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Book Review: Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal

The book Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal (Verso Books, 2020) is written in the form of an interview between political scientist C. J. Polychroniou, the linguist and famous social critic Noam Chomsky and Keynesian economist Robert Pollin. Chomsky’s political insights, particularly his critique of US foreign policy and the Republican Party, are fused with Pollin’s deliberations on climate change and a set of policy proposals to address the climate crisis. This format makes the book a relatively easy read. Nonetheless, it still provides a thorough introduction into Chomsky’s worldviews and crafts a coherent narrative surrounding the Green New Deal. 

The book starts with a primer on the main drivers of climate change and quickly links these to a systemic critique of the dynamics of capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal manifestation, that is argued to have significantly contributed to the climate crisis throughout the past decades. According to Chomsky, the issue lies within the basic premise of neoliberalism, proclaiming that free markets, if left to their own devices, are superior to government interventions in producing efficient outcomes. In his words “capitalist logic, left unconstrained, is a recipe for destruction”. In addition, societal inequality resulting from this system explains why a large share of the public is willing to overlook the threat of the climate crisis. Here, Chomsky cites the uprising of the Gilets Jaunes following the proposed environmental fuel taxes by the French government. According to the author, these protests need to be considered in the broader context of reforms that had been perceived to disproportionately impact the poor and working-class people in rural areas. As he cites one protestor, it would be hard to talk about “the end of the world” when most are “concerned with the end of the month”. Nonetheless, apart from his systemic critique, Chomsky concedes that the imminent threat of climate change and the need for immediate action means that the challenge would have to be addressed from within state-capitalist systems. On this point, I fully agree with Chomsky and would take the argument even further: the author fails to mention the innovative capacity of a capitalist system where market distortions are straightened out by government intervention. Particularly in the context of climate change, there is vast potential to be found in an economy where market forces push towards decarbonization. This is portrayed in the example of solar panels, where new innovations, economies of scale and effective financing mechanisms in combination with targeted policies have led to falling costs and increasing efficiency. 

In the proceeding chapter, the book transitions to Pollin’s deliberations on a Green New Deal, which is laid out as an extensive proposal of measures to address climate change along with the pursuit of social goals such as the creation of jobs and the reduction of inequality. The ensuing discussion on how such program could be designed makes up the largest part of the book. According to Pollin, a transformation towards a green economy “necessarily entails building—it means large-scale new investments to dramatically raise energy efficiency standards and equally dramatically expand the renewable energy supply”. As such, Pollin clearly differentiates this proposed solution from the Degrowth movement and its emphasis on the need to reduce global consumption and production. The author convincingly questions the feasibility of such proposal, considering the decline in employment and living standards that would result from a targeted contraction in global GDP. Instead of striving to become a no-growth economy such as Japan (whose CO2 emissions remain among the highest of the world), countries need to grow in order to shift to a more sustainable energy reduction: this requires growth in the installation of solar panels and wind turbines, growth in the weatherization of homes and growth of major infrastructure projects to enable efficient mass transportation. Further, Pollin argues that in order to pave the way for this process, large-scale public intervention is necessary. For one, this means the introduction of an adequate carbon tax. In addition,  the author views industrial policies promoting technical innovation and a financial framework that enables the provision of cheap and accessible financing to support clean energy solutions as crucial elements to the proposal. 

At its heart, the book puts forward an optimistic view of the climate crisis. While it rightly illustrates the catastrophic consequences of continuing on our current path of environmental destruction, including millions of climate refugees and the spread of epidemics beyond Covid-19, it also makes the case that the transformation towards a green economy is a realistic goal to achieve. In fact, Pollin cites economist Jeffrey Sachs, arguing that “decarbonization will not require a grand mobilization of the U.S. economy on par with World War II. The incremental costs of decarbonization above our normal energy costs will amount to 1 to 2 percent of U.S. GDP per year during the period to 2050”.  Humanity has overcome formidable challenges in the past and will do so again in the future. This requires global cooperation and an actionable plan that translates ambitions into practice. To me, the proposed outline of a Green New Deal achieves just that, and it does so in a coherent manner.

To conclude, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal stands out in taking the reader on a brief, but instructive tour through the political economy of climate change. The book succeeds in providing insight into a systematic set of policy proposals to tackle the climate crisis and the adjoining political ponderings by one of the most cited scholars alive. I can wholeheartedly recommend the reading to those interested in the intersection of economics, politics and the environment.