History of the Green New Deal

Why ‘Green New Deal’?

In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt became US President. Elected on the promise of ‘a new deal for the American people’, he immediately set about creating mass employment programmes. This included a particular focus on addressing the catastrophic soil erosion which was destroying the farmland of the Great Plains. Federal programmes provided emergency relief, lent money to small farmers, set people to work restoring the land, and taught improved farming techniques. New Deal programmes also built power stations, flood barriers and other infrastructure.

Crucially, Roosevelt also brought the banks under democratic control by dismantling the gold standard. This enabled his government to intervene much more significantly in the economy to serve the aims of its political programme. The Keynesian economics of the New Deal represented a radical break with the ‘leave it to the markets’ approach of Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover.

The New Deal was far from perfect – notably in its embrace of racial segregation and its exclusion of women from employment programmes.  However, it remains an impressive example of how determined and ambitious state interventions can rapidly transform an economy through both fiscal (taxation and spending) and monetary (managing the supply of money) policy.

It is also a good example (though far from the only one) of how well-targeted interventions can address more than one problem at once: by wresting control from the banks and asserting the state’s power to spend, the New Deal pulled people out of poverty, built crucial infrastructure, and curbed the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl. The Green New Deal’s triple focus on economy, ecology, democracy echoes this level of ambition and reimagines it for today’s world.

Across the Atlantic…and back

In 2007 and 2008, at the height of the banking crisis, a group of British economists and environmentalists came up with a plan to address the credit crisis and transform the economy to protect the ecosystem – a plan they called the Green New Deal. Most of those people are still part of what is now the Green New Deal Group.

Read the original 2008 plan here.

After some initial interest, the original Green New Deal programme did not gain much sustained political traction after 2009/10, particularly as the banking crisis of 2008/9 and the resulting austerity programme largely shifted activists’ attention to fighting the effects of austerity, rather than proposing alternatives. Despite this, the Green New Deal Group continued to attempt to shift the emphasis to positive examples of large-scale employment opportunities from environmental programmes, such as decarbonising the country’s 30 million properties, and proposing how to fund such changes.  

Ten years later, the whole concept was introduced to the US political arena when it was picked up by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s team during her run for Congress. Since then, it has become (for better or worse) short-hand for state-led climate action in the United States.

The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, with its focus on using public money to incentivise private sector investment, is a long way from the Green New Deal envisaged by Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement. However, their work has undeniably forced climate on to the agenda in the US, successfully made the case for an industrial strategy, and linked the climate crisis to the fight for racial justice  – a key focus of the US movement’s Green New Deal.

Inspired by the emergence of the Sunrise Movement, activists in the UK picked up the Green New Deal concept. 2019 saw the creation of Green New Deal UK and Labour for a Green New Deal, with the youth-focused organisation Green New Deal Rising now taking centre stage with its eye-catching ‘MP challenges’.

Glimpses of a Green New Deal

In 2019, it briefly felt as though everyone wanted a piece of the Green New Deal: it formed part of pledges by Labour, the SNP and the Green Party in that year’s general election campaign, and a UN agency called for a Green New Deal to overhaul the global financial system so governments could invest in climate action. In September, Green New Deal Group members Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis introduced the Green New Deal Bill to the UK Parliament for the first time.

In 2020-2021, widespread calls for health, climate action and equality to be at the heart of the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic brought the Green New Deal back into the spotlight. The newly established All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Green New Deal ran a project, Reset, which engaged with more than 55,000 people on what they wanted from the economy in the wake of Covid-19. It found that people wanted the government to focus on wellbeing, not a return to business-as-usual with the deep inequalities and environmental destruction that came with it.

Some local and regional authorities have begun to invest in Green New Deal measures: London and the North of Tyne Combined Authority have each established a multi-million pound ‘Green New Deal Fund’ to invest in the green economy.

Meanwhile, 2021 saw the launch of the Global Alliance for a Green New Deal, bringing together lawmakers from 22 countries to call for “a rapid and just transition to an economy that operates within planetary boundaries and supports human flourishing”. More than 300 politicians have signed its declaration.

In 2023, we are witnessing the rapid destabilisation of planetary systems, while a tiny minority of people scoop up most of the world’s wealth. The situation could not be more urgent. But we know that when enough people come together with hope and determination, we can change the world.

It’s time to make history.