just asking questions

Green New Deal’s Rhiana Gunn-Wright: ‘You Just Don’t See This Sort of Change This Rapidly’

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

On September 23, the United Nations will open its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, will sweep through thousands of cities worldwide. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer will be publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus, interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

Rhiana Gunn-Wright is the policy director at the think tank New Consensus, where she is leading the development of the Green New Deal, which went from a fringe left-wing idea to the very center of Democratic Party climate policy in just a few months last fall. A former Rhodes scholar (and just 29), she was the policy director for Abdul el-Sayed’s left-wing race for governor of Michigan in 2018. We talked in early September about just how fast climate politics have changed, what made them change, and why focusing on targets like two degrees may be sort of beside the point.

Not that long ago, I thought that political changes like we’ve seen in the last year were impossible. You’ve been at the center of a lot of that. Is it as disorienting from the inside?
It might be different for folks who have been in the climate space longer. But for me, the same surprise and shock that you have, I feel all the time. You just don’t see this sort of change this rapidly. When I first started in policy, I was at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Shout out to Heidi Hartmann — the president of that. She’s been fighting for paid leave for decades now. At least 30 years in the game, and we’re just now getting into a conversation like where candidates are putting out universal child-care policies, right? To start the Green New Deal a year ago and then see, not just people talk about it, but actual movement, like candidates competing on who can essentially invest the most and in the most places, right?

When I came into the climate space, most of what I heard people talk about in public was like, at most, a hundred percent renewable energy. Now candidates — presidential candidates — are rolling out whole plans just on environmental justice. I have never seen that. And that’s not just a difference of ambition, it’s also such a difference of political perspective — not about getting to justice after we solve the renewable problem, but approaching justice right at the start. And that change in framing and perspective is what I’m most proud of. In a year, a Democratic candidate would be really hard pressed to try to talk about the environment without talking about equity — to try to talk about climate change apart from justice.

How did that happen?
I think about it often. The story of how it happened and the story of how the Green New Deal got this big are two different stories. And the origin story of how it literally happened is pretty short and normal. At New Consensus, the founders have been thinking for a while about a Green New Deal and what does it mean — what will it take to have an economic approach outside of neoliberalism? They made contact with the Sunrise Movement, who had already been working on their own idea of a Green New Deal. And then I came on board. New Consensus was already connected to Justice Dems. This is before, you know, the squad had won their primaries, but they had all been endorsed by Justice Dems. By September, most had been through their primaries, if not all, and so that meant that new consensus was connected to this group of likely incoming freshmen. Ayana, Ilhan and Rashida, all of them were endorsed candidates, but AOC was recruited — Justice Dems was helping her run her campaign, so they were really intimately connected.

So, long story short, we have been working on the Green New Deal at New Consensus. I’ve been talking to Sunrise at least for a bit about it. Sunrise had been working on their own Green New Deal ideas, and formulating an ask around green jobs, so they were planning a sit-in in Pelosi’s office after the November elections. New Consensus was still talking to them about a Green New Deal, and Sunrise decided to focus, in their ask, for a Green New Deal rather than just green jobs. AOC was able to come to the protest because of all of these connections, between Sunrise and JD and New Consensus. After that, it sort of took off like a rocket. And we’re here now. And that’s the story of, like, how it happened.

You make it sound so simple.
Well, there’s the question of, like, how does something take off like a rocket? I think the real, honest truth is that this moment has bred so many incredible organizers, and the Green New Deal is led at all fronts by organizers. New Consensus is founded by two organizers. Sunrise is organizing, right? It’s an organizing organization, right? JD is run by organizers. They just do electoral work.

I think, often, movement-building is built around issues or policies and not necessarily around a big vision. The Green New Deal started out as a big vision — and as a governing agenda. Unlike a lot of previous fights, it wasn’t over a technical instrument, like a carbon tax. It also wasn’t just about the environment as we sort of narrowly talk about it, whether that’s conservation or carbon-dioxide emission. It is about all of it. And also about — how do we create an economy that works for people?

You’re talking about breaking the neoliberal paradigm, where so much was about cost. You’re talking about it in terms of benefits and opportunities to give people what they actually want from the government aid.
Yes. That was all by design. It wasn’t on accident. And that’s because this is a thing that — from policy to electoral — is really built from a movement perspective. What did people get excited about? What does it take to build strong movements?

It’s also a signaling tool. Policy is always a signaling tool. Every policy is telling a story, right? You’re saying “This is a problem, this is how we got here, this is how we’ll fix it.” People have to be able to see what they want out of their country and what they want out of their society, and they see that the Green New Deal is presenting an opportunity to move toward that — and possibly way further toward it — in one shot than we have done in a long time, if ever.

