Woman looking up at a wind turbine, she is holding her hands up, motioning towards the turbine.
Image Credit: Nathan McBride on unsplash.com

This article is the introduction to “A Green New Deal on the Ground” series produced with Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank developing cutting-edge research at the climate and inequality nexus. The series examines how Green New Deal initiatives aim to create climate policy that positively impacts everyday life, explores the political coalitions and campaigns centering environmental justice and equity in decarbonization across the US, and champions both broad-based movement building and institutional power to harness resources and push for change.

Though it entered the political lexicon less than four years ago, the Green New Deal has influenced some of the biggest pieces of climate legislation at the federal, state, and local levels. The resolution signaled a stark move away from regulatory policy largely disconnected from communities’ desires for environmental and economic justice. By implementing these policies, activists and community organizations give us glimpses of a Green New Deal in action.

From housing to transportation, and from education to leisure, the impacts of climate change both reflect and reinforce widening US inequality. A Green New Deal approach to climate would counter these trends by channeling public investment to projects that both improve peoples’ everyday lives and achieve important climate mitigation goals.

Climate policy is no longer about molecules—it is about making people’s homes efficient and comfortable and building green schools so kids have healthy spaces to learn.

The articles in this series, A Green New Deal on the Ground, explore how, following the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the coalitions driving progressive climate policy in cities and states across the US are centering environmental justice and equity in decarbonization. They show how a coordinated, investment-led approach can tackle the climate crisis and economic inequality together.

The Green New Deal aims to make the state, rather than corporations, the central actor in achieving cross-cutting objectives to address both the climate and inequality crises. Advocates for climate action have made an intentional shift from convoluted policies like carbon trading—which encourages private companies to reduce emissions but allows them to exploit loopholes to offset their pollution—to expanding public investment in climate and economic justice. Climate policy is no longer about molecules—it is about making people’s homes efficient and comfortable and building green schools so kids have healthy spaces to learn.


A Mobilizing Framework

Both as policy and as an organizing and conceptual rubric, the Green New Deal can help tackle longstanding problems—from localized air pollution to job insecurity to structural racism—simultaneously. This agenda requires concerted effort from environmental, racial, and economic justice organizers, but it offers the potential for big gains. It can mobilize new constituencies that, because of Green New Deal policies, see improvements in their lives and are ready to rally behind more investment, creating a positive policy feedback loop. This means initial projects or investments are high stakes: we need to show proof of concept to build broad-based coalitions that believe change is possible and push for more action at every level of government.

Broad-based coalitions have historically been essential to holding corporations and governments accountable and pushing for climate justice. Since the advent of the environmental justice movement 40 years ago, organizers have fought against polluters and their racist impacts and won crucial campaigns like shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline. Today, the Green New Deal offers a framework for channeling the energy and ethos of environmental justice toward a vision of a thriving future. This has led to important policy wins—from environmental justice investments that are now required for all climate spending in California, to the Portland Clean Energy Fund, which taxes big companies to support projects like home weatherization, to the Biden Administration’s J40 pledge, which promises to deliver at least 40 percent of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities. These large-scale efforts show that linking climate action to other social concerns is the best way to mitigate the crisis and make climate justice a mainstream issue.

Though federal Green New Deal legislation stalled under both the Trump administration and conservative Democratic leadership, its impact has been undeniable. For a start, it is hard to imagine the Inflation Reduction Act’s unprecedented climate investments without the Green New Deal or its tireless advocates, led by youth organizers like the Sunrise Movement and by environmental, economic, and racial justice organizations in towns and cities across the country.

The IRA is insufficient—and it is not a Green New Deal. It is dominated by opaque mechanisms like tax credits and rebate programs, leaving environmental justice communities feeling sold out. Nonetheless, the $369 billion that the bill earmarks for clean power, electric vehicles, home retrofits, and myriad other needs offers an initial investment on the path to just decarbonization.

The IRA package shows a shift in US politics away from climate denialism, but now the struggle is to move beyond delaying change and technocratic fixes. Downplaying urgency and condemning mitigation, too many still seek to slow transition timelines by insisting that acting is both expensive and futile. Similarly, dangerous technological distractions like carbon offsetting or carbon capture purport to offer a green future without fundamentally altering the social, political, or economic structures that created our present problems.


The Coalitions We Need to Win

Building broad coalitions for climate action is never easy, but investment-led climate policy offers opportunities to build popular support for social transformation, particularly at the local level. Rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require changing the entire economy and the built environment where people live, work, and play. Countering the ideology of austerity regimes and individual blame—which has let corporations off the hook, made the rich richer, and placed the burden of the crisis on ordinary people—is key to addressing the systemic causes of the climate crisis.

Environmental justice is both ethically and politically essential to creating policy that can overcome inequality by redressing long-festering inequities and building working-class support for climate action. Historically, climate change has been portrayed as a preoccupation of affluent suburbanites and students with the luxury of considering faraway problems. Extreme weather and climate-induced disasters are making it clear that the crisis is hitting now and affecting everyone. The way to create popular policy is to tie climate mitigation policies, such as energy efficiency and sustainable land use, to provisions that benefit everyone, including workplace protections for office and construction workers, retrofitting for renters, homeownership for low-income families, and free transit for all.

In short, a Green New Deal must be an inclusive, just transition that phases out harmful activities and exploitative practices and envisions something new and better. People need more than promises of meeting vague international commitments; they need policy commitments to pursue healthy, abundant futures in communities that are, to the extent possible, insulated from the climate shocks that are inevitably to come. The Green New Deal empowers communities to be part of the transformation and see their families and neighbors benefit from public investment. That isn’t individual action on the climate crisis—it is collective, coordinated action that values and centers the multi-racial working class.


Policy You Can Touch

Initiatives aligned with the spirit of the Green New Deal are aimed at delivering “policy you can touch.” For instance, Boston’s mayor, Michelle Wu, campaigned in 2021 on a Green New Deal platform and has initiated fare-free bus lines in the city. The Los Angeles teachers’ union fought for and won environmental justice provisions in its contracts, such as climate counselors and electric buses. Last year, Pennsylvania state senator Nikil Saval passed the Whole-Home Repairs Program, designed to retrofit and weatherize homes, prevent displacement of Black and Brown families, and grow local workforces. A coalition in New York is advancing the ambitious Build Public Renewables Act to transition the state to a totally renewable, democratically controlled, publicly owned energy system. And in California, increased funding for forest restoration is making rural communities safer while creating new, good jobs for rural and historically marginalized communities.

Each of these policies—and dozens more being rolled out across the country—are models that can be expanded in place, adapted to suit other locales, improved to deliver tangible benefits to the communities that need them, and sped up to increase the pace of decarbonization. Sharing successful policies between states and borrowing from examples abroad will be critical to policy development and deployment. New, bold ideas are still needed, and they need to be deployed at scale. Even with the drop in emissions that the IRA will generate, the US is lagging on climate.

The stakes are high and only getting higher for communities throughout the US—and the entire world. We need to build political coalitions that can accelerate the momentum of inspiring policies rolling out across the country. These policies not only build political momentum but also furnish institutions and infrastructure ready to catch big investments at the federal level when they come. The Green New Deal on the ground is an effort to plant the seeds for that flourishing future.