Trevor Hancock: A new year, and a (Green) New Deal?

Times Colonist, December 30, 2018.

It can be hard to feel any great sense of optimism in the face of the discord and foot-dragging on climate change and other global ecological crises, even as scientists tell us it is worse than was anticipated.

But as we enter 2019, there is cause for hope — and somewhat surprisingly, it is coming from the U.S., where there is a buzz about the Green New Deal being proposed in Congress.

Excitingly, the champion of this is representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, an educator and activist and, at 29 years old, the youngest person ever to serve in the U.S. Congress. She is backed by the Sunrise Movement, “an army of young people to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.” Even before she is sworn in, she has a draft resolution on her website calling for the creation of a select committee for a Green New Deal.

So what is the Green New Deal, and why is it a hopeful initiative? The original New Deal was put in place by then-president Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s to address the global financial and social disaster of the Great Depression. It was a combination of financial stability measures, public works, strengthening of unions, relief and social insurance — and in broad terms it worked.

Fast forward 75 years, and the U.K.-based New Economic Foundation proposed a Green New Deal in 2008, in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis. At the time, its concerns were “a combination of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, accelerating climate change and soaring energy prices underpinned by an encroaching peak in oil production.” While “peak oil” might have been put off a bit, the need to get off fossil fuels has become even more urgent in the intervening decade.

The NEF’s Green New Deal had two main strands: Major changes in taxation and in the regulation of national and international financial systems, and “a sustained program to invest in and deploy energy conservation and renewable energies.” Specifically, this would mean a large public investment in energy efficiency and conservation, as well as in the development of a clean, renewable energy infrastructure. It would also mean “creating and training a ‘carbon army’ of workers to provide the human resources for a vast environmental reconstruction program.”

A third strand would be more realistic pricing of fossil fuels, reflecting the true costs of the health and environmental damage they cause. Higher prices would drive investment in conservation, energy efficiency and alternative-energy systems, while the revenues from carbon taxes and taxes on windfall profits would help fund the workforce transition and protect vulnerable low-income people from higher energy costs.

I have seen the benefits of such an approach at the local level. About 25 years ago, I visited a public housing estate in Liverpool where they had decided to do energy retrofits because of a concern that the poorly insulated, cold, damp houses were causing respiratory diseases in children. But they didn’t just hire a contractor to come in and do the work.

Instead, they involved the residents in designing and managing the program and hired and trained local people to do the work in this area of high unemployment and low skills. The results included improved energy efficiency, reduced emissions and reduced energy costs for residents. But the program also increased the sense of local empowerment, created jobs and enhanced employability skills.

Take that to a national level and you can see why advocates of a Green New Deal see it is a matter of job creation and economic and social justice as much as it is a program for a more ecologically sustainable society. Of course, these changes are not without their opponents, chiefly those with a financial and political stake in the fossil-fuel industry.

But as Ocasio-Cortez commented in early December: “It’s unsurprising that the response to any bold proposal that we have is to incite fear. To incite fear of loss, to incite fear of others. To incite fear of our future. But the only way we are going to get out of this situation is to be courageous.”

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.