On 7 February, United States Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Edward J Markey of Massachusetts launched the Green New Deal (GND) House Resolution. “Our first step is to define the problem and to define the scope of the solution,” said Ocasio-Cortez from Capitol Hill.
The problem is the climate crisis and the solution being proposed to the US House of Representatives is the GND. It is not a bill, nor is it policy – yet. It’s an attempt by the US to deal with the many facets of the climate crisis and protect its people from the effects.
The US is responsible for about 20% of carbon emissions globally, second only to China. The GND borrows from the economic reformation plan for the US that former president Franklin D Roosevelt introduced after the Great Depression, the New Deal. It envisaged massive public works projects and financial reforms in the country, growing the welfare state funded through taxation. The GND has a similar scope and has also been introduced by the Democrats.
It says the US must acknowledge and plan to take action to move towards “zero emissions” energy use. This means abandoning natural gas, petroleum and coal as sources of energy and transitioning to renewable energy production, especially in the manufacturing and transport sectors – a “just transition” to a “green economy”. It will mean huge job losses and rebuilding the American economy, so the GND proposes protecting people through reskilling, universal health cover, public employment and job guarantees.
The basic elements of the GND are renewable power sources, massive investment in manufacturing to make use of these clean energy sources, upgrading buildings and infrastructure to withstand extreme weather conditions, converting energy grids to smart systems to maximise efficiency, additional investment in sustainable farming, investment in zero-emission transport systems, the restoration of ecosystems – land preservation, afforestation – and cleaning hazardous waste.
The dual purpose of the GND is to define and plan to address the worst effects of the climate crisis, and fix the country’s social problems of economic inequality and racial injustice. The GND proposes to meet these goals through a swift, 10-year mobilisation.
Lofty? Yes. Any solution to the climate crisis has to be. But such a solution cannot be limited to one country in a global capitalist world.
Markets are interconnected and interdependent. Workers from Australia mine iron ore, workers in China produce steel with that ore. Workers in Saudi Arabia extract oil to produce petroleum and rubber, while workers in Bolivia mine lead for car batteries. Such materials together are used to assemble a BMW in South Africa. Capitalism has shown itself to be elastic, able to bend and stretch with the differing conditions of life. Like water, it finds the cracks through which it presses profits.
The effect on South Africa
The effects of the climate crisis are evident in South Africa. When briefing the media on 27 October about the “serious” water situation in the country, Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu said, “We are experiencing very high temperatures and very low rainfall. Indications are that rain will become much harder to predict. We are in for a long, dry season.”
This has certainly been true for Graaff-Reinet and the surrounding area in the Eastern Cape. Rainfall has been insufficient for more than five years and residents are facing their worst drought in over 40 years. Taps often run dry and there are frequent reports from farmers of dying crops and livestock.
Temperatures in the area have reportedly risen 2°C above the global average. Disaster relief organisation the Gift of the Givers Foundation has visited townships around Graaff-Reinet such as uMasizakhe to deliver water and provide other aid.
Graaff-Reinet is not the only place facing a scarcity of water, various towns along the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal share its plight.
The South African government is aware of the situation. Sisulu has said, “We anticipate that weather conditions will get dryer and warmer, and that rainfall periods would become shorter … We are looking at new infrastructure. We are also looking at different methods of piping … looking at different ways of sourcing fresh groundwater.”
The climate crisis will affect countries like South Africa – with its high level of social inequality, the environmental challenge of water scarcity and severe disparities between urban and rural areas – in uneven and devastating ways. One part of the country may have access to free-flowing water while another has severe shortages, impacting on the ability to deliver basic services such as water to hospitals. This was evident in the City of Cape Town’s Day Zero scare in 2017-2018.
It may seem localised, but it isn’t. The effects of the climate crisis are global and South Africa, like many countries around the world, finds itself having to deal with specific effects such as a shortage of water. But the plans the US has set down in its GND apply specifically to its citizenry and country.
A new colonialism?
The GND begins to tackle the massive problem of the climate crisis, but it places such proposals within a neoliberal economic framework. Despite a key element being the international exchange of technology, expertise and funds, with assistance to other countries to develop their own GNDs, at the same time the GND requires the US to be the “international leader on climate action”.
It contains the basis for a new form of colonialism for “developing” countries. Even if the GND succeeds for the US, it also needs to consider the jobs of millions in the global marketplace who depend on the US market through numerous value chains within its framework. Without this, as a consequence, the GND may perpetuate a neocolonialism based on the country’s “climate change agenda”.
It’s not certain how much the GND will cost to implement. US President Donald Trump has said $100 trillion (about R1 500 trillion), but supporters of the GND say it may cost just as much if no action against the climate crisis is taken.
The GND will be expensive, as Ocasio-Cortez admits. But the aim is to implement it through planned economic growth, specifically, as the GND states, through “millions of good, high-wage jobs”. But the GND contains little about changing the causes of the climate crisis linked to the capitalist system of the pursuit of accumulation and profit.
It wants to reform the system to protect against environmental devastation without changing the fundamentals of private wealth. For example, the amount of renewable energy generation – solar, wind, electric – needed to achieve the net-zero carbon emissions goal will be vast, and the world still needs workers mining minerals and manufacturing products – at a profit – to create these energy sources. Ultimately, the Global South will still be supplying these workers for the bosses in the Global North.
Bringing governments together to tackle global challenges is the job of the United Nations. The apex of this is the Conference of the Parties (COP), which is now in its 25th iteration. But 25 years of the COP has failed to lower carbon emissions to the required levels.
Without a global plan based on social justice principles, the will of the privileged and the dictates of the global market will do what they always do: use the many for the needs of the few.
The GND needs to be modulated by social justice principles relating directly to “developing” countries, to avoid simply be a “protectionist” framework for the US, with policy and economic stipulations that become detrimental to global workers. Without this, the deal might act as a protective buffer for American citizens, but it could become a type of climate colonialism, feeding the “empire” at the expense of the “colonies”.
Lev Blissett is a pseudonym.