Yvonne Hanson: Fighting for the Green New Deal—why social justice and climate action must go hand in hand

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      By Yvonne Hanson

      Canada’s establishment parties will not solve the climate crisis or the crisis of inequality. We need transformative change, and that’s why I’m excited to be running in the federal election with Jagmeet Singh and the NDP in the riding of Vancouver Granville. This October’s vote will determine Canada’s response to this climate emergency, which will shape our future for generations to come, and I believe the NDP offers the best chance to implement the Green New Deal we urgently need. 

      In 2012, when I was 17 years old, I decided I wanted to get involved with politics. I was driven, just as many young people are driven now, by the realization that we were running out of time to address climate change in a meaningful and effective way, and that elected leaders were inexcusably hesitant to take the needed action

      Now, in 2019, I am a recent SFU graduate with a degree in political science. I’m still driven by the understanding that unless drastic climate action is taken immediately, we will miss the window of opportunity that would have allowed us to preserve habitable conditions on this planet. What has changed in these seven years is my understanding of what exactly the drastic action we need looks like.

      When I started university, I believed climate action was the single most important political goal. At the time, however, I was looking at a very small part of the problem, and my scope of solutions was likewise very small. Solutions involved funding for clean energy projects, research and development of green technologies, an end to the fossil fuel industry, less cars and ships and cows, and more public transit. I would not have factored in items like increasing minimum wage and expanding social welfare because as an 18-year-old, I didn’t see how they were relevant to the climate issue. 

      I learned a lot in the years I attended university, both in class and through my lived experience balancing part-time school with part-time work. I moved several times and rented suites in three different cities. I worked as a house painter, a paint store clerk, a plant doctor, a freelance writer, and a photographer. These experiences shaped my politics just as much as what I learned in school.  

      It was hard to find the time to participate in the climate activist movement as much as I wanted to because I was constantly either at work or at school. I couldn’t always afford to make planet-friendly choices at the grocery store because I was making minimum wage and only working 24 hours per week. I was tired and overworked all the time, and found it difficult to find the emotional capacity to keep up-to-date on what was happening in the world around me.

      I was in a situation then that millions of Canadians are in now. I wanted to lower my carbon footprint and do what I could to help combat the climate crisis, but my economic situation made those things incredibly difficult. I ran myself completely ragged balancing school, work, and activism in the five years I spent pursuing my degree, and I was only able to do what I did because of the incredibly privileged social position I was in. I didn’t need to work full-time because I had financial support from my parents helping me get through university.

      If our climate strategy relies on policies that make life even more difficult for people in positions like mine and in similar, less privileged positions, then we will be doomed to fail. We simply can not improve the country if we are working against the people who power it. 

      Now that my views are informed by years of education and experience, I understand how misguided I was as a teenager, and how myopic my view of climate action really was. I now understand the climate crisis is not a single problem with simple and direct solutions but that it is the cumulative effect of many dysfunctional aspects of our society. If we focus only on the climate-specific solutions, we are effectively treating the symptoms but ignoring the disease.

      I am now completely convinced that the only way to effectively address the climate crisis is by first addressing the source of disease in our society: social and economic inequality. Climate action requires social justice, and the equitable economic empowerment of all Canadians. 

      We live in a country where one-third of residents do not own the home they live in, but the top 20 percent of income earners own more than two-thirds of all wealth in the entire country. In 2017, more than half of Canadians were living within $200 per month of not being able to pay their bills. The majority of Canadians simply can’t afford to participate in the kind of meaningful climate action we need to see.

      We can’t ask people to reduce their intake of meat and dairy when they can not afford the nutritional alternatives. We can’t ask people to spend more money on gas to get to work when they have no access to public transit and cannot afford to upgrade to an electric vehicle. We can’t ask people to install solar panels on their roofs and upgrade to thermally efficient windows when they rent their home and have no idea how long they will be able to stay there.

      Essentially, when people are already struggling, we can’t ask them to elect to make life even harder on themselves just to shave an incalculably small percentage off the country’s gross carbon emissions. 

      In order to make climate solutions realistically achievable, we must first address the social barriers that stand in the way of making them happen. If people can’t afford climate-friendly alternatives, we must raise wages and invest in social welfare to put more money in their pockets so that they can afford to factor environmental costs into the cost-benefit analysis they perform when deciding what to buy. If people are driving their cars to work instead of taking transit, we must invest in a robust public transit system that incentivizes them to leave the car at home by making it faster and cheaper to get to work via transit. 

