The Promise of a Green New Deal

Georgeann Johnson
Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Let's start with something we all know. I bet a lot of us in this room were born right before, during, or right after WW2. In hindsight it is astounding to look at the degree of mobilizing, organizing, and manufacturing that was needed to be done for the US to go off to war in Europe and the Pacific. This was certainly the most daunting task the USA had ever faced. Building the planes, tanks, ships, jeeps, and arms was an almost impossible task. For an example, when the war started, the USA was building 3,000 airplanes a year. When FDR called for 185,000 planes to be built, the captains of industry laughed at him. By the end of the war over 300,000 planes had been built. In 4 short years it was done. VE day arrived in 1945. It
was nothing short of a miracle.
Today the situation is much more dire than a madman in Europe. Today it is the whole planet and every living thing on it that is in danger. And just as a madman is a human problem, it is also a human problem that it is difficult to focus attention and goals on an enemy that doesn't have a human face.
We have a conceptual adversary that is called Climate Change. It is something we humans have created, but we aren't sure what to do about it. And although it is conceptual, it is also very real. It creates damage every day, yet the potential damage is growing exponentially every day.
But here's what we do know about it. We have 12 years to turn the global ship of state around or it won't be the world we grew up in. Nor the planet we grew up on.
We have 12 years to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to net zero, or better yet, to zero. Or we will have a planet that hits a Tipping Point towards disaster.
As Americans, and yes, even Canadians, we are citizens of a country that contributes 20% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to being the largest single contributor to Climate Change, we are also seen as being a leader in the Western World. We have a reputation as a Can-Do country...I will add that we are now a Must-Do country.
And how best to address this huge crisis? Right now our best possibility is a resolution called the Green New Deal. This resolution was introduced last Feb. by Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. AOC. In short this resolution is a 10 year plan to mobilize every aspect of American society at a scale not seen since WW2 in order to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. It will require a massive transformation of our society with clear goals and a timeline. It will require a massive investment in our society and economy, but it is an investment, not an expenditure. As a tie-in to the WW2 effort, it is worthy to note that 40-50% of GDP was spent during WW2 and it created the greatest middle-class the world has known.
Just in the 6 months since it's launch, the GND has gathered momentum. Nearly every major Democratic Presidential contender backs the GND as well as 45 House Representatives and more than 300 local and state politicians are calling for a federal GND. At least 600 environmental groups are backing a GND.
And, just as global emissions are global, it is important to note that the GND, or it's equivalent, must almost be addressed by every country. However, as it is the USA that is the biggest emitter of global emissions, it behooves the USA to take on the largest share of responsibility. The good news on this front is that some other countries are taking note of the GND and forming their own versions.
I have been impressed by the GND plans that the non-profit Common Wealth in the UK has drawn up. They state the goal of a GND as simple but transformative: a deep and purposeful reorganization of our economy so that it is democratic, sustainable, and equal by design. To quote: "The Climate Crisis is fundamentally a crisis of Politics. We can therefore address it democratically and justly. We have the capability, ingenuity, and resources to radically and equitably decarbonize our economy and repair the natural systems we are currently ravaging. The challenge is in mobilizing the democratic power and transformative program to match the scale of emergency confronting us. If we fail, natural systems breakdown will accelerate further, with those least responsible for change bearing the brunt of the repercussions."
Some of the goals are: 1) To democratize and transform finance by the largest mobilization of resources since WW2. This will require reshaping private financing; repurposing central banking; creating a new system of international finance that funds a globally just transition.
2) To formulate a green industrial strategy.
3)To Build public affluence in place of private wealth. This includes re-imagining how we provide and own housing, transport, and care.
4) Move towards A decentralized state of regions, cities, towns to support place-based decarbonization, as well as new institutions to coordinate structural transformation.
5) To nurture a dense and generative network of Commons that addresses stewardship of Nature as well as democratizing digital technologies that deliver decarbonization.
6)Discern the UK's role in an extractive global economy and support the reform of the architecture of international financial institutions.
The UK GND emphasizes de-colonization, and shared forms of sovereignty, and recognizes that the causes and effects of climate crisis are linked to inequality. Therefore the UK GND will be based on new forms of green internationalism that pools resources and technologies that address Climate Change equitably.
This summary of the UK GND says that the choice is clear. We must rapidly and equitably transform the institutions and infrastructure and ways of life of the carbon age we have briefly lived in. Tinkering will not suffice. We must make a shared effort of reimagining a decarbonized society that will inhabit a livable planet.
