This month, Sprout co-editor Nako Kobayashi takes on the Green New Deal and considers what can be done to make it a less divisive topic.
How can the U.S. systematically tackle such an enormous task as mitigating and adapting to the predicted effects of climate change? The Green New Deal resolutions, introduced to the house and senate by Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), present one possible solution. However, in a politically charged, forced vote, the proposal failed in the Senate last Tuesday. The vote, which many Democrats are calling a sham, illustrates the polarizing nature of climate change discussions in this country.
The media is partly to blame for making the Green New Deal so divisive. 71 percent of potential Republican voters say they have heard about the Green New Deal “a lot” compared to just 37 percent of potential Democrat voters, according to a recent poll. This difference partly stems from an FAQ document released by Ocasio-Cortez’s office that mentions the need to “get rid of farting cows and airplanes.” Republican politicians and the conservative media took this language and emphasized how the proposal would take away certain freedoms from Americans to the detriment of rural economies that depend on livestock production. As political blogger Kevin Drum put it in a recent Mother Jones article, “supporters aren’t sure exactly what they’re being asked to support …. The haters, by contrast, only need to hear one or two things they hate, and that’s enough.”
The Green New Deal is not a formal piece of legislation — it simply proposes a way to form and prioritize climate change policies in the future. It wouldn’t have the power to take any freedoms away from anyone, even if it wanted to. The ambitious, fourteen-page resolution hopes to, among many things, achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, create millions of jobs, ensure environmental and health benefits equally for all people in the U.S. for generations to come and promote justice and equity. But it somehow leaves key stakeholders out of the conversation and fails to unite the country under a unified vision of climate action.
As someone interested in agricultural issues, I immediately noticed that the Green New Deal and its proponents barely mentioned the implications of climate change and a Green New Deal on the nation’s agricultural sector. Those opposing the Green New Deal, on the other hand, immediately took the “farting cows” comment and made it one of their main points of contention, even though that language wasn’t included in the resolution itself. Ocasio-Cortez and others quickly dismissed the opposition as having simply misunderstood the greater context of the proposal. This partisan divide in how politicians address or fail to address agricultural issues and farmers’ perceptions of the Green New Deal is worth scrutinizing.
Farmers contribute to and have the ability to mitigate climate change. Around 9 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions coming from the agricultural sector. Many farmers are also already experiencing the effects of climate change due to changing weather patterns and are seeking government support to help them, both financially and technically, adapt their businesses appropriately. Because of how climate change implicates agriculture, I expected the Green New Deal to directly address these issues. But, in my opinion, and that of many in the agricultural community, the Green New Deal fails to take advantage of this opportunity to outline how policies could help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change.
When a policy debate involves agriculture, politicians often try to make it a partisan issue. But climate change will affect all of us, and we have to put aside our differences and try to come to a compromise. In addition, dissatisfaction over how the Green New Deal addresses agriculture transcends partisan affiliation. Many were surprised when the National Farmers Union, a generally liberal-leaning organization that represents the nation’s family farmers and ranchers, decided not to formally endorse the Green New Deal. According to Hannah Packman, the union’s communications coordinator and alumnus of the Friedman School’s Agriculture, Food, and Environment program, the “farting cows” language and media coverage evoked a lot of fear among many of the organization’s member farmers. She thinks that this might have been avoided had farmers been included in the development process of the resolution. “Given the direct and significant implications of such policies for agriculture, family farmers and ranchers must have a seat at the table from the beginning,” she said.
The inability of the Green New Deal’s proponents to adequately include farmers in the conversation is especially problematic given that the resolution explicitly seeks to work “collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.” There’s no way to do this without engaging in conversations to understand the needs of farmers and ranchers. Simply telling farmers they need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, without acknowledging that farmers also need support to adapt their livelihoods to the effects of climate change, will only add to their fears about the declining role of agriculture in this new green economy. Ocasio Cortez’s dismissing farmer’s concerns as simply misinformed leads to further division over climate change issues.
History sheds light on how large, comprehensive proposals to reform society can unintentionally leave certain people out of the conversation. LaDonna Redmond, co-founder of the Chicago Food Systems Collaborative, brought this to my attention, explaining why it is crucial we be careful about “who we are talking about when we are talking about this Green New Deal.” The original New Deal of the 1930s set out to overhaul American society in response to the Great Depression through social and economic reform. However, not everyone was equally targeted by Roosevelt’s policies. The New Deal didn’t address black sharecroppers and racism in the south. The workers’ projects didn’t ensure fair labor practices for everyone, and the Social Security Act excluded farm workers, migrant workers, and domestics — some of the few professions available to black and brown people at the time. How can we make sure that the Green New Deal doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the previous New Deal?
Creating policies that reflect the values that many of us share, regardless of our political views or professions, presents one solution. Farmers likely care about the health of their soil, on which the success of their business relies, just as much an environmentalist. Most parents want to feed their children healthy and safe food, no matter their party affiliation. But past efforts, including the Green New Deal, have not adequately united people over these values. The coalition building process has historically depended on nonprofit money and the “surplus wealth of rich people,” in the words of Redmond. Although well-intentioned, this often leads to solutions that exist within the current frame of thinking and the confines of current socioeconomic and political norms. Perhaps a better starting point would be to imagine for ourselves what a just, anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and regenerative food system would look like, and then come together to think of concrete actions that will help achieve this vision.
The Green New Deal attempted but failed to adequately unify people under a common vision. In my opinion, both sides need to do better to hear the other out. The U.S. as a whole is just not doing enough to deal with the potential impacts of climate change. That’s why when the Green New Deal first came out, it gave a lot of people hope that we might actually start doing something. As Parke Wilde, U.S. food and nutrition policy professor at the Friedman School, explains, the Green New Deal is “the only serious U.S. legislative proposal that comes close to the level of ambition for climate action that scientists recommend.” It’s unfortunate that politics have hindered the conversation from moving forward. If people took the time to really understand one another, they will likely find more commonalities than differences. I think I’m not the only one who wishes that politicians would emphasize these similarities rather than prey on the differences for the sake of politics.
Advocates of the Green New Deal would be better served reassuring cynics instead of ignoring them. Climate change is becoming more real for people, and this pressure might eventually make people come together and address how we can move forward. But I fear that waiting around for people to notice and act on climate change might take too long. As Connor Stedman, an ecological designer at the permaculture company Terra Genesis International, says, climate change is a “spectrum problem, not a boom or bust problem.” If we wait too long, it may be too late to effectively address certain effects of climate change that might greatly reduce the quality of life of people all over the world. Most of the affected people will likely be those whose voices are not represented within policy-making conversations.
The Green New Deal isn’t perfect. As we know, it barely mentions agriculture and has failed to convince those who still need convincing that climate change is an important issue, no matter where they live, what their profession is, or what their political views are. However, I still think that the Green New Deal is a step in the right direction. Although the resulting political debate has been messy, it makes me hopeful that a political framework seeking to comprehensively address climate change is at least being discussed loudly on a national scale. The divisive nature of this country’s two-party system has hindered productive conversations that aim to achieve radical change. Perhaps this is an opportunity to re-think the decision-making process and find new ways to encourage collaboration across party lines.
Nako Kobayashi is a co-editor of the Sprout and a second-year AFE student interested in sustainable and diversified food systems. Studying at Friedman has made her more aware of and interested in nutrition, especially with regards to policy and linking agricultural production to public health outcomes.