August 27, 2020

The Green Wave

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

It started with students walking out of school to demand more action on climate change, built into an international movement — and then was propelled forward by a pandemic. Today on the show, the surprising story behind Europe's climate plan, and what the rest of us can learn from it. 

Want to get involved? Find your local chapter of the Sunrise Movement or Fridays for Future. Or check out the Global Day of Climate Action on Sept. 25, 2020.

Want to read the Green New Deal resolution for yourself? You can find the full text here. Don’t be scared, it’s only 14 pages.

Send us an email:

Find us on Twitter and Instagram @how2saveaplanet. 

How to Save a Planet is a Spotify Original Podcast and Gimlet Production. It’s hosted by Alex Blumberg and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. 

Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz and Anna Ladd. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.

Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger. Additional music by Bobby Lord.

Thanks to Manon Dufour and Annika Hedberg for talking with me about the European Green Deal.

Special thanks to Sandra Riaño, Rachel Strom and Whitney Potter. 

Where to Listen


ALEX BLUMBERG: Hello, and welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg.

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. 

[THEME MUSIC] And this is the podcast where we look at what we need to do to address climate change and how to make those things happen. 

AYANA: So today on the show, we're going to talk about this one really big idea about how to tackle climate change.

ALEX: It’s a uniquely American idea. It was born here. It has its roots deep in American history. But it's not actually being put into action here in the United States.

AYANA: But it is happening in other parts of the world. A whole continent in fact, is embracing this idea. And we have a reporter on that continent, it so happens -- Rachel Waldholz.

ALEX: We are a global podcast. Hey, Rachel.

RACHEL: Hey guys.

AYANA: Hey, we are so excited to introduce you to everyone who came back to episode two.

ALEX: And figured out what better way to introduce you to the audience than by asking you embarrassing questions about yourself. 

RACHEL: Oh no.

AYANA: Truth or dare?

RACHEL: The worst game.

AYANA: Does dare work on the radio?

ALEX: I don't think we have to go full truth or dare. But, okay. So you're a climate reporter. You’ve spent time in Alaska. You've been working in Germany for the last couple of years.

What is the thing that as a climate reporter, you would be mortified if people found out about you?

RACHEL: I'm not going to share the thing I'd be mortified about, but I will, I will share the thing that is a little embarrassing.

AYANA: We’ll take it.

RACHEL: Uh, I live in Germany and in Berlin and, uh, something that does not exist here is air conditioning.


RACHEL: And, uh, as the Germans will tell you, it's because they don't need it. And that's a lie. 


And it has been very hot here. And I spend a lot of time complaining to anyone who will listen about how there's no air conditioning anywhere. 

RACHEL: And before there was a pandemic I was known to sometimes just go and sit in Starbucks because it's like the only place that's air conditioned to American standards.

It's so embarrassing.

ALEX: Now I'm really wondering what your mortifying secret is. Like, are you like a secretly, like a fossil fuel executive or something in your spare time?

AYANA: She eats hamburgers three times a day, while flying on private jets..

ALEX: Exactly 

AYANA: ..and burning tires.

ALEX: I buy ground beef and throw it away.

[Ayana laughing]

ALEX: Alright. Anyway, we’re glad you're here. And you're going to tell us the story of this uniquely American idea about how to save the planet that traveled across the Atlantic and took root, uh, far away from where it was born.

That’s coming up in just a minute.


AYANA: Okay, so Rachel, tell us the story. 

RACHEL: Yeah. So actually the best way to tell this story is to start with the moment when this idea really took off in the U.S. 

And that was two years ago. So in November of 2018, it was a week after the midterm elections. The Democrats had just seized control of the House of Representatives. And the Sunrise Movement, which is this organization of youth climate activists, they staged a protest in the office of Nancy Pelosi. So, Pelosi is the leader of the House Democrats, she was about to become Speaker of the House. And they wanted to put pressure on her to take action on climate change.

[cheering begins]

And they were live streaming this protest. So they’re packed into Pelosi’s office, and this young woman walks and starts addressing the crowd.

[clip plays]

VARSHINI PRAKASH: [cheers] My name is Varshini Prakash, I’m one of the founders of Sunrise Movement. And we are building an army of young people to stop climate change and create good jobs for our generation [cheers]

[protest audio]

ALEX: And the scene is just like a couple of dozen young people crammed into this pretty tiny office. They're wearing these black t-shirts with slogans on them and a lot of them are carrying posters.

