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In February 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and Sen. Edward J. Markey, of Massachusetts, introduced a Green New Deal (GND) as a congressional non-binding resolution to fight climate change and social inequality. The ambitious plan was partially welcomed in D.C., and many thought — including me — it was DOA. We were right. However, it would be naïve to think that they themselves thought it would be any different, at least at the time it was introduced. Rather, I believe, they probably meant to start a movement. I believe it marked the beginning of a 10-year mobilization to alter an outdated US economic model. 

In the same year, derived from similar efforts by equally determined groups, the City of Ithaca Common Council adopted the Ithaca GND, signaling its intention to join the fight against climate change, economic inequality and racial injustice. Just like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Markey, all those involved — including members of both government and civil society — started perhaps the most important movement our city has seen since the civil rights movement. 

I joined the City of Ithaca as director of sustainability at the end of March 2021, almost two years since the adoption of the GND. My first task was to translate intention and legislation into action. I needed to figure out what was meant by a GND and, perhaps more importantly, to figure out what it was that we were trying to fix. Up until that moment, all attention had been given to the symptoms — climate change, inequality, injustice — but not much was being said about the problem: an outdated economic model that had created an unjust and unsustainable world. A problem in which preponderant players were dictating the rules, asymmetries of information and power only served to accentuate unfair conditions, where the perception of good and benefit were skewed by political ideology, and where externalities were overburdening an important part of the population.

So, to treat the disease (through mitigation), rather than just focusing on the symptoms (through adaptation) or preparing for the inevitable future impacts (through resilience), we needed to develop a pragmatic plan to achieve three main goals: mitigate the effects of climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions, eliminate economic and social inequality and maximize efficiency in all aspects of the economy, all while reducing externalities without disrupting the equilibrium that made our economy work. We needed to treat the problem as a market failure. 

Just by understanding the problem and by separating the environmental and social effects from the root cause, we had already made progress towards a targeted, implementable solution. I believe it was not until then that we truly had the basis for a Green New Deal. 

So, armed with new knowledge and understanding, we set out to redefine the Ithaca GND as a mission-oriented and collaborative approach to carbon neutrality and social justice. A 10-year mobilization effort aimed at altering the economy by enabling a new social contract, and by redefining the relationship between government and all sectors of society.  

The GND is, first and foremost, a people-first approach, where the emphasis is no longer on short-term economic returns, but rather on long-run outcomes that elevate social capital and promote inclusive economic growth. It is a coordinated effort to redefine our future as one in which equity, justice and sustainable prosperity remain as core values in our community. 

Through this new lens, the new GND also implies the mobilization of a different set of public sector capabilities, including the ability to convene, articulate and serve as a catalyst for innovation, investment and social change. It is also an invitation to all sectors of society to participate in the implementation of a more sustainable economic model, supported by a democratic form of engagement and a holistic approach to policy, investment and stakeholder governance. 

While this type of transformation is hard to imagine, we should also bear in mind the precedent set in the past 12 months when through a similar approach the world developed not one, but multiple vaccines in record time. So, we have precedent, the political will and the talent to pull it off. We just need to get to work.  

Luis Aguirre-Torres is the director of sustainability for the City of Ithaca. 

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