Book Report XIII: Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal

A hand with painted nails holds Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal by Noam Chomsy and Robert Pollin against a wooden floor in the background.

Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin give us a terse analogy for the existential threat humans have made for ourselves: we are the asteroid that ended the dinosaur age 65M years ago - except unlike the dinosaurs, we have a choice. Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal is constructed as a dialogue between Chomsky and Pollin, and moderated by C.J. Polychroniou. In it, the two thought leaders lay out their vision for an economic policy package known as the “Green New Deal.”

Readers of our book reports know how much we love diving deep into the nitty-gritty of climate policy and activism: we’re reviewed Doughnut Economics, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, The Climate Book, The Value of a Whale, and A Bigger Picture. Climate Crisis is an important contribution to policy discourse and a valuable read for both beginners and area experts. The authors’ assessment of our climate stabilisation efforts is scathing - Greta would call it “honest” - and their funding framework for the Green New Deal is easy to understand.

What is the “Green New Deal”, and why must the climate justice movement be intersectional?

Borrowing from FDR’s signature web of economic policies, the “Green New Deal” (GND) is a focus of resources and policy efforts in every world capital to achieve the singular goal of keeping global mean temperatures within 1.5° C of pre-industrial levels.

The pollution that causes global heating also chokes humans - and not equally. Even wealthy people of color face significantly more exposure to air pollution than poor white people. Chomsky and Pollin argue that while we divert climate catastrophe, we can simultaneously correct the disadvantages for many we’ve built into our current system. With a transition to clean energy as the goal, social justice can and should be a primary byproduct.

They also argue that a GND with enthusiastic buy-in can also thwart the terrifying rise of neofascism. Picture a mine worker in rural West Virginia. Careers in natural resource development have been a point of pride in her family for generations. We must feel her deep frustrations and real losses when faraway policymakers shame her for her choices and choke her job prospects. Feeling supported in her transition into a cleaner industry would make neofascist arguments of protectionism less attractive.

Robert Pollin on intersectional climate justice and the GND:

“The IPCC estimates that, to achieve the 1.5 degrees maximum global mean temperature increase target as of 2100, global net CO2 emissions will have to fall by about 45 percent as of 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. As such, by my definition, the core of the global Green New Deal is to advance a global project to hit these IPCC targets, and to accomplish this in a way that also expands decent job opportunities and raises mass living standards for working people and the poor throughout the world. It is that simple.”

It isn’t enough to just tax carbon emissions and plant trees?

Carbon taxes and afforestation efforts are nice but not enough.

Since we have 33B tons of CO2 to remove from the atmosphere, and afforestation can only realistically reduce 0.5-3.5B tons per year, it’s simply not fast enough to be our singular approach. Carbon taxes are another popular government intervention to force polluters to internalise the ecological, human, and property costs of their pollutions’ ecological damage. If you need a refresher on carbon credits, check out our book report on The Value of a Whale.

Rather than relying on markets to optimise how they reduce carbon emissions, Chomsky and Pollin demonstrate that a stronger web will be needed to curb harmful behaviour. We will need subsidies to drive private green investments and massive public investments in green energy. Only in combination will the policies incentivise changes be fast enough.

Stopping growth feeds neofascism

Degrowth is an anticapitalist counterargument to the myopia of never-ending growth and the concentration of resources, but the authors are not convinced. The jolt of degrowth would be too much, too fast. Disenfranchised, many people might find that dangerous neofascist politicians are the only ones listening to their valid concerns. Rather, “the Green New Deal offers the only effective climate stabilization path, since it is the only one that does not require a drastic contraction (or "degrowth") of jobs and incomes to drive down emissions.”

No time for eco-socialism

Eco-socialists aims to dismantle the world’s capitalist systems and replace them with equal societies that live within their natural means. Sounds great, but the authors remind us of our threat’s time-scale. The world needs to decarbonise in the next 5-10 years. Decarbonisation and rebuilding the world order can and should be pursued in parallel, but the goal of saving the earth must come first, and we need to be realistic about how we can most likely be successful.

“Dismantling capitalism is impossible within the time frame necessary for taking urgent action, which requires a major national - indeed international - mobilization if severe crisis is to be averted.” - Noam Chomsky

Activism and civil disobedience

What do the authors think of throwing orange paint and gluing oneself to roadways? Activism has its place to disrupt damaging systems, they say, but it should be about raising awareness in a way that brings people into your movement, not a way for you to express how strongly you feel about something. When it’s about you, you give ordinary people (everyone else!) the impression that you don’t care about them. And that idea is dangerous. It hurts the cause by alienating the very people you should be convincing.

Every social movement needs both its activists who shape the conversation as our conscience, and the incrementalists who adapt the system slowly from within it. Often the activists celebrate their principles and disdain the compromises of those in charge, but our actions have serious consequences, and in our democratic systems (which we’d like to keep, thank you very much!), refusing to compromise simply does not achieve results in your favour.

70% of cumulative emissions come from countries with currently 7% of the global population.

The Green New Deal is an exciting policy package that can benefit everyone, but Robert Pollin reminds us who is responsible for the pollution in the atmosphere that’s causing global heating, and thus should bear the costs of cleanup:

“If we focus on CO2 emissions, and trace back the burning of fossil fuels over the full industrial era that is, roughly from 1800 to the present-then virtually the entire blame for causing climate change falls on the US and Western Europe. These are the regions of the world that, through at least 1980, were responsible for nearly 70 percent of all cumulative emissions.”

And let’s not forget what political party in the US has done the most damage. Apart from their moral bankruptcy and anti-constitutional behaviour in other parts of American life, the Republican Party also tanked American commitment at COP21 to lower GHGs. “It might be considered outrageous to assert that today's Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history. Perhaps so, but in the light of the stakes, what else can one rationally conclude?”

A GND framework

They propose spending $2.4 trillion USD (0.7% of the world’s financial assets) to jumpstart the global transition to clean energy, using four funding sources:

  • carbon tax - with 75% revenues rebated back to the public, the rest invested in clean energy investment projects
  • transfer of funds from military budgets, particularly in the US
  • a Green Bond lending program by the US Federal Reserve and ECB
  • eliminating all current fossil fuel subsidies and moving 25% of those funds into clean energy investments.

Thanks to Kim for the book!

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