Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez inspires Labour’s GND

Alan Thornett reviews A Planet to Win – Why We Need a Green New Deal by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos, (London, Verso, 2019). 208 pp. £10.99

This important short book presents a strong defence of the resolution submitted to the US Congress earlier this year by the impressive new US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) from the Bronx in New York along with the veteran Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts, entitled ‘Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal’.

The book sees the AOC-Markey deal as ‘the most ambitious and exciting plan we’ve ever seen in mainstream politics’. ‘We want to help articulate its vision – and flesh out some details’. They argue (rightly) that the proposal marks ‘a radical break from the Obama era of climate policy (let alone Trump), which sometimes used the language of the GND but failed to live up to the rhetoric’. (p.16)

Although written for a US audience this book is readily accessible to an international one – not least in Britain. In fact the AOC- Markey deal, along with the school strikes and the emergence of XR, has been the inspiration behind the remarkable Green New Deal being put forward in Britain by Labour in the current general election. It is based on an unprecedented £250bn ‘green transformation fund’ to be implemented over the next 10 years in order to improve sustainability in energy supply and transportation, to build zero carbon housing, and insulate existing homes and install non-carbon heating systems.

Origins

The AOC- Markey resolution originated within the Sunrise Movement – a group of environmentally motivated young people in the Democratic Party (and the Democratic Socialists of America within it) – and adopted by Ocasio-Cortez.

It was publicly launched in Washington in February this year with the support of 60 members of the House, nine Senators, and several presidential candidates. The headline message was to make the USA ‘net carbon-neutral in ten years’, which would require huge strides in reducing the USA’s reliance on oil, gas and coal and its replacement by clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources. The resolution promptly recast the boundaries of the debate on the ecological crisis in the USA and this book is an important example.

It received strong support from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has put forward his own ecological platform – which he sees as complementary to what AOC and Markey are doing. He launched it from the town of Paradise, California, that was completely destroyed last December by the deadliest wildfire in the history of the state, driven by climate change. He has called for the creation of 20 million clean energy jobs and $16.3 trillion in green federal investment. He called for the decarbonisation of transportation and power generation, the two largest sources of emissions in the United States, by 2030, which would lower US emissions by 71 per cent.

Anti-capitalist framework

Although A Planet to Win rejects the proposition, prevalent on the radical left, that the answer to global warming and climate change is global socialist revolution within the next 10 years – ‘or system change not climate change’ as it is often put – the book is firmly within in an anti-capitalist framework.

It argues that whilst capitalism is ultimately incompatible with environmental sustainability we don’t imagine ending capitalism quite that quickly (i.e. in ten years)… ‘we need drastic change now’… You don’t, however, ‘need to share our overall analysis to read the climate science the same way as we do’. ‘As we’ll argue through this book, the most effective way to slash emissions and cope with climate impacts in the next decade is through egalitarian policies that prioritise public goals over corporate profit, and target investment in poor working class and radicalised communities.’(p.5)

It calls for the widest possible movement against climate change. ‘Radical change only happens, they argue, when millions of people are organizing, striking and marching, shaping politics and the economy from below’. ‘Tackling the climate crisis’, they say, ‘will require action from unions, social movements, indigenous peoples, radical justice groups, and others to take back the power from the elites who’ve preside over the climate emergency.’(p.6-7)
This book, the authors say, can’t cover everything – and food systems and migration, they say, are especially big omissions. What they do very well, however, is to focus on some of the strategic choices and debates involved in bringing carbon emissions down quickly, for example carbon taxes.

Carbon Taxes

Whilst most on the radical left reject such taxes – even progressive ones – this book takes a more nuanced view. It puts it this way: ‘We also support a progressive carbon tax, with a rebate for low-and middle income people. A modest price on carbon can help knock out coal, which is already on the ropes. If well designed it can help steer people away from carbon-intensive consumption, encouraging us to spend our extra cash on dance classes rather than a new Ipad.’ (p.21)
It goes on to argue, however, that carbon pricing as a secondary tool rather than a central one. Whilst moderate carbon taxes, they say, would indeed encourage cleaner energy use more aggressive ones would risk a backlash like the Yellow Vests protests in France.

