When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced the Green New Deal (GND) resolution on February 7, 2019, many climate advocates rejoiced. From the Union of Concerned Scientists to the League of Conservation Voters, advocates representing a diversity of interests recognized that, finally, a resolution had been introduced into both chambers of Congress with an ambition that matched the scale of the climate-change challenge. The resolution presents a broad vision of what climate action in the United States could look like, centering the economy and jobs, especially for working class people. Meanwhile critics, both of the well-intentioned and bad-faith sorts, lambast the resolution for being unrealistic, falling short, being too vague or too costly.
With so many voices in the GND debate, one that is conspicuously silent is the voice of the scientific community. We urge scientists to engage in the discussion, both with their scientific expertise and as citizens.
As we wrote two years ago:
“We are women and scientists who strongly believe in the power of scientific solutions to change lives for the better, particularly those of other women and marginalized groups. Our goal is to use our knowledge, expertise, and experience as scientists to highlight the unique challenges faced by women around the world in the face of climate change, and propose policy and grassroots actions to address these challenges.”
The GND is galvanizing a movement around these very ideals and we see a critical role for scientists, and for women scientists in particular, in how the GND resolution is enacted. Here is why:
The GND is rooted in science. The text of the GND resolution starts with the scientific basis for climate action: a succinct summary of the latest international and national reports on the causes and impacts of climate change. Although biophysics regulate the Earth's climate, understanding and cataloguing how the climate is changing in and of itself is not enough. Changes in global concentrations of greenhouse gases are largely driven—and can be altered—by social, economic and political decisions that govern national and global scale carbon emissions.
As such, the resolution’s call to action reaches beyond climate science to include statements that center and unite environmental, economic, and social issues. This approach matches what leaders in climate science and advocacy recognize—that the climate challenge is both biophysical and socio-economic, and that our solutions need to holistically reflect all dimensions of the challenge.
The GND is ambitious and solutions-oriented The Green New Deal, at this time, is a non-binding resolution intended to formally recognize the federal government’s essential role in addressing the collective challenge of climate change. The GND is not one-size-fits-all and it does not pick a climate solution winner. Instead, it is a signal that the federal government must play a critical role in developing collaborative, inclusive climate solutions. This resolution catalyzes a discussion that will lead to future legislative proposals, which may differ in content and ambition.
But the Green New Deal is more than a mere resolution. It provides a much-needed focal point to the national discourse on climate change and creates intellectual space for bold ideas. Even more importantly, it recognizes that to address climate change, we must also address the inequities it exacerbates. The GND is a rallying point not just for climate advocates, but for all members of our society—including scientists. The call is urgent, and the solutions depend on a widespread response.
The GND is centered around people and justice. The GND is both comprehensive and people-focused. All of the possible solutions to the climate crisis demand changes to social and economic systems, be it renewable energy production or sustainable food systems. The GND is unique in that it recognizes the intertwined nature of global climate change, exploitative economic systems and inequitable social structures. The resolution outlines the role of the federal government to enact comprehensive legislation to tackle two crises in this country: the climate crisis and an economic crisis marked by wage stagnation and rising income inequality. By taking on these crises in tandem, the GND centers people and avoids the false choice between reducing carbon emissions and improving the economy. The resolution recognizes that ultimately, we cannot have a sustainable climate without environmental and economic justice.
The GND asks us, the American public, to leave no community behind as we implement climate change solutions and provides a focal point for organizing a diverse and inclusive coalition to address the climate challenge. The GND also recognizes historical injustices of federal programs, including its namesake, the New Deal of the 1930s, stating that “many members of frontline and vulnerable communities were excluded from many of the economic and societal benefits of those mobilizations.”
This recognition is accompanied by the vision “to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression” and to “provide resources … so that all people of the United States may be full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization.” The resolution represents a commitment from national leaders to uplift frontline communities—from coastal cities to indigenous nations to coal mining towns—incorporating their needs directly into federal climate change solutions.
The GND is changing perceptions of what a climate activist looks like. Throughout the history of the United States, wealthy white men have held the reins of social power, in government as well as in science. But with this Green New Deal emerges a new form of leadership. The GND’s vision for climate justice is presented by a new cohort of voices, both inside and outside of Congress, with voices of women of color front and center. Alongside Ocasio-Cortez in Congress, Representatives Deb Haaland and Ayanna Pressley were among the earliest champions.
Outside the halls of Congress, we find Varshini Prakash, a 25-year-old leader of the Sunrise Movement that created the activist momentum for Green New Deal, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, policy maven of the New Consensus that led the writing of the GND resolution. Many groups from marginalized communities have been on the front lines of climate and environmental advocacy, but their voices are often ignored, spoken over and dismissed. The GND brings these groups and new voices to a discussion space that has too long been plagued by climate denialism and coded white male power brokering.
As climate expert Sarah Myhre put it, “Without wholehearted, brave, feminist leadership, we will only continue to circle the drain of the culture and the crisis of climate change. Without a reorganization of power, such that women of color, indigenous women, and queer women hold real public power, we will only repeat the same systemic erasure of lives, stories, and pain.”
What can we as scientists do?
Recognize that science and scientists do not exist in a vacuum. The GND creates a virtual table where everyone has a seat, something that has been sorely lacking in the climate conversation in the U.S. Unlike with other climate efforts, scientists already have a seat at the GND table, but too often we’re focused on defending our turf instead of helping others pull up a chair. We must remember that scientists and the scientific community include members of marginalized groups. However, science as an institution has historically not been diverse or inclusive. As we work to transform scientific institutions to be inclusive and just, we have an opportunity to learn from the GND and enact a truly inclusive vision in our own scientific communities.
Work with communities to help identify climate impacts and define solutions. The great movements under way to transform our economy and our politics are largely led by students, indigenous groups, environmental justice advocates, frontline communities and women. To ensure that science guides solutions to the immense societal challenges we all face, scientists must also be committed to justice and listen to marginalized communities first and foremost. That means stepping out of our scientific and technological echo chambers and into community meetings so that our work is shaped by real community needs.
We must also keep in mind that the lack of inclusion and representation in science is a hindrance to addressing the climate challenge, especially when many scientists are removed from the impacts faced by marginalized communities. The first step in overcoming our own biases is to listen to the communities affected by climate change, which often means listening to communities that are marginalized in our society as a whole.
Support and promote movements led by marginalized groups. We have an obligation to use our positions of privilege and resources to create space for underrepresented and marginalized groups in the pursuit of climate change solutions. Scientists and the scientific community must engage, through partnership and participation, to provide evidence and analysis in order to inform community-based decisions. We need to embrace a departure from the status quo of patriarchal leadership, and to embrace the new leadership’s vision for climate policy and solutions that includes all people of the United States.
This new style of leadership emphasizes collaboration and community-based solutions, reflected in the language of the resolution: “a Green New Deal must be developed through transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses.”
Advocate for science-based solutions across levels of government. It is imperative that scientists become advocates and push back against the commonly held belief that science and activism are mutually exclusive. If we spend our lives in the weeds of climate science, we better have an opinion about it. Our unique scientific expertise and knowledge position us to help discuss the dangers of climate change and to create and enact solutions. We must step out of the “lab” and use our voice to ensure that science serves the communities that need solutions to the very real problems they face, problems rooted in and exacerbated by climate change.
There are many debates ahead for the GND, some focused on the technical aspects of the resolution and others focused on the socioeconomic dimensions of how we enact such a visionary and comprehensive agenda. But science is all about big bold ideas. The GND is the opportunity of our generation. The scientific community must rise to the occasion, we must think big, we must listen, and we must act.