ALEXANDER HURST, PARIS, AND BENJAMIN WOLF, VIENNA
The Greens have a strong chance of joining—and even perhaps leading—the next German government. Cosmopolitan Globalists Alexander Hurst, in Paris, and Benjamin Wolf, in Vienna, imagine a green political future.
Benjamin: We’ve discussed what’s holding the EU back. Today let’s take a look at what might propel it ahead. The European Greens are a pretty good contender. Before I explain how they could transform the Continent, our societies, the way we live, and European politics, and help to save the climate en passant, let’s back up.
The Greens, in their European manifestation, are unique in the world. In no other major country or region have parties devoted to environmentalism and a radical transformation of the way we live become so strong. Granted, you have party wings, or civil society movements for the environment and ecological change, in most Western countries. But they struggle to set the agenda in first-past-the-post systems such as the US and the UK. What’s more, the Continental European Greens have mostly grown from quite radical social and civil society movements.
The debate about climate change is often credited to US initiatives and voices such as Al Gore’s. But I’d argue Europe—thanks to the pressure and agenda-setting of the European Greens—pioneered environmental policymaking and the idea of sustainable development as early as the late 1970s and ’80s.
What’s more, recent breakthroughs like plummeting costs of solar and wind power would have been unthinkable without massive European government handouts. Germany subsidized the solar industry when PV was still expensive in the early 2000s; arguably, the world should thank them for speeding up development by ten years or more. Thank you, German electricity ratepayers.
Now the big question—and I know you are quite excited about it—is what comes next? Can the Greens do more than just nudge politics from the outside? Can they transform it if they have a chance to govern?
Alexander: I love this graph, because it’s insufficiently appreciated that green politics are green, as in, the color of dollars. Green is profitable. The hottest stocks in the market have been electric vehicles, batteries, solar, renewables. Volkswagen announced initiatives to boost electric car production and its stock price doubled within a week. Some will hate that oodles of money will be made from the green revolution, but there couldn’t be anything better for the planet than the realigning of profit incentives from dirty to clean energy.
If voters think tackling climate change means only pain, sacrifice, and economic contraction, they won’t go along; if they think it means the biggest economic opportunity in history and investing in the future, they will. That’s clearly Biden’s infrastructure bill pitch.
But back to the Greens. Since they are, for the moment, most successful on a local level, here’s what I’d expect from a Green mayor:
- A spotlessly clean city. Show us your ability to be an effective administrator. Come up with innovative solutions: public toilet facilities, showers, and lockers where the homeless can store their possessions; emergency housing for the homeless and a way to move them into permanent housing.
- Coordination to get as much local produce as possible into school lunchrooms, ensuring there’s always a vegetarian option. Reduce the size of meat portions, maybe, but don’t ban it. People hate being told what they can and can’t do and how they can and can’t raise their kids.
- Financial assistance to help people switch from cars to electric bikes, or swap combustion-engine scooters for electric. Make public charging stations available.
- Logical, color-coordinated bike path schemes for easy commuting to the city and within it.
- Clean, safe, public transit that runs on swift, efficient routes. Big city metros running 24/7. No reason for public transit to be shut at night, save for maintenance.
- More green space, and less pavement. Dramatically. Not just potted plants on plazas in front of buildings. Remove pavement and replace it with tough, resistant, prairie-style grass and plants. Perhaps it’s a pet peeve, but I don’t see the point in reducing the size of a street only to fill it in with pavement.
But once in power, Green politicians really must prove they are capable of effective governing. They have to keep their eyes on the big picture, the things that matter at scale—and stay away from the idiotic controversies to which they’re prone. Here are some stories about the way French Greens have been styling themselves in the past few years: Getting rid of the local Christmas tree. Banning meat in school cafeterias. Telling children to stop wanting to be pilots.
I mean, I look at these stories and I see things that have zero impact whatsoever on emissions but make Green politics look ridiculous. Aviation and Christmas trees produce emissions, yes, but focusing on this is like teaching someone about nutrition by showing them a jumbo pepperoni pizza, a supersized Coke, a mountain of fries, a box of donuts, and a handful of M&Ms, then lecturing them until you’re blue in the face to knock off the M&Ms.
Just to put things in context, here’s the composition of global emissions:
Obviously, our attention should be on producing electricity from renewable sources; ending coal and natural gas; electrifying automobile and truck fleets; increasing energy efficiency in buildings; and transitioning to sustainable and regenerative agriculture globally. Promoting vegetarianism or flexitarianism is a good thing to do, but it’s one thing to provide vegetarian options in every school cafeteria, or educate children about the impact of eating meat; it’s another to generate huge resistance by banning it.
