The 14-page Green New Deal (GND) resolution won more than a hundred cosponsors when it was introduced in the House last February. It generated a predictable media buzz and stirred heated debate among national political figures. But today, a year and a half later, the GND is not much more than a slogan. It is no closer to being codified in law than world peace or universal basic income.
Republicans — who control all but one branch of the federal government — talk about the GND roughly the way Evangelicals talk about the Antichrist. Democrats have largely ignored it. Most of the Democratic cosigners dropped the subject after the resolution was killed in committee; the party leadership has dismissed the very idea of a GND with contempt. The only nationally recognized party that supports the full range of GND programs is the Green Party, which first introduced the concept. The U.S. Green Party has never won more than 3% of the vote in a presidential race and 1% in a legislative cycle, and currently holds no seats in any state or federal legislature.
Faced with such a grim national outlook, activists have turned their attention to smaller projects. In a number of states (California, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, New York) and cities (Washington D.C., Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh, Portland, Seattle), legislation has been introduced loosely modeled on the federal GND. The bills are diverse, but they generally include 20- to 30-year decarbonization schedules; tighter energy efficiency standards for buildings, factories and utilities; and the requirement that some percentage of public funds for “greening” projects be directed to poor and minority communities. In some cases — most dramatically in New York — these bills have already passed, even over massive business opposition.
Since August, Boston has had its own version of these local GND proposals: “Planning for a Boston Green New Deal and Just Recovery,” a report from the office of Michelle Wu, city councilor-at-large and 2021 mayoral candidate. At first glance, Wu’s plan shares much in common with the federal GND. Both propose an amalgam of regulation, public ownership, and community organization to guide the economy’s decarbonization process. Both commit to urgent timescales — 100% renewable energy by 2030, and for the Boston GND, “citywide carbon neutrality by 2040.” Both weave ideals of social, economic, and environmental justice into a single program of action.
But there are many features unique to the city-level plan. For one thing, the Boston GND incorporates relief programs to ease the pain of the COVID recession, of which the resolution’s drafters were blissfully ignorant. The local plan is also, though far from a ready-made piece of legislation, more specific than the original resolution. The resolution embraces a set of broad, aspirational goals without offering any plan to achieve them. Wu’s team indulges in this sort of vagueness (there are no cost estimates, for example) but they also outline 15 concrete policy plans, often specifying exactly which branch of the city government will take precisely what action.
Without going into too much detail, the Boston GND envisions:
- A renewable energy program. A ten-year shift to 100% renewable energy, achieved by regulations on building efficiency and carbon emissions, a ban on new natural gas infrastructure, and the electrification of the public transport system.
- A “Justice Audit.” An audit of all the city’s services and departments to ensure that their operations are not reinforcing racial and class disparities.
- “Green Municipal Bonds.” An issue of municipal bonds — essentially, loans to the city from outside investors — to help finance the projects envisioned in the plan.
- A green jobs program. A jobs training program emphasizing construction and engineering jobs in green infrastructure, developed with the help of Boston’s trade unions and worker centers.
- Fossil fuel divestment. A review of Boston’s municipal investments — especially the $5.3 billion managed by the Boston Retirement Board — and selective divestment from fossil fuel companies, weapons manufacturers, and private prisons.
- An Urban Climate Corps. A jobs program (modeled on the first New Deal’s Conservation Corps) targeted at youth, communities of color, and neighborhoods with high unemployment rates.
- Cooperative housing and community land trusts (CLTs). A program of tax credits and subsidies to cooperative housing ventures and community land trusts, both to control rent and mortgage costs and to democratize control of housing.
- Renters’ right to counsel. Establishing, by city decree, a renter’s right to legal representation in case of eviction.
- A municipal development program. Crafting a unified, transparent “master plan” for economic development, as well as reforming the Zoning Board of Appeals and abolishing the (corrupt and dysfunctional) Boston Planning and Development Agency.
- Updated stormwater infrastructure. A retooling of Boston’s sewer and stormwater system to make it more environmentally resilient.
- Fare-free public transport. Lobbying the state government (which controls the city’s transit authority) for enough stable funding to support a fully electrified, fare-free public transport system.
- Small business support. An injection of relief funds for small businesses either damaged or put out of business by pandemic-related restrictions.
- Intensified urban agriculture. Changing zoning regulations to allow for the expansion of urban farming and community gardens.
- Expansion of Boston’s tree canopy. Systematic planting of trees (especially in poorer neighborhoods with little green space) to expand Boston’s canopy cover, which protects against rising temperatures and acts as a cost-effective carbon sink.
- A local “Blue New Deal.” Expanded investment in coastal resiliency (e.g., concrete buffers against rising sea levels) as well as sustainable fishing, ocean farming, and other sustainable projects on the coastline.
