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17 November 2021

Should the left abandon the Green New Deal?

There are serious questions to ask, but Aditya Chakrabortty’s critique fails to convince.

By Richard Seymour

The odds favour catastrophe. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we must prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial temperatures. To achieve this, global CO2 emissions would have to fall 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030. By 2050, global coal use would have to decline by 97 per cent, oil use by 87 per cent, and natural gas use by 74 per cent.

If this doesn’t happen, the environmentalist David Wallace-Wells writes, “hundreds of millions of lives” will be at stake. Almost “all coral reefs would die out, wildfires and heat waves would sweep across the planet annually, and the interplay between drought and flooding and temperature would mean that the world’s food supply would become dramatically less secure”. As the IPCC put it, there is “no documented historic precedent” for the scale of industrial and social transformation required to avoid this outcome.

For the left, the dominant metaphor for the transformation required has been the Green New Deal. The reference to Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal synchronises a number of the left’s priorities, and links them to a familiar historical experience: expanded public control of the economy driven by popular struggle, industrial modernisation linked to progressive objectives such as equality and social justice, and above all urgency. As Naomi Klein writes in On Fire: The Burning Case for the Green New Deal (2019), “every political response to the climate crisis” prior to the Green New Deal “set the most ambitious targets decades in the future, long after the politicians making these pledges would leave office”. This allows politicians and businesses to maintain a deadly gap between their declared targets and actual commitments. This pattern was displayed again at Cop26. The Green New Deal seeks to change that.

Like all political metaphors the Green New Deal is contested. For some, such as the US economist Jeffrey Sachs, it implies a technocratic programme based on spending 1-2 per cent of US GDP per year until 2050 to develop green biofuels and transition to zero-carbon energy. Alternatively, it could imply what some call “climate Keynesianism”, in which green infrastructural investment is used to catalyse a booming capitalist economy with stronger unions, better paying jobs and public consent for development. The Green New Deal resolution backed by the US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, H. Res.0109, falls into this category. For others, it could imply a “steady-state economy” in which growth is actively avoided, as recommended by Ann Pettifor in The Case for the Green New Deal (2019), following the tradition of ecological economist Herman Daly. Or it might, as Kate Aronoff and her co-authors argue in A Planet to Win (2019), entail a “Last Stimulus” to “build landscapes of public affluence”, “break with capital, and settle into a slower groove”.

Stepping into this terrain, the Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty argues that the left should actually drop the Green New Deal. It is, he says, a “muddled, top down, technocratic” policy that is remote from most people, implies sweeping changes that they don’t understand, and is too conceptually opaque to be reliable. From the centre to the radical left, figures endorsing a Green New Deal include Klein, Noam Chomsky, Sadiq Khan and Keir Starmer, but what they want in practice might be anything from moderate state investment to turbo-charged “green growth”, state-managed capitalism or a radical break with capitalism. Chakrabortty argues that the Green New Deal is therefore either “boilerplate” – “moving to a lower-carbon future is not going to be a great, dramatic transformation” – or too conservative: “Why lean on Keynes as your crutch, when he set out to save capitalism not to scrap it?” It is, moreover, unconvincing to voters. When asked what to call a “scheme to employ a million people to insulate houses”, the Green New Deal came “bottom of the list”. Chakrabortty would prefer “a more focused, locally rooted and inclusive politics based around asking people what they actually need in their lives, and working out how to fit those things within an environmental framework”.

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There are serious questions to be asked about the Green New Deal. In the 1930s the New Deal was a programme on a national scale, but climate change requires action on a planetary scale: how can the Green New Deal be internationalised? Does it truly equip any government implementing it with sufficient tools to curb the carbon-emitting activities of globalised capitalism? For example, does it curb capital mobility or control financial investment? (Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution doesn’t address this.) Does it reckon with, or merely gloss over, the ecological damage, labour exploitation and humanitarian misfortunes entailed by the reliance on the rare metals necessary to make solar panels? And is it realistic about the limits of technology, or does it indulge in magical thinking?  

