The Green New Deal and the new politics of climate change

Street politics of climate change movement. DisobeyArt

The Green New Deal (GND) has done the impossible. It has exorcized climate talk from its “IPCC fatigue” and brought climate issues to the center stage of US national politics. The reality is that scientific reports were not moving the policy needle sufficiently. US carbon emissions rose in 2018, after years of decline. Of course, climate deniers, the media, and the fossil fuel industry have played a major role in creating policy inaction. But many climate advocates have also ignored a deeper problem: technical reports are a poor substitute for political mobilization.

The GND is an aspirational idea; it lacks policy coherence and a legislative roadmap. Yet, it has moved climate conversations from fretting about IPCC reports to topics that people can relate to. Its vocabulary is simple and accessible. Politicians may hate the GND or love it, but they cannot duck it. It has unleashed a new kind of street politics.

How did the GND manage to change climate politics? After all, the climate movement—a loose network of scientists, environmental, and citizen groups—was doing everything that advocacy groups typically do, such as lobbying governments and policymakers, persuading firms, and talking directly to people. What was missing?

If you want a policy to change, your activities need a connecting logic, a “theory of change”. This means that advocates should have a clear narrative on “what” needs to change (goals) and “why” this change should happen (rationale). But, importantly, they should also have a clear political strategy on “how” they will bring about this change.

The climate movement did well in identifying its goal. Armed with scientific reports, the movement also showed why climate action was needed. However, the movement did not do well on the “how” issue. Probably because while the “what” and the “why” questions tend to have scientific answers, the “how” is about politics. After all, the climate movement wants a transition to a low carbon economy, and this requires persuading a lot of people to re-organize their lives. The movement assumed that when people are told about the seriousness of climate issues by top scientists, they will reorganize. Coal miners will start installing solar panels, and blue-collar workers will retrain for new jobs. And people will junk their…

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