Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal invested in infrastructure and hired unemployed Americans to build it. It set out to reform banking, housing, labor law, and agriculture. It created unemployment insurance and social security. It set its sights on pulling the country out of the Great Depression.
In its early iterations, the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution that lays out a multipronged plan to combat climate change, shares a similar scale of ambition. It calls for monumental investments in both infrastructure and clean-energy jobs that will transition the country to a carbon neutral economy within ten years. It prioritizes equity through programs designed to level the playing field, such as guaranteed jobs, free college tuition, and free healthcare. The New Deal employed Americans to build roads, schools, libraries, and hospitals. The Green New Deal would employ them to produce solar panels and tend community gardens.
Perrin Selcer, assistant professor of history, says drawing a clear line to connect the Green New Deal with its earlier analogue makes sense. “From a historical standpoint, the name seems right,” Selcer says. “The New Deal had a big conservationist component that incorporated and balanced economic development and sustainable yield productions, and that recognized that different communities required different kinds of resources for different needs. It also had explicit social justice components. Conservationists saw public ownership of natural resources as a way to counter the power of the big trusts."
When it was introduced, the New Deal was bombarded with criticism from liberals and conservatives. The Green New Deal has similarly been assailed from both sides of the aisle.
“The Green New Deal has been criticized for being this sweeping, overambitious thing. Its broad framework cuts across jobs, the economy, the environment, and even issues of identity,” Selcer says. “But to me, this framework is critically important because environmental politics are economic politics. It’s necessary to call out the explicit issues of vulnerability that the framework highlights. If you don’t, then the needs and interests of those vulnerable people won’t be met at all.”
Americans have been encouraged to combat climate change through individual actions, such as buying energy-efficient lightbulbs or hybrid cars or bringing their own bags to the grocery store. By contrast, the language of the Green New Deal resolution calls for something far more substantial: a “national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization at a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era.”
There is a historical precedent to claiming this type of august rhetorical ground to achieve monumental aspirations, Selcer says. It was when he introduced the New Deal that Roosevelt asserted his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In the 1970s energy crisis, Selcer says, “Jimmy Carter invoked this idea that the energy crisis would be a moral equivalent of war.”
Gaining such rhetorical ground is important to realizing grand ambitions: You need to unify a community of supporters if you want to achieve them.
Look Who’s Talking
Sol Hart, associate professor of communications studies, says one of the biggest obstacles in uniting people behind climate change is the way people perceive themselves.
“If someone is a partisan liberal, they're almost definitely going to say, ‘Climate change is caused by humans. I support immediate action to address it. I'm very worried and concerned,’” Hart says.
Though some Republicans agree that climate change is happening, he says, they tend to resist the idea that it's caused by humans. Furthermore, he says, “if you present Republicans with a policy and relate it to climate change, they’re more likely to oppose it – even if they support the same policy in another context.” Social scientists refer to this apparent contradiction as the boomerang effect: a well-intentioned approach that moves an attitude or a response in the opposite direction you intended.
For example, Hart explains, there is broad support for renewable energy across the political spectrum, including among Republicans, when it isn’t associated with climate change. With liberals it doesn't really matter either way, he says. But with Republicans, pairing renewable energy with climate change softens other reasons that you might support it, such as energy independence or reducing air pollution.
In many ways, Hart says, the Green New Deal is designed to energize and mobilize the progressive movement. “They are trying to stake a policy claim and push Democratic leaders to the left, at least on this issue,” he explains. It’s less clear if the Green New Deal also has designs on shifting Republican opinion—a goal that could be vulnerable to the boomerang effect.
Hart says that one of the Green New Deal’s strengths is that it includes some concrete actions that can address some of the planet’s most critical problems. “Having solutions-based conversations is essential,” he says. “The environmental movement can easily become very focused on the negative impacts and the negative state of the environment. This was exemplified in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Up until the final two minutes, it talks about what climate change is, why it's bad, and the negative effects it'll have. And then, over the credits, they say, ‘Here are things that might help.’”
It’s unclear if the Green New Deal will ever become a formal piece of legislation, but its solutions are one reason it’s has captured so many people’s imaginations. But there are huge challenges to combating something that affects people around the country—not to mention around the world—unevenly.
“The catch is that nobody lives in the global environment,” Selcer says. “People live in the local environment and they are motivated to take hard political actions, to put work into it, put money into it, to raise hell about it if it’s something that’s affecting them locally.”
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