A Green New Deal

An Urgent Programme for System Change Not Climate Change

Written by Elliot Crossan

“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is.”

Greta Thunberg, 2019 speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

In the last few months, Aotearoa has begun to experience the early effects of catastrophic climate change, with the Auckland floods followed by Cyclone Gabrielle wreaking havoc. Thunberg’s urgent message is finally starting to get through — this is a crisis.

Eleven people were killed due to Cyclone Gabrielle. 9,000 people were displaced in the Hawke’s Bay region alone. Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland saw more rainfall in the first seven weeks of 2023 than we would usually see in the first six months; the flooding destroyed countless buildings. It is undeniable that these freak weather events are caused by climate change.

These storms are only the beginning. Gabrielle has been referred to as a “one in one-hundred-year storm,” but that belies the fact that this level of destruction is about to become the new normal on our warming planet. Unless radical climate action is taken, millions upon millions of people across our planet will be displaced, and many will die.

Yet still the political debate in this country moves at a glacial pace. Despite declaring a climate emergency, with former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declaring the crisis to be her generation’s “nuclear free moment,” the Labour-Green Government has not taken action to match their rhetoric. Their flagship policy, the non-binding Zero Carbon Act, has been heavily criticised as inadequate by environmental campaigners. Dr. Russel Norman, former Green Party co-leader, described it as “a reasonably ambitious piece of legislation that’s then had the teeth ripped out of it,” whilst Greenpeace’s Steve Abel labelled it “a weak climate law based on a feeble consensus.”

Journalist Bernard Hickey has highlighted the limitations of Labour’s policies being ‘fiscally neutral’. Despite the level of crisis we face, the Government is not prepared to spend any money raised from general taxation to tackle climate change. Meanwhile, the Government has refused to swiftly bring our country’s substantial agricultural emissions into the Emissions Trading Scheme.

These criticisms were valid even before Chris Hipkins announced a “policy bonfire,” commencing his time as Prime Minister by “reprioritising” $1 billion worth of government spending. Many of the abandoned policies were climate-focussed, including the $569 million cash for clunkers scheme. Green Party members and have been left questioning their support for the Government.

If the National Party wins this October’s election, they intend to repeal the most significant environmental reform introduced by Labour and the Greens, the 2018 ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration. This will have even more disastrous consequences for the climate than Labour’s inaction. 

Frederick Douglass, a leading African American campaigner for the abolition of slavery, made this crucial observation in 1857:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”

Douglass’ words echo down the ages to the climate activists of today. We cannot expect political leaders to deliver the change we need without a mass movement demanding it. If we want transformational change to save our planet, we must force the powerful to submit to our will through struggle from below.

Only radical, transformative change that puts people and planet before profit will save us from climate change becoming far more destructive than it already is. We need to fight for a Green New Deal in Aotearoa.

What Was the Original ‘New Deal’?

The Great Depression was the worst economic crisis in the history of capitalism. Beginning in 1929, it ravaged the world for a decade, with millions of workers unemployed and starving. The free market had failed, with catastrophic consequences for ordinary people.

In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States, promising change. Roosevelt’s solution to the Depression was to initiate a huge programme of job creation and social security to revive the economy and bring relief to the poor and unemployed. This programme was known as the ‘New Deal.’ The New Deal represented an end to the era of the free market, with the government instead intervening in the economy to help the working class.

Well-paying jobs were created through government schemes to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure; workers and their trade unions were given rights and protections; the unemployment benefit, the minimum wage and Social Security were created to ensure that no one went poor or hungry due to losing their jobs, in-work poverty or old age. Housing policy provided money to states to abolish slums and reduce homelessness. It was paid for by higher taxes on the rich.

Inequality plummeted, the Great Depression ended, and Roosevelt won four elections in a row, becoming the longest-serving President in US history. However, the New Deal did not come about because Roosevelt was a singularly brilliant leader. It was only possible because of huge movements of socialists, trade unionists and unemployed workers demanding that the government serve the people instead of simply favouring the wealthy elite.

The New Deal was influential, with similar policies appearing across the western world, in many countries going further in protecting workers and tackling inequality than Roosevelt’s programme. The reforms of New Zealand’s First Labour Government, led by Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser from 1935 to 1949, were one such example. On the back of mass working class struggle, our welfare state was created, bringing with it state housing, universal healthcare, widespread public ownership, the minimum wage, compulsory trade unionism and high taxes on the wealthy. Between 1935 and 1984, Aotearoa was a much more equal country than it is today.

