Urgently wanted: a US stimulus package in which more than the dollar bills are green


Numerous progressive proposals for a Green (New Deal) Recovery will see their chances for implementation after November at the earliest

Protesters vs oil wells

In the coronavirus pandemic, the United States currently holds a double record: with around 128,000 dead and almost 2.7 million infected at the beginning of July, it is sadly the global leader in the global infection rankings. At the same time, Washington has put together the world's largest relief and support package to date with a massive USD 3 trillion US dollars or around 12 percent of the US gross domestic product, to stabilize a US economy in dire straits with unemployment in the double digits and around 18 million unemployed - and further financial injections are expected.  This is both a huge opportunity and a huge risk: how much of this money is pumped into which American economic sectors has an impact on how socially just, inclusive, environmentally and climate-friendly the US economy of the future will be- and thus also has serious repercussions for the ability of the global community to set the course for a global post-pandemic economic recovery, in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement and the reality of the global climate crisis.

Plenty proposals to go around

There is currently no lack of Paris-compatible, ambitious approaches for such a green and fair push for building back better in the USA. On the contrary, numerous proposals coming out of progressive groups and Democratic Party are ambitious, comprehensive and detailed - and largely ignored in current recovery implementation efforts. Their chance to turn visions for a Green (New Deal) Recovery with additional funds into law will at best come after the November elections.

In the run-up to the discussion on the USD 2.2 billion CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act), which came into force at the end of March as the most important element of the crisis recovery package, more than 1,000 US civil society groups and individuals had already called for a "people's bailout." Their catalogue of demands was based on five basic principles, namely direct support for affected people, not corporate management; the protection of the democratic process and democratic participation and the expansion of a tightly meshed social and health care network; and prominently the structural change towards a "regenerative economy" that addresses systemic social injustices and structural discrimination against communities of color in the US conjointly with addressing the climate crisis.  The CARES Act was in many ways a disappointment. American environmental and climate change activists had already warned in the run-up to the passage of the CARES Act that the only green in the most important part of the American crisis relief package was the color of American dollar bills. Like them, international observers also see with increasing concern that, of all industrialized countries with detailed stimulus packages, the massive financial aid for the COVID-19 crisis management in the USA currently poses by far the greatest danger of directly supporting environmentally and climate-damaging sectors with up to USD 479 billion.  

Unwinding Environmental Regulations

This is both a consequence of the existing policy mix in the USA, which is inclined toward a brown reconstruction, and a consequence of specific measures in the crisis package, such as the USD 60 billion in direct aid for ten American airlines, which was not linked to any green conditionalities. At the same time, the Trump administration has used the distraction and cover of the coronavirus pandemic to further intensify its three-year-long dismantling of environmental protection regulations and to massively reduce the monitoring of compliance with them by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for an indefinite period. In mid-May, an executive order also explicitly instructed Trump's government agencies to exempt polluters from all regulations that could impede the country's economic recovery.

Indeed, initial analyses by US environmental groups have shown that the American oil, gas, and mining industries can feel like clear winners of the CARES Act. For example, US oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Conoco, and the US fracturing industry, which were already deep in the red before the coronavirus crisis due to falling oil and gas prices, are benefiting directly from a USD 75 billion Federal Reserve buyout program for corporate debt. According to estimates, the big three US oil companies, based on their credit ratings and outstanding long-term debt (much incurred before the pandemic), could receive up to USD 20 billion in direct payments. Thousands of smaller US oil and gas companies have already received billions in support. Of the approximately USD 600 billion in tax breaks in the CARES Act, about USD 100 billion could benefit companies in the fossil fuel sector. At the same time, the US Department of the Interior is reducing the payment of royalties for oil and gas production extracted from public areas and waters. The latter is a double blow for the local and state governments on the Gulf Coast and on the West Coast, which depend on such income while confronted with growing coronavirus infections and strained social and health care systems.

At the end of April, more than 330 organizations from US environmental and social justice movements wrote to the US Congress demanding that the oil and gas industry be excluded from the stimulus payments. For example, the Trump administration had proposed to provide up to USD 3 billion under the CARES Act to support the price of oil for American producers by replenishing the Strategic Oil Reserve. A Democratic bill, the ReWind Act (Resources for Workforce Investments, Not Drilling Act), which was introduced by supporters of a Green New Deal, including Senators Sanders, Merkley and Markey, does take up these demands. However, this initiative was not included in another USD 3 trillion economic development plan passed by the Democratically-led House of Representatives in mid-May, the HEROES Act (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act).  Although the HEROES Act has little chance of gaining support in the Republican-dominated Senate, a number of environmental groups have expressed concern that the bill has missed an important opportunity to send a bold signal for a Green (New Deal) Recovery, such as supporting the 600,000 jobs in renewable energy lost in the US due to the coronavirus crisis.

