Winning the Green New Deal
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Winning the Green New Deal

Why We Must, How We Can

Varshini Prakash, Guido Girgenti

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eBook - ePub

Winning the Green New Deal

Why We Must, How We Can

Varshini Prakash, Guido Girgenti

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About This Book

An urgent and definitive collection of essays from leaders and experts championing the Green New Deal—and a detailed playbook for how we can win it—including contributions by leading activists and progressive writers like Varshini Prakash, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Bill McKibben, Rev William Barber II, and more. In October 2018, scientists warned that we have less than 12 years left to transform our economy away from fossil fuels, or face catastrophic climate change. At that moment, there was no plan in the US to decarbonize our economy that fast. Less than two years later, every major Democratic presidential candidate has embraced the vision of the Green New Deal—a rapid, vast transformation of our economy to avert climate catastrophe while securing economic and racial justice for all.What happened? A new generation of leaders confronted the political establishment in Washington DC with a simple message: the climate crisis is here, and the Green New Deal is our last, best hope for a livable future. Now comes the hard part: turning that vision into the law of the land.In Winning a Green New Deal, leading youth activists, journalists, and policymakers explain why we need a transformative agenda to avert climate catastrophe, and how our movement can organize to win. Featuring essays by Varshini Prakash, cofounder of Sunrise Movement; Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Green New Deal policy architect; Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize–winning economist; Bill McKibben, internationally renowned environmentalist; Mary Kay Henry, the President of the Service Employees International Union, and others we'll learn why the climate crisis cannot be solved unless we also confront inequality and racism, how movements can redefine what's politically possible and overcome the opposition of fossil fuel billionaires, and how a Green New Deal will build a just and thriving economy for all of us.For anyone looking to understand the movement for a Green New Deal, and join the fight for a livable future, there is no resource as clear and practical as Winning the Green New Deal.

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PART I THE CRISIS THEY WON’T LET US SOLVE

