By GRAHAM ROGERS
The political theater of the U.S. Congress lurched through yet another performance on March 26, as the Senate decisively rejected a bill put forth by Republican Senator Mitch McConnell that copied Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s and Senator Ed Markey’s February non-binding resolution calling for a Green New Deal. Forty-three Democrats, including all Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate, voted “present” on the measure—in effect, abstaining—while four Democrats crossed the aisle and joined all 53 Republican Senators in voting against.
Democrats’ efforts to downplay the vote as a bad-faith tactic on the part of the Republicans could not cover up the fact that the tactic appears to have worked—the Democratic Party’s lack of commitment to climate action was revealed once again.
The premise of the Green New Deal is that immediate, drastic, large-scale action is needed to address climate change and its impending environmental and social catastrophes. The Green New Deal’s proponents invoke the original New Deal of the 1930s, which helped alleviate the Great Depression until the U.S. entry into World War II ended it, as the model for a massive state intervention to address social crises. The initiative is being spearheaded by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and endorsed by all the Democratic presidential frontrunner candidates.
The actual policy content of the Green New Deal is still under development, but its broad outlines were sketched in a resolution introduced in February by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey. The resolution established two interconnected crises of climate change and economic inequality, and called for a 10-year national mobilization in order to address them. The resolution laid out goals of overhauling the country’s infrastructure and industry along sustainable lines, creating millions of well-paying jobs, addressing systemic injustices against marginalized communities, and securing access to clean air, water, food, and nature for all citizens.
The resolution went on to outline a series of projects that would achieve those goals, including a federal jobs guarantee; full rights of workers to unionize and collectively bargain; the decarbonization of industry, agriculture, and transportation; just transition programs for workers in disrupted industries; programs for universal healthcare, education, and housing; and public financing and community wealth-building.
There is plenty to appreciate within even this rough sketch of the Green New Deal’s proposals. Revolutionary socialists support a rapid, thorough conversion to green energy, green transportation, sustainable agriculture, and a just, environmentally sustainable economy. To the credit of the Green New Deal’s architects, many of its proposed programs fall squarely within this paradigm and are of inarguable benefit to the working class. However, there are critical differences between the solutions favored by liberals and progressives (including the “Democratic Socialist” wing of the Democratic Party), and those promoted by revolutionary socialists.
At the heart of these differences lies a difference in perspective on the nature of the crisis. The Green New Deal’s “progressive” proponents point to “bad actors” within an economic system that they consider otherwise fundamentally sound, and endorse an electoral strategy through which the Democratic Party can be won to a program that fundamentally challenges capitalist profit prerogatives. They even claim that a green sustainable future can be built without challenging those prerogatives.
Revolutionary socialists, in contrast, understand the problem to lie within the nature of capitalism itself—particularly its imperatives of constant expansion and the pursuit of profit over human needs. The system cannot function without riding roughshod over social, political, and environmental limits alike, and this tendency cannot be reformed away. From the socialist perspective, therefore, a strategy that relies on the pro-capitalist Democratic Party to implement an anti-capitalist program is fundamentally flawed.
It cannot be emphasized enough that climate change is a threat to the continuation of human civilization and possibly the human species, and that action even more substantial than the scale envisioned by the Green New Deal is needed for there to be even a hope of survival. Today the ambient global temperature stands at 1°C above the pre-industrial average—a seemingly negligible increase that has nevertheless brought a host of observable negative effects.
Seventeen of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000. Storms, droughts, and floods have increased in frequency and strength. Arctic sea ice loss has destabilized the polar jet stream, causing the polar vortex phenomenon that brought sub-Antarctic temperatures to parts of the Midwest this past winter. Half the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 30 years, due largely to rising ocean temperatures and acidity levels. The UN Food & Agriculture Organization reports billions of dollars in losses in the global agricultural industry due to weather abnormalities, a figure that is rising exponentially. All of these factors, and more, point to a planetary climate system that has already been pushed to the brink.
The latest emerging climate science gives us little cause for reassurance. The voluntary agreements offered by the signatories of the 2015 Paris Agreement, even if followed, put us on a track to 4-5°C of warming by the end of the century. The environmental effects of this level of warming will be catastrophic. Scenarios for these levels of warming already predict the drowning of coastal areas and the displacement of millions who inhabit them; the collapse of agriculture across Africa and the American Midwest, and the extension of permanent drought across densely inhabited areas such as southern Europe; and an 80-90% reduction in the total human population as the ecosystems on which we depend unravel under the pressures of rapid environmental change. These realities, which are set to unfold over a matter of decades, add up to an existential threat to human civilization that must be confronted and addressed.
In the face of this emerging reality, the two dominant bourgeois parties continue to choose petty partisan theater over a committed, principled response. The March 26 Senate vote was a manifest example. Republican Senators stood by their party’s stance of climate science denial and openly derided the Green New Deal concept. McConnell himself called it a “far left science fiction novel” while his colleague Mike Lee mocked the proposal with images of tauntauns, Aquaman, and Ronald Reagan wielding a machine gun while riding a dinosaur.
The Democrats, for their part, could not bring themselves to show even symbolic support. This bizarre failure to maintain a consistent position—especially on a non-binding resolution with zero legislative consequences—should raise serious alarms for anyone expecting the Democratic Party to be the vehicle of salvation from climate catastrophe. How are we to square the circle of a party that claims the Green New Deal as its own yet fumbles the first opportunity to walk its own talk?
These postures, far from demonstrating a strong position against their political opponents, merely waste time and energy we can scarcely afford. Democratic leaders criticized McConnell for attempting to “create division” within the party, when in truth, he merely revealed divisions that already exist between its nascent progressive wing and its entrenched neoliberal leadership. They demonstrate the underlying schizophrenia of the Democratic Party establishment—outward lip service to climate action and social justice belied by thinly veiled loyalty to capitalist prerogatives and an obsession with the electoral capture of power.
The Green New Deal, especially in its current developing form, will be a contested terrain where all of the conflicting interests in society will clash. It will attract those who genuinely understand the need for a deep reorganization of society in order to survive the coming climate gauntlet. It will attract those who prefer the Green New Deal as a cynical means to channel environmentalists towards the ballot box. And it will be opposed at every step by the forces of capital, which are hostile to any challenge to their prerogative to amass wealth at the planet’s expense.
The outcome of that clash—and the capacity of the Green New Deal to deliver on its potential—will depend fundamentally on the class nature of the struggle. Effective climate action lies in the working class organizing in a powerful, independent movement capable of asserting its own will—not in hoping that bourgeois politicians will change their spots. The salvation of humanity rests on the vast majority entering the struggle with their own independent organizations and building a mass power that cannot be denied.
Photo: Peg Hunter / Flickr / via KALW