Decolonising the Green New Deal

To be truly effective, the Green New Deal must go beyond patterns of neocolonialism and exploitation of other countries, beyond marginalisation and towards true social and environmental justice.

The Green New Deal has been upheld by President-elect Joe Biden as ‘a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face’. Yet he has already made his climate pledges more moderate than what some climate campaigners and those in his own party would like to see, while others think even the radical vision of campaigners like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t go far enough.

As the Green New Deal receives renewed attention worldwide under Biden’s win, it is important that what transpires from the policy goes beyond the surface level promises of jobs, renewable energy and lower emissions.

It offers an opportunity for America to reassess the way it views nature, land rights, indigenous groups and its relationships with other countries.

Yet concern lies in the fact that the Green New Deal’s focus on economic growth while reducing emissions centres itself on the West’s continued preoccupation with progress and development, focussed on linear economic growth at all costs. It does not necessarily address the possibility of degrowth or even agrowth, or the change in consumption culture necessary for the GND to achieve even half of what it aims to.

The Green New Deal’s targets could be achieved through outsourcing exploitation of natural resources (read: oil) and carbon intensive jobs to other (read: poorer) countries, in order to meet the USA’s targets.

A state can reach the goals of a Green New Deal through simply moving their environmental exploitation elsewhere, often played out in neocolonial patterns. While the UK and much of Western Europe have lowered emissions in recent years, this has been at the expense of poorer countries which we have exported our manufacturing to. Is it any wonder China’s emissions are so high when we made them the ‘workshop of the world’?

Now China is repeating those patterns; looking to Africa for the natural resources it needs to fulfil that namesake.

Such ecologically unequal exchange not only harms the planet in environmental terms, it also actively harms the affected communities and people socially and economically.

There needs to be acknowledgement that the UK and USA’s claims to be ‘leading’ the fight against climate change are ironic at best, and harmful at worst, when they have actively ignored and sabotaged the fight against climate change from Small Island Developing States, indigenous groups and the Global South more widely for decades.

Those voices need to be amplified, and allowed to take a lead in global climate negotiations – we need to listen to their demands on 1.5 degree targets not being enough, for example. We need to transfer wealth to allow poorer countries to achieve what they already have the knowledge, skills and political will to, yet we have held them back for years from.

In the USA’s case in particular, they need to listen to indigenous communities; granting land claims, taking into account different livelihoods and giving reparations for harm already done.

Low carbon jobs are not only those in renewable energy or flood management – they are those in mental health services, nursing and teaching. They are those which provide the social, health and educational groundwork on which to build a educated, productive population.

The Green New Deal must learn from Roosevelt’s New Deal in its approach. Source: AP.

The Green New Deal must learn from its namesake – Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s – in its approach to justice. Aspects of that New Deal actively harmed Black people in particular – upholding and hardening segregation policies and leaving a disproportionate number of Black people out of work. The Green New Deal’s green jobs promises must work parallel to tougher anti-discrimination laws, fairer wages with a universal basic income and a just welfare system.

While governments worldwide, including here in the UK, are likely looking to the USA to make a success of the Green New Deal, a policy touted in election campaigning and by politicians gaining fame across the pond (looking at you, AOC); it is vital that the model the USA sets out is genuinely revolutionary.

Putting the D(evelopment) in LGBT+

While growing attention has been paid to the role of women in advancing development, the role of LGBT+ people and their relationship with development is less well attended to in academia and beyond.

Take Singapore, for example. A state widely recognised for its impressive economic development, high HDI scores and GDP per capita. Yet it has some of the most repressive laws for LGBT+ people in the world. Compare it to its fellow Asian tiger, Taiwan, which legalised same sex marriage in 2019.

At the other end of the scale, Switzerland still awaits legalising same sex marriage and adoption – yet Colombia, Ecuador and many states of Mexico, all less developed by most metrics – legalised same sex marriage years ago.

It is clear there is no set pattern to when states grant more LGBT+ rights. While statistics show a correlation between better LGBT+ rights and higher economic development, the causation is not so clear. Is it that higher levels of development allow states to grant more individual liberties and rights, or is it that LGBT+ inclusion is favourable to economic development? Essentially, which comes first, the chicken or the egg?!

Some theories state that economies reach a certain tipping point when they become economically developed and stable enough to prioritise human wellbeing, or the environment perhaps, over solely focusing on the economy. Human rights and wellbeing are then advanced and more individual rights and liberties are granted. Furthermore, as countries develop, they tend to become less religious or more religiously diverse which can often lead to a softening of stance on LGBT+ policies, with less opposition from the population.

Some states may also find that less restrictive laws on LGBT+ people are helpful to develop through opening them up to more aid and investment opportunities. David Cameron made a (ultimately largely empty) threat to stop supplying aid to some countries over their anti-LGBT+ laws. Though the tough record of countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE on LGBT+ rights doesn’t seem to have stopped them being allies of the UK.