Green politicians need to keep perspective about where they can have a real impact, because often, it’s not domestically. To be clear, Europe and the United States have, historically, been the biggest sources of emissions. Cuts at the US or European level still matter. But the impact of French domestic climate policies is almost nil. No matter how significant its emissions used to be, France now accounts for just 1 percent of the global total.
If they build solid reputations with voters by governing cities effectively, though, Europe’s Greens could have real impact at the European level—by using the EU’s market power to force industries to conform to stringent environmental standards and regulations. Automakers invested in EVs in part because EU emissions standards spurred them to get in the game before they got left behind. The EU could use trade deals to export tougher regulations, create incentives to protect biodiversity in places like the Amazon, implement a carbon border tax, use the public purse to create economies of scale for green solutions—and, of course, it could invest.
Benjamin: The cliché about France is that its economy is sluggish and it lacks entrepreneurialism and innovation. But France gets a lot of things right over the medium- to long-term. Let me add one of my favorite graphs:
Productivity in France is at the world’s very top. It’s been rising faster here than in the US for the past decade. France has both decarbonized and grown. So has Europe—every country and region at their own pace.
So yes, I agree. The Greens tend to get bogged down in the minutiae of social and environmental change. In Germany, people have called them a Verbotspartei (the party that forbids everything). As US Democrats can attest, you don’t want that reputation. Green pet peeves—like a visceral horror of nuclear power and instinctive anti-capitalism—make it so much harder to scale up their en vogue solutions.
We have to see the European Greens, though, as what they are and might become, not what we wish they were. As I mentioned, they grew from civil society movements that frequently opposed big capital, big business, and established parties. They were anti-system movements before the term was coined. They have a deeply idealist streak, which is in many ways laudable; they seek not just to protect the environment and the climate, but to champion human rights, minority rights, and build a more just society.
This might make it hard for them to think big about Continental climate or environmental technologies, industries, and transformations. But it is what they are. No truce between the Fundis (fundamentalists; i.e. idealists) and Realos (realists; i.e. pragmatists)—as the German party’s wings are called, and this division surely exists elsewhere—will ever completely dissolve this inherent tension.
The Greens want to make a concrete and tangible difference. But they aspire to do more as well—transform society—and in that respect, the Green idea has more potential and power than most other contemporary ideas. I’d even go so far as to say it comes close to a new worldview. Partly it supplements, but partly it supersedes elements of the dominant ideology: liberalism, global capitalism, even representative democracy in its current form.
In Austria, we have a Green junior partner in a governing coalition with a Conservative party. Even before the pandemic, they fought to enact their climate and environmental ideas, but gave way on more idealistic principles such as immigration, minority rights, education. They’ve held steady in the polls, but in the party and among the voters, the unrest is growing. The Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz calls his strategy “protecting the climate and protecting borders” just to spite the Greens, who abhor the slogan. They see themselves as doing the best they can under the circumstances, but this won’t work for the European Greens long-term.
A carbon border tax makes a lot of sense for the EU. Even free traders could, I think, be convinced of this. First, cutting emissions domestically does nothing if those emissions are just being offshored—emitted elsewhere and imported back in the form of consumer goods. If you adjust for trade in France, for example, some of its emissions reduction disappears.
If we’re serious about cutting emissions, we have to actually cut them, not just move them from one part of the world to another. You can’t put a price on carbon unless it applies globally. A carbon border tax would stop businesses from moving production to a low-cost, high-emissions location. It would level the playing field for producers in places with lots of renewable energy but higher costs elsewhere (labor costs, for example), and provide an incentive for economies that export to the EU to decouple their economies from carbon emissions, which is absolutely possible, as France itself shows—even when you account for trade.
For the EU, this should be a no-brainer: What all the numbers show is that it takes far fewer carbon emissions to produce a dollar’s worth of wealth in the EU than it does in the US. There, every dollar of GDP produces 60 percent more carbon emissions. In China, every dollar produces 280 percent more emissions. If you factor in the cost of carbon emissions, the EU is suddenly a much more competitive location to manufacture consumer goods! So why isn’t it taking advantage of this?
The US and China won’t like an EU carbon border tax for obvious reasons—it removes the competitive advantage they’re enjoying by not paying for their carbon emissions. But if you’re looking for a way to be protectionist while maintaining the moral high ground and boosting your environmental reputation and soft power, I can’t imagine a better move, or a more domestically winning policy proposal to voters.
Benjamin: However popular a carbon border tax may be among environmental economists, it’s phenomenally unpopular with most voters. As Noah Smith recently remarked, climate economics has failed. Economists haven’t done enough research; they’ve ignored tail risks; they’ve been blind to the enormous potential of technological breakthroughs. And they’ve focused obsessively on carbon taxes.
