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The Green New Deal is a War Effort Against our Greatest Enemy—Climate Change

By Leah C. Stokes

If the United States found itself under attack tomorrow, what would our leaders do? They could delay responding for years, debating whether we could afford the fight. They could lie, arguing that the assault never occurred. Or they could mobilize society’s resources to protect the American people.

The costs of the climate crisis are as threatening as a war. There are communities across this country that have faced forest fires that must have felt like bombings. Over the last decade, the amount of land burning each year in the western United States has doubled compared to the 1980s.

The climate crisis is on our doorstep. If we want to keep a dramatic shift in the weather from destroying more of our communities, we cannot delay any longer. United with allies around the world, America must mobilize for battle against a strange foe: invisible gases.

Despite the gravity of the threat we face, our policy response has proven anemic. In the United States, little progress is being made. No major climate bill has moved through Congress in a decade—Nancy Pelosi last shepherded a cap and trade bill through the House in 2009. Attempts to move climate policy at the state level have also stalled. In progressive Washington state, the public voted down a carbon tax on the ballot last fall.

Rather than progress, climate policy has been caught in a decades-long debate over details: caps versus taxes, dividends versus mandates, auctions versus free allocations.

Into this stale debate waltzed a bright young woman with a bold new idea: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her Green New Deal. This policy aims to link the climate crisis to other challenges we face, including economic and racial inequality. And on climate policy, it has a fresh new motto: do the work. We have to stop climate change. We must do whatever is necessary.

The goal is a WWII-scale mobilization, not another tweak to the Clean Air Act.

When we conceive of climate policy as a war effort, it changes how we understand the solution. It’s no longer about “getting prices right.” It’s about mobilizing the industrial and human resources necessary to address our biggest collective threat. And it’s about doing it in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the inequalities we already face.

The center of the plan is a series of projects: upgrading buildings, decarbonizing the electricity grid, electrifying transportation, cleaning up heavy industry, and working on agricultural emissions.

In many areas, like cement and steel manufacturing, no countries yet have clear solutions on how to remove carbon. If the United States applies its ingenuity to these areas, it could unlock solutions that could drive down carbon emissions around the planet.

And just like a war effort, these projects will also create a ton of jobs in the United States. Many of these jobs will also be in higher-paid skilled trades, providing new opportunities for communities moving away from fossil fuels. The framers particularly hope to help close the racial unemployment gap in the United States—nationally, Black unemployment is at least twice as high as white unemployment.

Focusing on the work rather than the costs also has several political benefits. As I have shown in research with Chris Warshaw, emphasizing job creation increases public support for clean energy policy, while focusing on costs undermines it.

While this initial legislation is symbolic, it should not be dismissed outright. Its progress will send an important signal. If the Democrats gain control of the federal government in two years, the US may start investing trillions annually to address climate change.

Businesses and investors should have one thought: opportunity.

And that, right there, could flip the whole conversation. This is a big money making opportunity for private capital. There will be profits for those willing to join in the battle against an unstable climate and rampant inequality.

The plan is also unique in that it aims to share the benefits of getting carbon out of our society with the public, not just with corporations. Rather than adding costs onto households, the plan’s focus on energy retrofits could make it cheaper for families to heat and cool their homes. By investing in public transportation, the plan would make it easier for everyone to get to work.

Setting aside the politics, the sheer logistics of removing carbon across society will not be an easy task. Large parts of the US workforce will have to focus on this problem for the coming decades. The government needs to set policy that moves private capital and workforce development in this direction.

America may not yet be ready for the mobilization necessary to address climate change. But with each passing year, the threat grows larger with heat waves, hurricanes, droughts and fires. It is becoming harder for lawmakers to ignore this crisis.

It is refreshing to see legislation that matches the challenge ahead. Finally there are elected representatives who understand the scale of what is required. The path is narrow, but even if this bill fails, there’s reason for hope. We can defeat climate change if we only try.

Leah C. Stokes is an Assistant Professor in environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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