In November 2020, Victoria’s parliament became the first in Australia to endorse a Green New Deal (GND). It was a sign of the times — as climate denial retreats toward the fringes, politicians of various ideological hues are adopting the rhetoric associated with radical GND proposals. Governments — and even some fossil fuel companies — are repositioning themselves on climate change and renewables, as recession and stagnation make economic stimulus policies more attractive.
In the post-Corbyn, post-Sanders, and post-Trump era, the political terrain is rapidly shifting. These shifts will be disorienting if we aren’t clear about the differences between decarbonization and greenwashing. Instead of cheering on measures that really amount to the transfer of public funds to private capital, we must push for investments in renewables that actually empower workers and citizens.
Greenwashing Versus Decarbonizing
Following a rousing speech by Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam, the state parliament passed the party’s GND motion on November 11 with the support of Victorian Labor. The motion called for the state budget to include significant investments in publicly owned renewable energy and storage, public housing, recycling plants, and other green initiatives. It was a radical plan, with explicit commitments to public ownership, a focus on quality green jobs, and a “big build of new public housing.”
Less than a fortnight later, Victoria premier Daniel Andrews handed down the Victorian budget. It earmarked $1.6 billion for investment in clean energy, centered around six “Renewable Energy Zones,” to be located across regional Victoria. Unlike the original GND motion, however, the budget said nothing about publicly owned renewable energy or storage projects.
Instead, the zones are designed for “unlocking new renewable energy investment.” Rather than build public utilities, the government will hold reverse auctions in which private firms underbid each other for publicly funded contracts.
Essentially, the plan looks like a version of what Thea Riofrancos calls “climate-smart capitalism, using a mix of public funding and regulatory prodding to nudge investors toward green sectors.” It’s a form of greenwashing designed to use public money to socialize private risk for initial investments.
Similarly, Victorian Labor has watered down the Victorian GND’s bold calls for public housing into thin neoliberal gruel. Daniel Andrews couched his “Big Housing Build” in the deliberately ambiguous language of “social housing” (incorrectly labeled “public housing” by some media reports). On closer inspection, however, the plan will likely result in a net loss of actual public housing.
The standard tactic used by Daniel Andrews is to feint left while maintaining the ALP’s decades-long commitment to privatization and market-based reforms on matters of substance. And when it comes to environmental policy, his approach has always been weak. Meanwhile, the eagerness of the Victorian Greens to compromise on their GND may indicate they are angling for a ministry or a power-sharing arrangement with the Victorian ALP after the next election.
Stories like this are increasingly familiar and likely to become more so in the coming decade. It’s part of an emerging pattern in which center-left and even right-wing governments brand themselves as green while pursuing the same neoliberal economic policies.
Consider British prime minister Boris Johnson’s recent announcement of a “green industrial revolution” — a plan that offers very little prospect for decarbonization and relies on unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, and hydrogen power. Despite the rhetoric, the Tory “green industrial revolution” is neither green nor revolutionary.
Meanwhile, under Keir Starmer, the British Labour Party has borrowed GND terminology to sell a timid Green Economic Recovery. A significant retreat from the party’s ambitious £250 billion Corbyn-era package, it abandons previous 2030 decarbonization targets and omits any mention of public ownership or a just transition for workers. Similarly, the European Green Deal has been almost terminally compromised, with fossil fuel lobbyists diluting a green “solution” to a shade of grey.
In the United States, Joe Biden has just announced a raft of new executive orders on climate, creating a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and shifting to a “whole-of-government” approach. The announcement mixes GND-style language of “environmental justice” with noncommittal technocratic substance, including “rigorous reviews” of leasing practices and the need to “identify steps that can be taken” toward renewables.
Biden has also appointed fossil fuel allies to senior government positions and is still refusing to ban fracking. And there’s good reason to be concerned about the announcement’s “national security” framing. Biden’s apparent shift away from Trump’s destructive environmental agenda may be welcome, but it isn’t yet time to celebrate. Rather, examples like these show the need for greater scrutiny of reforms and announcements that ape the rhetoric of the GND.
