We need a federal climate policy, but please ditch the name ‘Green New Deal’

Student activists with the Sunrise Movement occupy Nancy Pelosi's office alongside Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to demand that she and the Democrats act on climate change.

While the "Green New Deal" proposed by a number of policy makers is a great idea, it couldn’t be a more terrible name. It calls specific reference to the New Deal, and thus is like throwing a dagger at people of color, especially black people in the United States.

It’s not the underlying policies that some promoting this "new" New Deal advocate for that I find troubling. It’s the label. It’s the poor choice of words — and words matter.

The New Deal was the economic stimulus package launched under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to curb the impacts of the Great Depression. A cornerstone of the New Deal was the passing of the Federal Housing Act (FHA), which created the Federal Housing Administration. The goal was to help people who did not have large savings acquire mortgage financing through private banks and other financial institutions. The only problem was — and officially was the case until 1968 — the FHA  explicitly refused to back loans to black people.

As journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in The Atlantic, "It was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, not a private trade association, that pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant — a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites. Millions of dollars flowed from tax coffers into segregated white neighborhoods."

Another cornerstone of the New Deal was the creation of the Social Security program. Although the intentional racial bias incorporated in the launch of a nationwide social security fund is debated, the result was that 65 percent of black people in the United States were not eligible to benefit when Social Security was signed into law. In other words, there was no intentionality of including blacks in the social safety net created by the New Deal.

So, back to the new climate policy being advanced by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont). Its focus on harnessing the transition to a clean economy to catalyze economic growth by fighting climate change is commendable. Some policies that I’d like to see enacted in a plan that aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals include, but are not limited to:

  • 100 percent clean energy Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) by 2050 (similar to California’s goal, set out in SB 100);
  • A mandate for supporting the adoption of zero emissions vehicles (expanding on policies such as those outlined in Section 177 of California’s Clean Air Act);
  • A national requirement to adopt the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) in annual financial filings (expanding on legislation such as California’s SB 964);
  • A national minimum paid maternity and paternity leave (similar to most developed economies, including the Paid Parental Leave Ordinance in San Francisco);
  • An ingrained policy that enables universal access to education, training and job placement in the future work opportunities across community colleges and public universities.

Early indications are that the spirit of inclusivity is embedded in the ideas being considered as part of the Green New Deal. So why name it after a national policy that was anything but? Ask the professionals in charge of communications and marketing campaigns for global brands, and they will tell you about costly blunders and the importance of getting the words, images and message right.

Let’s get this message right and not reference one of the exclusionary blights of U.S. policy. Let’s build inclusivity on triumphs — not on discrimination. Yes to more investment in renewable energy. Yes to training the workforce in the green economy. Yes to a massive rollout of electric vehicle charging stations. Yes to an economy where carbon emissions are decoupled from economic activity. Yes to all of the above intentionally including  everyone. No to a "Green New Deal" label.