Naomi Klein and the Politics of the Green New Deal

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“Winning is a moral imperative. The stakes are too high, and time is too short, to settle for anything else.” Naomi Klein addressed these words to the British Labour Party, but they aptly express the urgency of the climate movement today. We have arrived at a critical juncture in human history. As we all know, or should know, we have only a decade in which to cut GHG emissions in half – even though they are still growing annually.

Klein’s new book – On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal – provides an antidote to those discouraged and immobilized by the seeming impossibility of the climate challenge. Despite some repetition, Klein’s book communicates dry (and dire) facts in an engaging manner, avoids ideological rigidity and abstraction, and furnishes an attractive combination of visionary zeal and hard-headed realism.

What we need, Klein contends, is a Green New Deal. Nothing new there, you may say. True, but her GND is of the more radical and holistic variety. As she well argues, nothing less will suffice. Although science established anthropogenic global warming in the 1980s, governments have squandered the opportunity to forestall the carbon build-up with moderate adjustments. Now we are faced with the need for emergency measures.

Klein’s GND, and indeed any viable version, requires economic and social, as well as ecological, transformation. Holistic change is required because our systems of production, distribution and consumption are deeply implicated in global warming. In addition, the GND cannot succeed unless it is popular. How will it be possible to defeat the powerful vested interests in our current system, except through the pressure exerted by a well-organized mass movement? Hence, the Green New Deal must inspire the majority – with a vision in which life for most would be fuller and freer than in our neoliberal societies.

The popular movement is, in effect, a movement of movements. It involves the young, the unions, the precariat, the indigenous, the racialized minorities, he leftist groups, as well as the environmentalists. It engages only in non-violent action, the most effective and ethical path.

Does the transformation involve a transition to socialism? Wisely, Klein does not get drawn into this acrimonious and inconclusive debate. Implicitly, the Green New Deal signals the end of neoliberalism, though not necessarily of capitalism. There is no blueprint; she offers some policy guidelines (all of which have been widely debated on the left); however, we will have to invest solutions and institutions as we proceed.

The template is FDR’s New Deal of the Great Depression. It was certainly not socialism. Yet it too emerged in the context of emergency, when peoples’ movements had mobilized, and in a comprehensive program of various stages. And it touched everyone. Would that the NGD be similar. If the GND is not as American as apple pie, it is at least as American as Franklin Delano Roosevelt – not a rupture with all that went before.

On Fire. In sum, is a good read for a general audience, including the uncommitted. However, some knotty questions remain unresolved.

One relates to the formation of a mass movement pushing for a Green New Deal.  Yes, it is commonsensical that such a movement is necessary. But how do we create unity and coherence in such a movement, and how does the movement relate to party politics?

Unity and coherence are an important issue. Civil society encompasses a variety of social movements, each with its own agenda, whether social, economic, or ecological. Furthermore, the movements operate at different levels. Some are local, some regional or national, and others transnational. Consequently, there is a cacophony of voices: how do we make them into a choir, singing the same hymn? Presumably, a political party tries to organize and channel the demands. Which party, however?

That raises the issue of the political hue of the GND. Klein contends, and I agree, that the climate movement is inherently a movement of the left. It must seek social and economic change to achieve its climate objectives. But what left? The fact is that the left ahs always been highly factional, with some factions being more concerned to be morally correct than to win power. Hence, achieving unity and coherence is major challenge. Especially since unity must be achieved quickly.

How to reconcile two of Klein’s ideas – dealing with incipient fascism and opening borders to climate and other migrants – is a second problem. Klein alludes to, but does not explore in detail, the possibility of a far-right backlash.  Fascism may thrive with the growing insecurity and social unrest stoked by the deepening climate crisis. With threats to property posed by political mobilization and the radical policies of the Green New Deal, concentrated economic power may ally with reactionary political forces. An ethno-nationalist counter-revolution would put an end to the GND, though not to global warming.

Open borders would surely raise the likelihood of that outcome. Experts’ forecasts on the numbers of climate migrants vary widely. But a conservative estimate would be 150 million by 2050. Some of these migrants would be only temporarily displaced, and some would not cross borders. Even so, tens of millions of migrants are likely to be seeking sanctuary in North America, Europe and Australia.

Presumptive admission for all is the ethically correct position. The emissions that have caused the crisis in the global south have emanated largely from the global north (in addition to China and India more recently). But presumptive admission would likely be politically disastrous. The far tight in Europe successfully exploited the inflow of just one million refugees to Europe in 2015-2016. It isn’t hard to predict what would happen if 20 million sought admission at a time of high social stress.

If open borders is a policy that is right in principle but disastrous in practice, one is obliged to discuss other options. Certainly, we must support a generous immigration policy. But that will not be enough. Another idea Klein discusses – major transfers from the rich countries to the global south for mitigating climate change – is critical. The Paris Agreement obliges rich countries to make these transfers, but governments have shirked their obligations. A Green New Deal must include provisions for a generous immigration policy (though not presumptive admission for all), together with major transfers of green technologies and financial resources to the beleaguered populations of the global south. Even that, however, may not stem Fortress Europe and Fortress America.

The road ahead is rocky and the route largely unmarked. FDR pronounced in his1933 inaugural address that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Unfortunately, what may have been true of the New Deal is not true of the Green New Deal. We have lots of real fears, and we need to look ahead and be hard-headed in our thinking, if we are to avoid the evident dangers.

Richard Sandbrook

The author is professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and Vice-President of Science for Peace. He is the author most recently of Reinventing the Left in the Global South: Politics of the Possible and co-editor of Immiserizing Growth: When Growth Fails the Poor.

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