A bill to introduce a carbon tax in Washington State was roundly defeated. Twice. Macron ran into the first debacle of his presidency by trying to enact an excise tax on diesels and sparked an uprising by the Gilets Jaunes as his reward. The measure barely mattered, in the big scheme of things, but it certainly infuriated people. People intensely dislike being taxed for using energy; they also know very well that the benefit of the taxes will be global, but the costs will be local—a classic free-rider problem.
You can get around that by redistributing proceeds or creating incentives to use energy more efficiently. But all in all, it might be time to move on to other ideas that could change the game on the environment and climate change.
In the short term, the German Greens have concrete proposals that could be consequential. The party is riding high; recent polls for the German parliamentary election put them in second place, with 21 percent. They got 8.5 percent of the vote four years ago. Their 2021 manifesto is punchy in all the right places. They have an ambitious and comprehensive plan for an environmental transformation (lots of money for wind, solar, and reducing emissions). But other points could have a Continental impact: They propose relaxing the German debt brake on capital investment, creating common EU deposit insurance, making the EU recovery instrument permanent, ending the unanimity requirement for EU tax decisions, giving new powers to the European Parliament, and funding a multilingual European public broadcaster.
European federalists have wanted all of this for decades. They could make a big difference, even if they only saw part of their agenda enacted at first. So the question is: Do we believe the Greens in Germany can pull this off? If they do, will other countries go along?
Alexander: That would be a huge shift for Germany. There is, absolutely, an opportunity for the Greens to become a unifying, federating movement, one that can bypass other political divisions. I’d go so far as to say they might be able to do what Macron wanted to do: supersede 20th-century notions of left and right and promote the kind of “civilizational project” that he described in his interview with Le Grand Continent last fall. That project has to involve three parts of the current Zeitgeist: protectionism, ambitious fiscal policy, and climate action. That’s why I disagree with you on a carbon border tax; voters would view that as quite unlike a fuel tax.
A few years ago in France, a nonprofit called More In Common (Destin Commun) did a really broad social survey and found just this consensus. Throughout the countries they’ve studied, they’ve found six distinct political families beyond the normal left-right division. The highlight from their France report is that in France, at least, these six very divided families all converge on the idea that ecology could be a common social project and opportunity, healing the urban-rural divide that’s now rivening democracies around the world.
But to do that, Greens can’t drift into the other issues that divide political families! That’s what the Green Parties need to internalize, which I think the German Greens have and the very divided French Greens—and France’s left—have not. Is everything connected? Yes, of course; migration politics are linked to climate politics, which are linked to taxation and trade and investment. But a common project can’t just recreate all of the political divisions that were there in the first place. Everything is connected, but there are margins and windows, and we can address the big problems facing us—fixing emissions, climate change, and biodiversity loss; creating a green economy—without losing our grip by bringing in everything else under the sun.
Benjamin: The Greens—first in Europe, then elsewhere—have been most successful when they shift the narrative, bringing new ideas into the mainstream. That may sometimes feel as if it’s too little, too late, or too slow, but it works astonishingly well, in retrospect. Who would have guessed in the 1980s and ’90s that the climate, the environment, and biodiversity would become unifying issues, as we’ve seen in our societies? Who would have guessed in the 2000s how quickly businesses would get on board once the wind shifted?
So I agree, all the ingredients are there. Environmentalism could become a unifying, federating movement. And perhaps I hope Green parties will be bold, and put visionary ideas out there, provocatively, to be the avant garde. That’s often the best way to push ahead. Others may adopt their policies, but the Greens themselves should keep some of their idealism.
The question, then, is how can the Greens govern successfully without giving in to petty squabbles or giving up their souls and being reduced in their minds to a merely technocratic environmental party? Because that’s not what they are, nor what they want to be.
Alexander: They’re unlikely to be reduced to that. They’re too divided about things like capitalism and labor markets and how much federalism is desirable for Europe and whether Russia and China are Europe’s potential friends or systemic foes. But where they don’t succeed at becoming a real political force, I think they’ll still succeed at this broader thing that is both civilizational project and social narrative, much the way the Green Party in the US has been a political failure, beyond playing spoiler in close elections, even as its core agenda has gone mainstream. That’s obvious because Biden’s infrastructure bill is the Green New Deal.
So many people echo the refrain: “The left just doesn’t inspire anymore.” I’m talking about the European left. I think it’s because it’s not talking about big things. I mean, what really is the battle of the European left these days? It’s not the implementation of the modern social democratic welfare state, like it is in the US. European societies are imperfect, but the basic ingredients are all there. It’s hard to inspire people with “we need to improve what we’ve got,” you know?
But tackling climate change, that’s big. There’s a narrative arc. There’s a goal to be reached, challenges to overcome, societies to mobilize. Can you rally millennials and Gen Z around, “We’re going to protect your retirement by reforming and strengthening the social security system?” I don’t really think so. Saving the world? Yeah, I do.