In the US, the Green New Deal (GND) has proved itself to be an injection of a new imagination of the future, where we have prevented the worst effects of climate change and also created an economy that that no longer relies on extraction and exploitation.
Here in the UK, proponents of a GND – including ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’, economic think tanks such as the New Economics Foundation and the youth strikers – are making themselves known. As two social justice activists, the narrative around movement-led political action is heartening. It opens up the opportunity to practice intersectional policy making that has been central to racial justice movements for decades. This piece is written for those inspired by the GND, and who want to see equity and justice at its core.
Does the UK even need a Green New Deal?
The short answer is yes. If you have any doubts, read this scare-your-pants-off piece from David Wallace Wells. Climate change, he says, is worse than you think, and the complex challenges it brings are hard to get our heads around, let alone bear. Nothing short of transformative change will do, but of course the more important questions are: what are GNDs objectives, what can it achieve and who will lead us there?
Looking at the GND resolution in the US, the overarching aim is to recognise and respond to the climate crisis with measures that are commensurate to the scale of the challenge. “We have twelve years to fight this thing” could not feel more real. And unlike our historic political responses to climate change; central to the GND is an assurance that the first to benefit from the transition are precarious workers, impacted communities and communities connected to the Global South. In short: justice and equity become equally valuable indicators alongside carbon emission reduction.
Climate politics in the UK
For climate campaigners in the US, it isn’t just about pushing for the right policy or revising climate targets upwards, the need is far greater: to get Republicans out and elect a Democrat that is radically ambitious on social and environmental justice. It is this context that has tied the Sunrise Movement so tightly to the Justice Democrats, in an electoral campaign strategy that is centered on ousting Trump. The GND has therefore become a kind of sorting exercise for Democrats, who will inevitably face the question: “do you support the Green New Deal, and what is your climate change plan?”.
The politics of the US, and all the “crisitunities” it presents, cannot however be easily translated in the same way in the UK. First, whilst our situation is challenging here, there are some political foundations to work with: we boast of a cross-party legislation on climate change from ten years ago, rapidly falling carbon emissions and high public support for clean energy. But with government’s recent decisions to permit fracking for gas, expand Heathrow airport, open new coal mines, scrap any meaningful action on energy efficiency and provide more tax breaks to drill for gas in the north sea, our so-called “climate leadership” that politicians often fall back on can seem totally irrelevant.
However, is there something that can be learned from the tactics employed by US organisers to push climate change into mainstream politics here in the UK?
Building a public mandate
In the UK, hundreds of MPs have signed a letter calling on the government to set a ‘net zero’ emissions target before 2050. Achieving this goal is no small task, but it’s doubtful that MPs appreciate what this entails. Emission reductions seen so far have been achieved in the electricity sector as we installed more renewable energy and took out a few heavily polluting coal plants, but all of this was done largely unbeknownst to the general public. The much harder stage is ahead, where emission reductions need to take place in people’s homes and neighborhoods, through their radiators and cars, and this cannot possibly be done without a wider public buy-in. We certainly don’t see many MP’s regularly communicating on climate change to their constituents, even if they exhibit rare eloquence on the subject in the Houses of Parliament. We may feel aggrieved at the lack of political focus on climate change, but we have also failed to talk about it in a way that is tangible and real to the lived experience of our communities.
The movements backing a GND need to think hard about building the public mandate that fuels political action, leading to a more robust public engagement and creating a virtuous cycle where five year political lifelines, economic slowdowns or the scenes like the ones we’ve seen on the streets of France by Jilets Jaunes do not derail sustained climate justice action. Polls in the UK might indicate strong desire in the general public to build more renewables and tackle climate change, but individual policies like carbon pricing haven’t been tested yet. Sceptics will leap on the opportunity to thrash a plan that even smells like big state intervention into individual lives unless they get the sense that the public is really demanding it, and we actively hear that constituents are lobbying their decision-makers to stay on top of their commitments.
Combining health, inequality, workers rights and housing with the low carbon transition, the current Labour party is where the GND will most likely incubate and find a political outlet. To be effective, it should not remain there. As the current opposition party, Labour has an immense responsibility to drive home the urgency of climate change and build that case for a New Deal style action. Merely claiming to be a better alternative to the Conservatives and expecting the government to crumble from the Brexit chaos is not a sustainable strategy, as is evidenced in their dismal showing in most recent polls, especially when you’d imagine them to be romping home by now.
The Labour Party has recently become more vocal in its ambition on climate change, but it’s largely been through its recent launch of the member-led Green New Deal initiative. Their manifesto speaks of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030 alongside a just society. This is bold thinking but, beyond this, Labour must address how it will build this missing public mandate, especially when it is considered that 14 million people voted for the conservative party in 2017 on a manifesto that did not put any significant weight on climate change. Where opportunities have arisen in the past to intersect GND-style policies, like in Labour’s recently published industrial strategy, they make little mention of climate change as a cross cutting issue other than the intention to meet the UK’s climate targets. Their approach to nationalising key parts of the energy sector remains vague and highly contested within the party.