In many cases, there is of course a legacy of empire involved too, conveniently ignored by Cameron when he made the aforementioned comments. The UK enforced anti-LGBT+ laws across its colonies, and today over half of the 70 countries that still criminalise homosexuality are former British colonies.

Having as large of a healthy, educated population as possible seems to make sense economically for other reasons too – the more people that can work and the less strain on healthcare; the better the productivity and economy of a nation, right? Logic suggests keeping LGBT+ people healthy, protecting them from violent crimes and removing barriers to work would lead to a larger and more productive workforce.

Yet at present, transgender people are up to 50 times more likely to contract HIV than cisgender people globally. Alongside other reasons for this disparity, healthcare and employment (or lack of) both play a role. Transgender people are more likely to take on often unsafe sex work, as they face barriers to less dangerous employment, meanwhile there exists discrimination in healthcare in most places. Such horrific statistics hurt not only those immediately affected, but ultimately the health of the nation. Ill people cannot work, may be more reliant on the state and are often forced into informal jobs which do not contribute to the economy in the same way the formal sector does. Ultimately, the economy takes a hit when large groups are marginalised to the fringes of society through work, health and social discrimination.

A map detailing levels of criminalisation of LGBT+ people in each country. Source: ilga.

This way of thinking is gaining recognition in regard to enabling more women to get into education and the workforce, yet the development field has not yet promoted the advantages of LGBT+ inclusive economies for development with the same vigour. While the role of women is now increasingly seen as key to development, even enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals, LGBT+ people seem somewhat forgotten in this.

Take Uganda, for example. Rightly applauded for the number of women in its Parliament, yet it has some of the worst LGBT+ laws in the world. While the rise of women into top political roles is to be respected, would these women be there if they were trans women? Or if they were bisexual women?

Rectifying this begins with non-discrimination laws for the workplace and education, employment quotas, full and equal access to healthcare and a no-tolerance, strong punishment policy for hate crimes against LGBT+ people.

Of course, LGBT+ rights should be granted, improved and upheld regardless of their impact on economic development – I should hope that goes without saying. Yet in the same way it has been for women, the selling point for states implementing better rights and becoming more inclusive may well be in the economic benefit they bring.

Earthshot: innovation or hypocrisy?

The announcement of the Earthshot prize to ‘help find solutions’ for climate change was the latest in the long line of celebrities and other private actors (looking at you, Jeff Bezos) working to supposedly help solve climate change. In other words; it is the latest in a long line of hypocritical celebrities outsourcing the work on climate change they won’t do themselves.

The solutions already exist – they involve overhaul of the capitalist system, to start with. But we’re unlikely to see the Earthshot prize rewarding ideas around shorter working weeks, seriously reducing consumption, or economic redistribution involving a universal basic income. It is unlikely to even fall a step behind that and reward the complete stopping of burning fossil fuels, cutting down on flying or a tax on meat (accompanied by subsidies on alternatives, of course).

Instead, the prize will surely reward solutions which enable people to continue their lives as they are now, with the least disruption possible to the celebrities backing the initiative. If they can continue to sequester private jets to fly around the UK, yet instead champion expensive-to-the-consumer technology in a prize with sponsors including an emissions-intensive Dubai-based ‘leading enabler of global trade’, then they will.

The process of selecting winners of the Earthshot prize. Souce: Earthshot Facebook

The solutions are already out there, and this prize pretends otherwise. The answers exist in small communities outside of the West – in their sustainable agriculture practices; in the countries with emissions 160 times lower than in the USA, and they exist in the indigenous people who have been aware of and fighting for climate justice for far longer than these celebrities.

The problems are also already out there, and this prize still pretends otherwise. There is a lack of acknowledgement that this funding comes too late for many people worldwide, already devastated by climate change. It sets it as a future problem – one which can still be stopped, while ignoring that a disproportionate amount of responsibility lies on the shoulders of those promoting this prize; part of the 1%.

The prize does not set justice as a parameter for the solutions to be found – there is no requisite that they are accessible for those beyond the rich funding the prize. Nor is there an assurance that they will be picked up and distributed by states perhaps; that they will reduce the equity gap in who can access climate mitigation and adaptation measures. There is no guarantee they will involve systemic rather than individual change; putting the responsibility of solving the climate crisis once again onto the individual.

When its panel includes a royal who flies everywhere by private jet, a broadcaster who endorses the eugenics-derived overpopulation myth, and a singer who evaded taxes (think how many solar panels that money could have bought), the relatability of the endeavour is hard to see. Surely such celebrities could use their status and money to quietly invest in projects already existent? Or to speak to those who will be most affected to see what they actually need?

The Earthshot prize is pioneered by Prince William, who calls for ‘a decade of action’. Source: TIME

While Attenborough produces yet more surface level documentaries with pleas that ‘we need to change’, with no acknowledgement that by ‘we’ he in fact only means the 1%, and by change he means overhaul completely the way they live, it is hard to imagine the projects he helps to select will be any more revolutionary. As he relies on the racist myth of overpopulation with no apparent self-awareness of his own consumption, while choosing not to get into politics or even take aim at corporations; excuse me for being skeptical about his brand of ‘onus on the individual’ climate action.