      It is up to policymakers to ensure that the “path of least resistance” in life is environmentally friendly. If we do this by making all other paths more expensive, we will only succeed in making life more difficult and more expensive for people who already can not afford it. We must instead ensure that the environmentally friendly path is the cheapest, most accessible pathway forward for all Canadians. The way to do this is by investing in social and economic justice. 

      This is precisely the logic behind the Green New Deal (GND), which is a climate action platform that has recently emerged from the United States and is currently a focal point of the Canadian climate activist movement.

      Put simply, the GND is a package of policy changes that would affect almost every aspect of Canada’s economy. The goal is to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs by using federal funds to stimulate the development of postcarbon social, economic, and physical infrastructure. Retraining fossil fuel industry workers, subsidizing the transition to renewable energy, funding community and co-op driven climate action projects, empowering Indigenous leadership, and guaranteeing fair wages, adequate low-carbon housing, and a robust social safety net for everyone financially affected by the transition away from fossil fuels.

      Essentially, the GND would fund the transition to a postcarbon economy and mitigate the economic fallout that working class people may experience as a result of the transition. Climate action must create jobs for working people; no one can be left behind in the shift to a postcarbon economy. 

      I am running with the NDP in Vancouver Granville because I believe that the NDP’s climate action plan is the only plan proposed by any of Canada’s political parties that addresses climate change by combatting social and economic inequality. The NDP’s climate action plan, “Power to Change”, is essentially a Canadian version of the Green New Deal. We are often criticized by the Liberals and the Green Party for being too “all over the place” when it comes to climate and social policy. This criticism is actually an inadvertent compliment, because, in fact, climate action must be “all over the place” because the drivers and effects of social and economic injustice are “all over the place”. We need to launch a wide-ranging, all encompassing effort if we are to be successful in combatting them. 

      Other, more conservative critics of the GND and the NDP’s “Power to Change” have written off the social justice component as “virtue signalling” rather than taking the time to understand why it is such a large and necessary inclusion in the policy package. I hope that after reading this article, some of these critics may be able to better understand why this is not the case. For people who prefer not to take moralistic stances on social justice issues, there is plenty of purely logical economic justification for advancing a social justice platform. If people can’t afford climate action, climate action will fail. If climate action makes life more difficult for people, people will reject it. 

      The final criticism I hear all too often is that this kind of drastic, systemwide action is simply too expensive to be feasible. I consider this argument to be a simple miscalculation of the situation we are in.

      First, we have a very comprehensive set of policy answers to the question of “how to pay for it?” We will close tax loopholes, end fossil fuel subsidies, charge punitive damages to heavy-polluting industries, increase carbon pricing on industrial emitters, phase out subsidies to environmentally irresponsible industries, raise corporate taxes, raise capital gains taxes, and enact a wealth tax on individuals with over $20 million.

      We will not raise taxes on small businesses or low-income and middle-class Canadians—at all. The fact that we are still answering the question of “how to pay for it?” after explaining these policies again and again has lead me to conclude that critics aren’t actually concerned with where the money that will pay for climate action is coming from, but where it is going.

      Often, critics aren’t worried about where we get $25 billion each year to spend on Canada’s military-industrial complex, but they are incredibly worried about where we get $15 billion to spend on climate action. Answering these criticisms isn’t actually a matter of explaining how we pay for it, but rather justifying why we want to pay for it. 

      Moral obligations and existential justifications to preserve habitable conditions on the planet aside, here is the economically grounded answer that fiscal conservatives need: if we don’t pay to mitigate climate change and adapt our country today, we will pay to repair the damages caused by climate change tomorrow.

      Canada spends nearly $1 billion each year to combat forest fires, and that number is increasing by around $120 million each year. We are only in the very early stages of climate change; we’ve only warmed by around 1º C, but we are on track to warm by 3 or 4º C in the next 30 years, and parts of Canada are warming two or three times faster than the rest of the world. The bill for managing the devastating effects of climate change will skyrocket if we do not cut our emissions immediately. Inaction will absolutely cost hundreds of billions of dollars more in the future than action will cost now. 

      We have the road map for action, we have the funds, and we have the voices of the people marching through the streets in support. Now we need the political will to get things done. To win a Green New Deal we are going to need to replace the establishment parties. This year the federal NDP’s running on its most progressive platform in a generation—it’s a chance we can’t afford to miss. 

      I am running for office in Vancouver Granville so I can help make climate action and a Green New Deal a reality. I am here to fight as hard as I can for an action platform that addresses climate change and social inequality as two parts of a greater whole. Around the world, young people are stepping forward to champion true climate justice in our political landscape. I am excited to have the opportunity to take part of this movement, to educate those who may not understand the intersection between climate action and social justice, and to help make effective climate action a political reality.