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A Green New Deal Co-Author on the Rapid Evolution of Climate Policy

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Interrogating the planet's most important climate thinkers.

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........

© Daily Intelligencer