A Climate Sociologist Explains the Green New Deal  (Pt 1/2)

Daniel Aldana Cohen, a sociologist and writer for Jacobin Magazine, explains why the Green New Deal must harness and expand the power of the public sector, and why its proponents cannot cut deals with the fossil fuel industry

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News, I’m Dharna Noor.

The Green New Deal is a broad set of policies to reach net zero emissions in a decade and create ambitious social programs in the process. It’s not a new term or idea, but it’s recently been codified in a resolution introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, a resolution we’ve discussed quite a bit here on The Real News. My next guest is a contributor and editor to a new series on the Green New Deal in Jacobin Magazine. Daniel Aldana Cohen is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative. Thank you so much for being here, Daniel.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

DHARNA NOOR: So as you’ve sort of already laid out in the Jacobin series so far, the Green New Deal is a pretty big departure from previous solutions that have been posed to the climate crisis beforehand. Talk about why it’s so different and why it’s so important.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Thanks. So I’d start by arguing that the Green New Deal idea in the United States is kind of the biggest development in climate change politics around the world, really since the Paris Climate Accords. And the reason is that for the first time in the U.S., you have proposed legislation, or really proposed framework, for lawmaking that would take years and years and years that understands that climate change and the economy are fundamentally the same story. There is not a subsector of the economy which has climate change policy or climate change politics, but they are literally the exact same thing. This is hugely exciting, because once you recognize that, it allows you to do two things.

One, by treating climate change and the economy as the same, you can put together a plan that’s at the scale of the challenge that we face. We’re on the verge of massive runaway climate change. And in order to prevent that, we need to extremely, rapidly transform our energy system and other sectors like agriculture. So in order to do that, we really need to understand climate change and economy as a single integrated unit.

The second upshot of understanding climate change and the economy as the same thing is that you can achieve a bunch of goals at once. And most specifically, you can redress the sort of savage economic and racial inequalities in this country through a form of climate investment that guarantees jobs, that prioritizes communities that have suffered disinvestment and pollution in the past that combines a significant increase in social services with an effort to change the way that we basically make a living and live well in this country.

DHARNA NOOR: But as you’ve also noted, it does have some flaws, or some shortcomings. You noted that it doesn’t actually directly take on the fossil fuel industry. It calls for net zero emissions, but not an end to new coal and oil and gas projects, it doesn’t call to directly phase out. Why is that an issue?

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: So there’s been some discussion of the fact that in this Green New Deal proposal, there’s a term “net zero.” The idea is that the net amount of emissions should be zero by 2030, or shortly thereafter, and that, therefore, leaves open the possibility that you would still be emitting carbon dioxide, methane, you name it. But thanks to some different kinds of agriculture, reforestation and so on, if you subtracted whatever carbon you’re emitting from the new ability to kind of suck in carbon, then you’d get to zero. So I think, to be honest, this criticism has been overblown. Net zero emissions by 2030 is still an incredibly ambitious target. And if we got there, we would be on track to prevent truly catastrophic warming.

The bigger problem with the resolution, in our view at Jacobin and many of us in the climate justice community, is that the fossil fuel industry is the number one barrier to climate change politically. They have bought off most of the Republican Party, they have bought off many members of the Democratic Party. They are a huge industry that stands to lose absolutely everything, and they are going to fight to the death. If you don’t take them on, and if you think you can somehow cut a deal with them while wiping them out kind of slowly, I think that’s a naive view of how politics work in this country.

DHARNA NOOR: There are also critics from the other side who have argued that the policy is in some way too far-reaching. Jonathan Chait, of course, in New York Magazine, says that people are “using the Green New Deal as a platform to add in unrelated proposals for free college, a job guarantee, and other ideas that motivate progressives.” Why is it important that this is so broad?

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: So what the Green New Deal really represents is a complete transformation of the economy, an utter overhaul of energy system, making urban life much more dense, more walkable, more livable, more affordable, changes to agriculture, and we could go on. So in a sense, you have two options. You can either try to make all these changes while leaving the power structure of this country intact and leaving half or more of the country really suffering, and it’s not really clear why anybody would go along with that, actually, or you could take advantage of this opportunity to start to redress some of the massive inequalities of race and social class, gender and nationhood and so on at the same time.

So what I find really remarkable about the kind of centrist wonks’ attacks on the Green New Deal is that they seem to want to make it smaller policy that would appeal to fewer people, and therefore be less popular. Nothing has polled in climate policy as well as the Green New Deal historically. The Green New Deal, weeks ago, pulled majority support with Republicans and extremely high support with Democrats. Why? Because actually, who in this country thinks that there should be more heat waves, more pollution, more tax breaks for billionaires, fewer jobs for people that want to work? Nobody thinks that, and the Green New Deal says, “Hey, actually, yeah, we’re going to make your future safer, we’re also going to give you a job if you don’t have one or if you’re in danger of losing one. We’re going to make sure that you have healthcare, we’re going to make sure that if some of these pockets get dipped into, it’s the pockets of billionaires.” That’s like extremely popular.

