What do Greta Thunberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy all have in common? They have each, in their own times, understood the necessity of bold action in the face of enormous crises. We currently face a big challenge we must take on together.
Climate change is no longer a chart or a graph, or a problem in the distant future for another generation to solve. It is happening now, in every community across our country. The American people are coming to understand with growing clarity that the climate crisis is the ash on our tongues and smoke in our lungs from massive wildfires across the world. It’s the 100-year floods that now happen every year, and the ceaseless record-breaking hurricanes and heat waves that rip at the fabric of our economy, our communities, and the security of homes and families.
This growing reckoning with the urgency of the moment and the scope of the challenge is a crucial development in our fight to confront this crisis. But just reckoning with this beast is insufficient. The age of innocence is over. We are well into the age of consequences. And now we must act, and do so boldly. It is time for us to realize the vision of a Green New Deal for America—a national mobilization to defeat climate change and to build a more just, inclusive, and thriving American economic future.
The stubborn truth of today’s climate crisis is beginning to drive a new American politics and to demand answers in policy and investment as well. As denialism gives way to observable fact, a new climate debate is brewing, fueled by a youth climate movement that is unwilling to sit idly by while the foundations of our future are squandered. This reconfigured debate is not about the science; it is about whether we should take the bold action the science demands. The urgently contested climate debate of our time is litigated between those who would chip at the margins with modest but achievable half-measures, and those who seek to move rapidly to scaled action, at the urgent pace that the best science tells us is all the time we have remaining. Because climate inaction is just as fatal as climate denial.
Such a generational mobilization over the span of the coming decade will measure America’s best efforts to build a thriving clean energy future. It is grounded in optimism, insisting on renewal, the construction of a deeper justice, and the promise of a more perfect society. This very American enterprise is grounded in our best traditions, at a time when our national commitment to foundational principles of justice, equality, and shared opportunity have been profoundly called into question.
At the start of this new decade, we know the climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time—and it demands a bold national vision. The next President must enact the most ambitious program of economic and political reform in American history. And this agenda must become the utmost priority of our elected leaders, and of every citizen, to give this bold and essential vision a shot at reality.
In a 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made our challenge very clear: To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the global community must cut climate pollution in about half by 2030 and achieve global net-zero pollution by midcentury. We need a transformative decade-long national mobilization, beginning in 2021, to have even a chance of hitting this goal that physics and chemistry have placed before us, and to ensure that America leads the world in tackling this crisis, and meeting these obligations well before 2050.
This challenge also presents a simultaneous and unprecedented economic opportunity: to build a more just, vibrant, and inclusive economy that works for everyone. Just as previous commitments of vision and investment did repeatedly in the twentieth century—from the New Deal and World War II mobilization to the Space Race—America must rise again and lead the world in meeting this defining challenge.
Rising to meet this new vision for our nation will surely bring us clean air and water, but it will also pay dividends in good union jobs, a reinvigorated middle class, and safer communities. The products of investment in clean and sustainable economic transformation, new infrastructure, and better functioning buildings and cars will bring great good to our economy as a whole, but such investment must be certain to touch Americans in every community, no matter the color of their skin, the ZIP code where they live, or how much money they have in their pocket. A Green New Deal agenda offers a shared national response to a shared national challenge, to lift all Americans together.
But in order for this agenda to succeed, we will have to take on fossil fuel corporations, whose profits cannot be more important than our shared future, the welfare of all people, and our collective ability to sustain the national and global economies. Simply put, the carbon reduction targets we need to hit cannot be achieved unless we are prepared to take on the greatest and most powerful special interests that are threatening the viability of our one planet. In order to meet this climate challenge and build a more prosperous future for all people, our nation must reject the social license and sweetheart deals currently enjoyed by fossil fuel corporations, and finally confront the environmental harm that they are causing every single day.
There are five core principles that must be addressed in any Green New Deal agenda, and this essay discusses each:
- Economic Transformation: The climate crisis is at its core an economic failure, not an “environmental issue.” It is an opportunity to build widespread prosperity. And it requires confronting the corruption and injustice in today’s economic and political systems.
