Imagining a Green New Deal Through Climate Fiction
Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140 (Orbit, 2017)
In an October 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advised that we have just 12 years to overhaul global energy infrastructures to limit carbon emissions and avoid climate catastrophe. A month later, a new class of policymakers was elected to the United States House of Representatives. Since then, talk of a so-called “Green New Deal” has gained momentum in political and activist circles.
Conceived by first-time Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and policy and environmental groups like the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal is an ambitious plan to decarbonize the economy and address rising inequality by investing in clean energy jobs and green infrastructure. To finance the plan, Ocasio-Cortez has suggested raising income tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.
The Green New Deal is broadly derived from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal, a package of economic policy reforms and jobs programs meant to pull the United States out of the Great Depression by initiating large public works projects. In December 2018, plans for a Green New Deal were introduced as an 11-page Google Doc that provided recommendations for drafting legislation. Since then, interest in the Green New Deal has skyrocketed. In January, 626 environmental organizations sent a letter to Congress urging the adoption of a Green New Deal, and a recent poll conducted by the Yale School for Climate Change Communication shows remarkable bipartisan support for the plan. In early February, Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Senator Ed Markey introduced a joint resolution for a Green New Deal, and backers of the plan include several Democratic presidential candidates.
Tracing the Roots of the Green New Deal
Calls for a Green New Deal are nothing new, but the concept’s origins and meanings are varied. Some have traced the Green New Deal to journalist Mark Hertsgaard’s call for a “Global Green Deal” in a 1999 article in The Nation in which he called on the United States to lead a global shift toward clean energy. Thomas Friedman is credited with coining the phrase “Green New Deal” in a 2007 New York Times column, in which he called for top-down reform such as massive federal investments in renewable energy and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies. Others see the plan as an evolution of green energy initiatives built into President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, known broadly as the stimulus.
However, the concept’s intellectual lineage can be more accurately traced to its decades-old roots in labor and environmental advocacy. The House resolution for a Green New Deal lists as its stated goal “to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.” The phrase “just transition” evokes the Campaign for a Just Transition which, as environmental humanities scholar Joni Adamson explains, emerged in the 1990s when grassroots labor and environmental justice groups formed alliances to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement, which lacked strong labor and environmental protections.
A “just transition” is best understood as “a shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy”—that is, the adoption of an alternative economic paradigm predicated on ecologically sustainable jobs, community well-being, and social equity. Organizations like the AFL-CIO, the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, and the Indigenous Environmental Network have been embracing these objectives for decades. Many local groups, especially in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities on the front lines of climate change and adjacent to pollutive industries, have formed translocal coalitions organized around goals for a just transition, including the Just Transition Alliance and the Climate Justice Alliance.
Imagining the Future of the Green New Deal
What might a Green New Deal look like? And what obstacles might prevent a just transition from coming to fruition? One way to game out possible Green New Deal-style scenarios is by reading speculative climate change fiction. Also known as “cli-fi,” this emergent genre allows readers to process the complexities of climate change and explore a range of possible responses to the crisis by envisioning scenarios of resilience, adaptation, or collapse.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2017 cli-fi novel New York 2140 is particularly useful for thinking about the Green New Deal because it takes economic justice as its central theme. The novel imagines a future New York City submerged after a century of climate-driven coastal flooding has raised sea levels fifty feet. The city proves remarkably resilient, as advances in construction and engineering technology enable many of its buildings to be retrofitted with waterproofing materials and green technologies, allowing residents to thrive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, has been transformed into a sprawling, self-sufficient housing cooperative with solar panels, rooftop gardens, and indoor farms. Streets are bustling, boat-filled canals, and the city’s financial district (relocated uptown) has bloomed into a cluster of super-scrapers connected by walkable skybridges.
But Robinson’s future New York is also beset by many of the same problems it faces today. The impacts of coastal flooding have largely unfolded along class lines. The rich have relocated to escape rising floodwaters, while everyone else lives in or adjacent to the intertidal zone and in various states of precarity, as low rents correlate with the likelihood of crumbling infrastructure collapsing into the water and residents are left to “cope with their new rust belt status.” Many neighborhoods face the existential threat of creeping gentrification when shady corporate entities attempt to buy up real estate and transform low- and middle-income areas into climate-proof enclaves for the affluent.
The city also remains home to a famously predatory financial industry. Hedge fund manager Franklin Garr, one of the novel’s eight protagonists, works in the field of “coastal futures” and cravenly speculates on the viability of intertidal real estate. His self-developed Intertidal Property Pricing Index allows him to monitor the financial health of intertidal zones based on housing prices, sea level projections, advances in construction technology, and estimated rates of depreciation based on projected sea level rise. He hopes to profit from overinvestment in “submarine mortgages” by anticipating a bubble and shorting the market.
In response to worsening conditions, New York 2140’s protagonists hatch a plot to overthrow the economic order, facilitate the radical redistribution of wealth, and implement social and environmental reform. Amelia Black, television host and animal rights advocate, urges her millions of viewers to stage a financial strike by refusing to pay rents, mortgages, student loans, and other forms of private debt, precipitating a global financial collapse. Charlotte Armstrong, a climate refugee resettlement lawyer and fair housing advocate, runs for Congress on a democratic socialist platform, is elected to represent the Twelfth District of New York, and persuades the Chair of the Federal Reserve, her ex-husband, to nationalize big banks on the verge of implosion.
