, injecting the climate narrative with the moral energy that Al Gore’s zigzagging charts lacked. By naming its enemy, the climate movement began to politicize.

Capitalism, however, was an enemy against which a nascent movement would always lose. Amplifying the worst habit of the left—to chose righteous defeat over qualified victory—this story of massive structural confrontation positioned its protagonists for perpetual defeat. A monolithic view of power, conceiving of the narrative villain as a faceless system, precluded the possibility of winning before the battle began. The movement, of course, celebrated individual pipeline bans and successful divestment campaigns. But against an enemy as ubiquitous as capitalism, these victories proved just as incremental as cap-and-trade.

In fighting a just but fruitless war, many activists resigned themselves to what organizer and theorist Jonathan Matthew Smucker calls “the story of the righteous few,” the catharsis of political combat without the risk. Whereas the Dakota Access Pipeline, for example, poses an existential threat for the Water Protectors, checking into Standing Rock on Facebook is signaling under the guise of solidarity. Reduced to an aesthetic, radicalism is decipherable only to other radicals, content with purity over popularity. The trappings of a leftist politics then become a fashion item to be flaunted—radical chic, or in Millennial parlance, radical basic.

To actualize any transformation that could approach the scale of the climate crisis, the movement needed to learn to wage politics and win power inside government.

The tension between the climate movement’s performative impulses and its political ambitions were on display most vividly at the 2014 People’s Climate March, which succeeded in turning out enormous numbers for an issue that at the time rarely garnered enough press. By no means an unqualified success, the march at least deliberately framed its struggle as political—the people united against fossil fuels. But the nature of the big tent demonstration, some argued, privileged coalitional breadth over strategic depth.

In response to the Climate Justice Alliance’s call for direct action against extractive corporations, organizers in New York City planned an arrestable protest in the heart of the Financial District the same week as the People’s Climate March. Billed as a radical action somewhere between supplement and alternative to the the march, #FloodWallStreet sought to bring the rising seas to the masters of capital towering above the Charging Bull. The event’s tagline—“stop capitalism, end the climate crisis”—announced its heady ambitions, while its proponents admitted to acting as the climate movement’s left flank. But with the arrest of a mere 3 percent of its participants, already vastly overshadowed by the hundreds of thousands in the streets the day before, #FloodWallStreet felt more like a trickle.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the People’s Climate March and #FloodWallStreet was the pair’s reluctance to translate their momentum into political power through additional mobilizations during the 2016 presidential campaign. With their confrontational, politicized messaging, these climate protests had started to provide a face to the evils of fossil fuel capitalism that the national discourse would soon latch onto. The movement, however, balked.

Even if he had not won the Republican nomination, Donald Trump still would have proved a terrifyingly real villain, a billionaire racist and famed climate denier straight out of a caricature on a #FloodWallStreet protest sign. Yet the institutions of the mainstream climate movement uneasily ignored him during the 2016 primaries. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, took cues directly from movement leadership, bringing the platform of the People’s Climate March to rallies across the country. Yet only a small fraction of the organizations that made up the march’s coalition endorsed Sanders for president. And when Occupy activists returned to Zuccotti Park to phonebank for the democratic socialist, they were mic-checked by former comrades maintaining that social movements need to “exist outside of this political process.”

The same electoral agnosticism that hamstrung Power Vote engulfed the climate movement again nearly a decade later. By failing to commit to the agonism of politics, which attempts to unite a diverse cross-section of the electorate against an identifiable enemy, the climate movement opted for marginality. Without a concerted effort to prevent a climate denier from reaching the upper echelons of government, the movement watched impotently as its victories of the past eight years were wiped away.