Americans want more environmental protection

This is all the more regrettable - although not surprising given the current political power constellation in Washington - because there are already a number of important, detailed blueprints from progressive US civil society groups and the Democratic Party spectrum on how to implement a green American economic recovery and long-term structural change post-coronavirus that is socially just and tackles systemic racism comprehensively. According to some surveys, a majority of Americans, surprisingly across the political spectrum, is in favor of a variety of elements of a green stimulus such as public investment in the expansion of renewable energies, electromobility, smart grid technology, or the energy-efficient retrofitting of buildings. Even proposals such as the Climate Conservation Corps, proposed for the first time by progressive Governor Jay Inslee from Washington, are supported by a majority of Republican voters - but only if the polls are limited to the concrete building blocks of a green industrial policy and a reference to the politically charged and perceived partisan concept of a Green New Deal is avoided.

Such survey results are also one of the reasons why, for example, a green recovery plan from the left of the Democratic Party, which was published almost simultaneously with the CARES Act and which takes up proposals from the campaign programs of the progressive Democratic presidential candidates Sanders, Warren and Inslee, calls itself Green Stimulus to Rebuild our Economy, and avoids any allusion to the Green New Deal as a brainchild. The call for action and implementation plan, which further concretizes the principles of the People's Bailout and is supported by important voices in the American progressive movement such as 350.org co-founder Bill McGibben or author and activist Naomi Klein, proposes a USD 2 trillion stimulus package that will automatically renew annually at 4 percent of the American gross national product (i.e. around USD 850 billion) "until the economy is fully decarbonized and the unemployment rate is below 3.5 percent”. The plan includes the creation of millions of new well-paid green jobs, for example to rebuild local agricultural systems, and massive investment in frontline communities of color currently most affected by environmental degradation, racism and deprivation.

Decarbonization in line with the Paris climate target is to be achieved through the complete elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, a swift end to oil and gas extraction, including fracking, while protecting the livelihoods of workers in the industry, the creation of a new Green Investment Bank with minimum USD 100 billion initial capitalization, reform of agricultural subsidies to focus on the move towards regenerative agriculture and transitioning to independent family farm practices, and the creation of a Civilian Conservation Corps to protect ecosystems and restore forests and wetlands.

The Green Stimulus Proposal also includes elements of a green American foreign policy - in contrast to the CARES Act, which allocates less than 0.1 percent of the adopted funds to international support, and the HEROES Act, which does not provide for any international solidarity transfers at all. For example, the plan takes on the proposal from Bernie Sanders' election campaign program to increase the US participation in the multilateral Green Climate Fund, an important financial implementing mechanism for the Paris Climate Agreement, in accordance with the fair share of historical climate pollution that the US has contributed to up to USD 200 billion, which could be financed by a carbon polluter tax.

Another detailed proposal, the Plan for a Clean Jumpstart to Rebuild America's Economy of May 2020, was developed with the help of a new progressive group, Evergreen, founded by former members of the presidential campaign of the most climate-focused of all Democratic candidates, Washington Governor Inslee. It further develops the so-called Evergreen Action Plan, which former Inslee and Warren campaign staffers wrote based on the original Climate Mission Agenda of Jay Inslee. Like this climate agenda, which was considered the climate gold standard for the Democratic primary campaign, the Evergreen Action Plan, which is already available to the campaign team of designated democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, is designed to increase the climate ambitions in the Democratic Party’s election platform for the period after the coronavirus pandemic and push its climate action agenda further to the left. The Evergreen Action Plan goes much further than the original Inslee agenda with some of its proposals, such as the recommendation to establish an Office for Climate Mobilization in the White House or with the integration of the proposals for a Blue New Deal by Senator Elizabeth Warren, which are aimed at protecting the oceans and their flora and fauna.

Building on the Evergreen Action Plan, the more recent USD 1.5 trillion stimulus package of the Plan for a Clean Jumpstart, launched in May, focuses on major investments in clean energy and green infrastructure that could theoretically be rapidly implemented via already existing federal programs and state-level initiatives. For example, eleven of the policies listed, with USD 320 billion in investments directly to state-run relief programs, include support for local public transportation systems, improved state access to Federal clean energy loan programs, home energy assistance and weatherization for low-income housing, and one-time State buyouts for communities dependent on fossil fuel extraction or processing. As part of proposals in 21 areas totaling more than USD 1.2 trillion of federal green investments, the plan foresees the launch of a Clean Infrastructure Bank, expanding green credit programs for small businesses, extending tax breaks for electric vehicles, committing to large-scale industrial pollution superfund cleanup, or establishing a GI Bill of Rights for energy workers.

