BROOKE GLADSTONE Roosevelt’s New Deal remade America, and millions want a Green New Deal to do it again.
ALEXANDRA OCASIO-CORTEZ All great American programs, everything from the Great Society to the New Deal started with a vision for our future.
JANE MCALEVEY and to get to the first New Deal took massive strikes. I think we're seeing the beginning of that realization.
SEBASTIAN GORKA It’s a watermelon. Green on the outside, deep, deep red communist on the inside.
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN Roosevelt himself never had any interest in challenging basic elements of a capitalist economy.
LEAH STOKES Interest groups who are allied with fossil fuels are kind of driving a wedge between what the public wants on climate change and what our politicians and their staff think that the public wants.
GRETA THUNBERG I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists. [END CLIPS]
CROWD [CHANTING] What do we want? Climate justice. When do want it? Now! [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. And this is the sound of Foley Square in downtown Manhattan Friday. Not far from our offices, the epicenter of a worldwide climate strike led, improbably perhaps but solidly, by millions of students.
CROWD [CHANTING] We want change! [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The 16 year old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who sailed across the Atlantic to ramp up pressure ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit, took the lead in the last week testifying before Congress and rallying young activists.
GRETA THURNBERG I'm urging all of you to take part in the global climate strikes. On September 20th and 27th.
GRETA THUNBERG And just one last thing, see you on the streets.
CROWD [CHEERING] [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the US, the strikers are arrayed in support of the House resolution introduced in February by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey known by most as the Green New Deal–or as Speaker Nancy Pelosi dubbed it last year, the Green Dream or whatever. To which AOC replied--
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ No, I think it is a green dream. It is, it is and I think that all great American programs, everything from the Great Society to the New Deal started with a vision for our future. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like FDR as wide ranging government response to the Great Depression called the New Deal, the Green New Deal also puts employment and economic equality front and center. There are other echoes of the 30s as well in the form of collective action. Depression era sit down strikes are mirrored by the youth led Sunrise Movement which organized the sit in at Pelosi's office demanding democratic debate and action.
VARSHINI PRAKASH If you don't know what sunrise is we are building an army of young people to stop the climate crisis and create millions of good jobs for our generation in the process. Yeah.
VARSHINI PRAKASH Yeah, that's why we're here. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Varshini Prakash Sunrise co-founder at a conference called Designing the Green New Deal held in Philadelphia last week. But wait, why jobs?
VARSHINI PRAKASH The way in which the jobs versus environment fight has been set up, largely by elites who tend to have no skin in the game and--and are the ones profiting off that has been hurting us for decades. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so this hour will be addressing how the issues of climate change and economic inequality, once seen as distinct and even in conflict have, for this generation, come to overlap. And the response reverberates with the echoes of economic injustice of a time long ago but never gone. In recent years, strikes have seen a resurgence.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Public schools across the state of West Virginia are closed again today as a massive teacher strike enters day nine, making it the longest in the state's history. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 2018, teachers strike spread across half a dozen states and then--
MALE CORRESPONDENT Thousands of Marriott workers are on strike in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and other cities across the country. The workers say they're demanding livable wages so they don't have to work several jobs to pay the bills. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As I read, this another is on the horizon of hospital and medical workers.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Union organizers have said that as many as 80,000 Kaiser employees nationwide could go on strike in October if a deal isn't reached soon. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And at GM, contract negotiations have already broken down.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Union auto workers started gathering around midnight at this Detroit General Motors plant and others like it across the country.
FEMALE STRIKER We want to be paid fairly. We make quality cars and we want quality pay.
MALE CORRESPONDENT The strike comes after GM's 2015 labor deal with the union expired Saturday over fault lines ranging from wages to health care coverage.
MALE STRIKER We stood up for GM when they needed us. We deserve a fair contract because we have--we've helped make this company what it is. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE At the height of the Great Recession, GM got an $11 billion dollar bailout. Everyone seemed to be taking their lumps to save the company. Workers negotiated a contract that allowed for a two tier system. New workers would earn less than the older ones for the same work. After GM brought in record profits last year, the time of shared sacrifice would appear to be over.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Tonight, all work has stopped at more than 50 General Motors factories and warehouses. More than 48 thousand workers are on strike. That's the first against GM in 12 years. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like they did this week during a previous period of depressed labor conditions GM workers left the assembly.
