Green New Deal Q & A with Professor Brick

Kate Grumbles, Staff Reporter

What is the Green New Deal?

Besides serving as an example of the current polarization of climate-related issues, the Green New Deal is a legislative package that proposes sweeping changes to the current energy and job structure of society. The Green New Deal relies on a shift to clean energy and renewables to prevent climate change and revitalize the economy at the same time. 

The Green New Deal was popularized by and is supported by the Sunrise Movement and was initially introduced by representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey during midterm elections last February. The rollout of the plan was unsuccessful, and it faced criticism from the Republican Party surrounding the factual accuracy and phrasing of some aspects of the plan.

The Green New Deal was rejected in a vote by the Senate in March of 2019 due to many Democrats abstaining from voting. Since then, presidential hopefuls have made reference to the plan, but even amongst Democrats support for the plan is ambiguous. Sanders is the candidate most strongly in support of the Green New Deal, engaging with Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw about the deal as recently as this past week. 

Environmental Studies-Politics Professor Phil Brick weighed in on the current state of the Green New Deal, its overall feasibility and its role in the upcoming election.

Q: To start, what is your understanding of what the Green New Deal is?

A: The Green New Deal is part of an organized social movement that is nationwide … [with] local chapters. In Walla Walla, we have a local chapter of what’s called the Sunrise Movement. They organize events and are interested in ultimately promoting a legislative agenda, perhaps hoping that we’ll have a friendlier Congress after the 2020 election. They’re also looking a little bit further down the line, but [the focus] is a legislative agenda that would take a combo of both climate and environmental justice seriously. 

One thing I think that’s neat about [the deal] is there’s a lot of young energy that’s behind the movement. I think, in essence, it’s really encouraging that the climate issue has really captured the imagination of people new to politics. I think what’s also fascinating is that that imagination comes not just on something we would see as purely an environmental issue, a biophysical issue, of just identifying carbon as the enemy … but instead saying no, it’s deeper than that. We have to tackle all kinds of social justice issues at the same time and we have to think about meaningful work, we have to think about inequality, we have to think about race, we have to think about sustainability in a way that puts all these things together in a package. That’s the way you build a winning coalition to make something happen. That’s what’s happening, I think, and that’s the political strategy behind it. 

Q: Do you think that the critiques from the right that the Green New Deal is extreme or “socialist” have any validity to them?

A: Everything that anyone on the left does is [called socialist] for someone on the right … which is preposterous. On the right, there’s a remarkable resistance to anything that seriously addresses the climate challenge. And there’s a lot of unbelievable meanness and vindictiveness. Witness the belittling of Greta Thunberg, who is really, simply, doing nothing more than calling people out on the climate facts and not taking any BS. This is the level of resistance to [climate change information], this is how low people will go. I think there’s no appetite for any serious address of climate change on the political right at the moment. They’re all enthralled by President Trump at the moment, and we can’t expect anything from them unless something quite drastic changes and that could happen in the 2020 election. 

Q: Yeah, so, I guess, given that kind of negative attitude towards addressing climate change, you would say that positive reception of the Green New Deal doesn’t seem to be realistic before any sort of turnover in the White House happens?

A: Yeah, clearly. The Green New Deal calls back onto Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was a massive government program. Basically, at the time, the New Deal was about rescuing capitalism from the Great Depression, [addressing] the near collapse of capitalism in the late 1920’s and through the 30’s. It wasn’t until the Second World War until the depression effectively ended, but [the plan] was to use huge government investments to solve social and economic problems. For example, rural electrification was a huge part of the New Deal, bringing power to rural communities. That made enormous changes to communities that were simply not electrified as late as the 1930s. [There were] huge job programs to provide people work when the market wasn’t providing it, so the government provided it. And then I think conflated with the New Deal comes the war mobilization effort, so with the Green New Deal, people are definitely talking about that. It’s like, we have to treat climate change as the moral equivalent of war. We have to mobilize the government and the private sector, not just one but both, working together to address the climate challenge. 

You have one party, the Republican party, not at all even acknowledging the problem, or acknowledging it but then belittling it. And then, the Democratic party, they acknowledge it, but how much they are actually willing to reconfigure the coalition around climate, that’s open to question as well. I’ll let you in on a little secret: climate change is not an electoral winner. Basically, up until now, the challenge to the atmosphere is wealth. The more wealth we have it seems the more carbon we dump in the atmosphere. And we all like wealth, right? Is anybody on either side of the aisle really interested in reconfiguring and upending the system that has produced that wealth? I think the Green New Deal aspires to that, but are they really taking that seriously? I think some people are; some people are willing to contemplate a different life, what that life would really mean. By the way, it would not include spring break trips to Hawaii. It wouldn’t include all kinds of things that we think we want. The Green New Deal, if truly realized, would call forward some really big changes … but not the ones I’m thinking about. What the Green New Deal is proposing is a combination of what we call ecological modernization, to modernize our economy to be much more energy efficient and to rely on renewables, that’s the green half of it, and then it’s reordering society to make it more just. Green New Deal people talk about reinventing the economy and then we could have lots of jobs in new energy economies … but much of our wealth is really connected to fossil fuels. Truly addressing the problem is going to mean stepping outside and really fundamentally questioning that way of life. [The] Green New Deal is not doing that. How radical is it? Well, it’s not that radical. But it is radical if you’re wedded to a system of neoliberal industrial capitalism — it seems radical, it seems socialist, it seems kind of undoable. Actually, what the Green New Deal at least technologically proposes is quite doable; in fact there’s some countries that are moving towards doing it — basically getting off coal immediately.

Q: Given all of that, do you think that discussion of the Green New Deal will play any kind of role in the presidential election? 

A: Unless something changes, I do believe that climate change is not a winning electoral issue because it calls for dramatic changes if you really want to be serious about it. Now, you could win with that issue by promising new jobs and new hope, and that’s I think what the Green New Deal is trying to do. It’s a good thing, but I think as we get closer to really running against the current administration, it seems to me there’s two ways the Democratic party can go. They just move left and stay there, and then the Green New Deal’s going to be part of it. If they think that they need to appeal to those centrist voters, those people that voted for Obama and for Trump, those people that have never made much sense to me but there’s apparently quite a number of them, if you need that part of your electoral coalition, then the Green New Deal doesn’t help you that much. I think the people who are arguing, “look you need to focus on that center … the people on the far left, they don’t want Trump under any circumstances so you have them anyway,” might be their reasoning. So then the Green New Deal won’t be much of a help. There’s two different scenarios there, if you just decide that you’re going for broke and you’re going to go with someone like Sanders, then the Green New Deal will probably be very much part of the electoral process. If the party decides to go center, then the Green New Deal will be less front and center. 

Q: Has reform on the scale of the Green New Deal been proposed since the New Deal? Environmentally?

A: What comes to mind immediately is Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960’s, declaring war on poverty with a number of very aggressive social policies. Environmentally, not really. People say “it’s going to cost too much,” [but] we seem to find money for these endless wars that have brought pretty much nothing. The New Deal people are saying, “there is money, we just need to spend it more wisely.” You’ll notice if you go look at the Green New Deal platforms, they’re calling for drastic reductions in military spending on expensive weapon systems, and above all, on these wars that bring nothing.