A need for intersectional policies
The GND is NOT a policy prescription. Instead, it is turning into a litmus test for politicians, particularly for Democrats in the US. Whilst the resolution is all encompassing and powerful, its political strength also lies in its relative lack of detail and its agnosticism towards any specific technology or approach to climate solutions. To become effective for the UK, where the political landscape is significantly different, and more amenable, we’ll need to work out what we want the Green New Deal to be (or indeed, not be).
Unsurprisingly, early public supporters of the resolution were activist groups that rightly demanded an end to “techno-fixes” such as carbon capture and storage, geo-engineering, nuclear energy and carbon markets. It’s too easy for policy makers to dismiss such views but these demands are an important reminder of the risks we face when policies land in the “markets-solve-all problems” basket. Ultimately, if we are to make GND politically salient and technically feasible, those designing the policies will need to ask themselves what we can most expect from politicians and policy makers when they sit down to operationalise it in a 10 year timeframe.
Conversely, if we are to expect everyone to be brought on board immediately with wholesale state intervention, we are also mistaken. One conservative voice in the energy and climate sector, Michael Liebriech, recently wrote a piece that viewed GND as ‘trumpism with climate characteristics’. Whether one considers this as a legitimate concern or not, it will inevitably be something that needs to be responded to. The opportunity here is that the weight of science and the pressure of social injustices, when framed and advocated for carefully, can speak to a much larger base than the ideological tropes that segregate us. This again goes back to what leadership looks like, which relationships they already hold, what stories they tell, who to, and who they have the potential to further connect with. We take deep inspiration from Rhiana Gunn-Wright leading an intersectional policy practice in the US with integrity and accountability.
To speak frankly, people of colour communities, particularly those that have direct experience of classism and racism in the workplace, are tired of being left out of policy discussions. If politics is going to be transformed, the policies that make up the GND will be designed by the communities it seeks to support. The kind of urgent action we need will mean that a different kind of leadership must be handed the baton and trusted in a political space. In this way, homegrown politics will bring whole new groups of people into an inclusive political space that makes radical political acts feel measurable and adequate in the context of runaway climate change.
We need to do more than just saying the words “justice”
Research into how politicians in the UK act on climate change reveals a lack of any meaningful political pressure from their constituencies. MPs, as representatives of the people, need to be the spokespersons for climate action, but with no clear political mandate there is no imperative to roll out a more aggressive and direct plan to address climate change. Some may feel that this is changing with Extinction Rebellion – but we still need to ask ourselves, what image are people left with when they are trying to decide whether this movement is for them?
While climate policy and governance in the UK is leaps ahead of the US, we are still slowly sleepwalking into disaster. This urgency brings greater responsibility on a country that birthed and benefited the most from the industrial revolution, and which has contributed a lot of carbon that is still warming up the planet. This then becomes more than just protecting British workers, it has to be led with an internationalist perspective that translates into policies that also delivers economic and environmental justice for the Global South.
In addition, framing the urgency of climate action as “an emergency” without offering a vision to address that fear risks opening up a space for far-right nationalist politics. Far-right grassroots groups already see climate change as a threat that justifies strengthening our borders and turning inwards as a country. Fuelling nationalism will only make the existing lives of migrant communities more unbearable than they already are – doing the total opposite of what a Green New Deal intends on social justice. If the movement is seen as a white, middle class, liberal project – without doing the work of building support among a diversity of communities, in Britain and abroad, it will not succeed in building the progressive politics that is needed to win the minds and hearts of others.
Political movements such as Labour for a Green New Deal have done well to create a justice-centred framing that recognises who should be at the centre of this project. Their focus is a refreshing class-based analysis of climate change, which has also been significantly lacking in past climate mobilisations. But mentioning class without race erases whole populations of black and brown folks who have a lived experience of intersecting marginalisations. We did see a nod to the racial injustice of climate change earlier in the year with IPPR’s report ‘This Is A Crisis’ . The report states clearly that the UK has a history of colonising countries that are most impacted by environmental breakdown, and this needs to be factored in any political response.
Framing is one tool in our box, and it is important to recognise the shift in our language around climate change that racial justice activists have long been fighting for. Having the communications fine-tuned is important, but it is just the first step towards transforming our practice. By adopting the language of Black Lives Matter’s 2015 climate action #thisisacrisis, how could IPPR have gone beyond their justice-rhetoric in a way that upheld the long history of environmental justice activism in the UK? What relationship existed between these groups ahead of the report? What acknowledgment did Black Lives Matter UK receive? In essence, how were they centred in the purpose of this project?