AYANA: They say 12 years or green jobs. Um, 12 years: What's your plan? That one's my favorite. Like what is your plan, politicians?! [Ayana laughing]

And that 12 years part, that number comes from this UN climate report. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by over 40% by 2030, or else we are in serious irreversible climate change trouble.

ALEX: Right. And it's really interesting that there's sort of like that level of precision at this, at this protest. It's like 12 years is a very precise number. It's not a round number. I mean, it's not like they're waving around white papers or something, but it's like, you know, it’s noticeable. 

AYANA: [Ayana laughing] That would be me organizing a protest. I'd be like, have you read this report?

ALEX: And if I could draw your attention to the appendix!

AYANA: It's only 500 pages! 


AYANA: In footnote 53, you will note…!

ALEX: And also the other thing is sort of like, it's not - it’s about the climate and it's about the environment, but they're also really focused on jobs.

RACHEL: Yeah. if you look at the t-shirts, the first thing it says on the t-shirts is good jobs. You know, it says good jobs and a livable future. I mean, they're really stressing that.

ALEX: Right, so they're, so they're not decoupling environment from economics. They're sort of saying it's the same thing. 

RACHEL: Yeah, and they took that set of demands, this set of demands that includes both climate action and good jobs and they called it the Green New Deal.

[clip continues]

VARSHINI: We’re going to make our demands extremely crystal clear. We want Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership to back a program like a Green New Deal [cheers] 

ALEX: So, the Green New Deal is the big idea we were talking about at the beginning of the episode. Ding ding ding! This uniquely American idea that has its roots deep in American history.

RACHEL: Yeah, exactly. 

ALEX: And Ayana, this moment in Nancy Pelosi’s office… you saw this as it was happening.

AYANA: Yeah. I was blown away by this. And, and even though this general concept of a Green New Deal had been kind of floating around in the background in like nerdy and activist climate policy circles, this was the moment that “Green New Deal” became something that the entire country was talking about.

RACHEL: Right, exactly. And what the Sunrise Movement was saying, essentially, is we want a big national solution for climate change on par with what Franklin Roosevelt did to combat the Great Depression. Right? The original New Deal in the 1930s, which was this massive package of federal programs aimed at putting Americans back to work. It included things like Social Security and bringing electricity to rural America. You know, it was huge. 

AYANA: And so these young people in Pelosi’s office, they're saying we want - and need - something of similar scale again now. 

ALEX: Big, big stuff. 

[clip continues]

VARSHINI: A Green New Deal that would radically transform our economy and society at scale over the next 12 years in line with what science and justice demand [cheers].

RACHEL: And so they staged this big protest. Um, but the thing that made this protest go viral...

RACHEL: ...was this moment, which is when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined the protesters, um, to show her support


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I just want you to know how proud I am of each and every single one of you for putting yourselves and your bodies and everything on the line...

AYANA: I remember this moment and I was like, holy shit. She actually is on this side. 

RACHEL: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this is literally it's a week after she's been elected. She hasn't been sworn in, um, you know, she had just upset one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress in this primary. She's a darling of the left, but she wasn't yet associated with climate change in most people's minds. 

And she shows up in Nancy Pelosi's office in her leadership's office and it was really seen as like, you know, bucking her own leadership. And it was seen, it was seen as very brave, maybe a little foolhardy and it got a ton of national attention.

And that’s what really catapulted this moment onto the national stage.


And you have to understand, at this point, the Green New Deal it was still just an idea. It wasn’t a piece of legislation, it wasn’t a specific set of programs.

RACHEL: But then -- in the weeks after this protest, Ocasio-Cortez, teamed up with Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and a bunch of climate policy experts, and got to work making this idea into something more concrete. 

And in February of 2019, 3 months later, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey introduced the Green New Deal resolution in Congress.


AOC: Climate change - climate change and our environmental challenges are one of the biggest existential threats to our way of life, not just as a nation but as a world. And so we’re here to say that small incremental policy solutions are not enough.

ALEX: And so, and so what started as a list of demands in Nancy Pelosi's office is now an official resolution that is being put forward by official members of congress.

AYANA: And I think it's important to note here that the entire Green New Deal resolution is 14 pages, massive font, double spaced. Like, it'll take you five minutes. I would love for everyone to read it.

ALEX: Right. This is a resolution. It’s not actual legislation, which can run into the hundreds or thousands of pages. This is more like a call to create a whole set of sweeping laws. It's like a vision statement. A very bold vision statement.