No green recovery under this administration

The reality that it will be impossible to launch major green stimulus efforts under the Trump administration and the Republican-dominated Senate is part of the political calculation of another draft package, which is currently only available in preliminary form, still passionately and inclusively discussed and not yet publicly accessible. The Economic Recovery Plan of the Green New Deal Network, which brings together the major American organizations and grassroots movements on environmental and social justice issues, such as the US Climate Action Network, MoveOn.org, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, indigenous networks, some trade union groups, and the Sunrise Movement, is still in the works to assemble a comprehensive list of measures under a policy framework that will best address the intersectional and interconnected challenges of climate change, economic inequality, and systemic racism in the US. It is to be unveiled later in the summer with a major communication and outreach campaign to gain broad public support for its objectives, thereby creating pressure for the new Congress taking up its work in January 2021 and the next US administration under a hoped-for President Joe Biden to implement the plan and its broader vision. The plan aims to rebuild the American economy through a green industrial policy with the goal of creating full employment through new federal institutions such as a National Employment Agency and a Resilience and Development Finance Agency. The concrete proposals for the stimulus are based on a set of cross-sectoral progressive standards to protect workers, revise systemic injustices including reinvestment in neglected and politically marginalized communities, and promote sustainability, with the restoration of climate and environmental integrity at the heart of the economic plan.

Although some of these progressive stimulus plans, especially those of grassroots organizations and movements, at least begin with some elements and nods to incorporate elements of a feminist perspective on ways to implement America's green recovery and systemic reconstruction, a stronger overall feminist lens, and integration focus would be desirable overall. As elsewhere globally, in the United States the effects of the pandemic have hit women, especially women of color, disproportionately hard. In integrating a feminist perspective into forward-looking post-coronavirus recovery plans, it is important to learn from the gender-differentiated experiences of the US stimulus following the financial crisis and recession of 2008, especially with respect to the creation of new (green) jobs. There is no lack of ideas and suggestions from feminist groups and experts in the USA, who formulated key criteria for a Feminist Green New Deal already before the pandemic. Among other things, they envisage structural change towards a regenerative, sustainable, cooperative economy, in which care work, the protection of indigenous rights and traditions, and the suppression of patriarchal and male-dominated power and exploitation structures are central. And in contrast to most of the almost exclusively nationally focused green recovery plans already circulating or in planning, the feminist agenda for a Green New Deal also calls for international solidarity and reparations for the environmental destruction caused by American economic and financial policies. A detailed proposal for a feminist green stimulus package for the US state of Hawaii shows what such a feminist implementation could look like.

Signs of hope

Even if the Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the US presidential election in early November and a Democratic majority in Congress is achieved, none of these progressive green reconstruction plans are likely to be fully implemented. Together, however, they offer a rich smorgasbord of ideas with concrete proposals that range from the essential to the visionary. It is already clear that Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic presidential campaign will enter the final months of the general election campaign with a Democratic Party election platform, in which a green recovery that is climate-just, socially equitable, and inclusive and compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement is an absolute must. The fact that proposals for a progressive Green New Deal will be integrated more strongly than Biden had planned at the beginning of his campaign is due to the need to involve the Democratic left and its mostly younger supporters after the withdrawal of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren from the Democratic primary campaign and to persuade them to go to the ballot box in early November. Since mid-May, a joint Biden-Sanders team with prominent Democrats has been working on six thematic task forces to develop a democratic unity platform to bridge the differences between the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party. As a representative of the Sanders campaign, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is leading the Biden-Sanders team's working group on climate policy together with former US Secretary of State John Kerry. Even skeptical observers of these efforts, for example from the Sunrise Movement, are guardedly optimistic after the first talks and meetings, an indication that the Biden campaign is trying to keep its promise to significantly strengthen his original climate plan with building blocks from his former opponents’ more progressive proposals.

This can only be an advantage for Biden in the last months before the November election. Ultimately, such a "shift to the left" of the Biden campaign on the climate agenda and a US green recovery also hits the zeitgeist of the American electorate, which has been stirred up by the coronavirus pandemic, mass unemployment, and the protest movement against systemic inequalities and racism. Several opinion polls in recent weeks not only show a clear lead for Joe Biden in the presidential match-up with Donald Trump, but also confirm that a solid majority of Americans support many proposals under a Green New Deal and want the USA to recommit to participate in the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement.