The case for green nationalism

The “Green New Deal” is already as divisive as its contents are sketchy. Is it a brilliant move by Democrats to move the Overton Window in a progressive direction by tying the crisis of global warming to the transformation of America into a social democracy? Or is it a political suicide vest that gives the Republicans a huge opening to run as the party that will save America from turning into Venezuela?

The answer depends greatly on how popular you believe the other social democratic elements of the non-binding resolution are.

The key political weakness of the cause of decarbonization has always been that it reeks of austerity: more expensive energy, more expensive flights, even less red meat. From that perspective, the GND makes an important stride by linking environmentalism to equality instead: universal health care, strong unions, more affordable housing. There’s nothing in the GND about taxing carbon, no suggestion that we’re going to use the market to make sure the pain of decarbonization is spread efficiently, which in practice would mean spreading it regressively. Instead, there’s a lot of deficit-financed spending — and jobs — to build out a new energy and transportation infrastructure that sits naturally next to the other promises of the social democratic wish list.

The risk of the strategy, obviously, is that America may not be ready to vote for full social democracy. Staking out a more aggressively left-wing position across the board could move the Overton Window — but it could also backfire if the opposition simply says “no.” That’s what happened to Republican attempts to privatize Social Security in the second Bush administration; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi simply refused to negotiate at all or propose any alternative solution to a problem she considered illusory. The privatization proposals collapsed from unpopularity, and the next Republican president won both the nomination and the presidency on a platform that included promises to protect broad-based entitlements.

That has also been the Republican approach to the problem of climate change: deny there’s any crisis at all and refuse to negotiate on that basis — and it’s been a pretty effective strategy. In fact, that’s one reason why progressives are advocating a much bolder approach: Incrementalism has won them no allies on the other side of the aisle.

So suppose you think America isn’t ready for full social democracy — or that the full progressive wish list would lead to stagnation and bankruptcy — but you aren’t a climate denialist. On the contrary, you think the most alarming warnings of mainstream climate science are all-too plausible.

To actually move the whole conversation in a green direction, you need to change the right as well as the left. Not by moderating the right, but by finding ways to “green” its motivations.

You need the Green New Deal to be answered with a Green New Nationalism.

Nationalism seems like a strange response to a massive problem of collective action. But nationalism is actually the most effective motivator for collective action that we know. Indeed, Franklin Roosevelt himself struggled in his efforts to fully mobilize the economy in the teeth of the Great Depression until World War II gave him command of the nation’s industrial capacity.

Moreover, climate change is properly understood as a situation of scarcity: The planet has a limited carbon budget, and we’re overspending it badly. Scarcity naturally prompts competition for a share of that scarce resource. Cap-and-trade and carbon tax schemes channel that competition through the existing organs of capitalism, which, as the yellow vest protests in France proved, can seriously undermine their political base of support. But if the nation were the unit of competition, the level of political solidarity around necessary sacrifice could prove much more robust.

When you start to think it through, it’s not that much harder to green the emerging nationalist right’s agenda than it is to green the social democratic revolution. And there are a handful of areas where it might be easier.

For example: What country is the largest contributor to climate change today? It’s not the United States — it’s China. In fact, China contributes more to emissions than the United States and Europe combined — and their share of emissions is rising. China’s political stability depends on ever-rising growth and ever-improving living standards, all of which drive an ever-rising carbon footprint for the country even as they build out their renewable energy capacity.

Nationalists already want to get tough on China for supposedly “stealing” America’s manufacturing jobs. But by the same logic they’re also “stealing” a larger and larger share of the global carbon budget. Instead of temporary tariffs imposed to convince China to open their markets, perhaps we need permanent carbon tariffs to ensure that we aren’t subsidizing our own destruction by devoting more and more of our share of the global carbon budget to making China richer.

Some might complain that that’s unfair, since China’s per-capita emissions are still far lower than America’s, because China is much poorer and America has a much more carbon-intensive economy. But it’s not our job to help China get rich; it’s our job to protect America first. If they can’t get rich without threatening the Florida coastline, then they’ll have to stay poor.

Moreover, consider the problem from the question of incentives. If the goal is to save the planet, the most important thing is to prevent new development from further overspending the planetary carbon budget. If we’re in a hole, we have to stop digging. But a cooperative approach requires convincing all parties of the fairness of an agreement — which gives China leverage to demand concessions for their relative poverty, and thereby undermines American political support for the agreement itself. A nationalist approach, by contrast, would mobilize the full weight of America’s economic power to force China to adapt. Best of all, China’s retaliation would likely be against America’s own dirtiest sectors — which would only benefit the climate, whatever the effect on the economy.

Next: consider the politics of immigration from a climate-centric perspective. America’s per-capita carbon emissions are the highest of any major industrialized country not located on the Persian Gulf. Our per-capita emissions are more than four times those of Mexico, and 15 times those of Honduras or the Philippines. When people from those countries come to the United States, they benefit greatly from participation in a more productive economic system. But those gains are partly due the leverage afforded by our carbon-intensive economy — and even before their incomes rise their carbon footprint will quickly rise to American levels.

If we’re going to prioritize the climate, then, we have to cut back on immigration. We can do that by simply throttling back on both legal and illegal immigration. Or we can take a more market-friendly approach and charge immigrants a carbon “bond” to cover the cost of offsetting the expected increase in their carbon footprint, which would have the effect of shutting most immigrants from poor countries out.

Once again, some might complain that this is incredibly unfair. We’re effectively punishing the poor for wanting to better their lives, retreating behind a gated community. But while our gated community might seem wealthy and spacious, in fact it’s ecologically bankrupt, massively overspending its carbon budget. We simply can’t afford to take anyone else in until we’ve completed the process of decarbonization. Surely anyone who genuinely prioritizes the planet would agree.

Finally, green nationalists would have no trouble adopting the spending proposals from a Green New Deal. Indeed, in many cases they could one-up the progressives. They could more comfortably add nuclear energy to the mix and more comfortably expand hydro-electric power. They would have no ambivalence about spending lavishly on carbon-capture and carbon-removal technologies that would extend the lifespan of at least some parts of our carbon-based economy. And they could devote the necessary energy to national adaptation efforts.

The bumper stick version of green nationalism: We’re going to build a big, beautiful sea wall — and we’re going to make China pay for it.

The point isn’t so much that these are the best ways to fight climate change — they aren’t. The core of any serious climate agenda is going to be bold efforts to decarbonize the economy; anything else is mostly window-dressing. The point is that proposals like these could embed an acceptance of the reality of climate change into the right side of the political spectrum, and shift the ground of argument from whether we can afford to protect the climate to who’s going to pay. If you care primarily about preventing the worst, then that’s a shift that urgently has to occur.

And there’s precedent for precisely that dynamic. Consider how the conversation around foreign trade and wage stagnation has changed in the past few years. These were long issues dear to the hearts of Democrats with ties to organized labor, but they were regularly outmatched by both Republicans and by more corporate-friendly Democrats. Then Donald Trump won the presidency on a platform of economic nationalism. Suddenly, there’s much wider scope for progressive critiques of the historically-dominant free-market paradigm. Could the same be true of climate change?

It’s impossible to know for sure. But those most concerned about climate change should still hope that Trump goes from calling it a Chinese hoax to arguing that China is “killing us” on climate just like they are on trade — only this time, the killing is all too literal.

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