MALE CORRESPONDENT What observers describe as the most crucial battle in American labor history involving nearly 100,000 men has practically shut down the entire American motor industry. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Anger swelled well into the Roosevelt administration and over a year after workers around the country had earned the right to collectively bargain.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Le Mars, Iowa, storm center the farmers revolt is under martial law as National Guardsmen seek the ringleaders of the mob that took Judge Bradley from this courthouse and threatened to hang him unless he swore he would sign no more mortgage foreclosures. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now here's where the existential parallels between then and now are manifest. It wasn't just that American farmers were poor, their demands on the land had made the once great plains poor too. The land hatch marked by railways and homesteads denuded by deep ploughing of native grasslands had turned the topsoil into black billowing clouds of dust. And so five years into the Great Depression, as historian Jill Lepore has written quote, 'farm families displaced by debt and drought wandered westward carrying what they could in dust covered jalopies. The experiment in democracy that had begun with American independence seemed on the very edge of defeat.' But in March 1933, a new president offered remedies for what ails the nation symptom by symptom.
MALE CORRESPONDENT In May 1933, a new chapter was written in American public policy. An act was passed creating the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority. Their method was to control nature not by defined her as in the wasteful past, but by understanding her and harnessing her in the service of humanity.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Vital to the communities which they serve are the thousands of miles of highways constructed and improved by the works program. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE To address worker unrest came the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and before it, the National Labor Relations Act.
MALE CORRESPONDENT By this act, employers are bound to bargain collectively with an organized majority of their workers. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Here's another potential link from the past to the present, the increasingly effective call to collective action. Because, though conventional wisdom says that Roosevelt bestowed workers with a voice as yet another New Deal remedy an elixir from the Oval Office, Jane McAlevey, writer and longtime labor organizer, explains that that's not how it happened.
JANE MCALEVEY Yeah, no, that's a little upside down. When American workers won the National Labor Relations Act that was because in 1933 and 1934, in the beginning of 1935, American workers waged extraordinary many general strikes all over the United States to put the kind of pressure on FDR to give American workers the right to pull up as legal equals to the bargaining table with their employers. That was not given on high from FDR. In fact, a lot of the profound changes started the civil rights movement happened for the same reason. We have the tapes that show President Johnson on the phone with Martin Luther King.
LYNDON JOHNSON And I will do my best to get the man to do likewise, now I'd like to have y'alls help. I never needed more than I do now.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. Well you know you have it and just feel free to call. [END CLIP]
JANE MCALEVEY You better go create a lot of holy hell down there on the south so that I have the ability to do it. That's exactly what was happening in the 1930s in the New Deal. When FDR took over, He did a bunch of other things that were urgent and important, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration. I mean there's a very long list of things that happened in the first hundred days. The National Labor Relations Act was not in the first hundred days it was 1935 in the summer, two years into it, right? And it happened as a result of workers standing up for themselves and creating a crisis through massive strikes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But in the years since the New Deal, we've seen Labor decline in prominence. I mean, starting with the Taft Hartley Act, right, in 1947, which restricted the activities and the power of the unions. You have right to work laws, which undermine the very structure of unions. So why are we seeing all these strikes now?
JANE MCALEVEY I think you're seeing the strikes now because we're at the same level of grotesque income inequality that we were in during the Great Depression. You had 25 percent of America unemployed in 1932. What's similar and different in 2018 when the strikes begin, in 2019 and heading into 2020 in this crucial year, is that we definitely have 25 percent as an index of misery. It's that corporations are more sophisticated today so it's not rampant unemployment, it's rampant underemployment. What American workers transformed in the auto plants in 1936 and 1937 by walking out in massive strikes were conditions that look a lot like the average Amazon warehouse job today where workers are paid substandard wages, don't get bathroom breaks. Workers are working two jobs, two and a half jobs just to keep up and try and pay the bills. And that level of frustration is hitting a wall in this country right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I have to ask you though again, why strikes given the state of the unions. In fact, you've noted that the word strike itself is on the rise.
JANE MCALEVEY Yeah. The strike that really began all of the strikes we're seeing was, in some ways, the very bold action taken by the teachers in Chicago in 2012. The first really big strike in decades.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Negotiations with public school officials now entering a second day. Mayor Rahm Emanuel saying teachers are making the wrong choice to strike with 350,000 students paying the ultimate price. [END CLIP]
JANE MCALEVEY And that strike kind of reawakened a lot of people. It began to do what organizers call raising the expectations of American workers and in that case, teachers, that they could fight and win and demand more and they did in Chicago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Many people at the time were talking about how they were overpaid spoiled brats and so on. And yet the public did seem to stand with them.