This is where the Sunrise Movement in the US have honed their tactics, and is an example we can learn a few things from. Their focus has been to intentionally build widespread public support for a GND so that it forces politicians to take a position on it one way or another, and to then face the consequences. And it is almost impossible for them to do this without feeling a representation of a global movement is right, there on their doorstep.
What does “movement-centred” practice look like?
The fact that the GND has entered American politics today has much to do with the capacity of the environmental movement – a group of youth climate activists who can legitimately represent the intersection between social and environmental justice. From campaigning to elect proponents of bold climate action in the 2016 elections and the recent midterms, to now focusing on getting Democrats behind the GND, the Sunrise movement is a creature of the national politics it is trying to change. The youth activists cut their teeth through environmental justice campaigns like university fossil fuel divestment, #NoKXL and #NoDAPL – campaigns that have been thoughtfully designed to address injustice not just within the issue, but within the practice and culture of the movements that lead it.
Though not perfect, in the US the environmental movement has embraced and helped to sustain wider social movement action around Black Lives, DACA and gun violence. Of course, there is still so much to do, trust to build and strategy to form. The fact that a university-based student movement has initiated this work already speaks to those missing from the movement. However, at its centre are not the typical white, middle class people that dominate the work floors of environmental NGOs, but a mix of vibrant members with roots in India, Iran, Croatia, Mexico and working class neighbourhoods in American cities. Inherent in this is also an acknowledgement that those worst impacted by climate change are also those on the margins of society, which are disproportionately represented by indigenous people, people of colour, immigrants, refugees and the working class.
This isn’t perfect, but it also isn’t tokenism; it is an ongoing effort to rebuild trust by placing intersectionality at the forefront of a political strategy and to put movements at the centre of decision-making around the Green New Deal. Not everyone who organises for a GND in the US is a person of colour, but those that are beginning to take leadership in the movement are seen and heard by the many who have been left out of mainstream environmentalism for decades. If diverse communities of activists are to get engaged in the movement around the Green New Deal in the UK, they will need to see that the organisers its centre will make decisions based on their shared lived experience of marginalisation.
What the youth strikers in the UK have done effectively is to introduce a whole new community of people that bring a distinctive character to the movement, and highlight the intergenerational inequities of climate change. It is the raw, emotional response that watching young people speak with unambiguous, moral clarity provokes that has re-energised the climate movement which has struggled to make itself electorally relevant in the past decade.
But as exciting as it may be, the school students cannot continue striking forever. New groups and constituencies, representing diverse voices and political claims, will need to come out and make the call for a GND, not at its fringes, but at its heart. And this is where borrowing from the US experience is valuable – we need to make a deliberative approach that sees certain groups step back, to make space for a different set of stories and experiences to pulsate through the GND movement. This includes people from working class communities, communities of colour (particularly those with a familial relationship with formerly colonised nations), those impacted by fuel prices and those most vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events.
Where are these voices in the UK climate scene, and how are they being supported to connect with the youth strikers? We haven’t cultivated an environmental justice movement like they have in the US, so we have even less of a foundation to work with. Our recent movement histories speak volumes about the way NGOs have worked alongside grassroots black and brown movements, and their leadership has shown little change in recent years. Lead organisers of the GND movement have therefore two very important roles to play. The first is to actively work at rebuilding trust within the environmental movement through investing in mediation and other transformative processes, and the second is to bring the people who already hold these relationships among the relevant communities into the centre of the decision-making process and let them lead.
Without this intention, whilst it may be possible to pursue a techno utopian vision where the goal of decarbonisation is achieved, by all other social indicators, that vision could still be a disaster for millions. The appeal of the GND its message of a better, more hopeful future, and building a strong case for it will inevitably require us to think more intersectionally about all parts of our mobilisation than we have done before.
To do movement-centred politics with integrity, we need to see genuine representation – and that means going beyond just who is in the room. Grassroots social justice activists need to be involved on the “where next” question from the very beginning, not simply when the funding, strategy, communications and relationships are already designed. That way, when we peel away the layers of movement infrastructure holding this work together – we can see we are not replicating another generation of white middle class environmentalism.
At its core, the Green New Deal’s strategy will need to live and breathe the multitude of marginalisations it seeks to address. We can do this by creating the space for movement assemblies, where groups can elect their own leadership, design their own strategies, and appoint their spokespeople for the Green New Deal. If we’re going to create ownership, these ideas will need to be resourced and supported by the mainstream environmental groups in an act of trust and generosity. If its purpose is to create broad public support beyond mainstream environmentalism, this is the most legitimate way to create the trust needed to uphold the GND’s purpose and strategy.
Teaser photo credit: Steve Rhodes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0