Now, all the wonks can see is a bunch of squabbling in Washington, and so their solution is to create a much narrower policy that’ll appeal to far fewer people, would bring back the specter that environment and jobs are opposed, when they’re really not. So it’s quite shocking. Previous climate policies that look more like what the centrist wonks are proposing have already failed. In Washington state in the last round of elections last year, there was a carbon tax proposal with aggressive climate investments, so it would have created a lot of jobs. That failed. The fossil fuel industry went crazy, they spent a ton of money, and the proponents were unable to make the case. Now we finally have an idea that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has brought, which is tackle inequality, tackle climate change at the exact same time. People love it, and suddenly the establishment says, “Oh, it’s too much.” I find it somewhat incomprehensible from any perspective except the perspective that says, “I actually don’t want anything to change.”

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. It’s interesting that you’re talking about dipping into only a very specific sector of the population’s pockets. Because of course, at least how it’s being framed in Jacobin, I think in the resolution itself, it’s not really an austerian policy. It’s not a question of everybody consuming less. But do we need to consume less at some point to tackle the climate crisis? I mean, can we really take on like an issue of this magnitude and continue to live our lives the way that we do, driving cars and flying airplanes, et cetera?

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: So the question of consumption is a very vexed one. There are certain issues that are clear. We need to eat less beef, we need to take fewer trivial air trips. But in the more important ways, I would argue what the data shows is that we need to change the way that we consume. I mean, the very affluent absolutely need to consume less, they consume too much. That is one hundred percent clear, the data is very clear. The very affluent consume a wildly disproportionate amount of the world’s resources. The poor and the working class in this country in most ways don’t consume enough and should consume more. The change that we need is a shift away from a lot of private consumption on things that we don’t really need toward public consumption of things that we love.

So when I say things we don’t really need; the volume, just like the weight of furniture and clothing that Americans buy in the last thirty years has increased dramatically, even though wages have stagnated. So it’s like fast furniture, fast fashion. Nobody asked for this. This is a profit-making approach of a bunch of giant corporations which are changing those kind of everyday habits of consumption. What people really need, and the things that cause people to go bankrupt, are things like education, healthcare, and truly affordable housing. Health, education, housing are the things that really put people in debt. Those are the things we need to make available to everybody. That’s why the Green New Deal proposal is so strong, because it makes that case.

The final thing I would say is this. Historically, what progressives have fought for in actual communities are a bunch of amenities that enrich everyday life. Things like libraries, basketball courts, soccer fields, community theaters, concert halls. Basically, facilities for a culture, for leisure, for sport, where people spend time with the people that they love. And historically, the labor movement has always said, “We want to reduce the working day, maintain benefits, maintain a decent salary, but what we ultimately want out of life is that when the five or six or seven or eight hours of work are done, do we have a chance to be with the people we love?” I mean, when people are on their deathbed, what do they regret? Not spending enough time with the people they love. That’s what we want to create.

So that’s about a shift in how cities are organized, how suburbs organized, how rural spaces are organized to kind of prioritize that public togetherness, public affluence. And that then yields a much less materially intensive form of well-being. Even in the crudest terms, if you spend a dollar on going to the theater or the movies right now, that will cause far less carbon to be omitted than if you spend a dollar on clothing. And we can decarbonize electricity. So I think there is a debate to be had about consumption, but I think if you look at what working people have fought for for this entire century, it’s more time to spend more time with loved ones, and in really high quality shared public spaces. And what the Green New Deal provides is kind of exactly that.

So there’s actually a really nice alignment between the Green New Deal policies, the kinds of urban policies that working people, working class people have fought for for a very long time, and the form of consumption that’s best suited to living for a long time in a healthy planet.

DHARNA NOOR: And why is it so important that those public goods, that those public services are actually offered by the public sector and not left up to market forces? Why can’t we just say, “Oh, well, it would be profitable to invest in wind and solar, or even something like public parks or community gardens.” Why is it so important that the government has a role in that?

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that in 1990 and 1985, on issues of energy, you would’ve had a very strong case for a gradual carbon tax, energy transition. Many of us who are progressives or who are on the left would not prefer that system, but you could still decarbonize in time. And now you can’t. You just can’t. And if you look at the moments of most dramatic economic change for the good in the United States, you’re ultimately going to be looking at the New Deal. And what we discovered in the New Deal was this: the most pragmatic, kind of non-ideological thing that exists is an intensely mobilized public sector with a huge amount of popular pressure from below, labor movement, people who are retiring are on the verge of retiring in the 1930s who had no pensions, huge numbers of people pushing the government to solve their problems.

And what you had actually in the government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the New Deal was a team of advisors. And what happened over time is that the most progressive advisors who were the most invested in public institutions became the most powerful, simply because they were the ones who were able to solve the most people’s problems. So Public Works Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, public institutions that were created to eliminate unemployment and to bring cheap, affordable public power, and at the time it was renewable power, hydroelectric dams, people who were able to solve people’s problems with jobs, electricity, and so on, eventually won prestige with the New Deal and were able to do more and more and more.

