The Green New Deal – A Compelling Idea that Challenges Both Parties

For the past two months, I’ve been one of several people across the state working to flesh out what a Green New Deal might look like in the Commonwealth.  By early April, we should be ready to begin sharing our vision and ideas for a GND, and soliciting your thoughts, hopes and concerns.  I’ll talk more about this in our March newsletter, but If you think there might be interest in your community, please let me know.

Whether at the state or national level, a Green New Deal could take a number of different forms, with various policies and strategies for implementation.  Whatever those come to be, one element is essential:  It must be ambitious, both in scope and urgency.  Why?  First, because the economic model we’ve used for the past 40 years isn’t working for the majority of Americans, even more so for young people, rural communities and people of color.  Our low unemployment rates mask a whole range of very serious problems, from low and still-stagnant wages, to extraordinarily high student debt, from staggering levels of inequality to infrastructure decay and deficits (especially in rural places).  We should, and we can build an economy that works for everyday people.  That shouldn’t be a radical idea.

Of equal urgency is the rapidly growing problem of climate change, increasingly impacting coastal cities, fisherman, farmers, and vulnerable communities across Virginia and the nation. From the International Panel on Climate Change to our own federal agencies, the most knowledgeable scientists are sounding the alarm bells.  More accurately, they’ve been sounding the alarm bells, for a good twenty years.  The ‘worst case’ models they’ve been putting forward are looking increasingly likely.  So, it’s essential that we start taking  truly serious action, both to reduce the rate of change and to prepare for it.

A Green New Deal is not the only thing we could do to address emissions and climate change.  And it’s not the only strategy for creating better jobs, more widely shared prosperity and a people-centered economy.  But it is the only approach I know of that does both.   For 40 years, most Americans have been losing ground economically, even as the economy has grown six times faster than our population.  During that same period, this same trickle-down economy has dramatically increased our carbon emissions and launched us on the road to severe changes in the climate and our environment.  If a GND offers a roadmap for a better economy and a restored, sustainable ecosystem, what the heck is wrong with that?

Well, no surprise here, but there’s plenty of resistance from many of our political ‘leaders’.  It’s by far the strongest on the Republican side, where everyone from Donald Trump on down is trashing a GND as “big government”, even “socialism”.  Our own 9th District Congressman has stated his complete opposition to the idea for those reasons and, it appears, because he thinks everything is going just fine as is.  In his recent newsletter, he focused on one GND goal - getting millions of residential and commercial buildings weatherized and retrofitted for improved energy efficiency.  Mind you, McKinsey and Company estimated that this would save American homeowners at least $50 billion annually; for the economy as a whole, it would save $1 trillion by 2030.  Yet Mr Griffith focused not the billions of dollars we could save and the tons of emissions we would prevent, but on fear that a commitment to making most of our buildings more energy efficient would be draconian government intrusion.  His preferred path, like nearly all of his party colleagues, is more of the same – tax cuts for the wealthy, environmental deregulation, and complete reliance on the market to figure it out.

There is strong and growing support for a GND among Democrats, but not without many naysayers.  Too many Democrats are casting the Green New Deal as ‘unrealistic’, ‘too expensive’ or ‘pie in the sky’.  Why would Democrats resist an economic strategy likely to foster better jobs, address injustice and fight climate change?  In my assessment, it is the culture of incrementalism that has overtaken the Democratic establishmentThomas Frank’s book, Listen Liberal makes a compelling case that the Democratic Party, particularly since the Clinton years, has increasingly become the party of intellectual elites, of political insiders and of technocrats.  That is to say, people who embrace incremental change rather than transformative action.  That’s part of why we got Dodd Frank – and in a few short years, a return of megabanks behaving recklessly - rather than a renewed Glass-Steagall Act and limits on bank size.  Many of these same Democrats are also resisting Medicare for all.  And now, the Green New Deal.

As a pragmatist myself, I appreciate others who work for real, concrete change, and who recognize that we can’t always get what we want (apologies to Mick Jagger).  Nevertheless, very large, entrenched problems that have been going on for decades, call out for ambitious, creative solutions.  For far-reaching yet practical strategies that make a big difference.  I believe that the Green New Deal offers that potential, and I sure don’t believe that cautious incrementalism will win public support or address the enormous economic and ecological challenges we face.