JANE MCALEVEY When we were talking about what happened from Taft Hartley until now, Ronald Reagan comes in essentially fires 12,000 striking workers in the early 1980s to let Americans know you go on strike, you're gonna get fired.
RONALD REAGAN They are in violation of the law And if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated. [END CLIP]
JANE MCALEVEY And that really brings down strike activity for the next 25 years or so. There had been this narrative for 30 years that the public wouldn't stand with people when they went on strike and got fired. So when the Chicago strike happened and you saw the outpouring of support, it began to rephrase workers expectations that, 'hey even though they feel really beaten down, they actually have a lot of public support.' And when you fast forward to West Virginia, they were the first ones to walk out in this new era of all the strikes we're seeing. When I interviewed a lot of those workers, one, they had met the Chicago teachers, they actually went to find them and seek them out. And two, the place where a lot of them met was the 2016 Sanders campaign. And if you look in West Virginia, he won every single county and a lot of these young teachers, when Trump won said to themselves, 'wait a minute, we built an amazing movement, what are we going to do now?' And then right at that moment, the state legislature in West Virginia announced that they were going to take huge cuts. They're going to have to pay 200 to 400 dollars more per month for their health care and they're gonna get a 1 percent raise. And they said, 'that's it, we're out of here.' And they began to do real grassroots organizing work, teacher to teacher, bus driver a teacher. And when they walked out, it was everyone. I mean, they were drawing on the history of United Mine Workers. They were drawing on a proud working-class tradition in West Virginia. But they have now set ablaze the whole country. A string of workers walking off the job and winning in the education sector, then and against the Marriott Hotels, then again Stop and Shop this spring, enabled the General Motors workers to say 'forget it.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE What makes an action a victorious action? And how it activists apply it to get the public into the street over climate change policy?
JANE MCALEVEY What does it take in this moment to tackle the largest crisis there is? The most important weapon that workers have is the ability to withdraw their labor and walk off the job. Strategic disruption in strategic sectors in strategic geographies and, by the way, where the General Motors workers are going on strike is basically a map of the electoral swing states. We've got to get the American working class into and embracing the Green New Deal and the way to do that is to guarantee not just a good job. There's a different set of words we have to use. We have to specifically say to the American worker, 'you will hold the exact standard that you have working in the fossil fuel sector right now in the clean economy sector. And to do that, we've got to flip the American taxpayer subsidies currently going to the fossil fuel industry to subsidize the jobs and livelihoods of workers in a clean economy. And we've got to talk about that really honestly and then build the power to shift those subsidies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does the movement have to address the issue that strikes and this the redistribution of wealth and these huge government programs are fundamentally anti-capitalist?
JANE MCALEVEY Right, if we turn on, you know, Fox News--.
SEBASTIAN GORKA The Green New Deal, it's a watermelon.
SEBASTIAN GORKA Green on the outside, deep, deep red communist on the inside.
CROWD [CHEERING] [END CLIP]
JANE MCALEVEY You hear the same language that we heard during McCarthy period already. But what we need to keep focused on is what is it we're trying to do. We're trying to create a new New Deal and to get to the first New Deal took massive strikes. To get to a new New Deal so that life on this planet can continue and flourish, means we're going to need a second wave of massive strikes. And I think we're seeing the beginning of that realization. Part of why I'm entering this debate is because I spent my first 10 years as an organizer running environmental campaigns and then I shifted into the trade union movement full time. And I've long said to people, 'a reflection of the problem in the American progressive movement is that, I, as an organizer am either working for the environmental movement or I'm working for trade unions and the Green New Deal is the time to say these are not two different movements. For American workers, children to grow up in a healthy environment in this country, it's going to take American workers walking off the job the way we did in 1933 and 1934 and 1935 and forcing employers to the negotiating table to create a different kind of an economy in this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jane thank you very much.
JANE MCALEVEY Thank you. It was a pleasure being here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jane McAlevey is a fellow at the University of California at Berkeley's Labor Center and author of A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight For Democracy due out in January.
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BOB GARFIELD Coming up the politics of the deal new and newer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On The Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. We think of the New Deal in historical terms, a monument of federal action almost universally understood to have rescued America from the Great Depression. What the textbooks seldom dwell on is the national politics of the day, pitting the supporters of FDR against Wall Street, big business, conservatives, far-right religious figures, naked anti-Semites and those generally wary of creeping socialism as a prelude to communist totalitarianism. And it got ugly in very familiar ways. Kim Phillips-Fein is a historian at NYU and author of Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal. Kim, welcome to OTM.
