Above Photo: Make Detroit the Engine of the Green New Deal! Becker1999, Wikimedia commons.
This is the first in a series of commentaries on “The Green New Deal–From Below.”
This commentary explains the idea of a Green New Deal from Below and provides an overview of the series. Subsequent commentaries in this series will address dimensions of the Green New Deal from below ranging from energy production to the role of unions to microgrids, coops, anchor institutions, and many others.
The Green New Deal is a visionary program to protect the earth’s climate while creating good jobs, reducing injustice, and eliminating poverty. Its core principle is to use the necessity for climate protection as a basis for realizing full employment and social justice.
The Green New Deal first emerged as a proposal for national legislation, and the struggle to embody it in national legislation is ongoing. But there has also emerged a little-noticed wave of initiatives from community groups, unions, city and state governments, tribes, and other non-federal institutions designed to contribute to the climate protection and social justice goals of the Green New Deal. We will call these the Green New Deal from Below (GNDfB).
The purpose of this commentary is to provide an overview of Green New Deal from Below initiatives in many different arenas and locations. It provides an introduction to a series of commentaries that will delve more deeply into each aspect of the GNDfB. The purpose of the series is to reveal the rich diversity of GNDfB programs already underway and in development. The projects of Green New Dealers recounted here should provide inspiration for thousands more that can create the foundation for national mobilization–and reconstruction.
The original 2018 Green New Deal resolution submitted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called for a national 10-year mobilization to achieve 100% of national power generation from renewable sources; a national “smart grid”; energy efficiency upgrades for every residential and industrial building; decarbonizing manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and other infrastructure; and helping other countries achieve carbon neutral economies and a global Green New Deal. It proposed a job guarantee to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one; mitigation of income and wealth inequality; basic income programs; and universal health care. It advocated innovative financial structures including cooperative and public ownership and public banks. Since that time a wide-ranging discussion has extended and fleshed out the vision of the Green New Deal to include an even wider range of proposals to address climate, jobs, and justice.
The Green New Deal first emerged as a proposal for national mobilization, and national legislation has remained an essential element. But whether legislation embodying the Green New Deal will be passed, and how adequate it will be, continues to hang in the balance. Current “Build Back Better” legislation has already been downsized to less than half its original scale, and many of the crucial elements of the Green New Deal have been cut along the way. How much of the Green New Deal program will actually be passed now or in the future cannot currently be known.
But meanwhile, there are thousands of efforts to realize the goals of the Green New Deal at community, municipal, county, state, tribal, industry, and sectoral levels. While these cannot substitute for a national program, they can contribute enormously to the Green New Deal’s goals of climate protection and economic justice. Indeed, they may well turn out to be the tip of the Green New Deal spear, developing in the vacuum left by the limitations of national programs.
GNDfB programs can play a crucial role in realizing both the climate and the justice goals of the Green New Deal. They can build a constituency supporting a national Green New Deal. And they can serve as testing grounds and building blocks that can be linked together to form a Green New Deal that is more effective because it has strong local roots. Programs “from below” can reach out and coordinate with each other. They also can be coordinated with national level planning and investment. Some national Green New Deal proposals lay out policies and institutions through which such coordination can be promoted. For example, the Evergreen Action Plan proposes a White House Climate Council with formalized engagement with states and local governments–and with the U.S. Climate Alliance of 24 states and two territories that are together committed to upholding the Paris Climate Agreement. A Green New Deal requires a federal and even a global role, but the Green New Deal from Below can start right at home.
Some of the commentaries in this series will describe GNDfB programs and proposals in a variety of economic sectors, ranging from energy production to agriculture to managed decline of fossil fuel infrastructure. Others will delineate some of the institutional forms GNDfB activities are taking, ranging from municipal programs to union initiatives to anchor institution consortiums to campaigns for just transition from fossil fuels. Some of these are explicitly self-described as Green New Deal programs; others don’t use the label but seek the same goals and apply similar principles.
The examples presented in this series are by no means comprehensive–they are just a small selection of the activities under way or being initiated. Nor is there any pretense that any of these represent ideal implementation of GND objectives–they are limited both by the inevitable problems of innovation conducted by imperfect human beings in the face of massive and destructive opposition, and by the absence of a concerted national program. They are offered not as perfect models to be followed but as inspiring examples of the possibilities for local action and the potentials for achieving both climate and justice objectives.
