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Two authors present the urgent case for a Green New Deal

On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

Naomi Klein
Simon and Schuster
320 pp.
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The Green New Deal: Why the Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life on Earth

Jeremy Rifkin
St. Martin's Press
292 pp.
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Proposed by climate activists and supported by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D–MA), the “Green New Deal” presents a bold vision for transforming infrastructure at the rate and in the manner that pressing climate change necessitates while restructuring the current economic system. Two new books—Naomi Klein’s On Fire and Jeremy Rifkin’s The Green New Deal—present arguments for adopting such a plan. Although issuing alarming calls to action, both authors ultimately strike a hopeful note, emphasizing the potential for positive outcomes.

In On Fire, writer and activist Naomi Klein distills the development of the climate change mitigation movement over the past decade into a series of thoughtful essays that poignantly highlight the dire situation of the planet. At the same time, she chronicles the unfolding of a “people’s emergency,” characterized by tidal waves of climate-focused civil disobedience.

The largest threats—rising sea levels and increased flooding, droughts and famines, rising global temperatures, and increasing extreme weather events—are also harming livelihoods, deteriorating services and wages, and disproportionately affecting the poor. We have a “once-in-a-century chance to fix an economic model that is failing the majority of people,” Klein argues. And although the transformation would require ending current consumption patterns, confronting the climate crisis, Klein contends, would lead to creation of millions of good jobs, guaranteed health care, and opportunities for the most “systematically excluded” populations.

A key threat to concerted action is climate skepticism, coupled with a drastic shift in the intensity of emotional responses related to climate issues. When challenging a person’s position on an issue means challenging a central tenet of their identity, facts can be perceived as attacks and are easily deflected. Klein argues, however, that enhancing communication and tying climate change to other concerns, including the economy and social justice, will help mitigate these threats.

Amid increasing tension between climate advocates and those disavowing climate change, a shift in values is occurring. Today’s activists understand that to change environmental policy requires confronting the values of “rampant greed and individualism” that led to the economic crisis. Social change, Klein contends, begins with radically altering how we relate to each other (and to nature), accepting our collective responsibility to future generations, and respecting the interconnection of all life.

Economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin, whose work has inspired climate legislation in China and in various countries in the European Union (E.U.), is well positioned to advocate for this new political vision. In The Green New Deal, Rifkin confronts skepticism about the feasibility of making a transition of the scale required by countering that we are already making these changes in many global regions. It is time, he argues, for the United States to join the E.U. and China as leaders toward a zero-carbon economy.

Improvising on the title of his influential 2011 climate policy tome (1), Rifkin maintains that we are currently entering the “green digital Third Industrial Revolution,” a paradigm shift in which ownership is replaced with access. The “sharing economy”—made possible by digital infrastructures of energy, communication, and mobility—is, he argues, the first economic system to have emerged since capitalism and socialism. Although the federal government will play a crucial role in framing the transformation, he writes, in today’s increasingly “laterally distributed global era,” municipalities and local counties are particularly equipped to play an important role.

Rifkin highlights another potential tipping point, arguing that emerging renewable energies are driving humanity to the “collapse of the fossil fuel civilization.” He cites a 2018 study (2) that concluded that a “carbon bubble”—in which fossil fuel prices will be reduced to compete with renewable prices—would lead to economic and environmental damage if not deflated early. He believes that we can avoid this with rapid decarbonization.

In the second part of the book, Rifkin describes his vision for a Green New Deal in detail, highlighting lessons learned from climate policies in the E.U. and in China. His optimistic call to action is a well-conceived roadmap for how the plan could be deployed, outlining 21 key themes and imperatives, including the need for a carbon tax, the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies, deployment of 5G broadband and the “internet of things,” tax credits for retrofitting infrastructure with renewable electric heating, the elimination of the sale of internal combustion vehicles, and development of equitable tax laws.

Peer governance will be critical, Rifkin argues, because this next phase will be distributed and will function best if the system remains open and transparent, with operations scaled laterally. If done properly, Rifkin contends that the transition can be achieved in a single generation. j

1. J. Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).
2. J. F. Mercure et al., Nat. Clim. Change 8, 588 (2018).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, UK.