- Prioritization and Urgency: Solving this crisis requires urgent action as the top priority of the next President and at every level of government, as well as in civic engagement and corporate planning. Simply put, if solving climate is not job one, it won’t get done.
- Investment-Led and Standards-Based: Driving massive investments into manufacturing, infrastructure, innovation, workers, and communities; and setting high performance standards that will drive private-sector accountability and unlock new waves of even greater private investment.
- Grounded in Justice: Issues of justice and inclusion are central to both solving the climate crisis and investing in solutions. Past national economic projects like the New Deal, the GI Bill, and “Urban Renewal” often drove great new resources into programs that were blind to discrimination in their implementation, or worse; they were often proactively unjust. Solving climate change offers the opportunity to forge a different path and reverse deeply seeded racial and economic inequities.
- An All-Out Mobilization: We are running out of time. This program requires a sustained decade of mobilization of citizens, government, and industry, at a pace and scale of ambition dictated by science. We need all hands on deck, and that requires leadership.
The task is daunting. The agenda is ambitious. But it is also the only reasonable and pragmatic response to a crisis that at this moment is growing almost unimaginably severe. Critics have called it “radical” or “far-fetched.” But what’s radical is not calling in firefighters when your house is on fire. This national agenda only appears extreme to those who fail to recognize the emergency that is already upon us. In times of crisis, urgent action is the most practical course. Now is not the time for timid half measures. It is too late for that. Now is the time for bold and decisive action.
The seeds of transformational national action are already taking root today. States are already moving aggressively toward clean energy, and cities, counties, and tribal governments are transforming themselves for the climate challenge. Communities are organizing for greater environmental and economic justice. Across the country, people are taking to the streets to demand that their elected leaders prioritize action against the climate crisis.
Further, proven state solutions grounded in standards, investment, and justice show that a new climate strategy has emerged. In Washington state, as in other states around the country, we have seen how passage of 100 percent clean energy standards succeeds, along with new investment in renewable energy and modernized buildings and infrastructure, where carbon pricing-first strategies have failed. In New York state, we saw a broad-based coalition fight for, and achieve, a bold justice-centered climate plan. In Colorado, the new state climate agenda includes a concerted focus on transitioning fossil fuel workers into the new energy economy. These and other state successes point to an aspirational climate agenda, focused on what we need to build for a cleaner and more prosperous future. These state lessons can inform the strategy for urgent national action.
We know this is achievable, because it’s essential to our survival. And we can come out a more prosperous, more united, and healthier nation than we were before. But we are running out of time. The next ten years will be a crucial decade in which the fate of our world is decided. The next President’s two terms will dictate whether we rise to this challenge, or we fail.
The climate crisis threatens the very survival for some and will offer deep challenges to human welfare and community prosperity for billions more. An impoverished political debate that treats climate action as simply a single issue among many others frankly misses the nature and consequences of our current challenge. The climate crisis is the result of a cascading series of economic failures. And its solutions likewise can be found in building a better, more efficient, and more lasting economy.
The solutions for our current climate crisis will require trillions of dollars of new federal investment across the entire economy. These investments in turn provide a huge opportunity to create millions of good-paying, union jobs in every community in America. We are called upon now to urgently invest in research, development, demonstration, and deployment of renewable energy and advanced battery technologies, in manufacturing the next generation of electric cars, and constructing more energy-efficient buildings. We will rebuild our nation’s crumbling transportation, water, and housing infrastructure, with sustainable solutions that confront the climate crisis and befit our modern and technology-enabled century. And in doing so, we will create demand for new manufactured products and skilled construction jobs, and spur major innovation in everything from building materials to advanced technologies.
Also inherent in this new agenda for America is the urgent need to support frontline, low-income indigenous communities and communities of color, and recognize the leadership of these groups in building a regenerative future. These communities are being impacted first and worst by the accelerating damages of climate change, and have endured a legacy of air, water, waste, and toxics pollution, along with a deficit of public investment and support. Through an assertive agenda of reinvestment that is guided by strong local input, we can seize the opportunity to build a clean energy economy that provides inclusive prosperity—built upon a foundation of economic, environmental, racial, and social justice.
