As the largest employer in California, the UC system has the capacity to pave the way for a new green economy. On Nov. 18, hundreds of students, union members, faculty and postdoctoral researchers packed a lecture room in Wheeler Hall for a town hall meeting to discuss what a Green New Deal for the UC system might look like and how one could be implemented. This event was organized by a diverse coalition of groups on campus including the UC Student-Workers Union, or United Auto Workers Local 2865, environmental and climate justice committee, UAW Local 5810, which represents postdoctoral researchers, and a range of student groups such as Students for Climate Action, Young Democratic Socialists of America, Students of Color Environmental Collective and the Student Environmental Resource Center.
After a brief panel discussion featuring members of on campus unions and student environmental groups, the room divided into break-out groups to discuss the kinds of demands that a UC Green New Deal might include and strategize about how to achieve them. This event should be seen as a tentative first step toward formulating a comprehensive and ambitious plan to tackle climate change, and it is heartening that it brought out so many members of the UC who are passionate about the possibility of our university playing a progressive role which all public universities must play in the fight against climate change. The UC in particular, as a world-renowned research institution, could make an outsized impact in this political struggle, with reverberations that could be felt across the country.
The fight for a UC Green New Deal is not isolated — we should view it as part of the broader struggle against climate change happening worldwide. The past few years have seen a clear shift in the political landscape, with massive youth protest movements erupting around the world at the same time as ambitious proposals for quitting fossil fuels finally emerge from obscurity and into the national spotlight.
The biggest, boldest example of this kind of policy is the Green New Deal, first put forward in a resolution by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., outlining a complete transition of the U.S. economy to 100% renewable energy by 2030. Invoking Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the GND would involve massive public investment that would create millions of well-paying jobs, provide universal public health care and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. The aggressive timeline proposed in the plan is based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report — it’s most damning yet — which flatly stated that world governments have 12 years to cut emissions in half in order to avoid catastrophic levels of warming that may trigger multiple climate tipping points and irreversible ecological disaster.
Calls for a Green New Deal for the UC system embrace the spirit of the national proposal while recognizing the importance of achieving similar kinds of policies at the state and local levels. We do not have the luxury of waiting around for governments to hand the right policy to us. We in the United States currently live under an administration that is not just standing by and watching the climate crisis unfold but seems to be actively pouring fuel on the flames. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump — who, like many in the Republican party, denies climate change — the U.S. government has pulled out of the Paris climate accord, opened up public lands to new oil and natural gas extraction and defunded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — which, incidentally, is now headed by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist.
Unfortunately, despite his apparent ideological extremism, Trump does not represent a drastic departure from an otherwise sensible climate policy that we can return to by simply voting the Republicans out of office. It is worth noting, for instance, that he assumed the presidency in the midst of an unprecedented oil and natural gas boom. Despite Barack Obama’s official commitment to tackling climate change, domestic oil production under his presidency actually exceeded that of any preceding Republican administration, making the United States the No. 1 oil producer in the world. The Democratic Party establishment’s dismissal of the Green New Deal as unworkable and too ambitious is also telling. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for instance, mockingly referred to it as “the green dream or whatever,” while Sen. Dianne Feinstein lectured young climate activists that the plan was unworkable.
It is with this background in mind that we should consider the current challenge of achieving a UC Green New Deal. A recurring theme of discussion at the GND town hall was the lack of transparency in how university resources are allocated and the fact that most of us have little to no direct influence on these decisions. A UC GND, if it hopes to live up to its namesake, would entail substantial costs for campuses and, despite the UC’s recent declaration of a “climate emergency,” we should expect resistance to any kind of policy proposal that involves serious changes in resource allocation. The case of the UC’s recent divestment from fossil fuels, after more than six years of committed organizing by environmental groups like Fossil Free UC, is instructive here. Although divestment has been cited as evidence that the UC isn’t joking when it says “climate emergency,” it is telling that the UC’s official explanation for the move was reportedly the “financial risk” posed by fossil fuel assets.
If we are serious about achieving carbon neutrality, investment in renewable energy and other bold green proposals at the UC, we need to expand the fight beyond small groups of committed activists. We need a critical mass of students, faculty, community members and campus workers willing to fight for a UC system that we are proud to be members of. The hard work of building this organization starts now.