Let One Thousand GNDs Bloom
Even Scott Morrison, who once brandished a lump of coal in parliament, has shifted his language. These days, he talks about net-zero emissions, while simultaneously touting a gas-led COVID-19 recovery. Governments and corporations are coloring their marketing green as public opinion moves in favor of decisive climate action.
Major oil companies are also getting in on the act. Shell seems to be expanding into the renewables market while BHP executives are now making noises about decarbonization. A recent dramatic drop in the price of renewables will accelerate this realignment.
This is why vague talk about a green “transition” can blur the distinction between an imminent renewables surge and the decarbonization that is necessary to halt global heating. The common assumption is that once renewables are adopted at scale, decarbonization will inevitably follow. Yet there’s no historical precedent for something like this to happen.
Previous changes in energy production — such as the moments when coal overtook wood in the nineteenth century or petroleum superseded coal in the twentieth — are better characterized as energy additions rather than transitions. New sources were added to existing stock while the use of established energy sources continued to increase. Without state action to shut down dirty energy, we should be skeptical about the idea that growth in renewables will lead to a reduction in fossil fuel use.
So it’s a mistake to think of the GND as a single political project, economic program, or set of policy prescriptions. Rather, there are many competing GNDs, reflecting the array of political and economic actors now participating in debates about climate and ecological crisis.
This proliferation of symbolic green gesturing is a challenge for ecosocialists who must learn to distinguish between green branding and the radical changes that are really needed. If we buy into green illusions, it could detract from the urgency of mobilizing while leaving the power of capital over the environment unchecked.
Indeed, ambiguities like this may have been a blind spot resulting from the broad politics and soaring rhetoric that are associated with the more radical, transformative GNDs.
The market is a key driver of climate change and the only solution is rational, democratic planning — but this will cut into corporate profits. Even if it’s possible to make money from some green technologies, competition will drive ecological destruction elsewhere — and exploitation everywhere. We are not all on the same side, and we never were.
To liberals, socialism seems like an unrealistic goal. But the real utopianism is to think that gradualist half-measures will be anywhere near sufficient to halt global heating at 1.5 or even 2°C. Realism means understanding that big polluters won’t give up unrealized stranded assets without conflict. Only a confrontational social movement, building on workers’ power at the point of production, can win such a fight.
Ultimately, we will have to force a break with the extractive logic of commodity production and build a planned, socialist economy. But ecosocialists should also reject the fatalistic assumption that steps toward decarbonization are impossible within capitalism. Radical action is both possible and necessary in the 2020s.
Instead of subsidizing “green” industry with public money, comprehensive decarbonization will require a direct confrontation with fossil fuel and extractive capital. In other words, a GND is only as good as its class politics. In Australia, the urgency of the environmental crisis is already being used as a pretext to ramp up job insecurity and unsafe working conditions.
On a global scale, co-opted GNDs could easily dovetail with imperialism, as states guarantee corporations the ability to profitably extract rare earth metals from the global South. In a similar fashion, neoliberal environmental policies like carbon credits could have disastrous consequences for Indigenous peoples, as companies buy up land to claim offsets.
An ecosocialist GND, on the other hand, could stand in solidarity with less developed countries while bolstering First Nations’ sovereignty by funding land management, regeneration, and rewilding programs, under Indigenous control.
Rather than constituting a static set of policies, the GND should be viewed as a high-stakes site of contestation. As the Climate Justice Collective has argued, any successful GND must be founded on the “four Ds”: decolonization, decarbonization, decommodification, and democratization. Anything less may fail to halt climate change. Strengthening “green” capital will weaken our side politically, while intensifying the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable.
For Victorians, it is crucial to keep holding Andrews and the ALP to account for their destructive environmental policies, including their recent renewal of two dirty brown coal mines and return to deforestation. We should also take aim at this latest attempt to subsidize private capital with public wealth.
An effective GND will need more than parliamentary motions of sentiment, set-piece marches, mild policy tweaks, and center-left governments. It will require strikes, blockades, occupations, and mass civil disobedience. As radical climate researchers Natasha Heenan and Anna Sturman have argued, a transformative GND “needs the full weight of a critique of capitalism behind it”.