RACHEL: And It is really ambitious. And the ultimate goal is to reach net zero carbon emissions while creating millions of new jobs and totally upgrading the country's infrastructure.

I mean, it says we need to get to a hundred percent, zero emissions power within 10 years. It says we need to upgrade all existing buildings in the US to make them more energy efficient. Um, it says we should have a job guarantee for all Americans. You know, it says we should provide all Americans with quality healthcare and affordable housing. So it's big. 

AYANA: I remember reading this. I was like, man, they really went for it. Like, oh wow, how is this going to go over?

RACHEL: Well, and exactly to that point, there was immediate push-back, especially from Republican leaders. 

You know, a lot of Democrats got behind the idea, including many of the candidates who eventually ran in the Democratic presidential primary.

But President Trump for instance, he tweeted that the Green New Deal would permanently eliminate all planes, cars, cows, oil, gas, and the military. 

ALEX: Okay. Um, and to be clear, does it eliminate all those things?

RACHEL: Uh, no,


RACHEL: No, it doesn’t eliminate planes, cows, cars or the military. It does call for us to transition off fossil fuels like oil and gas, and Republicans argued that that would essentially destroy the economy. 

So here is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking on the Senate floor.

ALEX: Right, one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress.

RACHEL: Right, exactly. 

[clip plays]

MITCH MCCONEELL: So my democratic colleagues’ brilliant new idea, their rallying cry, is snatching away the energy sources that middle class families use, shuttering the industries that provide many of those families with their livelihoods, changing the homes they live in, the cars they drive and the healthcare plans they rely on. 

AYANA: This is such a funny argument because it’s like, the cost benefit analysis without talking about the benefit. It’s just like, there will be costs and things will change, but without saying, like oh, wait, wouldn’t it be nice to live without spewing fossil fuels everywhere and have a livable climate and people had like safe homes and jobs?

ALEX: It’s also interesting, if you listen to the words, like except for a couple verbs, like he’s saying snatching instead of transitioning away, but then he does say, which will change the cars they drive and the houses they live in, etc, which is exactly what the proponents are saying, too, is that, like, yeah we’ll change it and we need to and that’ll be better.

RACHEL: Right, right. I mean, there is agreement that the Green New Deal would mean massive change for the economy and for society. You know, there’s just disagreement on whether or not that’s a good thing.

ALEX: Right, exactly. 

RACHEL: And on conservative media, a lot of the reaction was just ridicule. This is the Fox Business Network. 

[clip plays]

PERSON: All right. The Green New Deal - may have gotten its name because you've been smoking the green to support it. The bill has been taking a beating since it was unveiled by Congresswoman...

ALEX: (laughs)

AYANA: Oh my gosh. 

ALEX: So basically rejection and mockery. That's what this was met with on the Republican side. Which explains why, a year and a half later, we still do not have a Green New Deal in the United States. 


RACHEL: But over here where I am in Europe, something completely different has happened and there is a Green New Deal, or at least something very similar.

Because The European Union is adopting something called the European Green Deal. 

ALEX: The European Green Deal.

AYANA: Sounds familiar! 

ALEX: It does sound familiar!

ALEX: Okay. So Rachel, tell us, how did this uniquely American proposal that got stalled here in what I would say, unfortunately, is a uniquely American way. 

How did it take root in Europe? What happened?

RACHEL: Well, and to answer that question, we have to go back to late 2018 at right about the same time that the Sunrise Movement occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office. 

ALEX: Oh, we're going back in time. 

RACHEL: Yeah. Do we need to rewind sound?

ALEX: Yeah, let's do the, the like little [makes rewind sound] and rewind it back.

AYANA: Oh a rewind - Alex, that was good! 

ALEX: Thank you. I'm an audio professional.


ALEX: All right, hold on. So we're going back in time. 

[Rewind sound] 

All right, We’re back in Nancy Pelosi's office. Remember we talked about this. Here's Varshini Prakash. 

[clip recap]

VARSHINI: We’re going to make our demands extremely crystal clear. We want Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership to back a program like a Green New Deal.

ALEX: I'm back. What's happening.

RACHEL: Yeah, so just about a month after that protest in the U.S. there was a different moment unfolding over here in Europe which would send politics down a very different path.

[clip plays]

GRETA THUNBERG: My name is Greta Thunberg. I am 15 years old and I'm from Sweden. 