The plan is undoubtedly ambitious. It would be exaggerated to say that Wu intends to turn Boston into “a Nordic-style climate haven,” but the social and economic programs are well in advance of most American cities. The first and third planks alone would turn a major East Coast economic hub — one of the wealthiest cities in the United States — into a large-scale experiment in climate adaptation.
Policy has to be more than ambitious, however. Anyone who sympathizes with Wu’s goals will want to know two things: whether the Boston GND programs are viable, and whether they are likely to be realized anytime soon.
Individually, the programs stand up well to the first test. Most of what the report proposes is not radically new. Housing cooperatives and CLTs, for example, are proven methods of keeping housing prices down. They already exist in Boston; the plan merely proposes a few tax and zoning changes that would allow them to expand. A number of American cities — and many more European ones — have begun to electrify their subway systems and bus fleets. Even the 100% renewable energy commitment has passed in New York and elsewhere (though the outcome of such long-term commitments can only be guessed at now). In fact, for each of its 15 proposals, Wu’s team is able to list at least three cities, many of them as large as or larger than Boston, where similar policies are already in place.
The problem is not that any individual policy is unworkable. The problem is the cost of the whole. Somehow, the entire GND package — all 15 planks, and the detailed “Companion Policies” that accompany them — will have to be financed simultaneously, after decades of spending cuts and while a massive recession eats away at state and city tax revenue.
To be sure, some of the programs would be free (divestment), almost free (the Justice Audit), or relatively cheap (the tree-planting scheme). But the core of the plan — the shift to renewable energy, the jobs program and the infrastructure updates — will be capital-intensive, and the city cannot simply print the money it needs, as national governments do in times of crisis. (Keynesian stimulus plays a large role in plans for a national-level GND. Robert Hockett and Robert Pollin, for example, who offer two very different funding plans for the national GND, assume extensive congressionally-authorized deficit spending and Federal Reserve bond purchases.)
The report does mention a few potential funding mechanisms. The Green Municipal Bonds are the most important; despite the city’s current desperate financial straits, Boston’s credit rating is quite good, so a bond issue would attract plenty of investors. The other revenue streams involve either taxes on environmental destruction (a higher gasoline tax, a carbon tax, a fee for idle ride-sharing vehicles) or lobbying the state government for funds.
The taxes have the dual advantage of raising revenue and incentivizing more sustainable behavior. The reliance on state funding is more problematic, though probably inevitable. The solidly Democratic Massachusetts state legislature has a dismal climate record. So does Republican Governor Charlie Baker, whose much-hailed moderation and pragmatism includes the time-honored bipartisan practice of setting meaningless climate goals. The idea that either would willingly cough up the funds for the transformative projects enshrined in the Boston GND is far-fetched to say the least.
The report mentions that cities (particularly large, wealthy cities) have some leverage in negotiating funding arrangements with the state. Still, any amount of funding controlled by the state is an opportunity for business opponents — utilities, developers, and natural gas companies, to name a few — to defang the plan. The more funds raised at the municipal level, the more control the city will exercise over the shape of the plan, and the smaller the chance that a hostile state government can sabotage it.
Then there is the probability question: assuming the programs are all feasible, how likely is a Boston GND, say, five years from now? The honest answer is not very likely, especially if Boston progressives pursue the strategy of the GND’s national advocates: a heavy reliance on electoral mobilization, coupled with small, scattered, largely symbolic protests. It becomes somewhat more likely — though still tremendously difficult to pull off — if they commit to building and wielding genuine grassroots power. At the moment, that is hard to imagine, for a number of reasons.
One major problem is that the plan is personalized. The Boston GND is tied, not to a broad-based organization or movement, but to the political fortunes of Councilor Wu. A number of community and labor groups were consulted in crafting the plan, which is couched in the language of grassroots organizing and people power. At the end of the 49-page report, however, it is clear that success is premised on Wu (or some other progressive champion) storming the mayor’s office with the plan in her pocket and using mayoral power to bring it to life.
The left has always been enticed by this prospect. If we could only win this election, the power we would have… Not only is the expectation naïve — cost constraints and business pressure will inevitably distort the plan — but the reliance on a single charismatic figure sets up an enormous risk: If Wu’s victory in the election would signal the GND’s possible success, her loss will mean its almost certain defeat. The wind would be taken out of progressives’ sails for at least another four years; and if the backup plan is to pressure Walsh into adopting the plan anyway, he could (not without reason) claim an electoral mandate for limiting policy changes to token reforms.
Unfortunately for GND advocates, Wu’s victory would be a massive upset. Boston has never elected a non-white or female mayor. The last time an incumbent mayor was beaten in a competitive election was 1949, when John Michael Curley was ousted after finishing a stint in jail for corruption. The current incumbent, Marty Walsh, faces a string of more minor corruption scandals and the brutal challenge of trying to manage a pandemic, but he is also a consummate machine politician with high approval ratings and strong backing from local labor unions. As of mid-September, he had amassed $5.5 million for his reelection campaign, a war chest more than ten times larger than Wu’s (who had raised just under $350,000). Not surprisingly, the first public poll on the mayoral race, commissioned by local radio station WGBH, found 47% of voters backing Walsh and 23% backing Wu.