The Revenge of the Rich

The capitalist class never accepted the reforms of the 1930s and 1940s, resenting paying higher taxes, and hating being forced by trade unions to pay higher wages and grant better conditions to their workers. They wanted the government to sell off publicly-owned utilities and industries.

When another economic crisis struck in the 1970s, the wealthy elite seized their chance. Right-wing governments led by the likes of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US came to power at the end of the decade and attacked the workers’ movement and the welfare state, with devastating consequences. Unions were smashed, with brutal new laws making it much tougher to bargain and strike; state assets were privatised; benefits were slashed, as were taxes on the rich; new taxes on consumption were imposed which hit the poor hardest. Reagan destroyed the progress made by Roosevelt’s New Deal. These policies came to be known as ‘neoliberalism.’

Paradoxically, it was another Labour Government in NZ which began this neoliberal assault on working people. The Fourth Labour Government of 1984-1990, led by Prime Minister David Lange and Finance Minister Roger Douglas, undid much of what their predecessors had achieved five decades earlier. The National Government that followed in the 1990s was all too happy to continue ‘rebalancing’ our country in favour of the wealthy. Between 1984 and 1993, Aotearoa saw the fastest increase in inequality in the OECD.

In Aotearoa and across the world, parties of the centre-left committed themselves to a watered-down form of neoliberalism, doing very little to restore the equality and workers’ rights of the preceding era. Neither Helen Clark’s Labour Government of 1999-2008, nor the current Labour Government led by Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins, sought to undo the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.

Profit Over People and Planet

The 1980s was the decade where the dangers of climate change began to emerge in the public consciousness. Climate campaigner Naomi Klein points out that this was “the worst possible moment for humanity to decide that it was going to get serious about putting planetary health ahead of profits.”

The ideology of neoliberalism says that the state should not intervene in the economy to help ordinary people. At precisely the moment when governments around the world needed to take drastic action to reduce emissions and avert catastrophe, we instead saw neoliberals declaring that, as Reagan put it, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” The Democrats, once the party of Roosevelt and the New Deal, concurred; President Clinton announced in 1996 that “the era of big government is over.”

The timing was disastrous. Just as the working class movement was defeated and set back generations, and as the wealth and power of the elite was skyrocketing, it became clear that capitalism was destroying the planet.

The accumulation of wealth for the top 1% is the governing force in society, not the interests of the people or the planet. Neoliberal capitalism means we live in a dictatorship of profit.

Make no mistake: workers and the poor are not to blame for climate change. Just 100 companies were responsible for 71% of global emissions between 1988 and 2015. The endless drive for profit by the corporations which control society compels them to throw anything and anyone under the bus — whether that be trade unions, the welfare state, or the planet we all live on. The capitalist system requires exponential economic growth, meaning that the size of the global economy must double every 24 years to keep the system ‘healthy.’ If that means young people don’t have a future — so be it.

The climate movement must emphasise that the system which is destroying the planet is the same system that has created such extreme inequality of wealth and power. There is a direct link between climate change and inequality. Only by fighting for a more equal society, where the interests of ordinary people are put before the greed of the wealthy, can we stop climate catastrophe in its tracks. As long as we live in a dictatorship of profit, there is no future.

Another World Is Possible

As climate change begins to hit with force, the effects of which Aotearoa has experienced with January’s floods and February’s cyclone, suddenly it is all too easy to imagine the end of the world. There’s no denying that the prospect of a climate apocalypse is a terrifying thought. ‘Climate anxiety’ is a scourge among millions of people around the world.

Radical social theorist Mark Fisher summed up the dominance of capitalist ideology in 2009 when he claimed that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Yet even as Fisher wrote those words, the cracks in the system were beginning to emerge. The previous two years had seen the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis, the worst economic meltdown the world had seen since the Great Depression. In the wake of this catastrophic failure of the neoliberal system, radical politics began to return in many countries.