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD As you look back at the contemporaneous arguments against--
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN Right.
BOB GARFIELD --the deal you have isolated two main themes. What were those two basic accusations about what the New Deal would wreak upon our society?
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN So one line of argument against various parts the new deal is that it represented a step towards totalitarianism and dictatorship, that Roosevelt was setting himself up as a tyrant and was going to trounce the Constitution and was going to nationalize property and was going to end capitalism and bring in a very controlled economy going forward. So this is one line of argument that you see coming from organizations like the American Liberty League, for example, which was a group of business leaders who got together in 1934 to start to kind of mount both legal challenges to the new deal and also to campaign publicly against it. The other is a sense that it wasn't going to be effective, that the New Deal wasn't ending the depression, that it was naive, ill thought, out badly planned. Instead of seeing it as this masterly power grab, seeing it as kind of incompetent foolish and ineffective.
BOB GARFIELD Those arguments have an eerily familiar ring to them--
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN Mmhm.
BOB GARFIELD --in the context of the Green New Deal. There was one commentator who did this broadside against the deal based on the fact that Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is an unmarried childless barmaid--.
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN Mmhm.
BOB GARFIELD --and therefore is no person to entrust with this kind of responsibility. But then, you know, in other commentary there's also the subject of totalitarian level federal overreach. You've written that the New Deal was in its essence an emergency rescue operation to save capitalism from itself. I think that was your phrase, which in hindsight makes perfect sense. But, really knowing what we know about American politics is it any wonder that the capitalists didn't want the government to barge into its free markets and inject the public sector into private enterprise? Of course they said it was a path to totalitarianism.
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN But I think it's actually just important to remember both how severe the crisis was in 1932 when Roosevelt was elected. Unemployment was almost at a quarter of the population, much higher in many cities. Thousands of banks were failing. It wasn't just that there was an ideological attack on structures of property or capitalism. There was actually a real question about what was going to happen to the economy and how it could recover. And I think this is part of why many business people were so anxious about the New Deal that--
BOB GARFIELD So not necessarily fear mongering, it was actual fear?
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN I think it was actual fear. Roosevelt himself never had any interest in challenging basic elements of a capitalist economy but he was willing, and the circumstances were such that it was possible, to do things that actually did change the balance of power in economic life in pretty profound ways. And I think just--it shouldn't be surprising that parts of the New Deal met with fierce resistance, so to parts of the Green New Deal are likely to meet with fierce resistance. And the question is whether there will be political movements, leaders, mobilizations that are capable of countering that.
BOB GARFIELD Now I scarcely need to tell you this because this is like the whole Phillips-Fein deal but the history of federal regulation of business is the history of the sky is falling predictions about job loss and recession and so on. Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Auto Safety, OSHA, Obamacare, minimum wage, you name it, all were going to tilt the playing field and ruin our economy. Did these arguments, which by the way, as far as I can tell have never been bourn out--
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN Right.
BOB GARFIELD --and by reality, did they begin in the 30s or was there a precedent for them even then?
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN Oh arguments have been circulating around since the late 19th century. People like William Graham Sumner and Andrew Carnegie were arguing that the efforts to use government will wind up hurting ordinary people rather than helping them inadvertently and you should just let the market do its work. But I think they get a new charge in the 30s and in a way the 30s are the first time that there is someone in Washington who builds a political career himself out of responding to and inspiring this political impulse to find some way to even the economic playing fields.
BOB GARFIELD Let's look at one of the pieces of legislation just to get a notion of what specifically the criticisms were.
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN Mmhm.
BOB GARFIELD One of the early targets was in 1933, the Securities Act, which tried to create some sort of protections for investors. What was the policy exactly and what were the dire warnings that came from Wall Street?
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN The effort was to mandate that any company that was issuing public securities had to publish and make available a range of information to investors. This was happening in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929 and fraudulent reports that companies have been circling about themselves. So it was basically trying to mandate that any company that was going to be selling stock had to release honest information about its financial situation. The next year saw the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which was charged with regulating and guaranteeing this and the response from Wall Street was outraged terror. I sense that the simple request for information was reaching into the boardroom in ways that were heavy handed and controlling on the one hand and then also that it was going to frighten investors away. And so it would actually be responsible for prolonging the Depression. The law in 1934 wound up quelling a lot of this partly because the first head of the SEC was Joseph Kennedy who was viewed as one of the Wall Street community and not somebody who was going to be, you know, hostile force. So at that point, a lot of the resistance really died down.
