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December 2, 2021

Columbia professor discusses the geopolitics of the Green New Deal

By VICTOR SUN | October 31, 2019

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COURTESY OF VICTOR SUN Tooze discussed America’s imperative to engage with China on climate.

Adam Tooze, a British economic historian and professor of history at Columbia University, gave a talk titled “The History and Political Economy of a Global Green New Deal” on Monday. 

Tooze’s lecture explored how global climate politics have historically been shaped by contemporary trends in international economics and geopolitics. 

The presentation, which was held in the Glass Pavilion, was the keynote address for the conference Green New Deal: Rethinking the Global Politics of Climate Change. The conference ran from Oct. 28 to 29 and was co-sponsored by the History and Political Science Departments as well as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Agora Institute. 

Tooze first described how Green New Deal proponents have used the planned law as a pivot away from the traditional concerns of climate activists.

“The Green New Deal turns the question from polar bears and icebergs to political economy,” he said.

The climate problem, Tooze said, is no longer simply about the environment. The climate problem is about complicated systems of global politics, international finance and transnational markets, and how these systems affect the environment.

“What is distinctive about the Green New Deal is that it is a project of social democracy, first and foremost. It is not an environmental platform at all,” he said.

Tooze traced a history of recent climate action from the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa to the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline, explaining them as battles in a contest between people and fossil-fuel capitalists.

After the 2016 election, Tooze argued, these battles began making their way into electoral politics. Candidates saw that they could use the idea of the Green New Deal to express where they stood in that contest.

“You can’t run an election against capitalism, but what you can do is to run an election in favor of the Green New Deal platform,” he said. 

The historical memory that the Green New Deal tries to activate, most prominently with its very name, is that of the New Deal programs of the 1930s and 1940s, Tooze said.

“The most basic thing that needs to be rethought is the historical premise of the New Deal analogy as a source of inspiration in contemporary politics,” he said. “The Green New Deal anchors on the U.S. past: triumph in the Second World War and the Cold War.”

Such premises ignore other important actors in the world today such as China, Tooze said. The fact that Chinese emissions today are greater than those of the United States and Europe combined, he argued, is not insignificant.

“Doing a deal with China is one of the core elements of climate policy from past conferences. It is disappointing that the GND doesn’t start by recognizing this fact,” he said. 

Against this historical and contemporary background, Tooze argued that the first challenge to a global Green New Deal is China.

“From a climate policy point of view, the future of humanity depends on China’s willingness to lean on this issue and accept the... cost,” he said. “The very least we should do, from that aspect, is start [being] supportive bystanders.” 

This is a deeply uncomfortable position for the United States, he acknowledged. A new generation of American policymakers must deal with a major ideological rival in a way that has not been necessary since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he said.

More than that, however, Tooze explained that this would mean reckoning with the notion that the U.S. will not be the sole author of the fate of the world nor even of itself.

However, Tooze cautioned, simply adding China to the equation does not solve the problem.

The rest of the developing world cannot be overlooked, he said, as their share of global emissions will likely steadily rise in the future.

“The pressing questions is whether doing a deal between the Big Four — U.S., EU, China, India — will be enough.... Beyond the Big Four are an expanding range of countries with large populations in the 80-million-plus range [and] rapidly growing economies. Energy consumption will be the next great challenge of the future decades,” Tooze said.

Bentley Allan, an assistant professor of political science and an affiliate with the University’s Environment, Energy, Sustainability and Health Institute, helped organize the event. 

Allan explained that he believes climate change is something everyone should interest themselves in.

“Many of us don’t see ourselves as climate people; many of us don’t see ourselves as interested in environmental science, so we don’t think of ourselves as interested in carbon taxes or stuff like that,” Allan said. 

Sophomore Ryan Tseng said that she appreciated Tooze’s detailed description of the Green New Deal.

“I like how he deconstructed everything about the Green New Deal from the naming to the target demographic and who exactly this ‘New Deal’ is trying to serve and will realistically serve,” she said.

She explained why she thought it was important to have such an event on campus. 

“It is important to hold it in an institution that brings together students and researchers because we all have different backgrounds and stakes,” she said. “I saw some people that were presumably part of the wider Baltimorean community, and I know that Baltimore has been active in the Green New Deal and the Sunrise Movement, so it definitely was able to reach a lot of different people of different backgrounds.”

Sophomore Celia Lane pointed out that the talk raised awareness for a topic she thinks has been consistently overlooked.

“I think it’s crucial that we host more talks like this at Hopkins. A lot of the student body is woefully unaware of the recent developments in climate policy and thus become an uninformed citizenry,” Lane said.

All Hopkins students have a stake in today’s climate politics whether they realize it or not, Allan argued. There is no lifestyle that will remain unaffected by the effects of climate change.

“For the Hopkins community, all the jobs or training you are going to get is going to be affected by the world we are living in. Look at the fires in California,” he said. “I would challenge the students and the members of the community to think directly about how they can get themselves involved in climate politics.” 

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