These are early days, and with enough organizing acumen Wu might be able to pull off an AOC-style progressive upset. But the signs are not auspicious. Fellow city councilor (and relative progressive) Andrea Campbell has also entered the race on a platform of diversity and racial equity. The WGBH poll puts Campbell’s support at 4%, but if she stays in the race she could siphon away votes from the other insurgent progressive candidate. Even if Wu won over all of Campbell’s potential voters, plus the 18% of undecided voters, she would still fall two points short of Walsh’s level of support before he has even formally announced his candidacy.
The campaign’s organizing model is another potential snag. A number of Wu’s staffers worked for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, and Wu herself was constituency director in her former professor’s 2012 Senate campaign. Warren and Bernie Sanders may have been rhetorically similar, but Warren’s campaign never fully embraced the decentralized, high-participation model that Sanders operatives tried to create. On a more obvious point, Warren’s campaign, after a brief surge in the polls, collapsed in spectacular fashion. It would be shocking if Wu were to overcome Walsh’s advantages in cash and popularity without a surge in grassroots enthusiasm and turnout; it would be nothing short of miraculous if she did so using the orthodox techniques of the Warren campaign.
These pitfalls are all contingent on the Boston GND being identified exclusively with Michelle Wu’s mayoral campaign. If Boston progressives continue to mimic their national counterparts — acting as if electing progressives is the end-all and be-all of social change — that identification will remain strong, and Wu’s likely defeat will be the Boston GND’s as well. There is, however, an alternative path, one that can be glimpsed in the history of the original New Deal.
The first New Deal was not the radiant unfolding of a progressive master plan. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was relatively conservative, and the “New Deal for America” he ran on in 1932 was little more than a vague promise that Democrats would do better than the incumbent Hoover administration. (Sound familiar?) It was massive strike activity in 1934 — general strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo, a national textile workers’ strike, and countless other militant actions — that forced the administration and the liberal Congress to embark on its historic labor and welfare programs. The specter of a mobilized working class (reinforced by the sitdown strike wave of the late 30s) was constantly referenced in congressional debates on key pieces of New Deal legislation. The same fearful mentality pervaded state and city governments — including Democratic governments — that both chased New Deal funds and employed National Guardsmen as strikebreakers.
The New Deal, national and local, was a panicked response to a working-class movement wielding serious economic power. If it is to have any teeth at all, the Green New Deal, national and local, will have to be the same. The job of the left — the progressives, the socialists, the remnants of the labor movement — is not to elect the right politicians. It is to build the kind of power that will force any politician to take up the right programs. Union organizers and labor historians have made this point repeatedly.
That kind of power — the power to mobilize, disrupt, and negotiate on a massive scale — is worlds away from what the Wu campaign is trying to achieve. Nothing remotely like it is even on the horizon Boston.
A single case illustrates the gaping chasm between what the GND’s Boston partisans want and the work that must be done to get it. The Boston Teachers Union (BTU), representing roughly 10,000 teachers in the city’s public schools, is one of the largest and most progressive unions in Boston. At the most recent convention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), it supported a successful pro-GND resolution. It is an organization of teachers — workers whose knowledge and close relationship with children gives them unique authority to speak about the terrible threat climate change poses to future generations. And it has enormous potential power: as strikes in Chicago (2012, 2019) and Los Angeles (2019) proved, a teachers’ strike can bring a hostile city government to its knees.
At the same time, the BTU has not gone on strike since 1981. The likelihood of a BTU “climate strike” (which the Massachusetts Teachers Association — not the BTU’s affiliate — has called for) is near zero. Even on the tamer electoral level, the union, though it has increasingly cold relations with Walsh, has not commented on Wu’s mayoral candidacy. Nor has it reacted to her localized GND proposal, despite its professed sympathy for a national GND.
Of course, the BTU has a far more immediate concern: school reopenings. On this issue, the union and the councilor have common ground — potentially something to build off. But even here, there has been no public interaction, friendly or otherwise. A letter released by Wu’s office in August, offering “a point-by-point critique” of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) plan to reopen schools during the pandemic, used many of the same criticisms the BTU had leveled against BPS. As a WGBH reporter pointed out, not only did the BTU ignore the letter, but BTU President Jessica Tang made a special point of saying that she was “[l]ooking forward to working with City Hall and the district to plan and to prepare for a reopening that is safe, equitable and healthy for everyone.”
To repeat, this is the response of a large, progressive, climate-friendly union. No other union, worker center or community group — no organization that represents any kind of popular constituency — has done better. Clearly, Boston’s GND enthusiasts have a long, hard road ahead of them.
This story was originally published at The Commonwealth.