Sectors of the GND from Below
GNDfB programs have emerged in every arena of Green New Deal policy and in all the major sectors where a transition to clean energy is required, including energy production, energy efficiency, fossil fuel decline, transportation, and agriculture.
Climate-safe energy production
Climate safety requires meeting the Green New Deal goal of 100% renewable energy. Hundreds of local initiatives are expanding renewable energy production. The city of Denver, Colo., for example, has set a target of 100% renewable electricity by 2030 and is now constructing community solar gardens on city-owned rooftops; 20% of the solar energy is designated for low income households and a portion of the jobs created are reserved for graduates of a paid training program. In Burlington, Vermont, the city-owned power company has converted to 100% renewable energy. The town of Swampscott, Mass., launched a Community Choice Aggregation program, Swampscott Community Power, which allows residents and businesses to bargain collectively with power companies for better rates and cleaner electricity. In the first year the small town reduced its carbon footprint by more than 9,700 tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to removing more than 2,000 passenger vehicles from the road. Native American tribes throughout North America have initiated dozens of renewable energy projects. Near Pine Point, Minn., Eighth Fire Solar, an enterprise operated by the Anishinaabe, has been manufacturing solar thermal panels for homes and small businesses not only on reservations but throughout North America.
Meeting Green New Deal climate goals also requires cutting down the energy we need by “getting more bang for a kilowatt”–using less energy but using it more efficiently. Groups like Youthbuild, Emerald Cities, and Green Jobs for All have established local programs in many locations providing training and jobs for disadvantaged youth installing energy-efficiency retrofits for homes and other buildings. The National Nurses Union and the American Federation of Teachers have advanced energy efficiency and clean energy programs in their workplaces–hospitals and schools. Washington, D.C. railroad workers successfully pressured their employers to redesign their diesel locomotives to be more energy efficient, less polluting, and safer for workers.
Managed fossil-fuel decline
Climate safety requires the rapid phasing out of fossil fuel burning. That means “managed decline”–a deliberate policy of halting new fossil fuel infrastructure and accelerating the closing of existing facilities. According to the Sierra Club, 347 coal-burning power plants have been or will be retired; 180 US cities and towns are committed to 100% clean energy; and 50 cities are already powered entirely by clean and renewable sources of energy. In addition to the highly visible and ultimately successful struggle to block the Keystone XL pipeline, in the year following President Obama’s rejection of the KXL pipeline in November 2015, at least 28 other proposed fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the US were halted as a result not only of unfavorable economic conditions, but of environmental concerns and local resistance. Many had been targets of direct-action campaigns. According to a report by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International, Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions.
Transportation represents one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and there are myriad projects at local and state levels to reduce them. Shifting to public transit is one of the most effective ways of reducing GHG emissions. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the group Together4Brothers won free summer bus passes; then Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller announced that free bus fares will be permanent for youth 25 years and younger and seniors 65 years and older; Together4Brothers is continuing to organize “until there are free bus rides for all.” The city of Kingston, New York, like many others, has installed a network of publicly-accessible, municipally-hosted electric vehicle charging stations throughout the city. In Connecticut, the Amalgamated Transit Union bus drivers successfully campaigned for conversion to electric buses with designs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while improving driver and passenger safety.
Agriculture represents another major greenhouse gas emitter, but it can also be a significant way to withdraw carbon from the atmosphere. Many local projects are under way to reduce farm emissions while using soils and trees to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. For example, in Boulder, Colo., Jack’s Solar Garden grows crops and vegetables under photovoltaic solar panels. The garden generates enough power for more than 300 homes from 3,276 solar panels. A pollinator habitat surrounds the solar array, while a local nonprofit farming organization trains young farmers to cultivate crops under solar panels. In Petersburg, New York, Soul Fire Farm is training hundreds of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people to farm using regenerative farming that reduces carbon emissions and mitigates climate change. Soul Fire also provides a subsidized farm food program for communities “living under food apartheid.” And in Minnesota, Native American farmers are reviving one of the state’s traditional agricultural industries – hemp. Indian farmers, working with Winona LaDuke’s nonprofit Anishinaabe Agricultural Institute, are building a “new locally grown economy based on food, energy and fiber.”
