United States: An internationalist critique of the Green New Deal

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By Tyler Okeke

May 23, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Hampton Institute — In 2019, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unsat the powerful Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley and spurred a wave of progressive congressional campaigns. Soon after being sworn in, Ocasio-Cortez partnered with Senator Ed Markey to introduce House Resolution 109, popularly known as the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is an ambitious framework for environmental, economic, and racial justice in the United States. It aims for a speedy transition to net zero emissions through the use of renewable energy sources and green technology, a federal jobs guarantee, and a whole host of other social programs like paid medical and family leave, medical care for all, and expanded access to unions. Though not the first of its kind, the political movement on which the policy rides has won the Green New Deal more than a hundred co-sponsors in Congress.

The Green New Deal recognizes the gravity of global climate change and makes an effort to include domestic economic and social welfare reforms in its framework. Despite all this, the Green New Deal is largely deficient and is cause for concern for scholars, policymakers, and activists interested in an internationalist approach to climate change. An internationalist approach not only addresses inequality in the United States but challenges global inequality by reconfiguring the global economy and taking a reparative approach to generations of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the Global South. This exploitation has been largely carried out by governments, multinational corporations, and international financial institutions based in the Global North. 

The Green New Deal is also deficient and unimaginative because it forgoes thinking critically about the American people’s unsustainable relationship to energy and production. Instead, the Green New Deal seeks to move from one unsustainable energy source—fossil fuels—to another: cobalt and other minerals necessary for developing climate technology. 

Addressing climate change requires robust engagement not only with domestic contexts, but also with the global contexts that make domestic political and economic life possible.  Especially in a global empire like the United States where US monetary policy and corporate interests define the global economic landscape, policymakers, scholars, and activists have a responsibility to draft solutions where rapid, equitable climate adaptation is possible for all nations. 

The Green New Deal lacks international attention and critical engagement with the nation’s unsustainable relationship with energy and production. To be sure, this deficiency does not detract from the ways in which the Green New Deal is much more ambitious than more moderate approaches to climate change. The Green New Deal asks that the United States reach net-zero emissions in ten years, provide millions of good, high-quality union jobs, invest in green infrastructure and sustainable industry to protect lives and livelihoods, and expand social welfare to ensure a decent quality of life for every American. The Green New Deal not only addresses the domestic economics of climate change but also aims for justice and equity for Americans in its climate solution. 

However, my contention is that these benefits should be available to all people and a concerted effort must be made to ensure that they are tangible for nations in the Global South who will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change despite contributing the least to global emissions. The United States is a global hegemon that actively works against international egalitarianism through the dominance of the US dollar and Washington D.C.’s ability to write the rules of international trade and development. The American government is primarily concerned with securing profit for American and Global North multinational corporations and maintaining the core-periphery relationship between the Global North and the Global South where the economic growth of one is predicated on the underdevelopment of the other. The United States is able to secure privileges for its corporations and its goods through a heavy-handed political and military dominance of global trade and finance. US economic hegemony limits the ability of nations in the Global South to receive a fair return on their exports, make independent economic decisions, and accelerate their development or adaptation. If Americans do not pay particular attention to redistributing global economic power and thinking critically about how to ensure every nation has what they need to respond to the climate crisis, we risk a bleak future defined by social democracy in the Global North and apocalyptic crises everywhere else. 

Solutions like the Green New Deal are consistent with how imperialist nations respond to capitalism’s contradictions, in this case its ecological contradictions. Climate change is the most significant contemporary challenge to modern capitalism, but capitalism has faced significant challenges in the past, and made strategic responses to preserve itself. In the post-World War II moment when capitalism was challenged on both the domestic and international front by fiery worker’s movements in metropolitan cities in the Global North and decolonization movements in the colonies, capitalism made a strategic pivot to assuage its working masses and present the illusion of political independence in its former colonies while maintaining capitalism’s basic infrastructure domestically and globally. 

Nations in the Global North, like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, granted their workers careful concessions like social security, higher wages, better working conditions, broader access to higher education, and other improvements that were no doubt progressive reforms but maintained the basic structure of capitalism. To fund these reforms and maintain profit for multinational corporations, the colonies got cosmetic political independence but their basic core-periphery relationship to the global economy was maintained by a careful transition from national imperialism to a collective imperialism. The United States played a predominant role and newly independent nations in the Global South were entangled with international financial institutions like the World Bank and World Trade Organization which exercised broad control over their trade and economic policies. The Green New Deal, if it fails to problematize and break this relationship, is a similar reform that ensures social democracy for the core of the empire and sustained exploitation for the dependent nations of the Global South. 

A phrase that haunts the pages of the Green New Deal is “as much as technologically feasible.” This phrase follows virtually every stipulation that mandates pollution removal or greenhouse gas emissions reduction. The Green New Deal is invested in technological stop gaps to systemic problems with American energy use and production of goods. Countries, especially mass emitters like the United States, need to prioritize living within their ecological means and make serious efforts to localize production and consumption. The Green New Deal prioritizes status quo industrial productivity over a radical but necessary reimagining of how energy use and the economy should be organized. Instead of thinking about how to make energy and production relationships sustainable, the Green New Deal simply seeks another power source. 

The “green” technology that the Green New Deal ambiguously refers to references solar panels, waste and energy use tracking systems, fuel cells, and other technological units. It is dishonest to call any of these “green” or climate-friendly, as they rely on cobalt and other green minor metals which are extracted from the ground by multinational corporations and usually in the shadow of gross human rights violations. In the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, cobalt mining is connected to child labor, rape, war, environmental degradation, starvation wages, and even slavery. An early anthropologist of energy, Leslie White, posits that a society's energy source is the key to understanding and analyzing that society. In fact, the anthropological term energopower refers to the analysis of modern power through the lens of electricity and fuel. This approach is central to understanding the deficiencies of the Green New Deal and its maintenance of an unsustainable status quo.

Perhaps the Green New Deal will usher a new array of power relations under the cobalt-infused green technology energy regime. But given the resolution’s lack of attention to the global economy, it seems safe to assume that a climate future based on green metal extraction across the Global South and perhaps native land in the United States is not one to be hopeful about. It seems safe to assume that oil and natural gas exploitation across indigenous lands in North America, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa will only be switched out for cobalt and green metal extraction in the same places and the military apparatus that protects U.S. energy security will only turn the muzzle of its gun to new sites of resource extraction and human exploitation. Without serious rethinking, this is the future the Green New Deal promises.

All US climate solutions are incomplete if they do not chart out how a nation with a global effect will relinquish its unsustainable dominance of the global economy and ensure that all nations will have access to the financing and resources they need to adapt to the demands of climate change. This doesn’t only look like reparations in the form of direct cash transfers and debt cancellation but also assurance that nations can trade at equitable prices and chart out their own development trajectory. So long as Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal seeks to tinker around the edges and leave the imperial framework from which the United States benefits untouched, it should be considered an imperial project that is ideologically opposed to the realization of international sovereignty and the right of all people to live dignified, full lives. It is the responsibility of internationalists and people interested in global equity to problematize the Green New Deal’s current framework and advocate for the solutions that this moment requires — a robust redistribution of global wealth and power as soon as possible.