In researching the GND, I was impressed with the research done by a non-profit in the UK called Common Wealth. Most of the issues and areas highlighted in the report apply also to the USA. In the UK the GND is seen as a public-led society wide mission shaped by workers, unions, and communities. It aims to decouple economic activity from non-renewable resource consumption and carbon emissions, while simultaneously expanding sectors that build sustainable wealth. It will be based on a deep institutional turn in the ordering our economy toward democracy, sustainability, and shared forms of sovereignty.
This GND will depend on Public Action at the multiple levels of the state. It must deliver decarbonization while transforming how the economy operates and for whom.
This plan recognizes that right now the UK is a beneficiary of an extractive and unequal international economy; a radical GND must address these issues with decarbonization and decolonization in action. The UK must also decarbonize and reshape consumption, especially red meat and dairy production; must manage ground transportation and air travel. The plan addresses the fact that the UK gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and to fossil-fuel consumption. And therefore the UK should take the lead in a rapid and just decarbonization.
The GND plan recognizes that control of investment is command over the collective future. As an example, since the Paris climate agreement, globally banks have given over 1.9 trillion dollars to fossil fuel projects. Without deep reform, private finance will accelerate climate breakdown whileas at the same time public investment is currently too low to drive the scale of change needed. The GND requires a transformation of the financial system so that it can mobilize and direct the resources needed to drive decarbonization. Government policy must be ready to
steer public and private funds into decarbonization industry, technology, and infrastructure. This will require between 3-5% of GNP over the coming decades.
This can be met by taxation aimed at changing behaviour in industry and consumption; as well as long-term public sector borrowing.
The question is not whether we can afford a GND. We can. The question is ,Can we afford NOT to pursue a GND? But achieving a GND will depend on: Collective Action, ambitious public investment, strong labor power, democratic planning and democratized workplaces, a pluralistic landscape of shared ownership, the commoning of resources, and the extension of the public realm in place of private consumption. Which implies Tinkering around the edges won't do.
The ideas in the UK for Public banking are similar to the ones proposed in the GND in the USA. In the GND Resolution it is said that funding will come primarily from the Federal Government. But it is also proposed that a federal public bank could work with regional public banks. This brings us back to WW2 and Roosevelt's funding of the RFC, the Reconstruction Finance Bank.
In the USA there could be a national Public Bank and regional Public Banks.
I read an article called One Strategy that could finance the whole GND. The author was inspired by the Standing Rock pipeline protests. One of the pipeline funders was Wells Fargo, and the question arose:" if you pull your money out of Wells Fargo, where would it go?" This segues into the explanation for Public Banks. Several cities, from San Francisco to DC are taking a serious look at Public Banks. The text of the GND resolution says that Public Banking is the way to go. Following is some information about Public Banking.
1) Public Banks are owned by government entities and can operate at city, state, or national levels. They are funded by revenue from constraint taxes and/or from the federal government. They are accountable to public institutions and their boards as opposed to private banks and their shareholders.
2)The initial start-up capital is generated thru public bond sales, crowd-funding, or long-term loans from the Federal Reserve. Once the bank is set up it can loan capital to local projects.
3)A Public bank can loan at very low interest rates because they are trying to keep capital consistent rather than make a profit. Essentially it's a way to circulate financials through an economy in a way that is responsive to local needs.
4) Public Banking is a natural companion to the GND because it ensures that the public receives appropriate ownership stakes and return on investment;that it receives adequate capital, technical expertise, and supporting policies that coordinate with local government and businesses.
5) A public banking system in the USA could support decarbonization efforts that could function as a network. Ellen Brown says "We need to harness the power of the Federal Reserve to do something other than bail out big private banks." This could be something like FDR's public finance institution the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
6) A public banking network does not mean the disappearance of private banks as they play a big role in international finance.
7) The GND can get a foothold in the country by responding to needs that communities have already called for. This recognizes a pre-existing momentum and can elevate it to a national proposal.
In conclusion the author suggests that a network of banks that are beholden to the public and to larger environmental aims, rather than to shareholders and executives,
could be the key to a successful GND.
And now I will end with where I started. Something we all know. We have 12 years left to save our planet. Tinkering around the edges won't do it.
We must have a Systems we build, eat, travel,learn, earn money, save money, have good health, get well, provide care, ...i.e, live without causing damage to the planet. The Green New Deal is the best way we have right now to bring that about.