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Workers Bark Back on “The Green Dream or Whatever”
That’s big trouble for the Democrats.
Back in 2019, Nancy Pelosi seemed unenthusiastic about a Green New Deal, referring to it as “the green dream or whatever they call it.” But a funny thing happened between then and now. The Democrats wound up embracing the basic idea and instantiated a scaled-down version of it in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
Lately, there’s been rough sledding for the IRA and its priorities, as the UAW has called a nationwide strike not only for better pay and benefits but also to protest how the IRA’s electric vehicle (EV) component is being implemented. UAW workers are far from convinced a rapid transition to electric vehicles is really going to benefit them. They’ve got a point given that manufacturers are rushing to build facilities in non-union states and that EV production needs fewer workers overall than production of traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.
It's worth reviewing how Democrats have managed, in a sense, to paint themselves into a corner on energy-related issues. Cast your mind back to 2017, a couple of years before Nancy Pelosi derisively referred to the Green New Deal as “the green dream or whatever.” That was the year the Sunrise Movement was formed, with the tagline “We are the climate revolution.” The basic idea was that the globe was teetering of the verge of apocalypse, especially in the wake of Trump’s election, and that the Democrats’ incrementalist “all-of-the-above” approach from the Obama years was completely bankrupt. Showing the extent to which this brand of catastrophist climate politics was winning support, the group was initially funded by the Sierra Club, an old-line environmental organization that traditionally advocated for gradual reform and steered clear of radical organizations.
Sunrise crystallized the sense among radical climate activists that time was running out and it was necessary to ratchet up pressure and tactics, including direct action and civil disobedience, to force a rapid transition to clean energy. Enough, said Sunrise cofounder Varshini Prakash, with “pathetic incrementalism.” The group advocated for a Green New Deal—a term previously used by columnist Thomas Friedman, the U.S. Green Party, and even Bernie Sanders in 2016—that would completely transform the economy in the process of attaining carbon neutrality by 2030. The goal of their aggressive tactics, said Prakash, was to “make it politically impossible for a Democratic lawmaker to vote no on the Green New Deal.”
Initially they focused their energy on allying with politicians who would support that approach and, through that, pressuring others to do so. They hit the jackpot when newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) joined the organization in a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s congressional office in November 2018, greatly elevating its profile. Riding the wave of publicity from this sit-in, Sunrise and allies pushed incoming members of Congress to support the formation of a Congressional Select Committee specifically on the Green New Deal. They got forty congressional sponsors to sign on including Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). The idea failed but publicity kept building.
In December, Sunrise staged another larger sit-in at Pelosi and Steny Hoyer’s offices, resulting in 143 arrests. Over three hundred local elected officials from forty states issued a letter endorsing a Green New Deal. In January, over six hundred environmental and progressive organizations, including Sunrise and 350.org, did likewise. In the groups’ letter, they urged a Green New Deal that would end all fossil fuel usage, including natural gas. They explicitly rejected the use of nuclear or CCS to achieve emission objectives. The transition was to be to 100 percent renewables.
In February 2019, Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) formally introduced a congressional resolution advocating a Green New Deal. This Green New Deal proposal was everything the radicals at Sunrise could have wished for and more. The proposal affirmed that the United States must become net zero on carbon emissions by 2030 through a dramatic and far-reaching transformation of every aspect of the economy. And far from entailing sacrifice, this economic transformation would provide full employment in high-wage jobs, accompanied by universal high-quality health care and housing. It would end all oppression of indigenous people, “communities of color,” migrant communities, and other “frontline and vulnerable communities.” Who could ask for anything more?
The full employment aspect of the proposal was key to making it politically palatable. It countered the obvious objection that eliminating fossil fuels so quickly and disrupting the economy might result in job loss and lower wages. The proposal asserted that, on the contrary, there would be more jobs and they would all be high-wage. No trade-offs at all would be necessary.
The proposal generated enormous publicity and was injected into the mainstream of Democratic Party discourse. Six senators who would become contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination endorsed it: Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Sanders would go on to release a $16.3 trillion Green New Deal plan of his own during his campaign for the Democratic nomination.
Of course, none of these hopefuls garnered the Democratic nomination; Joe Biden did. However, while Biden declined to specifically endorse and use the Green New Deal language, he did put forward his own ambitious climate plan that was essentially a softer version of the Green New Deal proposals. And once in office he has very much pursued his plan, resulting in the aforementioned IRA.
It is fair to say that Biden and the entire Democratic Party have more or less embraced the following catechism:
Climate change is not a danger that is gradually occurring, but an imminent crisis that is already upon us in extreme weather events. It threatens the existence of the planet if immediate, drastic action is not taken. That action must include the immediate replacement of fossil fuels, including natural gas, by renewables, wind and solar, which are cheap and can be introduced right now if sufficient resources are devoted to doing so, and which, unlike nuclear power, are safe. Not only that, the immediate replacement of fossil fuels by renewables will make energy cheaper and provide high wage jobs.
People resist rapidly eliminating fossil fuels only because of propaganda from the fossil fuel industry. Any of the problems with renewables that are being cited, such as their intermittency and reliability, are being solved. This means that as we use more renewables and cut out fossil fuels, political support for the transition to clean energy should go up because of the benefits to consumers and workers.
Pretty much every sentence in this catechism is, if not outright false, highly questionable. But the catechism is not to be questioned among good Democrats, least of all Biden himself. A recent New York Times article detailed his aggressive climate plans for a second term, featuring heavy regulation of steel and cement plants, factories and oil refineries. That will no doubt endear him to workers in those industries, just has he has endeared himself to America’s autoworkers.
But hey, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. As Biden put it in the Times article:
The only existential threat humanity faces even more frightening than a nuclear war is global warming going above 1.5 degrees in the next 20 — 10 years. That’d be real trouble. There’s no way back from that.
More frightening than nuclear war, eh? I guess that means we can’t worry about trivial things like workers’ jobs in high-paying industries.
The fact is that the working class did not really sign up for the rapid green transition envisioned by Biden and most Democrats. Therefore, when their jobs or living standards are collateral damage in the push toward “Net Zero”, they are unlikely to cut the Democrats much slack on what is, after all, not their project or even a top priority for them.
As the Times article noted:
While 54 percent of adults polled by Pew said climate change was a major threat to the country’s well-being, respondents ranked it 17th out of 21 national issues in a January survey. “Even for Democrats, who say it’s important, it’s not the top issue,” said Alec Tyson, a researcher who helped conduct the survey.
Workers are more oriented toward a gradual, “all-of-the-above” approach to transitioning the energy system than to the frantic push for renewables and electric vehicles (not to mention heat pumps, electric stoves, etc.) that characterizes Green New Deal-type thinking. In a recent survey conducted by YouGov for The Liberal Patriot, just a quarter of working-class (noncollege) voters embraced the Democrats’ current approach, emphasizing ending the use of fossil fuels and rapidly adopting renewables. This was actually less than the number (29 percent) that flat-out supported production of fossil fuels and opposed green energy projects. The dominant position by far was an all-of-the above approach that called for cheap, abundant energy from many sources, including oil, gas, renewables, and nuclear, favored by 46 percent of voters.
Supporters of (as Nancy Pelosi would put it) “the green dream or whatever” have convinced themselves that their approach would involve no real trade-offs and make everyone happy and better off. Workers, to put mildly, don’t see it that way. The UAW strike is just the latest manifestation of that hard political reality. There will likely be many more if the Democrats do not revise their approach to energy issues so it aligns more with the priorities of working-class voters and less with those of today’s climate activists.