BOB GARFIELD How did Roosevelt and the Democrats answer the charges of creeping Stalinism and Jewish overlords and the rest?
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN Roosevelt himself was always very insistent that what he was doing was in the interests of all Americans, that it was not intended to subvert democratic institutions but to preserve them. That he was just bringing forward the promise of the country into a new era. I mean the New Deal actually also involved the active participation of many people across the country and kind of touched and transformed people's lives either through direct relief from the state or through the employment that it offered or through the ways in which it transformed communities that saw new public works being built and the artistic creations that were funded by the federal government during the New Deal. All of these things actually gave people a sense of the New Deal being something that wasn't just imposed on them from outside but actually something that they were helping to build. Also the organization of unions during the New Deal was another way in which people actually actively had a sense of participating in building a new kind of social economic order.
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BOB GARFIELD Kim, thank you very much.
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Kim Phillips-Fein is a historian at New York University and author of Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, when it comes to climate change research finds that Congress doesn't get what Gen Z wants–or what Gen X wants, or what the boomers want either.
BOB GARFIELD This is On The Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. NYU historian Kim Phillips-Fein told me that one of the ways President Roosevelt built support for the New Deal was by speaking directly to the American people through a nascent highly intimate medium called radio. His cozy broadcasts were called fireside chats.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT My friend, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD He was quite charismatic in his sort of avuncular way on the radio. Is it naive and simplistic to suggest that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Instagram account is the new fireside chat.
KIM PHILLIPS-FEIN What was that was doing was trying to create a sort of personal relationship, solidarity and I think she's doing something similar.
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ I think this new generation is very profound and very strong and very brave because they're actually willing to go to the streets. How about that? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD How about that? A recent study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that young people are more concerned than their elders on the subject and are more likely to contact a government official about global warming. And why are Millennials and Gen Z taking up the cause so actively? Well, like the 60s protesters who agitated against the Vietnam War, they are most at risk.
GRETA THUNBURG And it will get worse. And so I think that is why so many young people especially care about this. [END CLIP]
MALE CORRESPONDENT Sixteen year old Greta Thunburg from Sweden. In the past four years, Thunberg who has mild autism has helped drive this youth climate movement. She's repeatedly called out world leaders for their climate inaction--[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And she is not alone.
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ISRA HIRSI My name is Isra Hirsi and I'm a climate justice activists in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I want change how climate activism is viewed today. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That is Isra Hirsi another 16 year old and the daughter of Democratic Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Hirsi brings not only her DNA to the movement but a particular experience and point of view.
ISRA HIRSI It's a lot to be a black young person in the environmental movement only because these spaces that I'm in and the organizations that I work with don't necessarily reflect me [END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD Hirsi founded the US youth climate strike in January, which like the Zero Hour and Sunrise Movements have enjoyed a high profile on major digital platforms and legacy media, which not only expands the reach of their messages but also validates them for older generations. But in a sort of climate code switching, they're also fixtures in social media where the idiom is very, very different.
BOY Hey fellow humans, listen up because on September 20th some stuff’s about to go down.
BOY Look we have one more chance to turn climate change around because in less than 10 years the damage we're doing to our planet will become irreversible.
GIRL Wait, what? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD On Instagram, teen influencers teamed up to encourage millions of followers to join in Friday's strikes.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Strike for our ocean.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Strike for our forests.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT And strike for each other. Because they have a very short amount of time to turn this crisis around.
MALE CORRESPONDENT If you're fed up and know we deserve better, on September 20th--.
CROWD Strike with us! [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Other Instagram accounts like “climemechange,” with 44,000 followers joke ironically about the end of life on Earth shared gif filled premieres on the Green New Deal and throw shade on the complacent.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Gosh darn it, got to do everything yourself around, here picking up humans trash. Let me show how it's done. Here 1, 2, in the dooma-hickey. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Getting involved, says The Intercept's Kate Aronoff, has become fashionable with some degree of amazement and confusion. She's been following a meme called VSCO. That's V-S-C-O girls, a suddenly emerging stratum of middle and high schoolers who affect a very particular look to project common cause with the planet.
