Funding GND Requires Political Will - Interview with Noel Healy
April 21, 2022

For this issue, we interviewed Noel Healy, Associate Professor of Geography and Sustainability at Salem State University. Originally from Ireland, Noel is a contributing author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) Working Group III (Mitigation) Chapter 4 on “Mitigation and development pathways in the near-to mid-term” (2018-2022). Noel is a Ludwig-Maximilian University (LMU) of Munich Rachel Carson Fellow, a Research Fellow with the Global Center for Climate Justice, and visiting Professor at EAFIT Medellín.  His core work revolves around climate change politics, energy justice, the Green New Deal, and exploring the link between scientific knowledge, political activism, and policymaking. This interview was conducted by Daniel Faber, Nina Schlegel, and Lauren Goldberg.

Why do you think a Green New Deal is key to addressing not only climate change, but economic inequality? 

Aside from the moral case for a Green New Deal, tackling inequality also makes pragmatic sense. Socioeconomic inequalities drive emissions-intensive consumption and production. Scores of research groups from Oxfam, to the Stockholm Environment Institute, and others have revealed how the wealthy are disproportionately responsible for consumption emissions. Oxfam’s recent study showed that the very richest 1% of people — the global elite — emitted double the amount of carbon as the poorest 50% of humanity. Extreme wealth inequality drives carbon-intensive production and obstruction of climate policies. The super-wealthy, especially the fossil fuel industry, also use their excess wealth to obstruct legislative and regulatory restrictions on emissions standards and climate policy. High inequality results in a lack of trust in governments, especially since the wealthy can buy political influence to serve their interests.This weakens the foundations of collective actions. So tackling inequality makes sense from a moral perspective and from a pragmatic climate perspective. Fergus Green and myself have a paper coming out on this exact topic soon. 

We also need a mobilization of the public sector and broad coalitions to rapidly phase out fossil fuels while applying the principles of a just transition. The government needs to play a creative and strategic role in creating the conditions for new and renewable energy systems. This would require reframing the climate crisis as a public health crisis, by which we need to transfer energy [systems for example] from a commodity to a public good. This kind of argument around the creation of public goods is really important. When we fight for public goods around clean air, clean cities, healthy environments, livable wages, and unions, you can create new powerful coalitions, many of whom are not traditional “climate voters” per se. Tackling inequality and climate change at the same time, it's just a win-win. 

From an economic standpoint, what are the most important takeaways from your research on a federal Green New Deal in the United States?

I think the biggest takeaway is that we can easily finance a federal Green New Deal (GND). In fact, when you consider all of the damage that climate change is going to cause now and into the future, it is clear that we cannot afford to NOT finance a GND. A good analogy is thinking about how the U.S paid for the Coronavirus aid package. [The federal government] approved, I think it was $2.2 trillion for Coronavirus aid. What that illustrates is that paying for the Green New Deal is actually easy. The biggest challenge is the political will. We can pay for the Green New Deal the same way we pay for U.S military budgets, foreign wars, or Trump's $2.3 trillion tax bill. Congress authorizes the necessary spending, and then the Treasury spends it. There is fiscal space, but what is needed is the political will. The cost of inaction is far greater. [Green New Deal investments] create all these multiplier effects which invest money into the real economy (e.g. jobs, wages) that creates wealth for everyone, rather than a financialization of the economy in a way that only creates wealth for the wealthy few.  

What's interesting about the Green New Deal is that it rejects mainstream economics. It targets key inequalities generated by neoliberal capitalism and represents a systematic response to a systems crisis, for example, tackling emissions by cutting it 50 percent over ten years. It's a multi-decadal program. But what is even more interesting about it from an economics perspective is that it's the clearest effort to forge a politics that tackles climate change and inequalities simultaneously. 

What existing Green New Deal-inspired programs and policies in the United States would you point to that address both climate and economic injustices? 

Until the Green New Deal framework emerged climate policies were often limited to market-based approaches. With more diverse leadership, including women and people of color, the Green New Deal policy paradigm is linking climate and energy policy with jobs and economic justice, housing, food, and transportation. Several states and cities have proposed ambitious Green New Deal like policies and New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act is one great example. It was conceptualized and driven by the grassroots and then supported by various political allies, including progressive elected officials. They did a great job of creating new coalitions and champions on that policy.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes clear, we have an ever greater need and opportunity here to transition away from fossil fuels and a dependence on extractive corporations and authoritarian governments. Could you speak to the ways in which a Green New Deal could actually save people money, improve their living standards, and get us out of a dependency on authoritarian regimes?

Fossil fuel interests immediately [at the start of the Russian invasion] started to push an urgent narrative around how increased fossil fuel production in the US will create energy independence. The fracking industry and its allied exporters, in particular, at the flick of a switch started pushing this narrative (expansion of fracked gas and LNG) in a very coordinated manner. 

It's a really brutal moment in the fight for global climate action. Particularly in the US the Green New Deal framework is currently getting drowned out by the same old fossil fuel narrative that has been pushed for decades. Renewables are central to the US’s energy independence from domestic and imported fossil fuels. And it's a narrative that hasn’t been successfully leveraged by the climate movement to date, i.e. how solar and wind can really remove us from geopolitical conflicts over oil in the Middle East and elsewhere. There are some positive discussions in Europe at the EU level, but in the US, [this link] it seems almost nonexistent. In Puerto Rico, for example, fossil fuel interests continue to push for expanded LNG facilities and continued carbon lock-in. Fossil fuel corporations are always a decade ahead of us in terms of figuring out ways to entrench us further into the fossil fuel economy, just because of their control over vast political-economic resources. 