AYANA: Ah, it’s Greta

GRETA: I speak on behalf of climate justice now.

RACHEL: So this is Greta Thunberg speaking at the UN climate conference in Poland in December of 2018. And now Thunberg is one of the most famous climate activists in the world. But at the time, many people still hadn’t heard of her yet -- including me. I was actually at this climate conference, I was there covering it as a reporter. 

And I remember people talking about this Swedish teenager who had started skipping school to protest in front of the Swedish Parliament, and demand more action on climate change. She had this sign that became kind of iconic that said “School Strike for Climate” 

And then she gave this speech at the UN climate conference, which would become really famous. 


GRETA: You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess. Even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden, you leave to us children.

RACHEL: And I just remember the reaction in the halls of the UN conference. The fact that she was standing up there speaking to the UN, speaking to all of these world leaders and accusing them essentially of betraying their children

[clip continues]

GRETA: The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn't do anything while there still was time to act. You said you love your children above all else, and yet you're stealing their future in front of their very eyes.

ALEX: Man.

AYANA: And I think what's so remarkable about this speech is how she's just like, stop talking about it. That's not helping. Like I don't need your platitudes, and then you all hop on private jets and keep going about your lives like it was before. 

ALEX: It’s really powerful.

AYANA: I just cry every time I think about this. It's like..

ALEX: I know, oh..

AYANA:'s so crazy that we're, we're putting all this on the shoulders of kids because our leaders are incapable of leading. And it just like totally breaks my heart, we're stealing all these kids' childhoods. Cause they have to try to like save us from ourselves.

ALEX: Yeah. 


ALEX: I know. I know, I was welling up watching her too.

RACHEL: Yeah, it was really powerful. You know, and Greta’s speech and her school strike -- they launched a movement.

Teenagers around Europe seized on this idea of staging school strikes and they began walking out of school on Fridays to demand that politicians do something about climate change. They called their movement Fridays for Future.

And I was here in Germany, so I was watching it build. 

It started with just a few strikes, and it just spread. You know, teenagers were organizing it on WhatsApp and it went from town to town until you were having these protests in 25, 50, a hundred, hundreds of towns and cities across Germany. 

You know by the time mid-March rolled around - so this is three months after Greta's speech at the UN climate conference, you had tens of thousands of people on the streets in cities across Europe and students striking all over the world. I mean, it was wild. 

[clip plays]

EuroNews: Wir sind hier, wir sind laut nicht nur in Köln…

RACHEL: So I'm just going to translate. But what they were saying is ‘wir sind hier, wir sind laut,’ we're here, we're loud because you're stealing our future. That was the big chant.

ALEX: Look at all those kids 

RACHEL: Yeah. They were school kids, right? It was, I mean, it started with high school students and then it was middle school students. And then it was elementary school students coming with their parents. And it was huge.

And I just remembered this was a high school student that I talked to, um, at that same protest, this is in, uh, March of 2019. And I asked why he had come out to the protest.


NICK BLEY: We are all young people and in Germany, they say, oh, the young people are not interested in politics. All of our politicians are like 60, for example, Angela Merkel. So she's I think 63 and maybe dies in 20 years. Sorry for that, but, um, so the future is - it's not her future. It's our future. And we should fight for that. 

AYANA: I love Germans so much.

ALEX: [Alex laughing] “Sorry for that.” I know.

AYANA: She'll be dead in 20 years, sorry for that.

RACHEL: And these protests changed the conversation in Europe. They definitely changed the conversation in Germany. When I got here in the summer of 2018, all anybody could talk about was immigration. Like that was the topic. And then these protests came along and they just knocked immigration off the agenda.

You know, suddenly there were like raging op-eds in German newspapers, like this raging debate over whether kids should be allowed to cut school or whether they should be punished for it. Um, I learned, I learned the German word for cutting school, which is schwänzen and was like, all over the nightly news every night.

ALEX: Schwänzen 

RACHEL: Schwänzen, yeah.

RACHEL: And all of this activity sort of culminated in this big moment in March of 2019 - when Greta Thunberg comes to Berlin for a rally at the Brandenburg Gate. This is this incredibly symbolic place in Berlin.

ALEX: Right, it’s that iconic spot, it’s where like, Reagan was like, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

RACHEL: Exactly, yeah. 

And she’s standing in front of it. She was joined on stage by young climate activists from all over Europe - from France and Denmark and Germany.

And twenty-five thousand people turned out to see them. 