Institutional Forms of the GND from Below
GNDfB programs are being conducted and developed by a wide range of institutions, including various kinds of communities, cities, states, unions, coops, public banks, anchor institutions, and conservation service corps.
In Boston’s Chinatown, the Chinese Progressive Association is planning for a community-owned energy microgrid to reduce emissions and “bring electric power to those most impacted by environmental injustice” while providing good paying union opportunities for community residents. In Denver, the city Housing Authority and affordable housing developers have launched the CARE Project (Clean Affordable Renewable Energy), including a two-megawatt community solar garden which serves 500 homes throughout the city and county of Denver. Project goals include offering predictable reduced energy costs and renewable energy options to low-income communities and developing a pipeline to employment in the solar industry for under-served communities. Community residents have already had hands-on training and gotten jobs with solar developers in the program. Both the DHA and its residents have saved money on their electric bills – some close to 20% per month. While individual solar gardens are often at small scale, cumulatively they can add up to substantial amounts of electricity. Minnesota’s community solar program, started in 2014, now boasts 800 megawatts of operational capacity with more than 12,000 residential customers, as well as commercial and public service entities, including schools, colleges, hospitals, and county and local governments.
Over the past three decades, more than 600 local governments across the United States have adopted climate action plans setting greenhouse gas reduction targets. Some of these are being implemented in ways that embody the goals and principles of the Green New Deal. For example, in Portland, Ore. in 2018 a ballot initiative overwhelmingly passed establishing the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, which is raising as much as $60 million a year from a unique tax on big retailers like Walmart. The goal of the fund is to provide members of underserved communities with valuable skills while insulating, caulking and tweaking inefficient heating and cooling systems and installing rooftop solar panels at the homes of low-income Portlanders. And in Somerset, Mass., the Brayton Point coal-fired power plant was shut down after a long campaign by community and clean energy advocates. The Town conducted an extensive visioning process for town residents called “Reimagining Brayton Point.” The site is now being redeveloped as a logistics, manufacturing, and support center for offshore wind and other industries.
Since the start of 2021, states have directly supported the adoption of wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies to clean up their power grids. California, for example, is investing millions of dollars to boost rooftop solar and offshore wind. Maine, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are accelerating their offshore wind development. And, six states passed new energy efficiency measures, including programs that expand access to energy efficiency upgrades and strengthened efficiency standards for common household appliances. Maine’s 2019 Green New Deal legislation requires that the construction of grid-scale generation employ people from an apprenticeship program and provides solar installations on newly built schools. In September, 2021 the Illinois House, after long and acrimonious debate, passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. It will put Illinois on a path to a 100% clean energy future while providing a just transition for workers and communities historically dependent on dirty fossil fuels, enacting some of the toughest utility accountability measures in the nation, and creating jobs and wealth in Illinois’ Black and Brown communities.
Many unions have developed their own Green New Deal and climate programs. A September, 2021 study by the Center for American Progress listed scores of Green New Deal programs promoted by unions at state and local levels. Recology, a unionized zero waste recycling coop in the Bay Area initiated by the Teamsters, provides services to 725,000 residential and 110,000 commercial customers in California, Oregon, and Washington. SEIU property management local 32BJ in the New York metropolitan area runs a “Green Supers Program” to provide a professional building service workforce capable of reducing energy use, conserving water, saving money, and providing a cleaner and healthier building to live in. IBEW Local 11 and the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Partnership established and maintain a Net Zero Plus Electrical Training Institute (NZP ETI), which, when it was built, was the country’s largest Net Zero Plus commercial retrofit, generating more energy than its own annual energy demand. The project unites energy efficiency practices, new clean-energy technologies, improved grid resiliency, and career development. The NZP ETI building–and its training–include such energy efficiency measures as electrical vehicle charging, HVAC, battery storage, microgrids, energy dashboards, lighting, and exterior shading. The program aims to “transform commercial markets by employing the newest electrical technologies and training the most skilled workforce in the United States.”