Left-wing leaders who had spent their lives fighting against neoliberalism and inequality rose to prominence. The sudden popularity of US Senator Bernie Sanders and British backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn, after both figures had spent decades in relative political obscurity, represented the disintegration of public consent for the neoliberal order, and the return of working class politics. Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party from 2015-2020, fought to transform Britain “for the many, not the few,” whilst Sanders, a major US presidential candidate in 2016 and 2020, declared that working class Americans must “have the courage to stand together and tell the billionaire class they cannot have it all.” Socialist ideas are more popular today than they have been for decades.

Humanity now has to choose, as revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote of the horrors of the First World War in 1916, between “socialism or barbarism.” But there is cause for hope. Mass movements of ordinary people have changed the world before, and they can do so again. Capitalism is not inevitable, and the markets will not last forever. We have to choose between allowing capitalism to continue until it destroys itself and the planet, or creating a fair, sustainable society while we still can. A mass movement of ordinary people is the only way to ensure that the latter option prevails.

Aotearoa Needs a Green New Deal

Movements for climate action have been building for decades, but few have captured the popular imagination quite so much as Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement. Thunberg’s school strikes inspired huge protests led by young people in many countries. The huge climate strikes Aotearoa has seen have offered a glimpse of hope in this country.

The climate movement is, however, in need of a concrete, unifying demand — particularly one which links the ecological crisis with the inequality crisis. The Green New Deal offers the solution we need.

A Green New Deal in Aotearoa would involve:

1. A Green Energy Revolution

All energy production and distribution must immediately be placed under democratic public ownership. The state must lead a green energy revolution, scaling up renewables to provide 100% of our energy as quickly as possible. Affordable energy must be provided to households as a public utility. All fossil fuel extraction in Aotearoa must be banned by 2030; exploration and prospecting for new fossil fuel resources must be immediately banned, along with all mining on conservation land.

Real action to reduce agricultural emissions must be taken, including the dairy herd being halved, synthetic nitrogen fertiliser being banned, and farmers being supported to move towards regenerative agriculture rather than monocrop farming. False climate solutions such as fracking and biomass must also be banned.

Marine protection areas must be expanded to cover 30% of our oceans. Native forests and wetlands must be restored and rewilded. Indigenous trees should be prioritised.

2. A Ministry of Green Works

The government must create well-paid, unionised jobs, rapidly moving our economy away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. A Ministry of Green Works must be created to rebuild vital infrastructure in preparation for the devastating effects of climate change which are already locked in.

There must be a Just Transition for all those currently working in fossil fuel industries. Free retraining must be provided, with no loss of income.

3. Green Finance for Need Not Greed

The greed and reckless behaviour of the financial system has crashed the economy too many times. The banks must be nationalised so that finance can become a public service rather than a speculative casino.

Finance should be centralised into a single publicly-owned bank with a focus on green investment, which can lead the process of decarbonising the economy, moving towards sustainable farming, and transitioning to renewable energy.

The Reserve Bank must be brought back under democratic control. It must target full employment and higher real wages — profits and prices must be controlled if it is necessary to reduce inflation.

4. Green Housing and Transport

Tens of thousands of energy-efficient state houses must be built, to reduce emissions and tackle the housing crisis. Housing intensification must be encouraged, creating closer communities and reducing travel time across cities. Rent controls must be implemented, and all state houses provided at income-related rents, as an immediate solution to housing unaffordability.

Our woefully inadequate public transport sector must receive heavy public investment, with free and frequent services running in cities and towns, and high-speed rail links running regularly between cities, to replace unnecessary pollution from domestic flights. Cycling infrastructure must also be improved.

5. Universal Public Services

The necessities of life — healthcare, education, water, power, internet and public transport — should be owned by all of us, run in the interests of people not profit, and provided to everyone free at the point of use as universal services. All private enterprises in these sectors must be nationalised. Once these crucial sectors are in public hands, emissions can be rapidly reduced, and sustainable practices implemented.

Free healthcare must be universal, including mental health care and dental care. Childcare and social care must be provided for all — we must look after everyone who needs it, from the cradle to the grave. All carers must be paid by the state.

Public services such as healthcare and education must be properly funded and staffed, to reduce class sizes in schools and guarantee safe staffing in hospitals. Public sector workers such as teachers and nurses deserve a substantial pay rise.

6. Tax Justice

The wealthiest New Zealanders are both most responsible for the twin crises of climate change and inequality, and most able to pay for the transition to a more equal, green society. New taxes must be imposed on wealth, capital gains and empty houses, and higher tax rates must be imposed on corporations and high earners. Goods and services tax must be abolished, and a new tax-free threshold created for the first $25,000 earned per year — meaning those on low incomes pay less tax.