The newly-elected Congress quickly codifies new labor protections, environmental regulations, free public education, and guaranteed employment. Reforms are funded by a so-called “Piketty tax,” invoking French economist Thomas Piketty, who in Capital in the Twenty-First Century famously proposed a global tax on capital to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth in the form of taxpayer-funded infrastructure, schools, and other public assets. Meanwhile, Garr, the hedge fund manager, develops a social conscience and drafts plans to solve the city’s housing crisis through the construction of floating, climate-resilient communal housing funded by federal grants and private investment from altruistic donors.
Confronting the Limits of the Green New Deal
In 2014, ecocritic Rob Nixon suggested that it is “time to remold the Anthropocene as a shared story about unshared resources.” The coincidence of rising inequality and rising carbon emissions, he argued, signaled the necessity of a form of “Anthropocene storytelling” that accounts for the uneven distribution of environmental risk. New York 2140 leads this charge in important ways. By imagining a utopian climate future—Robinson has called it a “comedy of coping“—it represents an outlier in a still-nebulous cli-fi genre often characterized by dystopic visions of societal collapse and narratives of social conflict and survival. An irreverent critique of global capitalism, New York 2140 anticipates the emergence of a new class of policymakers and activists determined to make a bold stand on climate change and economic justice. And, insofar as the Green New Deal outlines blueprints for an economic revolution, New York 2140 embarks on a compelling if far-fetched exploration of how such a reality might come to pass.
However, Robinson’s Green New Deal-style scenario largely excludes perspectives from climate-vulnerable communities. The novel’s primary advocates for social change are mostly middle- and upper-class white leftists living comfortably above the drowned city: a wealthy television host, a well-connected politician, and a reformed financier. Robinson’s imagined economic revolution, in other words, is arguably dictated from the top down. This is compounded by the fact that residents of intertidal slums are often characterized as a collective, undifferentiated precariat, as “water rats” or “denizens of the deep, citizens of the shallows.” None of the novel’s primary protagonists hail from this group, and readers are left with a one-sided perspective on the city’s conditions of climate apartheid.
Moreover, New York 2140 largely ignores the racialized dimensions of climate vulnerability. The Citizen, a detached narrative voice whose expository vignettes are woven throughout the novel, describes floods that occurred prior to the events of the novel as “katrinas.” While Hurricane Katrina has become something of a benchmark by which the severity of climate-driven coastal flooding is determined, the storm’s defining feature was the ways in which it laid bare the racialized dimensions of climate change in the United States. By using Hurricane Katrina as a metaphor for climate catastrophe without acknowledging the racialized dimensions of the disaster, the novel misses an opportunity to deepen its critique of the structural violence of carbon-fueled capitalism.
The Green New Deal faced similar criticism following the draft proposal’s initial rollout in late 2018. The Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of 68 social and racial justice organizations, released a statement in support of the Green New Deal with a big caveat: grassroots groups had been excluded from the proposal-drafting process. “The proposal for a Green New Deal was made public at the grasstops level,” they wrote, cautioning that “the process for achieving any new deal cannot be conducted in the same old way, in which power, privilege, and money trump communities’ needs, well-being, and democratic rights.” The statement outlines the Alliance’s priorities for a Green New Deal, including recognition of Indigenous rights and the prioritization of community-level input.
So far, the Green New Deal’s primary torch-bearers have been responsive to such criticism. In January, Ocasio-Cortez met with the Alliance to discuss the inclusion of just transition principles into Green New Deal advocacy. The draft proposal was promptly updated to include language prioritizing the inclusion of frontline communities in decision-making processes, the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, and the mitigation of racial and gender-based inequalities. These provisions were also included in the House resolution introduced in early February.
Keeping Social Justice at the Forefront of Climate Action
Because recently introduced Green New Deal legislation contains few policy specifics, however, the risk of a plan conceived and executed at the “grasstops” remains. There exists the danger of a Green New Deal becoming subject to the dictates of “green capitalism,” a paradigm that has been criticized by environmental thinkers like Naomi Klein and Adrian Parr as an approach to climate action that preserves the economic status quo at the expense of frontline communities. For example, such fears have made some New York City communities reluctant to embrace the construction of the Dryline project, a berm intended to protect Manhattan from flooding in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. As climate justice activist Ashley Dawson explains, the Dryline is mostly conceived to preserve Wall Street and high-value real estate zones while re-routing hypothetical floodwaters to lower-income areas like Red Hook and Harlem.
New York 2140’s radical vision for climate action driven by economic reform would have been even more powerful had it foregrounded the perspectives of communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Nevertheless, it proves insightful through what is both included and excluded within its imaginative purview.
Reading climate fiction—and, indeed, all cultural responses to climate change—with the principles of a just transition in mind can serve as a useful barometer for determining which human values are driving (in)action in the midst of the global climate crisis. For example, the utopian sub-genre of climate fiction known as solarpunk raises interesting questions about future of renewable energy if considered alongside a recent report showing that white communities have disproportionately benefited from the current solar boom in the United States, or accounts of African American communities in Philadelphia working to secure community-owned solar energy grids. Examining Indigenous literature such as Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s novel Solar Storms or Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead can provide insight into the extent to which the struggle for a just transition is, at bottom, a decolonial endeavor.
The successful implementation of a Green New Deal based on the principles of a just transition will take more than overcoming political inertia. It will require a willingness to envision, identify, and elevate climate change scenarios that imagine a future that is not only livable, but just.
Featured image: A flooded city scene depicting a hurricane in September 1815. “Market Square, Providence, Rhode Island, During the Great September Gale, 1815,” Anonymous. Image from the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Matthew S. Henry recently earned his Ph.D. in English and the Environmental Humanities from Arizona State University. He specializes in contemporary U.S. literature and culture, the energy humanities, and environmental justice. He has published or has work forthcoming in Environmental Humanities, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, and elsewhere. Website. Twitter. Contact.