Mainly thanks to youth activists from the Sunrise Movement in the United States to the student strike movement started by Greta Thunberg in Sweden, tackling the climate crisis has finally come onto the agenda of many politicians, at least on the left. Progressive voices have in some cases seen the crisis as an opportunity to propose radical changes to the way our societies operate, hoping to shift the policymaking focus from further enriching the wealthy and corporations to the needs of the working people who will be essential to the coming green revolution.
Despite the growing awareness of the dangers of climate change, the current U.S. president has been busy overturning regulations on the fossil fuel industry and other polluters with little comment from the corporate media organizations that dominate the country’s national conversation. The main exception to this was when he pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord negotiated under his predecessor, Barack Obama.
While the current occupant of the White House has been an environmental disaster for his own country and the world, it’s important to understand that a non-binding agreement like the Paris Accord was in reality mostly symbolic, creating the impression that action was being taken while the U.S. was becoming the largest producer of oil and gas in the world. Meanwhile, the threat represented by climate change has become more and more obvious on a day to day basis, from Arctic wildfires to massive flooding in the U.S. mid-west this past spring to Hurricane Dorian’s devastation of the Bahamas this week.
Responding to this, arguably the two most popular progressive leaders in the English speaking world, Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, have offered slightly differing visions for how to deal with the climate crisis and the issues surrounding it, including the biodiversity loss that many scientists are calling the Athropocene or 6th great extinction.
On August 22nd, the same day the candidate visited Paradise, California, the town destroyed by wildfires last year, the Sanders’ campaign released its comprehensive, ambitious Green New Deal plan. A little before this, the UK’s Labor party introduced its idea for a Green Industrial Revolution, which, following Corbyn’s democratic style of leadership, is now taking consultations from citizens and communities throughout the country.
One of the main differences between the two plans at present is in the branding, with each named to draw on something citizens take pride in each of their country’s histories. The over-arching goals of both are the same: using 100% renewable energy for electricity generation and transportation by 2030 and the complete decarbonization of their economies by 2050.
In a sense, both plans also expand on what came before them. In the case of Senator Sanders’, his plan builds on the Green New Deal brought to the U.S. Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Senator Ed Markey at the beginning of this year, filling in many of the details that were vague by design in that resolution. For its part, Labor’s Green Industrial Revolution is taking the climate policies proposed in its 2017 election manifesto along with consultations with citizens and activist groups like Extinction Rebellion as its starting point.
The main question that will be asked by pundits and newsreaders on both sides of the Atlantic is also the same: how will a Sanders administration or a Corbyn government pay for such things as transitioning workers in carbon-intensive industries into newer industries like solar, wind and geo-thermal, let alone guaranteeing green jobs to all who want them?
As quoted by his Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonell, Jeremy Corbyn is on the record addressing just this issue in commonsense terms, “Just as the US GI Bill gave education, housing and income support to every unemployed veteran returning from the Second World War, the next Labour Government will guarantee that all energy workers are offered retraining, a new job on equivalent terms and conditions covered by collective agreements, and fully supported in their housing and income needs through transition.”
Senator Sanders makes the point in his Green New Deal proposal that dealing with the threat now will not only pay for itself over time but will cost much less than dealing with the inevitable consequences of a changing climate, “The cost of inaction is unacceptable. Economists estimate that if we do not take action, we will lose $34.5 trillion in economic activity by the end of the century. And the benefits are enormous: by taking bold and decisive action, we will save $2.9 trillion over 10 years, $21 trillion over 30 years, and $70.4 trillion over 80 years.”
It isn’t as if Sanders doesn’t understand that his proposal will require massive funding to succeed, saying that as president he will, “Directly invest a historic $16.3 trillion public investment toward these efforts, in line with the mobilization of resources made during the New Deal and WWII, but with an explicit choice to include black, indigenous and other minority communities who were systematically excluded in the past.”
By making traditionally marginalized groups central to his plan, Sanders is answering some of the criticism he received, rightly or wrongly, during the 2016 primaries for not being sensitive enough to the particular struggles faced by these communities.
His proposal to create a Climate Justice Resiliency Fund (CJRF) could make a real difference in the mostly poor communities that are already bearing most of the burden of climate change (and other isues of environmental justice such as ensuring that cities like Flynt, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey have clean water), devoting a whole section of the plan to, “…conduct a nationwide survey to identify areas with high climate impact vulnerabilities and other socioeconomic factors, public health challenges, and environmental hazards. Each community will then be eligible for funding in order of most vulnerable to least vulnerable.”
Similarly, the plan being worked on by Corbyn’s Labor Party will not only nationalize essential transportation and energy services but will take a regional focus, connecting and investing in areas that have been less served by the London and south England focused policies of national governments beginning with Thatcher.
As explained by a Labor Party spokesperson to the Ecologist, “Instead of pocketing excess profits, publicly owned [energy] networks will build out connections to parts of the country with high solar, wind and tidal potential, overcoming the bottlenecks, inefficiencies and underinvestment that has characterized private ownership.”
While Corbyn’s plan has yet to establish these details, Sanders’ Green New Deal takes a much needed internationalist approach to the issue, setting aside $200 billion to help countries in the global south to build out their own green infrastructure and deal with the problems created by a changing climate that, like poor and other vulnerable communities in the United States, will almost certainly impact them first and most.
While it would be unfair to say that Bernie Sanders’ detailed plan is better than Corbyn’s unfinished one, the Vermont Senator has set the bar very high with his Green New Deal. This is the kind of friendly competition that the left and indeed, the world, needs more of.