Aspects of this transformation are already beginning. American clean energy industries employ more than 3 million people in virtually every county in the country, and two-thirds of those jobs are in construction and manufacturing. States, cities, and tribal nations are taking action to seize their clean energy futures. Local communities, student groups, and workers are organizing to build their power and, along with it, a new economic paradigm.
Over the next few decades, we will have to retrofit millions of buildings across America. We will have to electrify everything, which will include a next-generation rural electrification initiative even more ambitious than the sweeping effort of the first New Deal. We will have to build and improve public transportation and transit infrastructure, and rapidly deploy enough electric vehicles so as to get internal combustion vehicles off the road and their emissions out of our lungs. This is an agenda that puts America to work. And in doing so, this agenda must include supporting these workers and their families with concerted policies that support collective bargaining and living wages.
The right to organize a union is an essential part of ensuring that public investments in a clean energy-powered economy create good jobs with family-supporting wages for everyone—regardless of race, gender, or geographic location. Unfortunately, America’s clean energy industries are not yet doing enough to welcome unions and to strengthen the position of workers in this new economy. This has to change. Because the folks who brought you the weekend are going to bring you the clean energy revolution.
For this new economy to be fully realized, the corrupt and unjust fossil fuel economy must become history within the next few decades. Entrenched industries have prioritized its short-term profits over the health and survival of all future generations. They have pushed misguided economic doctrines to justify their greed and have rigged our democracy to disenfranchise the young, the poor, and people of color—those who, not coincidentally, suffer most from climate change. As long as the present balance of power remains unchanged, rapid decarbonization is impossible. This is why those fighting for a Green New Deal agenda know that we must reallocate political and economic power in favor of true democracy for working families.
America is now the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, and its fossil fuel production is accelerating faster than any other country in the world. And around the globe, fossil fuel reserves under development today already exceed the amount that can be burned if the global community is to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and the targets recommended by the IPCC.
We must reject the fossil fuel economy of the past and embrace the clean energy economy of the future. And as we do this, we will confront another failure of our present economic system: the harm facing people and communities who currently depend on the fossil fuel industry. Coal miners and workers in coal-fired power plants—whose labor fueled generations of our nation’s wealth and prosperity—have been particularly hard hit by the corruption of their executives; they’ve faced layoffs as employers move to ever-greater automation through strip mining and mountaintop removal practices, and as utilities repower away from fossil fuels. These workers deserve a commitment that will ensure their access to a dignified job with good pay, and to better economic security than they and their families enjoy today, along with the healthy retirement that they have earned. The new vision for America that we are embracing is one that is wholly committed to creating a just transition for these workers and communities who helped build our nation.
Prioritization and Urgency
We have made historical comparisons to the challenges that American leadership has confronted in the past, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and his mobilization for World War II that finally pulled us out of the Great Depression, or John Kennedy’s Apollo Project that put a man on the moon. But even these analogies fail to capture the scale and scope of our project, which is unparalleled. Bottom line, this project will not get done if not prioritized by the next President, both in her or his legislative agenda, and in every decision made by the next administration.
To put it simply: If it’s not job one, it won’t get done. The next President must make this his or her top priority, and every dollar spent or regulation promulgated must row in the direction of planetary survival. Only that level of commitment will lead to success. This prioritization must be understood in Congress, as well. And our growing climate movement must impress this level of priority upon leaders at every level of government—each of which will be crucial for realizing a successful national mobilization.
This will be hard. And not just because the oil companies, the big polluters, and the climate deniers are incredibly powerful and will do everything they can to protect their profits. There will also be much past damage for the next federal administration to reverse and rebuild after the last four years. And there will be many remaining in power who, although well-meaning, could fail to summon the courage or imagination that this project will require. But the next President must summon the full energies of our nation to realize what the science is demanding of us.