And when this happened, it was now two months before the elections for the European Parliament, which happen every five years.

RACHEL: And these activists basically issued a warning to European politicians -- to take climate change seriously or face being voted out of office.

This is Luisa Neubauer, she’s one of the most well-known climate activists here in Germany.

[clip plays]

LUISA NEUBAUER: Wir sagen heute laut und deutlich, ‘Europe, wir kommen!’ We are saying Europe, we are coming. We are going to make the European elections about the climate. We're not letting borders separate us, and we are not letting them steal our future. 

RACHEL: And I was standing there. I remember when she said that when she said ‘Europe we’re coming’ and it felt like this warning, like watch out, like we're coming for you.

[clip continues]

Luisa Neubauer: We’re going to keep going until our politicians are acting and actually doing something about this crisis which is stealing our future.

ALEX: Wow.

AYANA: I'm crying again.

[Alex laughing]

AYANA: Ah, this is a hard job.

ALEX: Dr. Johnson. You got to hold it together. This is a sacred trust hosting a podcast.

RACHEL: Well and the thing that was really remarkable about this moment is they issued this warning that they were going to make the elections about climate - and then that is exactly what happened. 

[clip plays]

NEWSCAST: [cheering] A surprise surge for Green Parties in the European Elections...

RACHEL: The European elections were held in May of 2019. And in those elections, Green parties in countries all over the European Union had historic showings. It was called The Green Wave

[clip plays]

EuroNews: Well, to give you an idea, actually, of how stratospheric that growth was in Germany, this broadcaster, plotting the trajectory of the Greens didn't leave enough room on their charts to give them this set of results, but of course, isn't just Germany where there's been this green wave. Europe elects, they analyze data. And they've said this Green Wave appears to be sweeping across multiple European countries.

RACHEL: So you can see that this was a political earthquake.

ALEX: That is crazy. That is crazy.

RACHEL: Yeah, yeah

ALEX: It's really hard. It's really, 

AYANA: If only..

ALEX: I know this actually happened, like last year, but it's really hard for me to think of it as anything other than sort of like this like alternate reality, fairy tale, just because it seems so far away from any, any standard politics that we've ever had in the United States.

AYANA: But how crazy is that? That, like, that it's so hard to imagine, like the fact that these European politicians have a climate plan and then get elected. Like that should be normal. What a great dream?

ALEX: I know it's like when you're in a bad relationship and all of a sudden you're like around people who are in a good relationship and you're like, wait, that's how it could be?

AYANA: No way!

ALEX: You could actually agree on things and be nice to each other?

AYANA: [laughs]

ALEX: It’s like ... an alternate reality of like where this idea got presented and then instead of just like outright mockery and resistance, people were like, huh, there's something here. Let's see what we can do.

AYANA: We probably should have sweeping legislation to prevent the climate apocalypse. That sounds like a reasonable thing to do.

RACHEL: Yeah. I mean, I will say watching this as an American living in Germany, it, I mean, it blew my mind. I mean, the fact that you could have massive protests in the streets led by children that then, um, that then led to an electoral earthquake and then immediately politicians responded to that. Uh, it was just wild to watch. It's just, it didn't seem like something that would be possible in the States.


AYANA: And these elections, this green wave that swept through Europe, it really mattered. What it led to … that’s coming up after the break. 


AYANA: Welcome back!

ALEX: Welcome back!

AYANA: We’re here with Rachel Waldholz, talking about The Green Wave that swept Green politicians into the European Parliament in 2019. And, Rachel, you were just about to tell us, how those elections had a huge impact on how Europe would deal with climate change. 

RACHEL: Yeah, and the impact of that Green Wave became really clear when the new head of the European Commission was chosen in the wake of those elections. 

ALEX: And the EU commission that’s the governing body of the EU?

RACHEL: Yeah, that’s the executive branch of the European Union.

[clip plays]

PRESS SECRETARY: Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to all of you. The president of the commission will now make a statement..

RACHEL: So this new head of the European Commission, who is about to make a statement, Her name is Ursula von der Leyen, she’s a German politician, a conservative - she comes from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party. She’s a former defense minister in Germany. You know she’s not someone who was really associated with climate change before this. 

But her trademark plan is, as the head of the Commission - is a European Green Deal.

ALEX: Like, that’s what they’re calling it? European Green Deal, like ‘deal’ in English? Or is she like using the German word for deal? Or the French or Italian word, I guess? 

