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Editorial: Why a Green New Deal must be anti-capitalist

HEALTH workers’ call for a Green New Deal as we emerge from the Covid pandemic strikes the right radical note.

The new report by charity Medact points out that “our economy is making both people and the planet sick.”

The entire left should be making the argument that the pandemic is a wake-up call — taking economic, social and health emergencies to crisis point.

Groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR) have raised the profile of the climate emergency, forcing politicians to acknowledge it.

While a climate change denier held the White House, pulling the world’s biggest economy out of global agreements on reducing emissions, getting governments to admit to the problem seemed like an achievement.

But the deeper issue facing environmentalists today is the lack of progress by governments that accept the reality of climate change. 

Most scientists regard emissions targets set out in deals like the Paris Agreement as too modest. And those targets themselves are undermined by a worldwide web of treaties protecting corporate rights. 

Investigate Europe journalist Nico Schmidt points to the way businesses have already started suing European governments for loss of profits caused by “green” policies, naming British firm Rockhopper Exploration, which is taking Italy to court over a ban on drilling for oil, and German energy company RWE, which is pursuing the Netherlands for huge damages for phasing out coal-fired power stations.

These setbacks emphasise that we cannot address climate change without confronting big capital.

This understanding made Labour under Jeremy Corbyn the greenest party in British politics — prepared to take energy generation and distribution back into public ownership while simultaneously tackling other drivers of emissions like reliance on private car travel by nationalising and investing in universal, regular and cheap public transport.

Friends of the Earth rated Labour’s 2019 manifesto more eco-friendly than that of the Green Party: it was, precisely because it was more anti-capitalist.

This link between environmental action and anti-capitalism is one movements like XR have been reluctant to concede. 

This probably stems from a desire to appeal to the broadest possible coalition willing to take action, but it is self-defeating.

Green parties that have reached the mainstream through accommodation with the capitalist system in Germany and Ireland have become pillars of the centrist, liberal and environmentally catastrophic status quo.

One approach to circumventing this promoted by XR especially is the Citizen’s Assembly, a representative body chosen by sortition (as a jury is, rather than by election) that stands outside the political system and would be tasked with decreeing solutions to the environmental crisis. 

The suggestion has one key merit, in drawing attention to the inability of our current political structures to meet the biggest global challenge of our time. 

But it falls into the trap of viewing climate change as a one-off threat that can be seen off independently of our political and economic system, rather than a process driven by the economic system itself.

Even if such assemblies were called, it is difficult to see how their authority could be imposed on elected governments or how their decrees would survive the lobbying and litigation efforts of the transnationals.

There is no non-political remedy for climate change, nor are solutions that rely on the private sector likely to do anything but obstruct effective action. 

Labour has of course gone backwards on this: shadow tourism minister Alex Sobel even had to apologise to leader Keir Starmer for saying business was the problem rather than the solution when it comes to the environment.

But the party’s 2019 manifesto contained a detailed blueprint for policies that can form the focus of campaigning.

Medact’s Public Health Case for a Green New Deal adds pressure for radical action. It will need to be taken forward from the ground up; it will meet resistance in Westminster, Whitehall and the City. But it needs to happen nonetheless.

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