KATE ARONOFF The line between who the cool kids are and like what a VSCO girl is in 2019 is a thin line. It's sort of an ecstatic. They wear, you know, Birkenstocks, crocs and socks, puka shell necklaces, oversized t-shirts, metal straws are a part of it. There's an affinity for turtles, hydro flasks, reusable water bottles. There is a latent kind of environmental consciousness in it.
BOB GARFIELD It's a bit of a fad, a bit of whimsy and a bit of earnestness.
KATE ARONOFF And the name comes from an app, a photo editing app called VSCO but exist on different platforms, Instagram, a little bit on Twitter.
BOB GARFIELD One of them is TikTok. If Twitter is a mini blog, TikTok is sort of the mini YouTube. They are very short user generated videos. One TikTok video has been shared a gargillion times.
VSCO GIRL 1 Hi, you must be new. Yeah, this is the new hydroflask, you don't have one? How do you make your friendship bracelets then? That's kinda weird. Well, save the turtles. [0.8s]
VSCO GIRL 2 Oh these, these are just my scrunches. I noticed you don't have don't have one. You keep that don't even worry about it. Scanoo. [END CLIP]
KATE ARONOFF In terms of like VSCO girls on TikTok, there's this like incredible amount of self awareness about the fact that this is very silly. Everyone seems to be sort of making fun and just making these videos.
VSCO GIRL 2 Um, so I'm like really into saving the turtles lately. So I got a medal straw. You don't have one?
VSCO GIRL 3 I'll have an acai bowl and a boxed water please. Oh and your straws aren't made of plastic, are they? [END CLIP]
KATE ARONOFF I think it would be easy to compare this to valley girls in the 1980s and there is temptation and a misogynist society to treat young women stupid. The VSCO girls phenomenon can bleed into that. I also think part of that masks over some very real things that are affecting young people. People who identified themselves as VSCO girls who I've talked to have said VSCO girls as a trend really is reflective of the fact that young people, in general, are concerned about the climate crisis. The folks I talked to they are organizing a climate strike and, you know, are themselves teens. They see this more than anything as kind of an organizing opportunity.
BOB GARFIELD A movement hasn't really fully coalesced until a large number of stakeholders have embraced it. It's easy to have fun with the notion of a little meme and this kind of odd collection of participants. Is it evidence that climate activism has gone beyond the sort of usual suspects? Does this mean it's gone mainstream?
KATE ARONOFF Yeah, I think that's exactly right. Folks that I talked to they've said when I was a freshman in high school, for instance, this is someone who just graduated, I was trying to do activism and it was a strange thing to do. Activism was not popular whereas now after Donald Trump, after Parkland, you have VSCO coming out and being a part of the movement in the way that many, many other people are. All sections joining up in the climate fight. Activism is becoming cool. Young people are more active and mobilize than maybe any other generation in history. Just yesterday speaking in congressional testimony the head of the Zero Hour youth climate movement that is participating in the strike.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT People call my generation Generation Z as if we are the last generation but we are not. We are refusing to be the last letter of the alphabet. I am here before the whole country today announcing that we are instead generation GND. The generation of the Green New Deal. The only thing that will save us is a whole new era. [END CLIP]
KATE ARONOFF It was pretty dark and a pretty stunning way to think about your future. And part of what this youth climate movement is really about is giving people a space for community and not to feel just hopeless about the potential end to the world.
BOB GARFIELD Kate Aronoff writes for The Intercept and is a fellow at the Type Media Center. Thank you so much.
KATE ARONOFF Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So even the cool kids want to be involved in climate activism, or maybe climate activism is redefining what it means to be cool. In the halls of Congress and in many newsrooms, there are other less existential concerns and they fill the political ether with mixed and misleading messages. Leah Stokes is a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara where she studies public opinion and political behavior with a focus on energy and climate change. Last year, she co-author of the study that told us what you might have already–Congress has no clue what Americans want.
LEAH STOKES So these are the chiefs of staff and legislative directors in Congress, the people who help their bosses decide how to vote on a bill and we ask them, 'what do you think the public wants on climate action?' And they dramatically underestimated the public support that's out there for acting on the climate crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ninety-two percent of the staff members that you surveyed underestimated the support in their district or state, including all Republican aides and over 85 percent of the Democratic aides.