 

Two things became impossible to ignore after election night 2016: that protest without politics was a recipe for endless defeat, and that the planet was massively, impressively, beyond-all-doubt fucked. Impoverished by a resistance to politics born of disillusionment with the failure of cap-and-trade, and suspicious of institutions like the Democratic Party for their capitalist sympathies, the climate movement had relegated itself to gadfly when it needed to play game changer. To actualize any transformation that could approach the scale of the climate crisis, the movement needed to learn to wage politics and win power inside government.

Political struggle through elections and state institutions may not sound like a visionary prospect, but given its neglect by social movements through 2016, Sunrise, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and their ilk stand a world to win. Gaining political power through the path most familiar to Americans—candidates in the two-party system campaigning to appeal to voters—provides a much larger megaphone for movement demands than most symbolic demonstrations. And while #FloodWallStreet activists struggled to get coverage of 100 arrests, Bernie Sanders consistently won headlines during the presidential campaign railing against fossil fuel executives’ culpability for the climate crisis. Electoral politics, more easily accessible to the average American, breaks a movement’s habit to talk only to itself.

The advantage of conducting politics in this way is clear. The only institution conceivably capable of effecting change on a massive enough scale to rapidly transition off fossil fuels—the federal government—responds most directly to two political parties. The fastest path to taking over the government is taking over the Democratic Party. The decimation of establishment leadership in 2016 provided an opening for those alienated from the political system to contest for power within it. By embracing primaries, town halls, and get-out-the-vote canvassing (in other words, the tactics of conventional political struggle inside the two-party system), Sunrise organizers have brought the Green New Deal from the Democratic Party’s fringe to its mainstream.

The Green New Deal has set a course for the country to combat climate change at scale. The journey will require more protest, more power, and especially more politics.

A total transformation of the economy, away from fossil capital and towards a more equitable distribution of resources, is the same putative goal of Power Shift, the People’s Climate March, Flood Wall Street, and grassroots campaigns across the country. Until now, that goal has always felt beyond the climate movement’s abilities. As both a campaign slogan and a policy platform, the Green New Deal captures the values and vision that resonate with Americans failed by decades of neoliberal consensus. It is a sweeping program with historic precedent to rein in society’s greedy elite and put everyday citizens to work to avert calamity. In the same way that Medicare for All signals more than a single-payer healthcare system, the Green New Deal signals more than a set of policies like a jobs guarantee and a renewable energy mandate. It signals ambitious change in an era when Americans long for it.

But just as more moderate politicians attempt to dilute the meaning of Medicare for All, a key challenge facing the Green New Deal is its capaciousness. Already, politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have attempted to use the Green New Deal brand to drum up excitement for measly renewable targets. The newly politicized climate movement, therefore, must inoculate itself from wholesale appropriation. By offering a definition of the Green New Deal, as Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey have done in coordination with dozens of federal legislators and institutions across the left, Sunrise and the rest of the climate movement have determined what constitutes the full scope of the Green New Deal.

Defining the Green New Deal is one challenge, but making it the law of the land is another. To do this the climate movement, and indeed the left in general, must fully shed its electoral agnosticism. The earliest any of the Green New Deal’s policies could make it into law is 2021. In that time, Democrats must retain their majority in the House, take control of the Senate, and win the presidency. The disproportionate power that rural states hold in Senate and presidential races means that the traditionally urban left must make in-roads fast in less populated states. Here, the Green New Deal, with its emphasis on agriculture reform and renewable electrification, will be an asset. Ending the minority party’s de facto veto power in the Senate filibuster will also be necessary. So will statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico. The primaries over the next two years provide the climate movement with a window to push agenda-setting candidates to race each other to develop a plan to actualize the Green New Deal’s full scope. Sitting on the sidelines again would be nihilism.

Though still far from our goal, the chasm between necessity and reality no longer seems so insurmountable. The Green New Deal has set a course for the country to combat climate change at scale. The journey will require more protest, more power, and especially more politics.


Matthew Miles Goodrich is a writer, teacher, and organizer. He currently serves as New York State Director for the Sunrise Movement. He tweets @mmilesgoodrich


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