Celebrity voices would once have been useful to open up the environmental movement to their fans who were not already aware. But frankly at this point, who isn’t aware of climate change?! Who doesn’t understand the basics of what we need to be doing about it?! Now, celebrities are only opening themselves up to scrutiny and accusations of hypocrisy by suggesting the public take on actions they have not themselves. More common now is fans suggesting how celebrities can be more environmentally-friendly, not vice versa.

Those that offer these prizes are not those that can ever truly understand the scale of the emergency facing us. When the 1% can spend money moving away from rising sea levels or wildfires, easily pay any carbon taxes brought in, and pay the higher prices for food when extreme weather causes famine for many; they are not the people who should be deciding what ‘solutions’ are needed for the 99%.

Funding for climate solutions will always be welcome, as will richer people using their privilege by putting their money where their mouth is. But this self-serving, hypocritical method of choosing deserving projects only excuses those privileged enough to be the last to feel the effects of climate change further from taking action themselves.

Until we stop skirting around the issue of justice in our climate solutions; endeavours such as Earthshot will remain useless for those who need them most.

The not-so-Happy Valley.

Torrents of water rushing down hillsides. Cars swept away in its path. Homes and businesses ruined.

Images more associated with devastating floods in Pakistan, or the aftermath or hurricanes in the southern US states. Yet they’re the scenes that have faced the Calder Valley 6 times in the last 5 years and look set to become even more common as we feel the effects of climate change only more. Calder Valley represents the dilemma facing communities globally – when the effects of climate change are felt on small communities, what do they really have the power to do?

Sandbags line the streets of Mytholmroyd, the Calder Valley. Source: Yorkshire Post.

The most devastating of the aforementioned floods, on Boxing Day 2015, left 50% of businesses to never reopen and hundreds living in the area unable to get insurance on homes, businesses and even their cars since – the chances of them being swept away all too high.

The area gained some level of fame in recent years; the backdrop to popular BBC drama programmes such as Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley. Yet the valley offers up its own drama in real life – a town on edge every time it rains, with an air raid siren repurposed as a flood warning system, echoing eerily for miles around.

It is also my hometown. Comprised of small towns and villages dotted along a valley, nestled between Leeds and Manchester, the hilly Pennines aren’t where you’d typically associate with devastating flooding. Perhaps it could act as the canary in the coalmine for the impact climate change will have on the UK – if it can hit there, it can hit anywhere.

The reality facing the communities there is an area left uninhabitable if the frequency of flooding continues; among the first victims of the effects of climate change in the UK. A ghost town within the near future, some in the town fear, as the cost of living with the constant renovations, lack of insurance cover and ever-present threat of inundation push even the most resilient out.

And they certainly are resilient – many have bounced back from floods several times, and local people prove only kinder each time in their offers of support. Coronavirus has made this worse of course – most businesses had only just reopened from February flooding before the national lockdown in March, while homes struggled to facilitate repairs, all while people lost their jobs and incomes. Many were not even eligible for furlough, as businesses were still closed from flooding on the cut-off date at the end of February – and so the vulnerable become more vulnerable.

Floodwaters almost reach the ceilings of the ground floor on properties in Mytholmroyd, Calder Valley. Source: Getty Images.

Alongside local people, the local government has tried. Flood barriers have been built and sandbags provided, but it is simply not enough. The brand new, about-to-be-completed flood barriers were already breached in the most recent flooding event.

The problem lies partly in a battle between mitigation and adaptation. Locally only adaptation can be done, relying on wider mitigation efforts to (very literally) stem the flow. The council were among the first to declare a climate emergency, and have made steps to follow through with action.

Yet the Calder Valley represents a microcosm of the mitigation vs adaptation battle. At what point do you give up on mitigation to focus on adaptation? How can local councils or even national governments do anything other than adapt, when small scale mitigation alone will not solve the problem?

The couple of thousand people in the valley are relying on billions in the rest of the world cutting down on emissions. When they have reached the limit of what they can do to protect their livelihoods, they must trust in those more powerful to make the right moves. And this is repeated the world over – individuals relying on their governments and the world sacrificing their way of living to protect the way of living of others. Of course, many are even more vulnerable than those in the Calder Valley.

A BBC Panorama episode, aired in early December 2020, highlights how climate change looks set to hit the Calder Valley particularly hard, as it shows high emissions scenarios leading to the largest rainfall increases in the UK around the north-west of England. The owner of a restaurant muses on his future in the town, admitting he feels ‘tied in’ – with no buyers for his business as it cannot be insured.

While the Conservatives skirt around the edges of effective climate action, and the world hurtles towards breaking its Paris climate agreements; it’s local communities like Calder Valley who bear the brunt and have to struggle to adapt. The choice here is not mitigation vs adaptation, but rather adaptation vs abandonment.