Environmental consumption taxes, such as increased petrol tax, should not be imposed — they disproportionately affect the poor. All tax increases must only affect the top 5% wealthiest New Zealanders.

7. Workers’ Rights

Aotearoa is a low wage economy, and this must change. The minimum wage must be immediately raised to the level of the living wage, with youth rates abolished. The right of workers to strike outside of the contract negotiation period must be restored, including for social and political causes. Trade union membership must become opt-out rather than opt-in. Annual leave and sick leave must be increased, and paid leave for both parents must be guaranteed for the first three years after childbirth. We must move towards a four-day working week with the same level of pay.

The welfare system must be reformed so that everyone in the country receives a liveable guaranteed minimum income. The punitive regime of benefit sanctions must be abolished, and debt owed to MSD must be wiped out. Poverty and homelessness should not exist in any country, let alone one as wealthy as Aotearoa.

An Economic Bill of Rights must be enshrined into New Zealand law. This must guarantee the following rights to all residents of Aotearoa: the right to affordable housing; the right to free and adequate healthcare and education; the right to a living wage; the right to a job for all those who want one; the right to a guaranteed liveable income; the right to join a trade union; the right to strike; the right to a clean environment.

8. Refugees Are Welcome Here

The effects of climate change do not respect arbitrary national boundaries and will create millions of refugees around the world. Aotearoa must immediately increase its annual refugee intake to at least 10,000. Climate refugees from the Pacific must be given safe passage and citizenship due to Aotearoa’s historical responsibility in the region. Internal refugees must be properly provided for by the state.

9. End Systemic Inequality

Māori are the Tangata Whenua of Aotearoa, yet they face huge disparities in the economy and the justice system, such as lower income and wealth per capita, higher rates of unemployment, less access to housing, lower life expectancy, and dramatically higher rates of incarceration and police brutality. Whilst universal programmes to reduce inequality will already disproportionately benefit Māori, further steps must be taken to eliminate this systemic inequality, such as targeted funding in health, housing and education, and justice reform.

The fact that Tangata Whenua never ceded their sovereignty must be acknowledged by any attempt to bring about progressive change in society.

All other discrimination and systemic inequality in society, such as misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and racism and xenophobia against Pacifica and other migrant communities, must also be addressed.

10. People’s Power

This programme can only be fought for and won by the struggle of ordinary working people from below. We must radically transform our communities and workplaces so that ordinary people are empowered to be agents of transformative change. Political democracy alone is inadequate — we need democratic control over workplaces and democratic planning of the economy in the interests of people rather than profit. Local communities and the workers affected must have control over public services.

The restoration of the full right of workers to strike is particularly important given that to go on a “climate strike” is currently illegal for workers. A true climate strike must involve workers being able to participate.

This Green New Deal would not itself represent the end of capitalism, but it would be a series of reforms headed in the right direction. The mission of those who seek to overthrow capitalism must be to fight for meaningful short- and medium-term reforms to improve people’s lives and avert ecological collapse. We must do so, all the while understanding that capitalism’s addiction to growth and profit is the underlying cause of these problems, and that the system as a whole must be resisted at every turn. In the long run, the movement to end capitalism will only be built through the fight for reforms which improve people’s conditions in the here and now.

Building the power of the working class in opposition to the capitalist class is the way to fight both climate change and inequality. It will be critical for the climate movement to build strong links with the labour movement. Trade unionists and environmental activists must fight side by side for a better world. No progressive social change is possible without the understanding that it is the working class who runs society, whose labour makes things run, and who can bring the system shuddering to a halt by going on a mass strike. We need to win over workers whose jobs currently depend on the fossil fuel industry, and instead promise green jobs with better pay and conditions which do not result in the destruction of the planet.

Our vision must be a society built in the interests of the many, not the few — not individuals taking actions to mitigate their own carbon footprint. Only a critical mass of people working together against the interests of the capitalist class — those 100 corporations responsible for 71% of global emissions — can bring real change.

Perhaps there was a time when it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But that must not always be the case. As science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin reminds us:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Another world is as possible as it is urgently, desperately necessary. Let’s build a movement to fight for that better world. Things can, and will, change.