This month, House Democrats held multiple hearings on climate change, while a group led by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey introduced a non-binding resolution calling for a Green New Deal, a 10-year plan to reach net-zero carbon pollution. Far from presenting a united front, advocates and elected officials remain divided over how best to tackle climate change — divisions that reflect larger issues of race and class.
Green groups have historically supported incremental, business-friendly measures like cap-and-trade that are intended to win over the support of conservatives and appease the donor class. The Green New Deal, by contrast, is a bold and far-reaching plan to radically overhaul the U.S. energy system in short order, and one that is focused on correcting economic and racial injustices. Its supporters include a diverse array of labor unions, environmental justice organizations and progressive advocacy groups. The big environmental groups, which tend to be whiter and more middle-class than many of the measure’s backers, have been more reticent.
While the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters both lauded the resolution, other big green groups were more measured in their praise. The Natural Resources Defense Council said it supports the “goal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas pollution,” while the Environmental Defense Fund praised the resolution for bringing “new energy to the climate debate.” As of this writing, Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund have not released statements on the resolution.
Last month, when more than 600 groups sent a letter to lawmakers calling for a Green New Deal, these groups declined to sign on. Their absence may reflect real concerns about the feasibility of the proposal, or it may reflect fears that endorsing a stridently progressive proposal could scare off potential allies. Either way, the big green groups have resigned themselves to the sidelines when they should getting in the game.
The division between the big environmental groups and smaller progressive advocacy groups leading the charge on the Green New Deal may be a function of who belongs to those groups. Big green groups are overwhelmingly white, according to an analysis from Green 2.0, an initiative aimed at diversifying mainstream environmental organizations. While around 40 percent of Americans are people of color, people of color account for only around 20 percent of staff at big environmental groups, meaning these groups don’t look like the American public, much less the segment of the public that is most worried about climate change and most vulnerable to its effects.
“Many of these groups were formed by middle- and upper-class people. Their membership tends to be very middle to upper class. They are predominantly white. They’re not engaging in low-income communities as much as they should or in a communities of color as much as they should, and that kind of creates a blind spot,” said Dorceta Taylor, an environmental sociology professor at the University of Michigan, who has written extensively about the lack of diversity in the climate movement. “If you’re not engaging with someone from a very different social, racial, political experience to yours, you tend to think that your reality is the reality, and you misunderstand the realities of other people.”
By contrast, the groups leading the charge on a Green New Deal, such as the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, include many young, black and brown Americans, as do many of the organizations who have joined the fight, including the Center for Popular Democracy, Presente, andDream Corps. And it’s not just advocates. The policy wonks hammering out the details of the proposal are similarly diverse, as are the House members who supported a select committee on a Green New Deal.
“For me, a lot of the interest in a Green New Deal and in environmental justice falls squarely on this idea of a just transition,” said Branden Synder, executive director of Good Jobs Now, a Detroit-based social justice advocacy group that has thrown its support behind a Green New Deal. “If we’re going to move to a clean energy economy, how do we make sure that the people who are the most impacted are actually centered?”
There is good reason to believe a Green New Deal would be a political winner for Democrats. While few Americans have heard of the proposal, among those who have, around four in five support the proposal, including a clear majority of conservative Republicans. By a narrow margin, voters support raising taxes to fund a Green New Deal, which is more popular than other climate policies, such as a carbon tax.
Asked about the reluctance of the big greens groups to back a Green New Deal, Good Jobs Now deputy director Dorthea Thomas said, “They’re out of touch with their constituents. They’re out of touch with the folks who are most likely impacted by climate change.” She added, “If those folks are at the table telling you what they need in order to create the new economy, then I feel like you need to take that into consideration.”
Snyder agreed, “My belief is that the reluctance stems from using that old political calculus of what is safe and what is not safe and who is interested and who is your constituency,” he said. “The calculus of ‘we need to play it safe’ just isn’t working right now, especially when we have these existential crises that are happening.” He added, “We just can’t play defense.”
In her analysis of the 2009 failure of cap-and-trade, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol wrote, “The political tide can be turned over the next decade only by the creation of a climate-change politics that includes broad popular mobilization on the center left. That is what it will take to counter the recently jelled combination of free-market elite opposition and right-wing popular mobilization against global warming remedies.” Because the Green New Deal foregrounds jobs, wages, racial justice and economic equity, it has the potential to win the support of the broad coalition of progressive advocacy organizations that Skocpol describes. The big green groups should take note.