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The Global Green New Deal: Towards A Socialist Strategy

People’s Policy Project has published my proposal for funding international climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts through a Global Green New Deal. In it, I propose a strategy for securing $2 trillion every year from wealthy nations for the UN’s Green Climate Fund.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive plan for fighting climate change. Nor does it address all of the challenges that the GGND is likely to encounter en route. This proposal is merely a first step in what I believe will be a series of fights for to enact a green agenda that is urgent, forceful, and just.

Here, I’d like to discuss how the Global Green New Deal establishes a strategic framework that socialists can use to fight for the future of our planet - and win.

I. Making the GGND a political priority.

By design, the GGND foregrounds what will be, in the United States, two of the most difficult battles in the fight against climate change.

First, it calls for the US to guarantee its share of the funding. Climate science and basic economic modeling have given us a pretty good idea of what international green development will cost; the only question that remains is whether we will bow to this reality or continue to deny it. Nevertheless, the sheer sticker shock of a $680 billion annual payment is going to make this an extraordinarily difficult political lift.

Second, the GGND calls for the US to turn over these funds to the international community. This is necessary for several reasons. For one thing, any international development program administered by the US government will remain vulnerable to capture and demobilization by our domestic climate politics; turning these funds over to an international body like the Green Climate Fund (GCF) creates significant political and legal obstacles to US interests. Additionally, turning these funds over to the international community gives them to actors who have skin in the game, and who have a compelling moral claim to aid and compensation. We have created a problem that will overwhelmingly be visited upon the world’s poorest nations; they have a stake in solving this that we do not, and a right to solve it in their own way.

The GCF is not a perfect vehicle for socialist ambitions; it will present its own challenges to our agenda, which I will deal with momentarily. Nevertheless, I believe that it is the best way forward, simply because it has more democratic legitimacy than any other institution capable of carrying out a program of this scale. Most importantly, the GCF is administered by a board that, by international law, gives equal representation to developing countries.

These are the two fights that the GGND is designed to provoke: the fight for guaranteed and adequate funding for international green development, and the fight to place it in the hands of the international community. If we can win these fights, then everything that follows will be much easier. But if we don’t, then we will spend the foreseeable future:
  • Entrenching the idea that climate change is an exclusively domestic battle that entails no international commitments;
  • Entrenching the idea that the trivial commitments that we are willing to make are adequate;
  • Entrenching the idea that the international funding problem is simply too big to take on;
  • Disrupting and destabilizing international efforts by making promises that we fail to deliver on;
  • Defaulting to a US-centric international development strategy that will fund and entrench a green industrial complex of government agencies and US-based businesses - the latter of which will, in turn, work to capture as profits as much of our international funding investments as it possibly can; and
  • Allowing climate change to escalate, which will in turn raise the costs of adaptation and mitigation, and make international cooperation more difficult.
These are the problems that I have endeavored, in my proposal, to overcome; but again, the GGND is just a first step.

II. Budgeting for the GGND.

Next comes the question of budgeting. Hypothetically, the US can “pay for” the GGND any number of ways: from regressive taxation to expropriating the expropriators to printing money. Socialists may therefore want to use this as an opportunity to call for a shift in our budget priorities - or to restructure our economy altogether. At the same time, there can be no doubt that the right will use this debate as they use every debate over budgets: to call for austerity and tax cuts. Thus, socialists will also need to play defense as well.

As always, political context will have to dictate strategy. If the fight for funding takes place during a moment of political strength for socialists, we may want to orient our efforts towards a direct strike on capital. In that case, our argument would be that various pillars of the liberal-capitalist order directly impede our ability to secure adequate funding, and must therefore be overthrown. For example:
  • One might argue that the GGND can only be paid for by emergency expropriations so expansive that new legal authorities need to be installed that supercede private property rights (as enshrined in common and constitutional law). This, in my view, would require both an Article V convention and the installation of judges amenable to the new legal regime.
  • Similarly, one might argue that the international community needs - and is entitled - to set the GGND’s funding levels, rather than allowing the US Congress to set the level at $680 billion per year as proposed. To that end, socialists might argue for changes to the Constitution that would enshrine a longstanding goal of the internationalist left: the installation of a global tax authority. This, again, would presumably require an Article V convention and the installation of judges.
  • As Piketty notes is his own discussion of using global tax regimes to fight climate change, “enforcing at the global level seems very difficult, to say the least.” The above proposal finesses that problem somewhat by taxing the United States instead of individuals, but socialists may instead use this negotiation as an opportunity to push for the United States to become a party to the International Criminal Court, and to argue for that its purview should expand to include international tax evasion.
These are just a few examples of the sort of dramatic challenges to capitalism and nationalism that could emerge naturally in the course of negotiations over the GGND’s funding. It is just as likely, of course, that these negotiations will arrive at a moment of weakness for socialists - when our grasp on power is tenuous, and our movement disorganized, undisciplined, and fickle.

