UMass’ Feinberg Series discusses the past and future of climate policy in wake of the 2020 presidential election

What does a global green new deal entail and how does that inform political accountability?


By Ella Adams, Collegian Staff

On Thursday evening, the University of Massachusetts history department hosted a panel discussing the implications of the United States election on environmental policy.

The panel was a part of the department’s 2020-21 Feinberg Series titled “Planet on a Precipice: Histories and Futures of the Environmental Emergency.”

Ashwin Ravikumar, assistant professor of environmental justice and politics at Amherst College, moderated. Ravikumar introduced the four panelists and opened with remarks weighing Joe Biden’s presumed climate action as president-elect.

Bill McKibben, founder of grassroots climate campaign and distinguished professor in residence at Middlebury College, was the first panelist. He spoke contextually about the physical and political placement of today’s society.

“Things are coming unglued and unglued fast,” McKibben said, noting the year’s simultaneous global tropical storms, low sea ice levels and rampant wildfires – hallmarks, he believes, of a serious climate emergency.

McKibben cited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change guidelines as the bare minimum of actions that must be taken — a roughly 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.

While McKibben harbors concern about Biden’s follow through, he feels hope in the spreading of climate knowledge, decreasing prices of solar and wind power and strengthening of the climate movement.

Robert Pollin, the second panelist, who is a distinguished professor of economics at UMass and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute, focused on the possibilities of a global green new deal.

This, according to Pollin, would hit IPCC emissions targets while raising global living standards.

“This [a global green new deal] is an egalitarian project to get out of the most fundamental crisis the globe has faced, an existential crisis, and also it so happens to get out of the recession we’re in now, which would mean a green recovery,” he said.

According to Pollin, the centerpiece of a global green new deal is the transformation of the global energy system, as roughly 70 percent of emissions result from burning oil, coal and natural gas to produce energy.

“When we build out the green energy system, that means the fossil fuel energy system transforms down to zero,” he said. “There’s no other way to stabilize the climate.”

While the costs of hitting IPCC renewable energy targets would initially be about two trillion dollars, Pollin claimed these major investments are necessary through public and private spending.

Investing in a “just transition” – guaranteeing new jobs, training and relocation –  would offset initial job losses in communities dependent upon fossil fuels. Pollin emphasized that job creation and sustainability can cohabitate under a renewable plan.

In a recently published paper, Pollin estimates that from 2020 to 2050, a global green new deal would produce about four million jobs in the United States.

The third panelist and Associate Professor of Geosciences at UMass Eve Vogel elaborated on original New Deal policies that surrounded progressive renewable energy and environmental conservation.

“The New Deal was not at all just about jobs and infrastructure,” she said. “The 1920s and 1930s were decades when people were concerned about deforestation, devastating floods, dust storms, rural poverty and the very survival of capitalism and democracy.”

According to Vogel’s research surrounding the human-environmental dynamics and histories of rivers, in the past, most environmentally innovative responses came from river valley authorities, as they largely supported the New Deal’s push for green policy in the form of federal hydropower, clean energy and social benefit through low-cost electric power.

“The idea of building policies that can join environmental conservation, inclusive social benefits, strong government support, clean energy and local democratic ownership from participation with a federal new deal is not new,” Vogel said, claiming that environmental impact and exclusivity can be prevented in the future by looking to the past.

Examining the future, Thea Riofrancos, assistant professor of political science at Providence College, focused on rapid decarbonization in the midst of global socioeconomic inequality.

Riofrancos argued that technologies like solar panels, electric vehicles and lithium batteries, while “green,” are produced via global supply chains — sites of global and environmental injustice. In order to enforce climate justice practices, she believes that the Green New Deal must remain a framework that informs policy, especially considering Biden’s proposal of auto industry revitalization through domestic supply chains.

“Domestically, we don’t have large reserves of these materials like our neighbors in the global south,” she said. Riofrancos explained that although these countries, like Chile (a global leader in lithium extraction), have reserves to produce electric vehicles, mining and steel production irreparably harm their climate systems.

If civil society applies pressure, Riofrancos believes that Biden’s climate plan can be altered to create a globally just GND. Including electrified mass transit, walkability and cycling measures, reusing and repairing materials and prioritizing supply chain justice in trade policy will make rapid decarbonization easier, require fewer raw materials and facilitate trade between the global north and south.

Panelists came to a consensus that a global green new deal would not only enhance quality of life but would importantly place the Earth at the forefront of all policy.

“Shared condition on this planet should push us to reflect on how to enact principles of democracy, equality and solidarity across unequal global supply chains,” Riofrancos concluded.

Visit the UMass History Department’s Feinberg Series Website to find past lectures – audio and video formatting – as well as information about future lectures happening within the 2020-21 series.

Ella Adams can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @ella_adams15.