So we don’t really have a record of the private sector solving this kind of big, gigantic problem quickly, and we do have a record of the public sector solving it quickly. And the New Deal made lots of mistakes and we should correct those, but any kind of sober look at history from a non-ideological perspective, it’s very clear that large public agencies responding to popular pressure with an experimental mindset so that when something doesn’t work they try something new, this is how you solve problems quickly. And that’s what we have to do.

DHARNA NOOR: And you all have noted that it should be done in a way that’s much more inclusive and accessible than the New Deal was. I mean, for all of the good that it did, of course, the New Deal left many people out, particularly people who were already marginalized, People of Color, women. Talk about how that can be achieved and how we can ensure that people who are, as we often say, hit first and worst by the climate crisis are really benefiting from these kinds of policies.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Great. So this is so important, because the New Deal in many ways, preserved patriarchal social relations. And I would argue the worst thing that the New Deal did in terms of inequality is that the coalition made a deal between FDR, the liberals around FDR, and the Southern Democrats, who were white supremacists. And essentially, the New Deal hardened Jim Crow. And there are many important ways in which this happened. To me, the most enduring is the housing inequality. Essentially, in the New Deal and the aftermath of the 30s, and let’s say the larger framework of the New Deal, it became very easy for white families, middle class and working class families, to acquire mortgages, and very difficult for Black families to do so. And a deep, deep segregation was entrenched. So much of the liberatory potential of the Great Migration ended up turning into momentum for segregation, and frankly apartheid, and many sociologists have called it that.

So we can’t do that again. And it’s important to note, the housing apartheid that came out of the New Deal was a public-private partnership. It was all about government sort of incentives, regulation of, partnership with the real estate industry, the mortgage industry, and so on. And since then, actually, many of the attempts to kind of increase Black home ownership have also been public-private partnerships, which scholars like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at Princeton show reproduce white supremacy and reproduce apartheid. So I think a really important lesson from the New Deal, when it comes to racial inequality, is you cannot make partnerships with white supremacists and you cannot make partnerships with a private market that is going to play to people’s prejudices and it is going to take the quick buck. And you need to have the institutions that provide public goods truly responsive to the organizing of ordinary people.

I mean, I can say to you, “Let’s put the most progressive person in charge of some office.” And if you believe that that’s going to solve every problem, then your theory of change is wrong. But if what you have is good people who are brought in and who are subjected relentlessly to pressure from below, from labor unions, from community groups, racial justice movements, and so on, then you can really start to achieve change. And the private-public model for political expediency where the New Deal tried that, and tried that with housing, that was the most disastrous long-term result. So we can’t do that again. If the question is, “OK, what can we do now to prevent this from occurring,” I would say really two very strong elements in the Green New Deal proposal.

One which is explicit is a jobs guarantee. I think that scandalously, the discussion of the jobs guarantee has all been about, “Oh, you’re giving jobs to people who don’t want to work.” Obviously not. It’s the opposite. It’s very clear the jobs guarantee is for people who want to work. If you don’t want a job, you don’t go. And in fact, if you follow up and look at the experts on this, they’re very clear. If you show up and you don’t do anything, eventually you may be fired. I mean, depending on–or they’re try help you, but the system is not set up to be scammed, the system is set up to save this country and to save the people in it. So a jobs guarantee supplies everyone with a job. But who has trouble getting a job right now? If you have been a felon, if you have simply been incarcerated, if you are a Person of Color, if you are a woman who’s taking care of her kids, and there’s like really terrible daycare in this country, the populations that have the most trouble getting a job would benefit the most from a job guarantee. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King firmly believed in a job guarantee as well as a basic minimum income. They thought there was nothing more fundamental to racial justice than a job guarantee.

The second piece which is in the Green New Deal proposal, but is not elaborated enough in my view, is the idea of a housing guarantee. After Martin Luther King died, there was finally enough political rage and momentum to pass something called the Fair Housing Act, which was a well-intentioned effort to ensure that Black people, Black families received actual housing. It has not been sufficiently enforced and we have to do so much more. But the two pillars, a job guarantee and a housing guarantee, really address some of the core, root causes of the Black-white racial wealth gap and so many other forms of injustice. The Green New Deal doesn’t talk a ton about criminal justice reform, but think that is certainly in the spirit of these political actors. And you can imagine how much complementary work a jobs and housing guarantee could do to facilitate criminal justice reform and the complete elimination of mass incarceration, and hopefully wind down incarceration in general.

DHARNA NOOR: You actually have a piece in Jacobin about that very demand, the demand for a housing guarantee and for zero carbon housing. So let’s come back and take a look at that too.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Great.

DHARNA NOOR: Thanks so much for being here, Daniel.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. Stay tuned for part two.