Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can teach Bill Shorten a thing or two about climate change policy

One of the reasons the Democrats and Labor need to act on climate is to build trust with millennials.

Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez-Woman-Entrepreneur

It is high school students who have helped reinvigorate the climate change debate in Australia and they are preparing to march again this week. The effect they have had is similar to the reaction created by the Green New Deal in the United States in the last month.

Last month newly elected congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brought a new proposal to the Congress: a 14-page vision for a Green New Deal.

More statement than legislative proposal (it was a non-binding resolution), the Green New Deal outlined the total economic transformation required to respond to escalating climate change, then combined that action plan with a values proposition – that the economic and social transition must be just (indeed the resolution began by outlining the combined challenges of climate change and inequality).

The Green New Deal released a rocket into the US climate change debate. Until very recently climate change was not seen as a vote winner. Rather most Democrats saw it as a kind of fringe, green issue that only moved small-liberal middle-class people living in gentrified inner-city pockets of a few “blue” cities. While climate campaigners would shout about how this was wrong, especially after the IPCC’s 2018 dire predictions of rapidly rising temperatures, they struggled to change the conversation.

Enter the Green New Deal. Ocasio-Cortez, surrounded by the youth-run Sunrise Movement, has in one month demonstrated that not only is climate change a planet changer, but that climate action is a vote winner.

How do we know? They shifted Chuck Schumer.

Schumer is the Democratic leader in the Senate and a politician known for his middle-of-the-road positions. He shares much in common with some senior leaders in the Australian Labor party. But last week in a tremendous shift that responded entirely to the rise of the Green New Deal, Schumer has embraced a bold new path on climate. He hasn’t backed the Green New Deal. But he has called for new bold climate action that he wants use to frame the Democrats agenda in the lead up to the 2020 election.

Schumer says that one of the reasons for his change of heart is that he is a new grandparent. But let’s be clear, he is a politician – he is doing this because he is an astute observer of polls. Like most of the 2020 presidential candidates, who have also embraced the Green New Deal, what the last month in the US has unearthed is that climate action will be a vote winner for any Democrat who gets on board.

So what does this mean for Australia?

The Australian Labor party doesn’t have to wait until 2020 to run an election on bold climate action, and they would do well to listen to Schumer’s argument. Schumer has said that the reason the Democrats need to act on climate is to build trust with millennials. Schumer can see that if the Democrats demonstrate that they care for the climate, that they might build a loyal relationship with young voters. The Democrats know that the Republicans are climate sceptics but also that young people don’t trust politicians. To create a relationship of trust they need to go big on climate. That might be hard, but the rewards are big – if they can go bold they might take a generation of voters with them, for life.

The ALP has the same opportunity. Young people, like those who will strike on Friday, are worried about the climate because they will have to learn to live with climate change. But the ALP’s “small target” approach will not build trust. In Australia bold action requires the ALP to saying how they will stop the Adani coalmine. And that kind of leadership might also do wonders for Shorten’s personal approval ratings, like it did for Bob Hawke when he stopped the Franklin Dam.

The Green New Deal has done more to shift climate politics in one month than more moderate campaigning has done in years

There are also lessons for Australian social movements.

The Green New Deal is a “big”, almost boundless proposal for progressive policy goodness. Wrapped up in the resolution are not only proposals for energy, agriculture and transport (key causes of climate change) but a vision for healthcare for all. In one sense, it’s a manifestation of Naomi Klein’s argument that climate change is “about everything” and solutions to it need to not only technically fix carbon emissions but also create greater social justice. That’s exciting.

For those involved in Australian social movements who are curious about what a similar policy mix looks like for Australia, a bunch of work is needed. In the US a network of movements like Sunrise, thinktanks (led by New Consensus) and academics have worked on this proposal. Building the Green New Deal has at times been divisive, there are splits between some labour unions around the policy. Building a grand coalition of interests isn’t easy, and perhaps it could have been done better slower.

But beginning this conversation quickly generated success. Arguably the Green New Deal has done more to shift American climate politics in one month than more moderate campaigning has done in years.

But the Green New Deal has only just begun, and hopefully as it builds it is able to take on some of the strengths of the original New Deal.

One of the most lasting legislative reforms in the 1930s were the changes made to labour law, where Roosevelt in effect “changed the rules” in how unions could organise. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act removed many of the restrictions on union organising – arguing that in order to get wages growth, workplaces needed more economic democracy (sound familiar?). Over the next two decades workplaces transformed, industrial unions grew, wages increased and the economy became stronger.

Fundamentally the New Deal wasn’t just about the state acting to “fix” the economy but the state creating space for people to act collectively to improve the economy for themselves.

It’s food for thought in modern-day Australia. Our two most significant social movements are arguably the climate movement and the union movement. What would it take for them, and others, to forge an unusual alliance that connected the joint needs of climate action and a just economy? And what other civil society organisations might participate? And what would be the place for researchers and thinkers – the modern-day Keynes – in a Green New Deal?

Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution calls for consultation with all these groups, but imagine if in Australia this was stronger – a glorious unusual, robust coalition of activists and academics, workers and student strikers who together could handle their differences and prosecute a vision for the country in this moment of uncertainty.

And what if through this same moment we could see bolder leadership from our politicians too.

Article by Amanda Tattersall - The Guardian