So on one hand, the Ukraine crisis has brought us to this crossroads, giving us a wonderful opportunity to break free from carbon dependency and initiate a Green New Deal. On the other hand, you've got all these oil and gas interests who are hunkering down on well crafted scaremongering narratives and want to chain us to this path of fossil fuel dependency that's inefficient, and is going to lock us into a future that is defined by climate chaos. Renewables are cheaper and more efficient. But at the moment, the fossil fuel industry seems to be winning, at least in the US.

In April of 2021, Greenpeace published a report entitled, Fossil Fuel Racism: How Phasing Out Oil, Gas, and Coal Can Protect Communities. As one of the report’s reviewers could you define the term Fossil-Fuel Racism?

Institutional racism and violence are deeply intertwined within the fossil fuel-based economy in more ways than one. The Greenpeace report shows how tangled fossil fuels and racism are in the United States. Systemic racism is literally embedded in the fossil fuel business model. Fossil fuels require sacrifice zones. There are places and communities today that are being severely damaged and destroyed by fossil fuel drilling, mining, and refining operations. In order for their business model to function, the oil and gas industry sacrifices the health of the residents living in these areas. Sacrifice zones are more often than not populated by communities of color, Black and Brown communities who have less access to political power and have already suffered systematic racism and oppression in various ways. The complexity and power of the fossil fuel industry can override the real needs of these communities and further entrench them in dangerous and destructive pathways to economic “development.” In short, sacrifice zones are the key to the profitability and the basic functioning of the fossil fuel industry.

What are your main takeaways from the Greenpeace report? 

[The report] reveals how each stage of the lifecycle of fossil fuels - from extraction, processing, transportation, all the way to combustion — generates air pollution and creates harms that disproportionately affect communities of color and poorer communities. It also identified that each stage of the fossil fuel supply chain contributes to the climate crisis. What I liked about this report is that its upstream focus places attention on the traditionally overlooked elements of the fossil fuel supply chain. For two or three decades, we've been talking about individual actions and personal carbon footprints. The Greenpeace report shifts attention to extraction under state and non-state actors that organize, invest, and benefit from this whole process. And even aside from climate change, air pollution from fossil fuels caused 8.7 million premature deaths in 2018. I mean, that's just a staggering number of people. Even if you don't believe in climate change, and you just look at the direct loss of life from the burning of fossil fuels, there is a case to be made on its own for a transition away from fossil fuels. A Duke University study in-fact found out that reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with 1.5 degrees would prevent 153 million premature deaths — largely by reducing air pollution. These are the types of studies that need to get more attention.

The Greenpeace report also solidifies the point that Black Americans have 1.54 times more exposure to particulate matter compared to the overall population, which compounds all sorts of heart and respiratory conditions and health impacts. Greenpeace also did a great analysis of petrochemical refining industries and found these to be among the most disproportionately polluting sectors, more so than steel and other sectors. 

The Greenpeace report recommends a fossil fuel phase out. How feasible is this recommendation and what suggestions do you have for policymakers to achieve this goal?

In terms of feasibility, much can actually be done via executive action in the United States. Existing U.S. laws allow for actions that curb fossil fuel production. These types of acts (e.g. banning fracking) are more feasible than asking hundreds of millions of people to change their behavior. It’s all feasible in that we have the right laws and legislations in place, but what’s missing is the political will. Congress needs to pass the End Polluter Welfare Act which would eliminate all federal subsidies and financial support for fossil fuel production. Reinstating the crude oil export ban, prohibiting exports of coal and liquified gas, banning fracking on federal lands, and rejecting federal permits for any fossil fuel infrastructure—including the Dakota Access, Line 3, and Mountain Valley Pipelines—are necessary to meet 1.5C climate targets. For instance, Tong’s study in Nature found that “1.5°C carbon budgets allow for no new emitting infrastructure”. In other words, not only should no new fossil fuel using infrastructure be built, some existing power plants need to be shut down early. Existing fossil fuel plants alone will push the world across a dangerous limit, even without new planned installations. 

The Greenpeace report calls for the passing of the Environmental Justice For All Act and Climate Equity Act. Both of which prioritize climate solutions for low-income communities of color. It also calls for air and water pollution reductions in environmental justice communities with a “No Hotspots” policy, the mitigation of cumulative pollution impacts, and to institutionalize Free, Prior, and Informed Consent regarding federal actions.

Importantly, through both the Greenpeace report and the Green New Deal framework in general offers hope for a better future. GND activists are beginning to make greater connections between racial injustice, economic inequality, police brutality, bad investments, private prisons, voter suppression, sacrifice zones, and failed climate solutions over the last three or four decades. Intersectional climate policies have immense potential for generating new powerful climate and labor coalitions, far more so than traditional carbon-centric policies which focus narrowly on carbon taxes or cap and trade. What I like about the Greenpeace report is its strong emphasis on the intersection of climate and labor, and the importance of expanding the democratic right to vote by passing the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The business model of the fossil fuel industry is dependent on the creation and sustenance of sacrifice zones, which are predominantly located in communities of color. This is why the fossil fuel industry is fighting so hard to support legislators and redraw political boundaries, and suppress people of color's ability to vote. It's all interconnected. And that is why the work of the Global Center for Climate Justice, and the Green New Deal Cities Resource Hub, is so important for a clean and just future.

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