RACHEL: Yeah. No, no everyone here just calls it the Green Deal, in English, whatever language they’re speaking. That’s what it’s called.

AB: So it’s like French French French, Green Deal French French French, or whatever.

RACHEL: Yeah it’s the Green Deal. 

AYANA: I was like I don’t know Alex is this really an all American idea, but clearly if the only term for it is in English, I think you’re obviously right. 

RACHEL: So anyway, so this is the press conference last December when von der Leyen presented her plan -- almost exactly one year after Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN. 

[clip plays]

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Our goal is to reconcile the economy with our planet. To reconcile the way we produce, the way we consume with our planet and to make it work for our people. Therefore, the European Green Deal is on one hand about cutting emissions, but on the other hand about creating jobs and boosting innovation. 

ALEX: It's, it’s sort of - essentially good jobs and a livable future, which is what the Sunrise Movement was saying in Nancy Pelosi’s office…

AYANA: Did she steal Varshini's speech. That's amazing.

[clip continues]

URSULA: I'm convinced that the old growth model that is based on fossil fuels and pollution is out of date and it is out of touch with our planet. The European Green Deal is our new growth strategy.

ALEX: And this is the, and this is the German version of like the Republican party.

RACHEL: Yeah. Yeah. This is Angela Merkel's party. It's the conservatives


AYANA: Amazing

RACHEL: Right. 

And the European Green Deal basically proposes two things. First, it says the EU will commit to becoming entirely carbon neutral by 2050. 

And that’s big, that target would be legally binding, so every member state and every business in the EU would have to figure out how to meet it. The EU, taken together, is the third-largest emitter in the world, after China and the U.S. So that would be really significant.

But it doesn’t just set the target, it also proposes a TON of new policies and investments to help industries and communities make the transition. So here’s like a “Farm to Fork” strategy to remake European agriculture. There’s a “just transition” fund to help regions that are really dependent on fossil fuels. 

And that’s the vision von der Leyen was rolling out. 

AYANA: I'm into it. This sounds great. Let's have this.

ALEX: Yeah. So she said that, but saying it and doing it are obviously two completely different things. So will the EU actually spend the money to do all the things that are called for in this proposal?

RACHEL: When von der Leyen proposed this, that was definitely an open question. Um, but then something happened this spring that pushed all of this closer to reality. And that is the coronavirus pandemic. 


RACHEL: And at first glance, you might think that the coronavirus would be terrible for climate policy, right? Like there's a huge global pandemic. It's sucking up resources. Um, it's causing a massive financial crisis. You could expect climate policy to fall off the agenda. Um, and at first it really looked like that might happen.

But it didn't instead. Instead, what happened is this:

[clip plays]

NEWSCASTER: the German chancellor and the French president are now giving a joint speech about the EU action plan to tackle the effects of COVID-19. Let's take a listen.

RACHEL: So in May Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and French President Emmanuel Macron gave this joint press conference to address the EU response to the coronavirus. 

And basically they gave their blessing for the EU to borrow a ton of money and spend a ton of money to rebuild the bloc’s economy like, a big stimulus and recovery package.

And what’s key here is they say, essentially, a big chunk of that money we’re spending? We should spend it on stuff outlined in the European Green Deal. 

The European Green Deal is our road map. It’s going to guide our spending. 

And Here is Macron, speaking through an interpreter.

[clip plays]

MACRON (in French): Notre message est simple. Le Green Deal, cette transformation vert de notre économie, ne doit pas être remise en cause, elle doit être accéléré (fade under interpreter)

INTERPRETER: The Green Deal, the green transition of our economy mustn’t be jeopardized but rather boosted.

RACHEL: And von der Leyen really stressed that ‘green stimulus’ angle when she proposed the EU rescue package in May.

[clip plays]

URSULA: We need to press fast forward towards a green, a digital and a resilient future, because this is the future of Europe's next generation. This generation that is globally connected and feels responsible for our world.

RACHEL: So that is Ursula von der Leyen sort of laying out the EU’s plan for recovery from the coronavirus.

ALEX: Who I'm who in my head, I'm calling the Mitch McConnell of the European Union.


RACHEL: I'm not sure she'd appreciate that.

ALEX: This is the Mitch McConnell of Europe calling for a complete overhaul of the of the economy to get rid of greenhouse gases.

RACHEL: Yeah, yeah, exactly. 

But before we say Europe has it all figured out you know, there are a couple big caveats here. 

ALEX: Caveats?

