Conservative critics predictably call it “a shocking document” and “a call for enviro-socialism in America,” but liberal condescension has cut deeper. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, essentially dismissed it as branding, saying, “The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” Others have criticized it for leaving out any mention of a carbon tax, a cornerstone of mainstream climate-policy proposals, while embracing a left-populist agenda that includes universal health care, stronger labor rights and a jobs guarantee.
What do these goals have to do with stabilizing atmospheric carbon levels before climate change makes large parts of the world uninhabitable? What has taken liberal critics aback is that the Green New Deal strays so far from the traditional environmental emphasis on controlling pollution, which the carbon tax aims to do, and tries to solve the problems of economic inequality, poverty and even corporate concentration (there’s an antimonopoly clause).
But this everything-and-the-carbon-sink strategy is actually a feature of the approach, not a bug, and not only for reasons of ideological branding. In the 21st century, environmental policy is economic policy. Keeping the two separate isn’t a feat of intellectual discipline. It’s an anachronism.
Our carbon emissions are not mainly about the price of gasoline or electricity. They’re about infrastructure. For every human being, there are over 1,000 tons of built environment: roads, office buildings, power plants, cars and trains and long-haul trucks. It is a technological exoskeleton for the species. Everything most of us do, we do through it: calling our parents, getting to work, moving for a job, taking the family on vacation, finding food for the evening or staying warm in a polar vortex. Just being human in this artificial world implies a definite carbon footprint — and for that matter, a trail of footprints in water use, soil compaction, habitat degradation and pesticide use. You cannot change the climate impact of Americans without changing the built American landscape.
So the proposals to retrofit buildings, retool transportation and build a clean-energy system are simply ways of tackling the problem where it starts. They are public-works projects because large capital projects — especially ones that, like highways, involve widespread public benefit — have always required public money. They are jobs programs, unless robots do the work, so the jobs might as well be good.
The deeper point is that any economic policy is a jobs policy. The oil and gas sector provides at least 1.4 million American jobs, more if you believe industry estimates, and depends on public subsidies and infrastructure. You might say that producing the disaster of global climate change has taken a lot of economic policy and produced a lot of jobs programs. Reversing direction will take the same. Since environmental policy can happen only through economic policy, there is no avoiding decisions about what sorts of work there will be, and in which industries. It’s unsettling, but maybe a little less so when you consider that we’ve been doing it all along, usually without owning up to it.
Take the Green New Deal’s proposal to work with family farmers and ranchers to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture. It might sound like a sop to rural representatives, the locavore caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America, or both. (And that wouldn’t make it wrong.) But food is our everyday metabolism with the natural world, which is why agriculture emits 9 percent of United States carbon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (Other estimates are considerably higher.)
Forty percent of our land is farmed or ranched, which is to say, the soil is basically conscripted as a food factory. The food system is already pervasively shaped by the Farm Bill, which spends nearly $15 billion per year on subsidies and $10 billion on conservation measures, deeply shaping what farmers grow and where, and tending to benefit large, industrially oriented operations. Food production can be much less carbon-intensive with changed practices in cropping, fertilizing, irrigation and waste management, many of them well suited to small farming. Moving in that direction, though, would require rattling the cage of big American agriculture.
As with energy, getting lawmaking involved wouldn’t be new. It has taken years of agricultural policy to get us into this mess. Getting out of it is a question not of whether lawmaking also produces economic policy and jobs, but of what kind.
The Green New Deal isn’t the only approach, of course, but its broad ambitions mark out the ground where future climate fights will happen. Because reshaping our environmental impact means reworking our economy, there will inevitably be competing visions about who deserves to benefit and what kind of economy we should build. Centrist proposals will concentrate on promoting investment in new technologies, with profits going, pharma-style, to private researchers and manufacturers.
If Trumpist nationalism outgrows its climate denialism but survives to fight again, it will double down on supporting national energy industries and denying the ethical responsibilities of global interdependence by building border walls against climate refugees. To the left of the Green New Deal, there will be louder calls to nationalize fossil fuels in order to leave them in the ground. (A carbon tax would be compatible with any of these visions, depending on who paid it and how the revenues were spent.)
Curiously, the idea that environmental policy could ever be separated from the larger economic order, or from fights over fairness, is recent, a product of an unusually technocratic period in American politics. Arguing for the Clean Air Act on Earth Day 1970, Senator Edmund Muskie, Democrat of Maine and the law’s lead drafter, insisted that “man’s environment” included “the shape of the communities in which he lives” and that “the only kind of society that has a chance” was “a society that will not tolerate slums for some and decent houses for others, rats for some and playgrounds for others, clean air for some and filth for others.”
For Senator Muskie, environmentalism meant that no neighborhood or job should be toxic. In the three years that followed, the country adopted the most ambitious and effective environmental legislation in its history, including Mr. Muskie’s Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Mr. Muskie’s approach remains a model of visionary environmental lawmaking. Like much new radicalism, the Green New Deal is good sense rediscovered.
Jedediah Britton-Purdy (@JedediahSPurdy) is a professor of law at Columbia and is the author, most recently, of “After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene.”