Coops, public purpose finance, and public ownership
One of the hallmarks of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ original Green New Deal proposal was an emphasis on alternative forms of enterprise and finance like cooperatives and public banks. Established and new coops are establishing programs to provide jobs by greening the economy. In Martha’s Vineyard, Vineyard Power is a community-owned cooperative with a membership base of over 1,390 households and businesses whose mission is to produce electricity from local, renewable resources while advocating for and keeping the benefits within the island community. Its vision is to make the island of Martha’s Vineyard 100% renewable in domestic electricity, transportation and home heating by 2040. In New York City, Green Worker Cooperatives links coops providing artisanal art, birthing services, cleaning services, composting, construction, farming, fashion, food, interpretation services, manufacturing and design, photography services, and technology. The Connecticut Green Bank, established in 2011, is the nation’s first green bank. It provides funding for cleaner, less expensive, and more reliable sources of energy while creating jobs and supporting local economic development. Its mission is “to confront climate change and provide all of society a healthier and more prosperous future by increasing and accelerating the flow of private capital into markets that energize the green economy.” Other green banks and public banks are developing around the country.
A recently developed model for local development is an “anchor institution” forming the hub of a network of cooperative and other community-based enterprises. The best known example is the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, which was launched in 2008 by a working group of Cleveland-based institutions including the Cleveland Foundation, the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and the city of Cleveland. It is working to create living-wage jobs in six low-income neighborhoods through cooperatives that supply the anchor institutions and the region. Coops range from Berry’s Insulation to Phoenix Coffee and from Green City Growers to Evergreen Cooperative Laundry. Meanwhile, leaders of the AAUP-AFT local union at Rutgers University, having persuaded the university to develop a climate action plan, hope to use it as an anchor institution for a partnership with community groups in Newark, Camden, and New Brunswick to build community solar cooperatives to own new solar installations on the three campuses and to pressure the University to create local “resilience hubs” for residents in surrounding communities to be able to access potable water, electric charging for vital communication and medical devices, and refrigerators for life-saving medical and dietary needs during the ever more frequent climate-related power outages.
Conservation Service Corps
One of the key elements of the original Green New Deal resolution is a Jobs for All program and a conservation service corps. The idea of a Civilian Climate Corps has now been incorporated into Build Back Better legislation. Meanwhile, many states and agencies have already gone ahead on their own. In September 2020, California launched the California Climate Action Corps, the country’s first statewide corps of its kind with the mission of empowering Californians to take meaningful action to protect their homes, health, and communities against the impacts of climate change. This initiative will engage people through a variety of levels and activities, from an hour at home to a full year of service. In September 2021, Colorado established the Colorado Climate Corps, which will place 240 AmeriCorps members in 55 counties across the state to protect public lands and help low-income communities brace for the climate crisis. The organization Climate Corps has provided professional development opportunities for emerging leaders through implementation of over 1,000 sustainability and resiliency projects with local governments, nonprofits, and for-profit businesses since 2011.
Participatory Social Reconstruction
We have presented above only a few selected examples among hundreds. If we can learn from each other and support each other, we can hope they will soon be a few among thousands.
We make no claim that these programs are perfect. Developed by real people within a real world that is marked by inhumanity, injustice, and greed they are bound to exhibit flaws both of conception and of execution. But to a remarkable extent they are meeting the core goals of the Green New Deal by reducing fossil fuel pollution, creating jobs, and reducing injustice.
The world historian Arnold Toynbee once delineated how great civilizational changes occur. Existing leadership of existing institutions face new challenges – but fail to adapt to meet them. Their civilizations are therefore vulnerable to collapse. In such a setting a creative minority may arise which proposes – and begins to implement – new solutions. Surely climate change represents such a civilizational challenge, and just as surely our existing institutions and their leaders are failing to make the changes it requires. But at the grassroots a creative minority is at work establishing new solutions that are reconstructing society on new principles. Their work is manifested in the Green New Deal from Below.
To realize its potential, the Green New Deal must be more than a collection of federal programs; it must be a society-wide effort, a popular mobilization. The original New Deal of the Great Depression was just that. Millions of people in thousands of communities pitched in with local initiatives. These initiatives often reached out to each other locally, regionally, and nationally, both assisting and demanding change at the top. Meanwhile, the New Deal as a national movement encouraged and supported these local initiatives. The result was the New Deal as a social movement that went beyond the vision of many of its national leaders to implement democratic grassroots change to meet the desperate needs of its participants.
That is the promise of the Green New Deal from Below.