Democracy and the Green New Deal: opportunity in a time of populism

Democracy and the Green New Deal: opportunity in a time of populism

European Greens co-chair Monica Frassoni says a Green New Deal can drive job-creation and help fight climate change.

(AP/Bob Edme)

These are not happy times.

Donald Trump has been president for a few weeks: between the Muslim ban, top positions nominations, promises of walls, deportations of allegedly ‘illegal’ migrants, withdrawals from commitments on climate change, threats to allies and attacks against the media, there is little reason to be optimistic.

In Europe, the triggering of Article 50 to begin the UK’s EU exit process looms closer, as do the next elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands. The thought of a world with Putin, Trump, Le Pen, Wilders and Salvini all together in power is getting more realistic day-by-day.

Yet, on the other hand, these issues could also turn into times for opportunity and positive change. It is here that we must intervene – swiftly, effectively and realistically.

I believe there are two fields, in particular, that could determine whether we will triumph against or succumb to the rising wave of populism and authoritarianism: the “Green New Deal” and the quality of our democracy.


Green innovation vs tech neutrality

The Green New Deal is the ecological transformation of our economic model. It prioritises the end of our submission to speculative finance, to energy inefficiency and to the fossil fuel monopoly, which insists on parading around renewables and resource efficiency as expensive, marginal choices.

Industrial groups must accept that innovation does not mean further investment in fossil fuels: today, competitiveness stems from green innovation.

After COP21 and COP22, commitments against climate change seem stronger than ever, regardless of the isolated attempts of certain countries to weasel out of them. That’s because public opinion itself is now convinced of the absolute priority of respecting the 2˚C cap for global warming, not only to limit emissions, but also to deal with pollution and improve the quality of life and health for the earth’s inhabitants.

We need to overcome so-called “technological neutrality”, according to which all industrial sectors must be supported, including those that are not productive and pollute the most.

The divestment movement is of great help, and it is something which we Greens actively support on local, national and supranational levels.

It is a step forward in the fight against fossil fuels, since its strategy proactively encourages investors to withdraw their investments from the fossil fuel industry.

Recently Irish lawmakers voted in favour of ditching fossil holdings from the €8 billion Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, making it the first country to possibly fully divest from fossil fuels.

But we need to go beyond the false dichotomy of economy vs environment: disinvestment is not just about ethics. Because of the Paris commitments, if the 2˚C target is respected, energy giants such as Shell, Total and Exxon-Mobil are at great risk of losing revenue because of large chunks of fossil reserves that must stay in the ground. The carbon bubble would explode.

It’s not surprising that Exxon-Mobil lied to its investors about the risks of climate change: oil companies know that society and investors are heading towards a different direction.


EU leadership

Europe prides itself on being at the forefront of the fight against climate change: indeed, thanks to new EU legislation (albeit not compulsory), professional pension providers should now disclose whether and how their investments are sustainably managed.

Some of those who oppose a greener economy claim that green innovation and technology will lead to a loss of jobs. This is a bogus argument. Technology can in fact help and foster employment, if it is accompanied by education and further training to help people adapt to new developments. It is on new, medium-to-high-skilled jobs that Europe needs to focus, in industry, manufacturing, agriculture and tourism.

Secondly, I want to insist on the problem of the quality of our democracy. The economic crisis fuels populism but we cannot explain the current wave of xenophobia only in those terms. There are reasons why Brexit and Trump happened that are inextricably linked to the rules of the game.

One is the issue of financing: although one of the arguments that populists make against the “Establishment” is the salary of politicians as a symbol of corruption, they themselves exploit private financing for their campaigns. Trump’s victory was without a doubt aided by the enormous funds that were poured into his campaign.

Even the Five Star Movement in Italy enjoys the support of private funds; its strategies and even the positioning of its MPs is often determined by a private communications company. There are specific economic and political powers at play here, whose interests shape campaigns and have a real impact on political systems. Often these powers are the same companies that oppose the Green New Deal. And the circle closes.

The other issue is media regulation in terms of political pluralism, which is an old battle for us at the European level. The concentration of the media in the hands of few actors is certainly one of the factors behind one of today’s most popular buzzword, “post-truth politics”.

In the 1990s the European Commission attempted to propose a directive on media regulation, which was killed off by 15 member states. The inability to guarantee free and fair access to the media has opened the door for people such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland to slowly kill freedom of expression.


An alternative to populism

It is exactly on these two points that we Greens insist on when we talk about the “quality of democracy.” We need to fight for a democracy where access to public debate is free and open, in which political financing is strictly monitored and audited, and where media pluralism is not an empty word.

We need to foster a quality discussion in order to dismantle the disruptive and nefarious rhetoric of populist and authoritarian movements. What they call ‘fake news’, for example, are quite simply ‘lies’.

These are not just words: Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen showed that it is possible to stand for Europe, for justice, diversity, environmental protection, and still defeat the far right and win an election.

I believe that the only way out of all these crises is to show citizens that there are viable alternatives to populism, that there are ways to be both developed and sustainable, as well as democratic and mindful of people’s concerns. We need to put up a real non-violent confrontation, and be at least as determined and noisy as populists are.

But above all else, we should not do what mainstream parties often do – that is, to try to regain consensus by taking up some of the arguments and the methods of extremists, giving up on our principles and values. More and more voters are listening to what Jean Marie Le Pen once said: “Don’t trust imitations, go for the original.”