RACHEL: Yeah, you know, the EU is really big and complicated. It is 27 member states stretching from Ireland to Romania. And this whole idea of the European Green Deal - it is still in its very early stages.  

So as of now, all the member states have agreed to the target of going carbon neutral by 2050 -- except Poland, which has sort of half-agreed. But it hasn’t been formally passed into EU law yet.

And the stimulus package we just talked about - the details are still being hammered out. So advocates say the devil is really in the details - you how that money actually gets spent on the ground in member states. 

And I should also add that lots of climate activists here in Europe say that all of this is still nowhere near good enough.

AYANA: what do they think is missing? Is it just the timeline?

RACHEL: Yeah, they say the EU needs to move faster.

In late August, exactly two years after Greta Thunberg’s first climate strike - she and Luisa Neubauer met with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin. And they told her the EU has to go carbon neutral sooner - faster than that 2050 deadline in the plan, in order to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s the threshold scientists say could prevent some of the worst impacts of climate change. So this is Neubauer:

[clip plays]

LUISA: We believe there is a bit of a misunderstanding of what we’re asking for, which is not what we like or what our opinions are, but what we see needs to be done according to the science.

AYANA: I love that she's like, I'm sorry. That is just not good enough. Try again. That does not meet what the science says is necessary to prevent the worst. So try again. that is not enough of an emission reduction on a fast enough timeline to meet the scientific recommendations for preventing runaway climate change. 

RACHEL: Yeah, totally. I mean, and it is fascinating for me sort of listening to these debates as an American, because you know, from where climate activists are sitting, you're like, yes, well, if that is our goal, if 1.5 degrees Celsius is the goal, we're not moving fast enough, but you know, from where we're standing now, the goals laid out in the European Green Deal seem incredibly ambitious. And as an American looking at where the US is now, it seems like unfathomably ambitious. So it's sort of interesting to keep all those perspectives in your head at once.

AYANA: Yeah. What's actually needed, what's politically feasible in Europe, what’s politically feasible in America. Yeah.

ALEX: So, okay. So, completely divergent sort of realities faced with the same proposal, a Green New Deal.

These two sort of regions of the world took two completely different approaches. What do you think the United States can learn from, like, Europe's experience here? Like what - how can we make it happen here?

RACHEL: Yeah. You know, and I asked experts exactly that, you know, what is the difference between the EU and the US and what can we learn?

[clip plays]

THOMAS PELLERIN-CARLIN: the major difference, uh, that explains, everything I would say is, uh, you know, who is the, who's championing this project?

RACHEL: This is Tomas Pellerin-Carlin he's a researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris and Pellerin-Carlin says it's a really big deal that it is conservatives in Europe that have introduced this plan. You know, It’s not a one-party issue here. Most political parties in Europe agree on the need for climate action. They might disagree on how fast it should go, but climate change itself just isn’t as divisive an issue as it is in the U.S. The Fridays for Future protests accelerated things, but there was already really broad public support. 

You know a recent survey found that more than 90 percent of EU citizens support the goal of going carbon neutral by 2050.

AYANA: Wow 90%. What I would give. This is such a prime example of how policy change actually follows the cultural change.

ALEX: Yes.

AYANA: Like what people expect. The status quo has to shift, because politicians actually aren't leading in a lot of senses, they're following what the public opinion is. 

You see, you see the politics follow social movements, you don't see them ahead. So this is, um, yeah, it just, it really shows the power of young people in the streets. 

[clip plays]

TPC: The moment when I will be optimistic about the U S climate policy will be the moment when even the Republicans, um, are being, you know, their own version of what the climate policy would look like. Um, because. I mean, if you want to fight climate change, really you need to, to ensure that the, the other political family that will win the elections, you know, at some point in the next 30 years, will, uh, at the very least, not roll back the climate policy and ideally that will continue to push some kind of policy, but, you know, climate policy the republican way

ALEX: I do feel like that is the thing that I've been craving is for this not to be a stupid fight about. It's not happening or it is happening. And to actually have it be a fight about like, well, what should we do? 

AYANA: Should we have a future? Yes or no.

ALEX: And, how.

ALEX: Um, how do you feel hearing that this sort of like alternate history of the green new deal in Europe, Ayana?

AYANA: I mean, America will just break your heart. Won't it?

But at the same time, like I have no sympathy for the politicians who won't deal with the facts of what we have to face, but I do have a lot of sympathy for, you know, Americans who are not sure, what their future looks like if we deal with it, right? This is a huge transition, this massive transformation that we're talking about.