In that case, socialists may have to settle for a war of position, as Gramsci put it - an attempt to not to strike at capital, but to put us in a better position for future strikes. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein notes that “there is no shortage of options for equitably coming up with the cash to prepare for the coming storms while radically lowering our emissions,” and proposes just six ideas - a financial transaction tax, closing tax havens, a billionaire’s tax, slashed military budgets, a carbon tax, and a phase out on fossil fuel subsidies - that would themselves “raise more than $2 trillion annually.” That’s enough for the US to shoulder the entire financial burden of the GGND on its own!

III. Seizing the Green Climate Fund.

The United Nations occupies a fraught position in socialist thought. On the one hand, it is generally understood that the UN has often served as an instrument of US hegemony. Socialists have often applied to the UN criticism of the League of Nations advanced by Lenin and Trotsky, who wrote of
the victorious world cliques who, under the firm name of the “League of Nations”...will here plunder and strangle some peoples and cast crumbs to others, while everywhere and always shackling the proletariat - with the sole object of maintaining their own rule…
There is no use in whitewashing this critique, or the innumerable instances in which it has clearly applied to the UN. At the same time, however, socialists have also been willing to recognize the UN as an occasionally progressive force in world affairs. Even Stalin, in a telling formulation, insisted that the UN was the most viable vehicle to maintain peace “apart from the complete disarmament of the aggressor nations”. Mao Zedong’s perspective on the UN evolved over the decades - beginning with opposition and skepticism, particularly during the Korean War, but warming, Jianwei Wang writes in China's Evolving Attitudes, when
Developing countries with anti-imperialist and anti-colonial traditions...constituted the majority of the United Nations, which was getting increasingly difficult for Washington to manipulate. (109)
Thus, when faced with opposition to China’s entrance into the UN, Mao defied them, insisting that “It is our black brothers in Africa who have lifted us into the United Nations.” Theoretical positions have varied, but in historical practice, socialists and communists have often been willing to work through the UN, particularly in alliance with the third world, as a check on imperial power.

With that in mind, the UN’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) has two major advantages as a vehicle for the fight against climate change. First - in contrast to national institutions, private institutions, and the first-world dominated Security Council - the GCF is required by international law to maintain “an equal number of members from developing and developed countries” on its governing board. And second - unlike other institutions that give comparable representation to the developing world - the GCF is relatively well-positioned to operate at the scale that the fight against climate change demands.

That said: in our fight for the GGND, socialists will also need to capture and defend the Green Climate Fund from capital and imperial interests. Negotiations to secure proportional investments from other OECD nations - and to reconfigure the Green Climate Fund to manage this level of investment - will present another opportunity for socialists to fight for several changes to the GCF, such as:
  • Democratizing the GCF. Though it already gives equal representation to developing nations, a truly democratic GCF would give them seats proportional to their share of the world population - in other words, seven out of every eight.
  • Limits or outright prohibitions on transfers to the private sector, which would take the form of business subidies, loans, ownership of patents or infrastructure developed with GGND funding, and so on.

    The question of grant restrictions poses the core dilemma for ecosocialists: can (and should) climate change be leveraged towards a direct strike against global capitalism? If the answer is “yes”, then the way forward seems fairly straightforward: GGND funding should only be distributed to adaptation and mitigation projects run by the public sector. This stipulation would instantly create both an incentive (funding) and a penalty (climate change) for mass nationalization in impacted countries. On the other hand, one can imagine that resistance to nationalization would be too powerful for the GGND to overcome quickly enough to avoid various ecological tipping points and deter catastrophic climate change. If that is the case, then it would obviously make sense for socialists to accept relaxed requirements and live to fight another day.

    There is in any case no way around this dilemma. A timely and effective response to climate change demands mass redistribution on a historically unprecedented scale, and the circulation of capital guarantees that these funds will eventually find their way into the private sectors of national economies. This is true whether the initial redistribution is routed through the UN or into the hands of non-profits or local communes. And any attempt to leverage climate change towards any political agenda will proceed by exposing its target to the same terrible risk.
  • Finally, socialists may want to formally emancipate the Green Climate Fund from the United Nations altogether. Though the GCF already has significant de facto independence, it is legally an entity operating under the authority of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; thus, the UNFCCC would have to be amended accordingly (as it would have to be in pursuit of many of the other proposals contemplated here).

The Global Green New Deal, as I have tried to demonstrate here, should not be regarded as a final goal, but rather as a first step in a more ambitious agenda to fight climate change. It can be as modest or as radical as socialists are willing to make it.