Investment-Led and Standards-Based
Such a national climate mobilization offers an investment in our future. The major policies that will drive it will be massive investments of public funds and private dollars, into new infrastructure and technologies, backed by strong standards that will hold all economic actors accountable. These policies will build a high road economy that competes on the basis of value, not pushing costs and pollution onto workers or vulnerable communities. And these standards will unlock even greater waves of private-sector investment.
Yet macroeconomic “market signals” alone will not realize a clean energy economy. Gone is the age when marginal economic incentives might have bent carbon pollution toward a sustainable path. A carbon price, the main vehicle of most major (and failed) national climate legislative agendas of the past, may yet prove to be a valuable tool to shift incentives or provide new revenue to fund clean investment (as they do today in California and elsewhere). But such a policy mechanism is unlikely to be the primary driver of climate pollution reductions any time soon, nor will it itself catalyze the jobs and industries of the future. The emerging national agenda will instead engage a broad suite of policy tools—led by strong standards and regulations, massive new public investments and private-sector incentives, and major reforms to trade rules and financial systems.
We can’t hide from the fact that we need to stop burning fossil fuels to power our economy. We must reach 100 percent zero-emission for new cars, trucks, and buildings, and achieve 100 percent clean, renewable, and zero-emission power in our electricity sector. We must use new standards to drive greater efficiencies and carbon reductions throughout manufacturing industries. And we must use regulations to ensure Wall Street financing does not expose our nation to the climate and economic catastrophes invited by fossil fuel corporations’ unsustainable practices.
These robust federal investments and incentives will leverage even more nonfederal investment in our clean energy future. And requiring businesses to meet aggressive performance standards will unlock a multiplier in investment by private capital, creating new markets for those who seek to become leaders in emerging clean-tech industries.
Grounded in Justice
The Fourth National Climate Assessment, in 2018, found that the impacts of climate change disproportionately affect low-income populations, both urban and rural. And black and Hispanic people breathe air that is twice as polluted as that inhaled by white people.
There’s no escaping that the climate crisis and pollution hit frontline communities and communities of color first and worst, that climate change is just as much an issue of equity as it is of ecology. For too long, vulnerable communities have served as dumping grounds for fossil fuel companies and for a wider society that ignored the cumulative impact of polluting economic activities.
These people and places experience disparate health impacts from living in the shadows of oil refineries, fossil fuel power plants, and incinerators. These land use patterns are not by accident. Generations of unequal access to capital, reduced purchasing power from predatory practices, and systematic theft have kept some communities poor, even while past waves of wartime and post-war investment fueled decades of economic expansion elsewhere. From redlining mortgage markets to discriminatory access to federal business or agricultural loans, the maps of our communities still bear the scars of discrimination.
The coming climate mobilization must chart a better course. Any Green New Deal agenda will be different. To confront climate change, we can, and must, rebuild our economy. And as we do so, we can build a new American clean energy economy that is more just, equitable, and inclusive.
By centering this new national mobilization on justice, we can achieve community-driven solutions that confront the environmental racism faced by many in our society and lift up communities most impacted by climate change, pollution, and economic inequality.
This includes effective policies that address disparities in environmental harm. Capturing better data on which communities are most hurt by climate change, pollution, and disinvestment will allow us to use that data to inform federal policy, permitting, and investment decisions. Requiring absolute pollution-reductions from fossil fuel facilities, including co-pollutants, and addressing cumulative impacts, can ensure pollution-free communities for all.
This agenda should also focus on building wealth in the communities that have been excluded from it: prioritizing direct federal investments into disadvantaged communities; promoting greater energy democracy and local control and ownership of new infrastructure assets; and reforming housing policies to confront a legacy of predatory lending, redlining, and displacement, while simultaneously promoting affordability and wealth-creation, as well as reductions in carbon pollution from the transportation sector.
Finally, this agenda will ensure frontline and disadvantaged communities have power over their own futures, by centering them in government decision-making. This includes reforms to bureaucratic structures that ensure these voices are heard, from the White House to federal regional field offices. It means greater respect for tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. And it calls for policy changes to ensure that federal environmental reviews finally consider climate change and also examine the equity implications of permitting decisions.