LEAH STOKES And we actually show the more those offices are meeting with the American Petroleum Institute, which is the association of fossil fuel companies and the more they're taking money from them relative to meeting with let's say environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the worst job they do at guessing public opinion. So it seems like interest groups who are allied with fossil fuels are kind of driving a wedge between what the public wants on climate change and what our politicians and their staff think that the public wants. Research done by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which I am affiliated with they make these maps and they look at all these different policy areas and show what the public wants. And the media has had a narrative, and politicians have had this narrative too, that the public doesn't really care about climate change, it's not really an important issue. And if you just go look at these amazing maps, you can see that that's just not true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhm.
LEAH STOKES So for example, they've just put out a new map about the proportion of people who think that fossil fuel companies should have to pay for the harms that they are already causing. Fifty-seven percent of Americans, a majority of Americans, support that. And then you can actually zoom into every single congressional district and figure out, for example, across Arizona a relatively conservative state, people support that. Across New Mexico, they do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why do you think the public feels this way in the absence of support from their politicians and their media?
LEAH STOKES Support for climate action has been high for a long time but in the past nine months, we've seen a huge surge. Something like 10 percentage points more people are worried about this. This reflects a number of things. First, last fall we had the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, report come out which really showed that we have to make dramatic strides to cut our emissions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I think that's very sobering but stuff that the UN does never seems to make much of a dent on the mainstream American public.
LEAH STOKES I would agree but somehow this report broke through.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT There is a new report out about climate change and it is not positive. [END CLIP]
LEAH STOKES And I think actually journalists had a role in that. Somebody picked up that report and framed it around, 'we have 12 years left.'.
[MONTAGE OF CLIPS]
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT The world has just 12 years to stop climate change catastrophes.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT That gives us 12 years to make sure that it--the temperature is--.
MALE CORRESPONDENT A little more than a decade to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released in--.
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ The world is going to end in 12 years if we don't address climate change. And your biggest issue is--your biggest issue is how are we going to pay for it?
BERNIE SANDERS Twelve years is not a long period of time. [END CLIP]
LEAH STOKES That's not in the report, that was a media decision and then the Sunrise Movement picked it up and a lot of scientists actually have gotten very upset about the 12-year framing. But from a media and communication perspective, it's genius because it gives--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But is it true? Mmmm?
LEAH STOKES We have 11 years to cut emissions by about half. That is what the report says.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhm.
LEAH STOKES So yeah it is true that there is a clock ticking and we've already warmed the planet by 1 degree Celsius and if we want to reduce it or limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. There is a timeline. Of course. If we don't meet that target it's not like the world explodes on the first day of 2031. And then the other thing I would say that has begun to breakthrough is climate impacts are actually happening.
[MONTAGE OF CLIPS]
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT California is burning on both ends decimating an entire town called Paradise.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Coverage of the damage caused by Michael the Category 4 storm was the most powerful hurricane on record to hit Florida's panhandle.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Imelda first striking Freeport, Texas. Some areas could see upwards of 18 inches of rain. [END CLIP]
LEAH STOKES And the media has not done a great job of linking people's lived experiences to climate change. But that is starting to catch hold.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For a long time, scientists said that it was unwise to attribute the cause of any particular weather event to climate change. Weather was too complex for that. But attribution science, as it's called, has gotten a lot better, right? It's now possible to connect the dots between some instances of extreme weather and climate change.
LEAH STOKES Public Citizen, this NGO, wrote a report that showed that only one in five articles that talk about heat waves even mentioned climate change at all. Heat waves are the most easy to attribute to climate change. Every time I open up an article, I look for climate and I look for global warming and I usually come up empty handed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Leah, why do you think that is? Is it still regarded as a political issue and it's a question of perceived balance?
LEAH STOKES Climate change is actually the most polarized public policy issue in the United States because of the denial campaign that the fossil fuel industry has run for over 40 years. And journalists they don't want to make mistakes and I really value that but that's making them kind of fearful about linking things to climate change that really should be linked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhm.
LEAH STOKES I have been working on a project with a student, Emily Williams, and with the website climate signals to try to take the science that is being published in academic journals, often behind paywalls, and get open access versions so that journalists can easily find the article that shows empirically that yes you can link this event to climate change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I was really struck by this study this month from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and it said seven in 10 registered Iowa voters support government action to address climate change. Seventy-seven percent of Iowa voters are more likely to support candidates who favor increased funding for renewables.
LEAH STOKES That's a really consistent finding over the past six months showing that primary voters are going to vote based on this issue and there were several polls coming out a few months ago that said it was the number one issue even above health care and immigration. And let's not forget we have the climate denier in chief in the White House.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Just announcing that he's revoking California's power to set its own vehicle emission standards.
