On April 22, policymaker Rhiana Gunn-Wright gave a talk in Johnson Chapel on the Green New Deal, a sweeping proposal that aims to combat climate change and income inequality and is championed most notably by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York’s 14th congressional district. Gunn-Wright is the director of the progressive think tank New Consensus, and was a chief architect of the Green New Deal.
Gunn-Wright, a Rhodes Scholar who graduated from Yale in 2011, was previously the policy director for Abdul El-Sayed’s 2018 campaign for governor of Michigan. She was invited to campus by the Amherst College Democrats and the Office of Environmental Sustainability. Gunn-Wright’s visit was made possible through Alexander Deatrick ’21E, a student who worked with her on El-Sayed’s campaign.
According to Gunn-Wright, this was the first talk she had ever given publicly. Despite that, the audience appeared receptive to her message, laughing at her jokes and falling into eerie silence during more solemn parts.
Gunn-Wright was happy to be engaging in a discussion with students and seemed proud of the attention surrounding the Green New Deal. “The climate crisis, and obviously income inequity, are way too large and pressing and difficult to try to solve with a bunch of clever people in one room,” she explained.
The first portion of her talk was devoted to explaining the gravity and scope of the problem that climate change presents. The next decade is crucial for tackling climate change, she said, and the issue is all-encompassing, requiring us to solve it holistically.
At one point, she gave an example of a typical street and pointed out how everything contributed to climate change. “Those buildings that you see run on fossil fuels. They’re heated by fossil fuels. They’re powered by fossil fuels. But those buildings also have what’s called embodied carbon, which means that there’s carbon that’s used to make the materials in that building, to construct it and then carbon that will be emitted when it comes to the end of its life cycle and has to be torn down,” she said.
“We all know cars burn gasoline, [but] the roads that they’re built on are made of concrete — concrete is one of the hardest to abandon sources of emissions. The clothes that [those people] are wearing require fossil fuels to make. The fashion industry accounts for up to 30 percent of global emissions,” she added. There were even more sources of carbon on the street block; the restaurants on the street served foods that contributed to global warming.
Gunn-Wright asked the audience to imagine what kinds of transformative change would be required to fix climate change. As the world’s resources shift, the people who hold power will also have to shift, she said.
“Policy follows power,” she said. “Entire swaths of our policy will change, because that’s how policy works … In U.S. history alone, we have seen the ways in which the economy changes, and therefore our political system changes, when we change energy sources and when we change modes of production.” Gunn-Wright gave examples of how the economy and politics changed when we abolished slavery, when the industrial revolution occured and more recently, when the technology and financial sectors exploded in size.
During the second half of her talk, Gunn-Wright focused on solutions to climate change. Among other issues, she defended the jobs guarantee in the Green New Deal, saying that full employment needs to be reached to counter an issue of this scope.
She stressed that issues like climate change are intersectional in that they affect a lot of aspects of society at large. In that sense, solving climate change and income inequality work hand in hand. “Good policy should try to solve multiple issues at once if it can. There’s this idea that good policy has to be super focused,” she said, but when policy is too specific it can fall into focusing on people with the fewest “intersections,” limiting its scope to people who are impacted by harm in the fewest ways.
Although the Green New Deal was designed to help a lot of people, Gunn-Wright said a challenge is that it has the potential to replace good jobs with bad jobs. She pointed to a number of charts which showed that green jobs — such as working at a recycling facility — often paid substantially worse than jobs in sectors such as coal or oil.
A Q&A session followed her talk.
Gunn-Wright’s visit drew people from all over the Pioneer Valley. Audience members engaged with her outline of the political, social and economic forces surrounding climate change, as well as her call to action.
“I think [the Green New Deal] is one of the more important policy issues of our generation and the future, and I think it would be most productive to hear it straight from the source,” said Jack Kiryk ’21, echoing many people’s reasons for attending.
Not every attendee was a student from Amherst College. A student from Amherst Regional High School spoke up at the Q&A session, along with two Amherst professors. Anais Jordy, one of many Smith College students in attendance, said “[we were] interested in environmental awareness and the Green New Deal, and we’re studying it in one of our classes called sociology and climate change. Our teacher told us about this event, so we figured we would come.”