This is an important discussion. A big reduction in carbon emissions in a short period of time will need a big impact idea that can generate strong popular support – and the best available, in my view, is radical and progressive carbon taxes: i.e. taxing the polluters. Capitalism is addicted to fossil energy and until it is made far more expensive than renewables it is going to be used.

The Yellow Vests backlash was not against the principle of carbon taxes but against Macrons deeply regressive version of it that hit the poor the hardest. Had it been a part of a progressive taxation framework that transferred wealth from the rich to the poor, based on a socially and economically just transition (which the book defends), it could have been very different, generating strong support rather than bitter opposition. (p.43)

The best proposal currently on the table based on such a principle, in my view, is James Hansen’s fee-and-dividend proposition which would place an increasing fee of fossil fuel at the point of production and pay the proceeds directly into the back accounts of the population, on a strong progressive basis.

Such taxation would need, as Hansen recognises, to go alongside many other measures, such as crash changeover to renewable energy, a major programme of energy conservation, an end to waste and obsolescent production, a big reduction in the use of the internal combustion engine, both diesel and petrol, the localisation of food agricultural production, a big reduction in meat consumption, fresh water conservation, a shorter working week.

Transport

Another important issue the book looks at some length is transportation – electric vehicles in particular. It points out that in the US 28 per cent of GHG emissions come from passenger vehicles, and calls for major restrictions on private cars alongside free, or practically free, much upgraded, public transport. It also calls for a big expansion of rail services.

‘Our workhorse’, they say, ‘would be the electric bus, operated by unionized drivers. Currently over 99 per cent of the world’s 425,000 electric busses operate in China. The United States should build and deploy more of these here. Over the live span of a typical city bus, electric vehicles are already cheaper than diesel. They’re also more comfortable, nearly silent, and emit no exhaust…’ SUV production should be halted, they argue, and capacity turned over to electric busses. (p.130) ‘Yes, there would also be electric cars,’ they say, ‘the point is that there shouldn’t only be cars.’ (p.132)

The book recognises that whilst decarbonising the transport system with electric power would hugely reduce the extraction of coal and oil the production of the batteries needed for electric vehicles would expand the extraction of lithium, cobalt, copper and other minerals to potentially dangerous levels. (p.129) The answer to this, the book suggests, is to take public control of the mining operations and seeking new storage technologies with less destructive components.

Problems

There are also some problems with the book that need to be mentioned.

It is ambiguous on economic growth, which it describes as the most contentious issue of all. It puts it this way:
‘Contrary to the ideology of capitalism, materially intensive growth can’t continue for ever. We cannot pretend that ecological limits don’t exist. And contrary to the arguments of the clean technophiles, there’s zero evidence that growth can be meaningfully ‘decoupled’ from resource use, or occur without environmental impact. Our view is that we need a ‘last stimulus’ of green economic development in the short term to build the landscapes of public affluence, develop new political-economic models, jump off the growth treadmill, break with capital, and settle into a new and slower groove.’ (p.30)

And when talking about zero carbon emissions by 2030, the book has a definition of renewable energy which appears to include both nuclear energy and biofuels, unless I have missed something.

This book, however, makes a very important contribution to the debate that has opened up on how to achieve zero emissions by 2030. It is a must-read for all those involved in this struggle. Just a year ago it would have been hard to imagine that a proposal such as the AOC- Markey Resolution could emerge from within the US Democratic Party, or indeed this book backing it up from the left of that party.
Such strategic choices involved cannot just be left to governments since carrying them through without mass support could be disastrous. They have to be discussed by the whole movement since they will have to be implemented by the whole movement.

Alan Thornett is the author of Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism, published by Resistance Books 2019.

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