An All-Out Mobilization
This ambitious Green New Deal agenda will not be achieved through a single bill in Congress. Given the stakes and the scope of this project, it must involve a 10-year, full-scale, all-out national mobilization. This mobilization must be led by our federal government and our next President. But in order to succeed it will require sustained, prioritized leadership throughout the federal government, and at all levels of government. And, crucially, it will require commitment of an active, engaged citizenry, and good-faith partnership from American industries, from automakers to utilities to building construction.
The United States has mobilized before, most notably in order to defeat fascism in World War II. Importantly, a truly scaled national mobilization will likely be both more effective at reversing climate change, and more readily welcomed politically than other approaches. The federal government has proven extraordinarily effective at achieving great results through focused leadership, aligning incentives for industry and finance, and backing major projects with substantial and sustained federal investment. While recent decades of elected leaders have forgotten how to do big things, distracted instead by tax-cutting and austerity mania that leads to diminished policy proposals, this can be a temporary amnesia.
In the past, America has grown rapidly in wealth and opportunity during times of federally led mobilization. The opening of major infrastructure projects, from canals to the Great Lakes, to a transcontinental railroad, to the construction of an interstate highway system (initially to support national security), began with major policy interventions, and ultimately fueled tremendous economic growth and investment. Likewise, rural electrification began with policies to string the needed wires in places that the utility companies of their day thought they could never reach. And while American economic orthodoxy has for some time turned its back on industrial policy and the crafting of government strategy to build and sustain leadership in strategic industries, our competitors in Europe and Asia haven’t. It is time to return to smart government strategy to reinvest in critical manufacturing sectors and supply chains, and redirect investment from Middle East oil to Midwestern jobs.
Elsewhere in this symposium, the mechanics of such a mobilization are addressed in greater detail and depth, but for climate solutions to be effective, they need the full backing of the federal government, private sector industrial and financial partners, and the full reach of federalism from states and localities to tribal nations, all tapping into the genius, hard work, and creativity of all of the American people. Nothing short of a ten-year national mobilization will be up to the task of righting our climate before irreversible harm has set in.
Furthermore, for this mobilization to succeed, it cannot be solely driven by governments and industries; the American people must mobilize—and preserve and utilize the power of our democracy to win transformational change that benefits all of our communities. It is time for all hands on deck.
We are the first to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last that can do something about it.
The reason we are going to succeed in this venture, and the reason why we are so optimistic about realizing the vision of a Green New Deal for the United States, is because this issue is a matter of character, as much as it is a matter of science. This is an issue of the basic, fundamental character of the American people. Will we shrink from this great challenge, or rise to it?
There are some who will urge incrementalism, concerned about how urgently to act on this climate crisis. But it is inaction that is the much more costly route. You can’t put a price on our survival. There are some who are afraid, who don’t think we are smart enough, or that our nation lacks what it takes to build this new future.
If you are looking for reasons to doubt, you will find no shortage of them. The cynic will always find plenty of evidence for their cause. We are not here to persuade you that this work will be easy. We simply ask you to embrace the work of making the impossible possible. Greta Thunberg has said: “When we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope—look for action. Then the hope will come.”
Together we look at this crisis, standing shoulder to shoulder with millions of our fellow Americans, and say: We’ve got this. We are up to the task. In fact, the work has already begun. This year, people are gathering in classrooms, living rooms, and worship halls across the country in a symphonic movement to begin this mobilization.
Our nation, and the world, must make the next decade the one in which we save ourselves from catastrophe, and build a better future. The next decade is our last full opportunity to lead the world in transforming our economy to stop the climate crisis, and to undo the last four decades of policies that have shifted power and wealth away from working people and into the hands of a greedy few. Confronting climate change will require a full-scale mobilization—a national mission that must be led from the White House, and that must engage all Americans, from state houses and city halls to community centers and union halls. This is our moment to rise to the challenge. Let’s get to work.