Chakrabortty’s case doesn’t address any of this and is broadly unconvincing. It is, for example, inaccurate to cite Joe Biden as a supporter of the Green New Deal, when he has always disavowed it and never proposed one. Even if Chakrabortty was right, the political versatility of the Green New Deal – that it can represent different solutions to different actors – bespeaks the vitality of the metaphor, rather than detracting from the coherence of individual proposals. As for the public salience of the idea, this is a red herring. A plan to insulate houses is no more a Green New Deal than a farming subsidy is an agricultural revolution, so why should people reach for that label in describing it? More importantly, there has been scant effort to launch the idea in the UK, compared to the US. In the US, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposals achieved “strong bipartisan support” among the public. This continues to be the case after years of Republican vilification. Nor is it persuasive to deride Keynes as a “crutch”, unless Chakrabortty means us to embrace Andreas Malm’s call for “war communism” – which seems unlikely, given his plea to avoid alienating voters with scary language.

Least convincing of all is Chakrabortty’s idea that we should not think in terms of “a great, dramatic transformation”. Let’s return to the difficult overhaul that the IPCC referred to. A recent study estimated that our remaining carbon budget is 440 GtCO2 from 2020, if we want to stay within 1.5 ºC warming. (This is a median estimate, so there is a chance that the budget is already exhausted.) Between 2010 and 2019, total CO2 emissions grew from 38.5 to 43 GtCO2 per annum. If emissions from all sources simply stopped growing, the budget would still be exhausted some time in 2030. We cannot place our hopes in what Friends of the Earth International calls “carbon unicorns”: for example, carbon capture and storage technologies being deployed at scale in the next decade. We must start cutting emissions now. Most proven fossil fuel resources must stay in the ground. And since about 27 per cent of emissions come from non-energy sources such as agriculture and deforestation, food production must be transformed. As for green biofuels, these are not proven at scale: so air travel has to be capped, and fast. These are basic requirements.

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What does this entail? One influential estimate argued that it is possible to get to a renewable world by 2030. Based on its estimates, however, the environmental scientist Vaclav Smil points out that this would require the generation of 17.1TW of solar energy and 13TW of wind energy. That would be a 20- to 30-fold increase on last year’s levels. Even if we have until 2050, this is a huge shift that entails major technical difficulties with respect to the construction of a global network of high-voltage AC power lines, and the regulation of the supply to achieve 99.9 per cent reliability even during extreme conditions, with frequency close to standard (50 or 60 Hertz, or cycles per second) – notoriously difficult with renewable energy sources. A comprehensive review of studies proposing 100 per cent renewables finds that, unfortunately, most of them elide the technical difficulties.

Even if it is workable, this means a drastic reduction in energy use. A study by the UK think tank FIRES suggested that we could reach zero emissions, but would have to use 40 per cent less energy, to be achieved with greater efficiency. That means at least freezing the consumption of energy-intensive goods and services. And because more efficiency tends to lead to more consumption, it means changing the economy that drives perpetual growth. It is no good relying on the “dematerialisation” of production to reduce our taxing withdrawals from a finite biosphere. As Smil argues in Making the Modern World (2013), this has in practice been “nothing but a complex form of material substitution”.

Keeping within 1.5 ºC requires shuttering profitable fossil fuel corporations, cancelling hundreds of billions of dollars in investment, organising large-scale industrial adaptation, transitioning the entire fleet of cars, trains and buses, transforming the food system and limiting consumption. This can’t be achieved equitably and without horrifying disruptions to people’s lives without emergency public mobilisation, abrupt extensions of public power in the market, economic planning and controls on capital. And crucially, given the implications for how we live, it can’t and shouldn’t be done without mass democratic involvement.  

It is the threat we face, and the means needed to avert it, that are daunting, not the language of a Green New Deal.