MALE CORRESPONDENT California reached a deal with four automakers in July to reduce emissions by 3.7 percent every year.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Well, the feds are going after the carmakers that signed a deal with California on emission standards. [END CLIP]
LEAH STOKES I think him rolling back environmental policies has woken up a lot of people to the consequences.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But it sounds like what you're suggesting is that the biggest mind changer is lived experience. Even if those congressional aides who find themselves surrounded by the arguments of lobbyists might have a change of heart if they had a personal experience of extreme weather.
LEAH STOKES The research so far is showing that when people believe in climate change and they experience extreme weather, they become more active. So right now that's Democrats and maybe some young Republicans. But if you don't think climate change is real and happening then you're not going to connect to the extreme weather back to action on the part of the government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So we don't know for sure that lived experience will do it but one of our producers found a story in Harper's earlier this year with an anecdote that he just loved. It was about the environmental legacy of the New Deal and the head of the Soil Conservation Service a man named Big Hugh Bennett. He was preparing to testify before the Congress on the need for a new agency and then he got wind of a dust storm that was headed to Washington and he stalled his conclusion until the storm arrived. Here's the quote from Harper's, 'as he finished, the Congressman rush to the windows of the Capitol watching as the duster rolled in like a vast steel town paul, thick and repulsive. The skies took on a copper color, the sun went into hiding, the air became heavy with grit. 'This, gentleman, is what I'm talking about,' Bennett told them. 'There goes Oklahoma.'.
LEAH STOKES I love it. Well, we had a nice moment like that with the CNN climate town hall--.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhm.
LEAH STOKES --because hurricane Dorian was bearing down on the country.
MALE CORRESPONDENT We're seeing firsthand the effects of climate change as a powerful Atlantic hurricane is sitting right now off the coast of Florida. It could make landfall tomorrow in South Carolina. Tonight, Democratic and independent voters will be asking the questions live here in our audience and also by video. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you think of the coverage of the various climate proposals from the candidates?
MALE CORRESPONDENT Let's just go through one of the issues in these plants. How fast you want to hit net zero emissions? Elizabeth Warren says, 'I can do it by 2030,' 2045 is the target for Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Kamala Harris, 2049 as Andrew Yang's number. 2050 is what Joe Biden, Amy Klobacher, Beto O'Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigueg says. Are there voters out there are going to say, 'a-ha. I'm for Warren because she gets there quicker?' Or is it, you just have to have a plan. [END CLIP]
LEAH STOKES Many journalists call me up and they say, 'oh look all these plans are the same.' If you contrast the Sanders plan with Warren's, plan which was based off of Jay Inslee's plan when he was in the race. What we're actually talking about is Sanders takes nuclear off the table he says, 'we're not going to use that and we're going to have 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.' Warren, by contrast says, 'we're going to keep stuff on the table and we're going to have 100 percent clean energy by 2035.' Let's be clear that these are both really Herculean goals. And Biden's goal by contrast is by 2050, so a lot further in the future. Actually, Bernie Sanders plan is 50 percent harder on an annual basis than Elizabeth Warren's plan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you mean harder?
LEAH STOKES I mean that you must be deploying new technology at a rate that is 50 percent higher every single year. And just to be clear, the Warren plan says 'that we're going to deploy at 17 times current deployment rates.' Bernie Sanders plan is 'we're going to deploy it 25 times current deployment rates.' So both of them are ramping things up on a huge scale. And I think the media doesn't understand that these words on paper that have technologies that are eligible, that have targets and timetables, would really change the landscape of America in a different way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhm. Before you go Leah, could you read a quote that you brought to our attention from Thomas Edison?
LEAH STOKES Yes. This is from over 100 years ago. And he said, 'this scheme of combustion to get power makes me sick to think of. It is so wasteful. You see we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy and the winds and the tides are manifestation of energy. Do we use them? Oh no. We burn up wood and coal as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property?
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do you feel when you came upon that?
LEAH STOKES I felt that we have lost so much time to denial campaigns from the fossil fuel industry and we must start to turn the tide and the fossil fuel era must end.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Leah, thank you very much.
LEAH STOKES Thank you so much for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Leah Stokes of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Her upcoming book is Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States.
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BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Asthaa Chaturverdi. We had more help from Charlotte Gartenberg. Special thanks to Andy Lancet archives a czar at WNYC. And our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week for Sam Bair and Josh Han.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
UNDERWRITING The media is supported by the Ford Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.