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Sanders' Green New Deal: A Realistic Response to the Emergency That Will Define Our Lifetimes

Contrary to what the New York Times recently suggested, Bernie's plan is the only one put forward by a major candidate that represents a level of ambition that matches the scale of the unprecedented crisis in which humanity now finds itself deeply entangled.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attends a news conference to introduce legislation to transform public housing as part of the Green New Deal outside the U.S. Capitol November 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. The liberal legislators invited affordable housing advocates and climate change activists to join them for the announcement. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attends a news conference to introduce legislation to transform public housing as part of the Green New Deal outside the U.S. Capitol November 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. The liberal legislators invited affordable housing advocates and climate change activists to join them for the announcement. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On November 14th, the New York Times published an article which discussed the Green New Deal as proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, claiming to speak for ‘experts,’ and framing the article around what readers were led to believe were authoritative opinions.  As Common Dreams reported, the Times—without input from a single climate scientist or relevant academic—instead based their article on opinions from “an adviser to South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a business professor and maxed-out Hillary Clinton donor, and a Democratic strategist who does public relations work for the chemical industry.”  This assembled cast took a predictably dim view of Sanders’ massive, dual-purpose environmental and economic plan which, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original New Deal, aims to fundamentally reshape the social and economic fabric of the United States, this time in an ecological, as well as pro-worker, direction.

The Times piece also implied that the extent of Sanders’ plan, which proposes to spend $16 trillion over ten years, and which goes much further than any other in the Democratic primary field (Senator Warren’s plan, the next largest, aims to spend $2 to $3 trillion), is “unrealistic” and largely functions as a political ploy to enliven his base.  In making this implication, the Times went so far as to compare the Green New Deal to Donald Trump’s abortive border wall.

One of us (Read) had the good fortune to meet Sanders in Washington D.C. way back in the 1980s, and commend him to his face for his impressive work seeking to rewrite the map of U.S. politics.  Senator Sanders has consistently been raising the alarm on global overheat for decades now—and is mirrored in his concerns by every relevant individual and organization which has assessed the threat posed by climate breakdown and ecological collapse.  The narrow window in which we will have any ability to blunt the worst of the climate crisis is rapidly closing—if it has not already closed.  It is clear that more and more people feel an unimaginable threat to themselves, their children, and to all life on this planet looms just over the horizon—and for many is already here. 

"It is estimated that without profound change to our way of life a million species could be extinct by 2030 or so, and possibly half of all species alive today will be exterminated by 2050."

Activists in major cities willing to face arrests by the thousands, children striking from school, crying and excoriating assembled world leaders at the United Nations, are only the most visible bubbling-up of a collective fear and trembling felt by hundreds of millions, and particularly by young people, who, unless fundamental change begins immediately, face a century of nightmares and the likely collapse of global society.  Yet corporate media outlets such as the New York Times and their allies in the major political parties—while paying lip service to the threat posed by climate breakdown and ecological collapse—continue by and large to undermine any real attempts at critical action.  Had the Times actually consulted the experts, they would have recast the issue along the following lines:

Global CO2 production is increasing rather than decreasing. The year 2018 saw a 3 percent increase in emissions from 2017.  And 2019 will see an even larger increase.  Feedback mechanisms are already kicking in which could doom even the most vigorous attempts conceivable to halt climate breakdown and ecological disintegration.  The oceans, which have absorbed more than 90% of the heat caused by greenhouse gases—and as a result are acidifying at ten times the rate seen in the last 300 million years—may well be nearing the end of their ability to do so, the likely proximate cause of the rapid uptake in warming since 2014.  We await, within years, the first ever ice-free Arctic summer in our history, known as the Blue Ocean Event, and with it the loss of the albedo effect.  Ice deflects 90% of incoming solar energy, water absorbs almost all of it:  the same amount of energy which will turn solid, frozen ice at 32°F into liquid water at 33°F, when applied to the same water at 33°F, will heat that water to 176°F.  Methane release, the most feared of the feedback mechanisms, is beginning to bubble up from Arctic permafrost.  It is totally unknown to what extent methane could cause further warming;  there is estimated to be the equivalent of 1.5 trillion tons of CO2 locked in the permafrost, two times that which we have released since the Industrial Revolution. 

It is entirely within the realm of possibility that, even if all man-made carbon emissions ceased today, the feedback heating resulting from methane release and loss of the albedo effect could still send the planet hurtling into a “Hothouse Earth” scenario.  We already have at least another half degree of warming ‘baked into’ the global climate system, pushing us right up to 2°C of warming and perhaps making the initiation of feedback loops, to the extent which they haven’t already been triggered, inevitable.  To maintain an even vaguely stable climate, we not only need to cease all emissions, we must actively draw down atmospheric carbon as quickly as possible, through restoration of biodiverse ecosystems including mass non-monocultural reforestation.

