Considered as a piece of rhetoric, the demand for a ‘Green New Deal’ has been an unalloyed success, embraced across the left side of public opinion. Broadly understood as fiscal stimulus designed to accelerate the transition to a renewable economy with a social-egalitarian component, the Green New Deal has gained its remarkably wide currency over the past decade and a half by promising to dispel the perceived contradiction between economic and environmental priorities that had bedevilled leftward forces during the 1990s and into the new millennium. Unlike degrowth, with which the Green New Deal is frequently contrasted, and which proposes curtailing economic activity and material throughput to ease pressure on the ecosphere, the gnd promises a win-win dynamic: far from entailing trade-offs or sacrifice, the effort to stabilize the climate can ignite a manufacturing boom in clean energy, overhauling infrastructure, creating jobs, spurring innovation in green technologies and bolstering ‘energy security’.footnote1
With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in August in the United States—default national context for much gnd discussion in the Anglosphere, homeland of the original New Deal and source of by far the highest carbon emissions per capita of any large-population country––inspiring rhetoric for the first time became ambivalent reality. Although a far cry from the $16.3 trillion Green New Deal proposed by would-be presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2019, the original Build Back Better legislation devised by the Biden Administration in 2021 nevertheless envisioned spending $3.5 trillion over 10 years on an array of social programmes, including tax credits and grants for municipalities and corporations switching to renewable energy, and entailed a gradual phasing-out of fossil fuels in electricity generation. What remained of this bill by the summer of 2022, when it acquired the wishful name of the Inflation Reduction Act after last-ditch negotiations between Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer and recalcitrant West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin––and reportedly an eleventh-hour phone call from Obama’s former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers—was less than one seventh as much authorized spending (around $490 billion), with the money earmarked for climate-change mitigation (roughly $390 billion) mostly in the form of tax credits, with the rest using federal subsidies to reduce the cost of healthcare insurance and prescription drugs.footnote2 Projected to cut us greenhouse gas emissions to 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030––a 10 per cent improvement on the us’s pre-ira trajectory (about 30 per cent below 2005 by 2030)––this was hardly the 50 per cent target the us committed to in the Paris climate accords, let alone the 70 per cent reduction by 2030 proposed by Sanders, to have been achieved through completely decarbonizing the transport and electricity sectors (the two largest contributors to emissions in the us).footnote3 Indeed, given the ira’s much-diminished scale and the near-total exfoliation of any social-egalitarian component in the legislative wrangling, it is an open question whether the ira qualifies as a Green New Deal at all, even if the bill is clearly the legislative descendant of Sanders’s climate platform.
All the same, though Biden’s ira represents only a modest down payment toward the purchase of a habitable and prospering planet, it amounts, as widely noted, to the most significant climate-change legislation yet undertaken by the us. The current conjuncture—in which the rhetorical dominance of the gnd has eventuated, for now, in the pinched reality of the ira—therefore invites a reconsideration, first, of the Green New Deal as an amorphous body of thought and discursive crusade—the origins and evolution of the idea, its rise as a rhetorical phenomenon and popular slogan; second, a comparative appraisal of the assorted gnd-affiliated policy proposals and works of political strategy that have emerged from the English-speaking left over the past few years; third, some reflection on the substance and political import of the dwarf gnd that is the ira, as well as on the contextual factors paving the way to its passage; and lastly, and most pressing, some reflection on how Green New Deal-oriented eco-political strategy might need to reconfigure itself in light of the ira, and the changed political-economic landscape it portends. Will the Act extinguish the gnd momentum, or renew it?
Although there were earlier iterations in Germany (see the afterword, on p. 25), the Green New Deal surfaced in the Anglo-American liberal thought-world of the late Blair-Bush years, when its spokesmen viewed the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as an incentive for American industry and the environmental movement to create a new engine of growth that would correct some of the deindustrializing excesses of the 1990s. The term ‘Green New Deal’ was widely popularized in early 2007 when it appeared in a New York Times column by Thomas Friedman, though it was touted earlier in a discussion between Larry Elliot, the Guardian economics editor, and Colin Hines, the former head of Greenpeace’s International Economics unit.footnote4 Explicit in early visions of the gnd was the notion—still strongly present in Biden’s ira—that it would ‘renew America’ and ‘get our groove back with the world’ in the face of a rising China.footnote5
A few years later, the Green New Deal was recognized as a potential ‘wedge’ issue or ‘terrain of struggle’ by ecosocialist writers who hoped that a broadly supported reformist legislative agenda might prepare the ground—or at least buy time—for a much more far-reaching process of decarbonization and public provision.footnote6 By the later 2010s, American democratic-socialist agendas included the gnd in part of a wider left embrace of electoral politics when the prospect of a Sanders candidacy, and a modicum of left representation in the us Congress, suggested that significant green policies might before long be implemented. In 2017, the youth activist group the Sunrise Movement was launched, and the next year––when a landmark report issued by the ipcc suggested that climate change necessitated transforming the global economy at a speed and scale with ‘no documented historical precedent’—Sunrise activists rallied behind midterms candidates who supported renewable energy and worked to oust those who did not.footnote7
The youth group then embraced the Green New Deal, staging a sit-in outside Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand climate action. Recently elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined the Sunrise protesters, and in February 2019 introduced a non-binding congressional resolution with Senator Ed Markey, asserting that ‘it is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal’, in order to achieve net-zero global emissions by 2050 through ‘a fair and just transition for all communities and workers’. Later that year, Bernie Sanders unveiled his $16.3 trillion climate proposal, and ahead of the 2020 election, the Green New Deal was embraced by most Democratic presidential hopefuls, one of whom––Washington’s governor Jay Inslee—made the ecological crisis his signature campaign issue.footnote8
Meanwhile, in the uk, the Labour Party under Corbyn—couching its programme in a different national idiom of past social transformation—had proposed its own ambitious ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, which would fund a rapid green transition through direct taxes on capital.footnote9 By 2020, Green New Deals of one sort or another had proliferated across the world. The European Union announced a ‘European Green Deal’ (the absence of the modifier ‘New’ appearing to signify a technocratic project with no particular need to rally the public), defined by the goal of neutral emissions in the bloc by 2050. Seoul promised a ‘Korean New Deal’, including an allocation of $62 billion to create 659,000 green jobs by 2025, and transform South Korea into a clean-hydrogen-based, green-infrastructure-exporting economy by 2050. Tiny Bhutan, publicizing itself as the world’s ‘first carbon-negative country’ thanks to its thickly forested terrain, pledged its adherence to a green deal for lower-income countries. At the cop26 climate summit in November 2021, Modi unveiled his ‘panchamrit’—five ‘nectars’ or climate commitments—which aimed to reduce Indian emissions to net-zero by 2070. In the Anglosphere, the sudden rhetorical falling into line by world governments was typically explained as a response to the new tone in Washington. The more decisive factor was likely Xi’s declaration in September 2020 that China would be carbon neutral by 2060. However unintentionally, the Chinese bellwether rebuked the focus on the us always latent in talk of a gnd—a reminder that a new deal in one country is little better than no deal without a changed international scene.