I remember, actually, after AOC and the squad got elected, after those results came in, I was like, I don’t think that people know what they did. They just unleashed the best organizers in the country onto DC. And I think we’re now seeing what that means.

I don’t want to diminish the work of the organizers, but it’s also the case that the public’s moving on its own, right?
Yeah! I haven’t been alive long enough to really say, but the pace at which major policy changes are going from being wacko to mainstream is, to me, unprecedented. Fight for 15 went from being crazy to the standard in a couple years. The organizing started a little earlier, from 2015 to 2018. Medicare for all went from being crazy — not just totally fucking crazy like in 2016, but to a lot of people in 2018, too — to … I mean, there’s still some controversy around it, but most Democratic presidential front-runners support it or at least are trying to frame their own plans in relationship to it. We’re seeing this massive turnover, and quick turnover, and a lot of ideas. And I think it’s because our institutions are clearly not serving us the ways that we want. And a lot of these policies are just cutting to the quick of what people want, even if they are bypassing what consultants would say you should do.

But ultimately, it will produce some policy instruments, right?
Oh, yeah.

I know the stickiest things in this world are nuclear and carbon capture. But in general, how do you process those fights into policy?
It’s tough, but for me, I always start from a place where — and I truly believe this — the people who suffer the most, or stand to suffer the most, should have a disproportionate say in what happens and how that thing is responded to. I don’t think we often talk about it much, but I think most of the time, the people who are making choices will not be affected by the choices that they are making when it comes to policy. They won’t use the system. You can say “Yes nuclear,” but most of those people at that meeting won’t live next to a nuclear plant. Nothing’s going to happen to their groundwater if there’s an issue.

But that can be hard, because to get different communities to talk to you requires building trust, right? I’m always sort of thinking about how to do that. And we are constantly working to like build relationships so that we can do that. But there’s been so much energy around the Green New Deal — a lot of communities are already organizing themselves to say what they do and do not want, why they want these things, why they don’t want these things. And there’s a framework I learned from Ben Ishibashi at People’s Action: red lines, yellow lines, and green lines. Red lines are what you do not absolutely want, green lines or what you want, and yellow lines are — this is not not ideal or not preferred, but it is acceptable under the circumstances. Often we don’t actually have a discussion about yellow lines. We either have red lines or green lines and stop there. And so a lot of my work is figuring out how we structure processes and build trust, so that we can have conversations and then write policy out of a yellow-line space if that is in fact possible.

You’re talking about building policy, working with communities, and building trust. There’s also just the climate timeline. And the IPCC has many limitations, but in all of their scenarios that keep us below two degrees, there are negative emissions. That timeline is scary to me. Can we get there? If we really have to roughly halve our emissions globally by 2030, I’m like … even with the movement we have, that seems like a really long shot.
I totally understand when you’re talking about what needs to happen in order to think about or get us to below two degrees, or 1.5 degrees — people have different thresholds that they talk about. And the timeline is challenging.

I should preface this by saying, like, I’m a depressive, so you know, it is what it is. But I think that a lot of life is pain, right? Not on purpose. It’s just sort of natural human condition. And one of the best things that you can hope for is that you just, in life, have the privilege to pick what kind of pain you want in some situation and how you’re going to take it on. And I feel like that about the Green New Deal, just in the sense that like, yes, it’s painful. I don’t know how it will end, but it is a fight that needs to be fought.

And whether or not we decarbonize in 10 or 12 years … That’s not on this movement alone. It’s not on Sunrise alone. It’s not on Climate Strike. It’s not on any of these organizations alone. And just knowing that, even at two degrees, how many people can die, and how many places will be lost, how the places that have shaped people will be lost — because people aren’t just shaped by other people, they’re literally shaped by their physical space and community. One of my good friends, Dr. Kate Marvel, she’s at NASA —

She’s great.
And she says one of the things that frightens her most about climate change isn’t what will happen to the weather or what will happen physically, but what people will do to one another.

And for me, I recognize that right now, right now, the U.S. is structured by unmitigated unregulated capitalism. Everything is a private market and there’s no public safety net. Your access to pollution — how many toxins you are allowed to breathe — is patterned by where you live, which is patterned by who you are, what race you are, what gender. The way that we’re structured right now brings out the worst in us. I don’t worry a ton about whether we decarbonize on time, because either way the Green New Deal is moving us far closer to a policy and therefore to settings within which people feel more supported and are able to act out of the best of themselves.

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