And I get that the Green New Deal sounds scary because we can't yet concretely see what the future would hold. And I think until we can help people see that there is a future that has a place for them where we can all thrive, then I totally understand why that resistance is there. So I think that's, I mean, that's part of what we're trying to do. That's part of the greater work that needs doing is showing people what the future could look like if we actually get it right.

ALEX: Yeah. It'll be really interesting to see what that starts to look like, because it sounds like Europe hopefully is on a little bit of a head start in building that future. And so we'll be able to see as that, as that starts to happen.

AYANA: Europe, we are watching, we are ready to learn lessons if there are lessons to be learned.



AYANA: Alex, this whole story has just made it so clear how much every country needs some version of comprehensive climate policy, whether it's a Green New Deal or if it’s called something else. Because even if Europe does every single thing right, that's not going to be enough, right? That's not going to save the planet. 

ALEX: Wait did you just do a big sum up? 

AYANA: I did, I thought we would just like, put a bow on this whole episode. Is that a host thing to do, am I doing this right? 

ALEX: Yeah, I love it, yeah. 

AYANA: So this is one of the things we’re going to keep talking about, right, on the show, on future episodes, is climate policy.

ALEX: Woo! 

AYANA: Which sounds nerdy or boring, but I prefer to think of climate policy as, how do we change the rules of the game so we might actually have a chance at winning, at ensuring a future on this magnificent planet.

ALEX: And actually, as long as we're talking about future episodes..

AYANA: No spoilers, Alex, just the big picture.

ALEX: I'm not going to spoil it. These are teasers, not spoilers.

AYANA: Perfect.

ALEX: Um, but we have a couple of other really cool episodes in the works that are, that we're going to be releasing pretty soon that sort of touch on this idea of the Green New Deal. 

AYANA: We have one upcoming episode about the Green New Deal, presidential politics, and what’s happening here in the United States.

ALEX: And while the actual Mitch McConnell, the American Mitch McConnell is not going to be introducing a gnd of his own any time soon, there are Republicans pushing for a republican climate policy and we talked to one of them, a young conservative climate activist trying to get the Republican Party to take this seriously, and that is coming up in another episode we have in the works for you.


AYANA: So for those who missed the first episode, um, one of the things that we're going to do on this show is offer you every week opportunities for getting involved. 

ALEX: What have we got for the Earthlings this week?

AYANA: This week, Earthlings, we have a couple of things for you.

If you listened to this episode and thought, we need to do here in the U.S. what they did in Europe -- then you can hit the streets and demand action from our elected representatives. There are groups leading that effort. The Sunrise Movement and Fridays for Future both have chapters all over the U.S. Fridays for Future has them all over the world. And we have links to their websites in our show notes. 

ALEX: And now is actually a really good time to click on those links because there’s this big day coming up. September 25th is the Global Day of Climate Action, where people all over the world will be striking in person and online, making their voices heard and trying to get our elected leaders to notice and take action. And again more information on that is all in the show notes for either Sunrise Movement and Fridays for Future. 

ALEX: We also have one other option which I know is a personal fave of yours, Ayana.

AYANA: I am extremely excited to propose to our listeners that they can each read the Green New Deal for themselves and see what all the hype is about. It’s only 14 pages, Big font, double spaced. The link to Resolution 109 is in your show notes. Just look down at your phone and there is no time like the present.

ALEX: Yes. Check it out.

Uh, Rachel. Do you know, you get a special prize?


AYANA: We have a surprise for you Rachel.

RACHEL: Oh, yay.

ALEX: You, you don't sound convinced,

AYANA: That was the least convincing yay. 

RACHEL: I was trying. 

AYANA: The trepidatious yay.

ALEX: Um, uh, in recognition of your first, um, of your first appearance on the How to Save a Planet a podcast, we dub to thee the special honor of reading the credits.

RACHEL: Oh, great.


ALEX: I said ‘thee!’

AYANA: We dub to thee. Alex. Alex Blumberg...

ALEX: Is that how you say it? Alright.


RACHEL: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It’s hosted by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg.

Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Anna Ladd and me, Rachel Waldholz. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney.

Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger. Additional music by Bobby Lord. 

Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib.

Special thanks to Manon Dufour and Annika Hedberg for talking with me about the European Green Deal.

Thanks also to Sandra Riaño, Rachel Strom and Whitney Potter. 

We’ll see you next week!

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