ONE THE CRISIS HERE AND NOW

DAVID WALLACE-WELLS
How bad is it? Almost certainly worse than you think. The climate crisis is no longer a story to be foretold in the future tense, but one unfolding, catastrophically, in the present. It can no longer be defeated, only restrained. And human suffering on a scale that once seemed unthinkable, even to alarmists, has arrived unmistakably on the horizon, though we often fail to see it clearly.
We are already living in unprecedented times. The planet has warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. While that may not sound like much, it already puts us entirely outside the window of temperatures that enclose all of recorded human history. Which means that everything we have ever known as a species is the result of climate conditions we have already left behind. It is as though we have landed on a different planet, and now have to determine what parts of the civilization we’ve smuggled with us can survive, what needs to be reformed, and what must be discarded.
How different is our new planet? Since the 1970s, the area of land burned by wildfires in the American West has doubled, and the number of large fires has quintupled; as much as 60 percent of animal populations on earth have died since then, the result of ecosystem loss and pollution and warming, as have perhaps 70 percent of insects; nations in the global South have lost as much as a quarter of their potential GDP, and more than 9 million people are dying each year, already, from the air pollution produced from the burning of fossil fuels—an annual death toll the equivalent of the Holocaust.
Things will get worse from here—probably a lot worse. But a terrifying future shouldn’t distract us from a horrific present: the Greenland ice sheet melting seven times faster than just a few decades ago, European heat waves testing temperature records three times in a single summer, and Houston hit by five “500-year storms” in the last five years. Five centuries ago, Hernán Cortés had just landed in Mexico and there were no European settlements yet in North America, which means this is a storm that should be expected only once during that entire history—the arrival of European colonialists, the waging of a genocide against the continent’s native peoples, the fighting of a revolution and the establishment of an empire of slavery, the fighting of a civil war, industrialization, the waging of two world wars, the era of American empire and the Cold War, the end of the Cold War and the “end of history,” September 11 and the Great Recession.
One such storm was expected in all that time. Now five hit within a half decade. This is the world we live in today, already lethal and brutal and yet a better-than-best-case scenario for climate change. Warming will not stop tomorrow, and the emissions of yesterday and today and the next decade will, if they continue at anything like the current pace, make things much worse.
This is why, the science says, the choices made in the next decade will define the shape not just of the near future but perhaps of many centuries to come—in this way, climate change is not just incredibly rapid but unfathomably long, the effects we produce today defining life on earth for perhaps as long as humans are around to witness and record it.
In 2018, the UN IPCC released an eye-opening report declaring that “rapid and far-reaching transitions… unprecedented in terms of scale” would be necessary to keep warming below 1.5 degrees, the threshold nations of the world agreed to target in the Paris accord. To meet that target, the IPCC announced, would probably mean roughly halving global emissions—which are still rising—by 2030. That would require, the report of the world’s scientists suggested, a global mobilization against climate change like that which the United States undertook in World War II—when nearly every man of fighting age was drafted into the military and nearly every woman of working age into the workforce, when factories were repurposed and entire industrial sectors nationalized in the space of months.
Past 2030, things wouldn’t get easier: the planet would need to entirely zero out on carbon emissions by roughly 2050, the IPCC said. Technically, that would be necessary to stabilize the planet’s temperature at any level of warming, even a hellish one, since just a sliver of the carbon emissions being produced today will always mean some additional heating of the climate. At today’s rates, we would entirely exhaust the carbon budget that would allow us to limit warming to 1.5 degrees in less than a decade.
Erik Solheim, then the head of the United Nations Environment Programme, described the message of the report as “a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen.” And indeed, the public was alarmed. The report was followed by a surge of political mobilization around climate change, with activists and disengaged citizens alike terrified by how short the runway seemed: twelve years to halve emissions. That does not mean 2030 is an expiration date, a suddenly arriving apocalypse beyond which decarbonization is pointless. But that fact should be no comfort. The more warming we bake in today, the harder anything we might want to do down the road will be. And there is absolutely no path to staying below 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming that does not involve a society-wide plan for decarbonization in the next decade.
How the world could get to the goal is very much an open question, but if we hope to pursue it in any way deserving of the word “just,” the wealthy nations of the world, who have benefited most from warming, must lead. To get to net-zero emissions by 2050, while allowing developing nations to decarbonize, the United States—the world’s most powerful economy, with the largest historical share of carbon emissions—will need to cut emissions much faster and much sooner. Other nations—particularly rapidly developing nations like China, India, Brazil, and others—have little incentive to act rapidly and decisively if we are not doing the same. Many analyses suggest that a “fair share” of US action would have us decarbonizing over the next decade while also supporting the decarbonization of other countries.
If we fail to halt and ramp down emissions this decade, we will reach 2 degrees of warming between 2040 and 2050. The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees may not seem like much, but with climate change every tiny differential comes with an enormous, if not unprecedented, amount of human suffering. At 2 degrees, 153 million more people would die of air pollution than in a world warmed by 1.5 degrees. On that hotter planet, flooding that today hit once a century would arrive every year, the UN expects. Many of the biggest cities in South Asia and the Middle East will be unlivable in summer. These are cities that today are home to 10, 12, 15 million people, and, as soon as 2040 or 2050, you won’t be able to walk around outside in them, and certainly wouldn’t be able to work outside in them, without risking heatstroke and possibly death on certain summer days.
This is one reason the UN expects—just by midcentury, at about 2 degrees of warming—that the world could see 200 million or more climate refugees. By that time, changes to the oceans alone could displace as many as 280 million people. Wildfires in the American West could be four times worse than they are today—four times worse than fires that regularly burn millions of acres every year; beyond 2050, scientists are reluctant to even make predictions. So totally burned will the region be, they say, that we don’t know what new plant life will grow up again amid the ashes, and so we can’t know at what rates or under what conditions that new life will burn. And at just north of 2 degrees, we will probably lock in the permanent and irreversible loss of all the planet’s ice sheets—enough to raise the global sea level, over centuries, more than 200 feet. That would flood two-thirds of the world’s major cities.
The scientists of the world call 2 degrees of warming “catastrophic.” The island nations of the world call it “genocide” and chant “1.5 to stay alive” at international climate negotiations. It is the future that Green New Dealers strive to avoid, by demanding that the US and other industrialized nations muster and mobilize all of our resources to do everything in our power to get emissions as close to net-zero as possible in the next decade. And yet, the focus on these thresholds—1.5, 2 degrees—has perhaps implied that this is the full range of warming we are at risk of. That 2 degrees is the worst we might experience. Given the obstacles facing climate action, and how rapidly decarbonization would be needed to avoid it, 2 degrees is, practically speaking, more of a best-case scenario.
