The Green New Deal: How will it play in international climate negotiations?

The Green New Deal: How will it play in international climate negotiations?
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Hollywood knows that while the U.S. movie market is important, international sales can generate far more revenues. For example, the latest installment of the Avengers broke all records, but mostly from sales abroad. This is also true for greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. may be the second biggest emitting country, but it only produces about 15 percent of the global total. Into this dynamic comes the Green New Deal (GND), a proposal criticized for insufficient attention to international climate dimensions and for “improperly” injecting inequality concerns into the climate effort. 

Looking ahead to next month’s international climate negotiations, the question is how does the GND play in the global arena? The GND storyline indeed is very focused on the U.S. market, but it has several important facets that will play well abroad — in particular at the upcoming COP hosted by Chile, but to be held in Spain after the country was wracked by populist-style civil unrest. 

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The GND is an important declaration from within Congress that American politicians do care about climate change, notwithstanding the position of the U.S. administration.

The climate change issue was surprisingly — and distressingly — absent from the national discourse. This was obvious from abroad. But today, every major Democratic Presidential candidate has a robust climate platform. The GND was key in bringing increased attention to climate within the domestic political discourse, a change that is visible internationally.  

The second is the GND’s high ambition to achieve rapidly net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. has a tradition of thinking big and delivering — one that is reflected in its movies such as Star Wars and the Avengers that attract millions of moviegoers abroad. Ambition is required to have any hope of limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius or below. The willingness of the U.S. to dream big always plays well abroad. 

One of GND’s potential strength abroad is an aspect for which it has been criticized domestically, namely the striking way in which it intertwines issues of inequality with climate. Numerous countries have faced civil unrest driven in part by populist resistance to efforts to address economic, climate and other concerns through policies that target working class families. 

This includes Chile, but also other countries such as France, the host of the Paris Climate Agreement that has faced ongoing yellow-vest demonstrations spurred by its carbon tax proposal last year. The GND recognizes and validates the importance of populist apprehensions, even when it comes to managing climate change — a surprising plot twist.

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Similarly, at a global level, an imposing challenge is to construct a low emissions path that also lifts the world’s poor out of poverty and provides for greater shared prosperity globally (concepts incorporated into the Paris Climate Agreement itself). By recognizing that the climate change effort must also deal with issues of poverty and inequality (even within the U.S., the world’s richest country), the GND sends an important acknowledgement abroad that can help to build an international consensus around climate action. 

Fourth, the GND specifically targets populations that will be directly adversely affected by the clean-energy transition. What is true for coal workers in the U.S. also applies abroad: many of the world’s poorer regions depend heavily on coal for employment and energy.

The clean-energy transformation can generate short-term economic hardship, even as it brings important health and other benefits. Helping these populations to transition to other employment opportunities will be important. This recognition by the GND will resonate internationally. 

In contrast to the GND, other U.S. productions face a different reception abroad. Last year’s “From Russia with Love” about Russian interference in the U.S. elections garnered a lot of attention in the domestic market, but less internationally. One film now under production, tentatively called “Let’s Make a Deal”, about U.S./Ukraine relations is creating a lot of buzz and anticipation but awaits finalization of the storyline. 

The current “MAGA: Trade Wars” that pits the two biggest economies has created controversy and concerns abroad. But of most relevance to climate audiences is an earlier installment of the MAGA series, “MAGA: The Paris Withdrawal”. While this film has been well received by certain governments wanting to weaken their own mitigation efforts, most audiences are rightfully distressed by this work’s impact on climate efforts. 

Sequels to the GND will inevitably follow. For example, the GND lacks sufficient measures to spur action abroad, such as financing for low-carbon investments in poorer countries. But the first installment is a good start that should play well abroad. 

Philippe Benoit is currently an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and was previously Division Head, Energy Environment, at the International Energy Agency.