News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

September 18, 2019

How we build a movement to win Bernie’s Green New Deal

By Wes Holing, based on a Night School talk by Keith Brower Brown

On Aug. 22, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) revealed his campaign’s Green New Deal: a comprehensive plan to transform the economy so it serves working people and end fossil fuel use in the United States by 2050. Sen. Sanders’s Green New Deal has much in common with an earlier proposal of the same name, put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) last year and popularized by the Sunrise Movement. It takes seriously last year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which stated that the planet must drop CO2 emissions by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach “net zero” around 2050 to avoid an exponentially worse climate crisis.

Sanders’ plan aims to reach 100% renewable energy by 2030 and complete decarbonization by 2050, invest more than $16 trillion in public infrastructure, and specifically address the needs of frontline, black, indigenous, and other minority communities.

Unlike previous failed attempts to fight climate change, Bernie’s Green New Deal draws clear battle lines: the ultrarich may be winning the climate wars today by amassing ever dirtier profits at the expense of the Earth and most of humanity, but if working-class people unite into a movement for full employment and a livable planet, we can beat them.

A new strategy for environmental justice

The movement for a Green New Deal is a huge step forward for environmental justice strategy, primarily because it avoids the three dead-ends of the last hundred years. Environmental groups have worked to conserve natural spaces as playgrounds and reserves for the rich, encouraged consumers to buy “green” products by arguing that lifestyle choices can make a significant enough difference on carbon emissions, and advocated technocratic and insider-based approaches like carbon trading to offset devastation being wrought on the planet. All these approaches have failed because they place the task of reducing carbon emissions at the feet of working people, not polluters.

The approach put forward by the Green New Deal is different in two big ways. First, it directly confronts corporations and the ultrarich. It declares who is in the way of decarbonizing our planet — namely, the wealthy who stand to lose big from ending fossil fuel extraction and redistribution of wealth — and agitates for a movement against them. Second, it proposes direct, material changes to provide well paying union jobs, robust public services, new infrastructure, and environmental justice for everyone. Combining the fights for a livable planet and a just economy can motivate and unify a mass movement.

Why we fight

The clearest path to winning a Green New Deal like the one put forward by Sanders is to build a mass movement of working-class people. Such a movement makes use of the power of workers to strike — not to play nice with the rich, but to make it clear to them that we have power and will disrupt their sources of profit if they don’t meet our demands.

But picking our battles is crucial. To avoid the apathy that can threaten a fight of this scale, we need to be able to answer “yes” to the following questions.

Is climate change a widely felt problem?

Climate change itself is a widely felt problem, but a significant number of people still do not see it as a problem. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, about 70% of people in the US now believe climate change is real, but only 58% think it’s caused by human activity, and only 51% think it’s already affecting people in the US. The challenge for the Green New Deal movement is to broaden consensus around the cause of climate change and the seriousness of the threat.

Is climate change a deeply felt problem?

At present, the answer to this question is no. Fewer people are more deeply impacted by climate change than by their lack of basic needs like healthcare, housing, and education. The Yale study showed that only 29% of people are “very alarmed” about climate change after the release of the IPCC report. That’s up from 14% in 2014, but Pew polling still shows that climate change is a strong priority for far fewer people than healthcare, education, and economic security.

When a small majority of people in the US feel that climate change is a threat, but regard other material issues as more significant to their lives, the movement needs to speak to issues with greater appeal like jobs, wages, education, and healthcare in order for large numbers of people to feel connected to it. The Green New Deal does precisely that.

Is mitigating climate change a winnable fight?

“Winnability” may be the most important criteria in this list. Whether a fight is winnable depends on two things. First, will those in power concede to your demands because you have enough leverage in society to make them feel they have to? Second, do enough people inside and outside of your movement believe they can win?

In terms of structural leverage, the movement for a Green New Deal must convince the very wealthy — who have an interest in maintaining the economic and environmental status quo — that it would be cheaper for them to capitulate to the program than to fight it. For those fighting for the original New Deal in the 1930s, labor strikes were the ultimate trump card, and in many ways, they still are. When we withhold our labor as working people, we can grind the system to a halt and force the powerful to give in to our demands.

Ultimately, electoral campaigns alone, even Bernie’s, can’t displace elites or scare them into compromising, but they can help inspire working people to take action in their workplaces and create real change. Sanders inspired West Virginia teachers to strike following his 2016 presidential bid, which in turn set off a strike wave among teachers in many other states. Pres. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) agitated for raising the minimum wage in Mexico during his presidential campaign. Following his victory, factory workers along the US–Mexico border struck for better wages. These examples demonstrate how elections can communicate to massive numbers of people that their fights are ultimately achievable.

Does the fight against climate change build power?

Does this issue help build power for future fights? We don’t just want a cheap giveaway or means-tested and segregated programs that divide us up; we want wins that build unity, working people’s awareness of their common enemies and common struggles, and the structural leverage to win bigger battles down the road. Our demands around climate change must connect to other existing demands and what many working-class people are currently thinking and feeling. Both the campaign for a Green New Deal itself and our policy wins should build our power for the next fight. 

The fight ahead

Sanders’ proposal is bold, but a single proposal is not enough. If he wins the presidency, he will face an openly hostile Congress and its members’ corporate donors. The interests of the ultrarich are directly threatened by a massive proposal to restructure the economy in a way that confronts climate change head-on.

By uniting as working people, demanding an end to a destructive status quo, and threatening to bring the system to a halt, we can realize a green future that puts people and the planet before profit.