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How to think about the Green New Deal under the Biden administration

As the Biden administration starts shaping its plans, there are three things everyone should know about the Green New Deal: It’s global. Much of it is market-driven. And it’s a comprehensive policy outline. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden
REUTERS/Alan Freed
President-elect Joe Biden
There is little doubt that President-elect Joe Biden intends to rejoin the Paris climate agreement after taking office in January. Beyond that, however, it’s less clear exactly what approach Democrats will take on climate concerns: Make it an absolute priority? Or put other issues first? Much of the discussion revolves around the proposed Green New Deal. 

Polls consistently show that Americans are concerned about climate change – three out of four believe humans cause it, and half see it as a crisis. But few of us are drastically changing our carbon-intensive habits. 

On the campaign trail, Biden offered his own climate plan that he said was distinct from the Green New Deal. As his administration starts shaping its plans, there are three things everyone should know about the Green New Deal: It is actually a global phenomenon. Much of it is market-driven. And as proposed in Congress, it is a comprehensive policy outline that responds to climate change. 

The first use of the phrase “Green New Deal” comes from a New York Times column written by Thomas Friedman in 2007. In 2010, Edward Barbier published “A Global Green New Deal: Rethinking the Economic Recovery.”

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Barbier’s book proposed a global response to climate change aimed at reducing carbon dependency. From the start, it made clear that climate change cannot be separated from deteriorating ecosystems, stressed water supplies, energy insecurity, and worsening poverty.

Since 2010, things have not gone as well as they could have. Many G20 nations announced their desire to remove subsidies from fossil fuels but failed to deliver. But there are bright spots: Germany produced more than half of its electricity with renewable power during the first three months of 2020. Sadly, the economic downturn caused by COVID accounted for part of the slump in lower emissions. 

Just the same, renewable energy, both wind and solar, is gaining much ground in Europe. And many projects – in Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the U.K. – are unsubsidized. Market forces are shaping this new energy landscape.

In the United States during 2019, renewable energy surpassed coal for the first time in more than 130 years. The U.S. Energy Information Administration announced that had not happened since 1885 – when the nation was still dependent on burning wood for fuel.

The Green New Deal (GND) proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts is best articulated by Rhianna Gunn-Wright. Climate Policy Director at the Roosevelt Institute, Gunn-Wright is often cited as the author of the GND. 

Like Barbier, Gunn-Wright links climate change responses to social justice initiatives. The GND proposes a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels, creating millions of high-paying jobs, investing in infrastructure, and securing clean air while promoting justice and equity. We have not seen such visionary policy proposals since the 1930s. The GND calls for a mobilization comparable to our conversion to a war-time economy during WWII. 

Keith Luebke
Keith Luebke
Those who understand climate change know this must happen on a global scale. Rejoining and continuing the Paris climate accord is the easiest step. The hard work begins after we rejoin old allies and renew our pledge.

The GND borrows from Keynesian economic theory: Keynes argued that government has a unique role and must do things other institutions cannot do.

These ideas have congealed under the banner of “New Consensus” thinkers, including economists like Ha-Joon Chang, Mariana Mazzucato, Kate Raworth, Joseph Stiglitz, and Ann Pettifor. Their reorientation of economic theory is well-suited to an existential threat like climate change. 

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These economists understand the need to build “green” infrastructure and the government’s role in fostering innovation. Most importantly, they advocate direct investment at the community level. 

That approach differs from the investments made after the near-collapse of the economy in 2008, when Washington saved the banks and investors. The New Consensus will have no part of that. Gunn-Wright and Ocasio-Cortez advocate for a GND that values proposals and ideas with demonstrated local support. 

The GND would provide a framework, but many of the actual programs would be implemented by nonprofit organizations and other community groups. The GND’s goal is to combine leadership at the federal level with local initiatives and local administration. Our housing must become more energy-efficient, workers must have access to more training, and transportation systems must be transformed and weaned off their dependence on fossil fuels. Programs to achieve these outcomes are best implemented with local knowledge and support.

At the same time, there would be significant investments in research and development. Mazzucato reminds us that government “has historically served not just as an administrator and regulator of the wealth-creation process, but a key actor in it, and often a more daring one, willing to take the risks that businesses won’t.”

Gunn-Wright and others are on a mission to invigorate policymaking with a new set of moral principles.

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“Policymaking is not a science,” Gunn-Wright says. “It is a fight over whose problems get addressed, how those problems are addressed, and how public power and resources are distributed. If politics is a fight to elect people who reflect and share our values, policy is a fight to actually enact those values—to mold the world, through the work of government, into what we think it should be.”

Responses to climate change must be global. How nations mix government sector, private sector, and nonprofit sector responses will vary. A Green New Deal is emerging and requires guidance and support from all sectors.

Keith Luebke recently retired from teaching nonprofit leadership courses and has several decades of experience directing nonprofit organizations.

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