It is no exaggeration that every day which goes by brings us closer to an abyss. 

The abyss which we face might even be along the lines of an event the Earth experienced 250 million years ago known as the Great Dying, in which 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial species were eradicated.  Scientists believe that this extinction event was owed to rapid global heating caused by enormous releases of CO2, in that case from volcanic activity—and methane hydrate deposits from the sea floor, a danger we now face, too.  The fact that rapid release of methane and CO2 on comparable levels to what we are now experiencing—over 10,000 years, instead of 250 years—could virtually annihilate the biosphere of a world untrammeled by human activity should give any thinking person pause as to the ability of the badly fragmented and degraded world ecosystem to respond to dangerous anthropogenic climate change. 

"The Sanders-esque Green New Deal’s size and scope, unlike other Democratic plans offered—which are less than one-fifth its size—is the only plan which aims at precisely this, setting the entire society on a true war-footing, with the enemy being climate-nemesis and the collapse of the world ecosystem."

We have already entered what scientists are calling the 6th Mass Extinction:  in fact, so far, the main driver of this ongoing extinction event is human destruction of natural habitats; anthropogenic climate deterioration is only beginning to kick in as a primary driver of biodiversity-devastation.  It is estimated that without profound change to our way of life a million species could be extinct by 2030 or so, and possibly half of all species alive today will be exterminated by 2050.  We are, in effect, gradually but systematically annihilating the biosphere through a combination of relentless economic expansion and rapid-onset climate change, to which species, including our own, will have no time to truly adapt. Complex human society will almost certainly not survive serious, abrupt climate change, starting with the precarity of our food supply and unfolding from there;  as a species, we will not survive a total ecological collapseThe UN and numerous studies have all warned of food shortages, ecosystem collapse, and social disintegration in the mid-20th century if trends go unaltered.  As the situation deteriorates, we will gradually lose our ability to respond collectively in a sophisticated way. 

Beyond this, it is worth noting that scientific modeling of the rapidity of climate change has routinely underestimated the threat posed:  because of the nature of organizations such as the IPCC, their predictions—while incredibly grim—are inherently as conservative as the science allows, and lag behind the state of the world.  Outcomes have fairly consistently been on the most extreme end of IPCC predictions, and sometimes beyond these (as in the case of ice-melt, which has exceeded supposed worst-case scenarios).  

Studies and the IPCC reports which highlight these threats frequently cite the need for a “War Time” mobilization to stave off the worst effects, evoking the retooling of the U.S. and world economy of the 1930s and 1940s in response to the Great Depression and the Second World War.  The Sanders-esque Green New Deal’s size and scope, unlike other Democratic plans offered—which are less than one-fifth its size—is the only plan which aims at precisely this, setting the entire society on a true war-footing, with the enemy being climate-nemesis and the collapse of the world ecosystem. 

The plan, briefly, aims to create 20 million good-paying, largely union jobs via tremendous investments in infrastructure, energy, ecological restoration and preservation, and sustainable agriculture. It will convert the power grid to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and completely decarbonize the economy by no later than 2050—no easy feat since the United States has not invested in the modernization of its energy system and transportation infrastructure in decades.  (It should be noted that, far from being over-ambitious, as critics claim, this plan is in fact under-ambitious from the perspective of Extinction Rebellion).  Under the Green New Deal, the United States will lead the world in change, and will invest in and encourage similar steps abroad.  

It is amazing that so many effusively ‘patriotic’ Americans, who regularly make proclamations of American exceptionalism, oppose the Green New Deal.  Declarations of American greatness implicitly harken to the omnipresent national myth of the country’s character and experience during the Second World War / mid-20th century period, which Trump knowingly evokes in his pledge to “Make America Great Again.”  The same people, in both political parties and throughout the media, who lionize this era of U.S. history—when America enacted the New Deal, had one-third union membership among workers (now less than 7 percent in the private sector), and a 90% tax rate on personal incomes over $3.5 million (2018 dollars) under a Republican President, General Dwight Eisenhower—now do not want the United States to lead the world in meeting the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. 

Scientists recently estimated that planting 1 trillion trees, in and of itself, could draw down as much as 2/3 of the CO2 we have emitted since 1750.  This kind of massive undertaking, requiring enormous public investment and coordination, is exactly the type of solution on offer in the Green New Deal, with its pledge to create millions of jobs funding ecological restoration, climate mitigation, and infrastructure work, in the process fundamentally transforming American society.