We are not on the path to 2 degrees; we are nowhere near that path. If we halted global emissions tomorrow, we would probably be due for about a half-degree more of warming, just from the carbon in the atmosphere already—bringing us to about 1.5 degrees. Different models project different temperature increases for the end of the century, mostly because the biggest variable is human action: how we respond, and how quickly. But without very aggressive decarbonization, the planet is nearly certain to warm by at least 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
In its last major report, the United Nations (UN) projected that the path we’re on today could take us north of 4 degrees, and a new generation of more sophisticated models suggests the warming could be higher still. And at 4 degrees, it’s been estimated that global GDP could be as much as 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change—an impact twice as deep as the Great Depression, and permanent. Climate damages could reach $600 trillion—hundreds of trillions more than all the wealth that exists in the world today. Megadroughts could produce regular “multiple breadbasket failures,” producing widespread famine. According to some estimates, whole regions of Africa and Australia and the United States, parts of South America north of Patagonia, and Asia south of Siberia could be rendered uninhabitable by direct heat, desertification, and flooding. Certainly it would make them inhospitable.
We could have more than twice as much war, because of the relationship between temperature and conflict, and half as much food, because agricultural yields decline as temperatures rise. Parts of the planet could be hit by six climate-driven natural disasters at once, which, among other things, calls into question the ability of any government, no matter how wealthy and well run, to respond. Climate scientist Kevin Anderson has said that 4 degrees of warming is a world “incompatible with an organized global community” and “is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation.’ ” Projections like that lie beyond the realm of science, strictly speaking. But so does our future: we simply cannot know in detail what things will look like at these temperature levels, they are so far from all of human experience.
And yet our lives will all be defined by those changes, no matter who we are or where we live. Nothing, and no one, lives outside of the crisis, which is all-encompassing, all-touching, all-transforming already. This is the perverse promise of warming: nearly everything that is broken or brutal about the world today will be made worse by climate change, should we not take action to stop it. And nearly everything that is alluring and vibrant and vital can be made better and brighter, too, through decarbonization, should we pursue it.
We might assume that a crisis of this scope took centuries of slow, steady boiling to reach, beginning when the first carbon was burned in eighteenth-century England. But in fact, more than half of all the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before. Eighty-five percent of all fossil burning has happened since the end of World War II, meaning the story of the industrialized world’s kamikaze mission is the story of a single lifetime.
The UN established its climate change framework in 1992, advertising scientific consensus unmistakably to the world; this means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance. And we are doing it very rapidly, producing each year more carbon emissions than we did, collectively, the previous year—not just by not moving quickly enough to decarbonize, in other words, but moving decisively in the wrong direction, even today, accelerating into an irreversible cataclysm every year. Today, we are adding carbon to the atmosphere ten times faster than the rate at which greenhouse gases filled the atmosphere during the worst mass extinction in the earth’s history, when perhaps as much as 97 percent of all life on earth died.
This is bad news—but it contains, at least, a silver lining of political opportunity. Contemplating the worst-case scenarios—twice as much war, half as much food, a permanent economic depression, a crisis “beyond adaptation”—can feel paralyzing, because the scale of those impacts is so large. But they are ultimately a reflection of just how much power we collectively retain over the climate. If we bring about those catastrophic scenarios, it will be because of actions humans will take from this point forward. Which means we can take a different kind of action as well, and produce just as dramatic an effect in the opposite direction: toward a just and prosperous and fulfilling green world.
That may seem naive. And the obstacles are, indeed, enormous. But it is also a simple fact that the main driver of warming is human action—how much carbon our economies put into the atmosphere. At some point, should we not change course, we will eventually trigger feedback loops by which the climate system warms itself, perhaps quite rapidly and dramatically. But for now—and for the pivotal decade we are entering—human hands are on those levers, and we are deciding, as a society, what kind of future we want for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.
All of which raises the question: Who is “we”? Punishments from warming are already unequal, and will grow more so—within communities, within nations, and globally. Those with power to make meaningful change are often those today most protected from warming; in many cases, they are those who stand to benefit, sometimes handsomely, from inaction. But those who stand to suffer from that inaction, and those disasters, number many times more. All told, the cost of changing course is now understood to be so much smaller than the cost of standing still that only a stranglehold on our political economy could explain the indifference of public policy toward the existential challenge we face, collectively, in the form of extreme weather and natural disasters and generalized climate suffering.
That is not to say making a different choice will be easy. We are now burning 60 percent more coal than we were just in the year 2000. And energy is, actually, just one part of it. There is also the need to get to zero emissions from all other sources—deforestation, agriculture, infrastructure, livestock, landfills. And the need to protect all human systems from the coming onslaught of natural disasters and extreme weather. And the need to erect a system of global cooperation, to coordinate such a project.
The speed and scope of this crisis make it hard to comprehend all at once; on the one hand, we’ve brought our world to the brink of catastrophe in the span of a lifetime, and we are determining now, in this next decade, whether we keep our world within the bounds of comfortable habitability. At the same time, we’ve already transported ourselves to a planet our civilization was not built for, and we’re already locked into decades of disruption and deterioration that will leave no part of our world unchanged. What that means is that we have not at all arrived at a new equilibrium. It is more like we’ve taken one step out on the plank off a pirate ship.
Perhaps because of the exhausting false debate about whether climate change is “real,” too many of us have developed a misleading impression that its effects are binary. But global warming is not “yes” or “no,” nor is it “today’s weather forever” or “doomsday tomorrow.” It is a cascade of cruelties, ruptures, and unravelings that gets worse as long as we continue to produce greenhouse gas. And so the experience of life in a climate transformed by human activity is not just a matter of stepping from one stable ecosystem into another, somewhat worse one. The effects will grow and build as the planet continues to warm. If we are already surrounded by what can seem at times like an unimaginable world, then we must be spurred to faster action to avoid even more unimaginable ones arriving, and soon. The future is very...

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