The Green New Deal, from a realistic ecological perspective, is far from perfect.  We need, along with carbon mitigation efforts, radical relocalisation, deep adaptation, and a definitive step in the de-growth direction:  the economy, categorically, cannot continue to grow exponentially on a finite, already badly damaged planet, and we have long since overshot the Earth’s carrying capacity in terms of economic expansion.  Thus the fundamental problem with Sanders’s plan from a genuinely ecologistic perspective is that it remains trapped within the defunct (il-)logic of economic growthism. 

But Sanders at least has a serious offer for addressing this long emergency that is fast becoming an existential threat.  His Green New Deal even takes some real steps in the direction of localization: for instance, in its central plank of renewing small-scale, sustainable family farms and revitalizing local and urban food production.  It would, by the current sorry standards of Western political systems, be an incredibly ambitious improvement over the current state of affairs.  It would staunch the worst of the bleeding while the U.S. and the rest of global society adjusts to the reality of our future: that, because of the timelags in the world’s climate system, the feedbacks already unleashed, and the amount of time it will take humanity, worldwide, to turn the supertanker that is this system around even if we win, the climate is almost certainly going to get much, much worse for generations to come. It is effectively only a question of how much worse things well get, and there are several, very different futures available to us, some unimaginably worse than others. 

"The beautiful coincidence is that the very things we need to do in order to address the climate and ecological emergency are in almost every case the very things we need to do in order to improve our lives and livelihoods from the sorry state... that they are currently in."

Our task over the next century and beyond is to save and shelter whatever we can of the biosphere to pass on to future generations, and in doing so adapt new ways of thinking of our society and connection with the Earth which do not rely on unthinking exploitation and endless economic ‘growth.’  Perhaps growth could be thought of in new ways: no longer the exponential growth of our economy, but a growth in our spiritual depth, our connection with each other, the animals and the world around us; a growth in the emotional intelligence of our whole species, of our appreciation for the arts, of new discoveries in technical expertise; a growth in the real joys of life. For make no mistake: if we get the transformation that is inevitably coming right, then, even in the face of the tragically inevitable climate deterioration that we are now committed to for some time to come, the lives of most of us can actually improve, as we relocalize ourselves, rediscover community, reduce loneliness, reduce the drivers of obesity and feed instead the drivers of good health. The beautiful coincidence is that the very things we need to do in order to address the climate and ecological emergency are in almost every case the very things we need to do in order to improve our lives and livelihoods from the sorry state—indexed by the huge increase in mental ill-health over the last two generations—that they are currently in.

Sanders’s plan is flawed, in particular in that it remains committed to an increasingly-impossible outdated vision of economic growthism.  But in its level of ambition, it deserves nothing but praise. Compared to the offer of the other Democratic candidates, it is far closer to the mark.  Exactly contrary to the claims in the New York Times against which we have written this piece:  Sanders’s plan is far more realistic than his critics.  It is realistic in that it proposes a level of ambition that matches the scale of the unprecedented crisis in which humanity now finds itself deeply entangled.

Considering the United States has spent 6 to 8 trillion dollars turning vast swathes of the Middle East and North Africa into a hellscape of ethnic cleansings, open-air slave markets, and jihadist beheadings to virtually no conceivable benefit, but rather an increased likelihood of terrorism, millions of innocents killed or wounded, and of course, immense profits for defense contractors, it seems like twice this amount to stave off an otherwise-certain, looming, epoch-ending downturn in societal wellbeing, productive capacity, and the effective death of nature is not only, contrary to the opinion of the New York Times author who we have here challenged, profoundly realistic:  It is the least we can do at this time to have any hope of creating a livable future.


Note: Both authors have written this piece in a personal capacity and the views do not necessarily represent those of any group or affiliation.

Rupert Read

Rupert Read

Rupert Read is a leading spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion and a prominent Green Party campaigner.  He is a philosopher at the University of East Anglia, and has recently contributed to "Facing Up to Climate Reality:  Honesty, Disaster, and Hope" and co-authored "This Civilization is Finished:  Conversations on the End of Empire—And What Lies Beyond."  

Frank Scavelli

Frank Scavelli

Frank Scavelli grew up in a rural, farming community in Southern New Jersey.  He is a graduate of Gettysburg College, and has worked with the Experimental Farm Network on regenerative agricultural research.  He is currently conducting research at the University of East Anglia on the ecological crisis and its intersection with the economy and society.

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