Five Big Ideas for a Green New Deal

From kitchen tables to the halls of Congress, talk of a Green New Deal continues to grow. In the past year of writing and speaking about this bold plan to tackle climate change and inequality, we’ve covered Green New Deal goals, local policy wins that offer tangible Green New Deal models, and the recent surge in Green New Deal momentum.

But what could a Green New Deal actually look like? What sorts of policy changes could be part of this massive effort to shift to a more equitable, clean energy economy that leaves no one behind?

No one person or organization can answer that question. Building a more-inclusive economy requires an inclusive process.

Communities on the front lines of the climate crisis must have a leading say in that process so that a Green New Deal truly supports their fight for healthy livelihoods that are free of climate disasters. Workers, unions, and working-class families are essential to this process if a Green New Deal is to create high-quality jobs and reduce the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us. And communities of color, disproportionately harmed by both climate change and economic inequity, should have a central role so that a Green New Deal -- unlike the original New Deal -- counteracts systemic racism.

The Sierra Club’s goal is to support this inclusive process to offer substance for a Green New Deal. That means working with a wide array of partners to find shared policy-change goals, amplifying the efforts of local frontline groups to name their Green New Deal priorities, and offering our own ideas as fodder for collective discussion.

The Sierra Club’s view is that the policies that form part of a Green New Deal must simultaneously achieve three essential goals:

  1. Tackling the climate crisis and pollution;
  2. Creating good, high-paying jobs; and

  3. Counteracting racial and economic inequity.

Policies that tackle all three of these goals recognize that climate change and inequality -- two of the defining challenges of our time -- are intertwined problems that require intertwined solutions. Such policies also are broadly popular, offering a big opportunity to galvanize movement momentum toward systemic change.

Thankfully, a wide swath of policy ideas meet all three criteria. Below we name five such ideas as examples -- not an exhaustive list -- of potential building blocks for a Green New Deal.

1. An Infrastructure Renaissance

A bold plan to renew public infrastructure could be a big down payment toward Green New Deal goals. We have a major, job-creating opportunity to repair, upgrade, and expand our country’s neglected railways, bridges, energy grid, and water lines. This is not only a matter of fixing what’s broken -- it’s also a chance to build transportation, energy, and water systems that cut climate pollution, ensure clean air and water for all, and help frontline communities reduce the impacts of the climate crisis. Such a transformation would create millions of good jobs while slashing costs for working-class families.

Here are some examples of public infrastructure projects that could support the three Green New Deal goals outlined above.


  • Hiring workers across the country to replace lead pipes for the millions of people who are drinking lead-contaminated water, including the nearly 3,000 communities where lead poisoning is more than twice as severe as in Flint, Michigan.

  • Reducing flooding in cities hard-hit by climate change by training workers to build “green infrastructure” that uses natural spaces to better handle stormwater.


  • Employing workers to build a nationwide network of high-speed rail and regional rail systems to give people a clean and affordable way to get between communities quickly and safely.

  • Expanding our cities’ public light rail and clean bus rapid transit systems to support clean air, cut climate pollution, and help working class families save money


  • Creating a new wave of jobs by developing a “smart grid” that enables people to cut their electricity costs, boosts energy reliability, and supports the growth of clean, renewable power.

  • Training workers to construct and upgrade energy transmission lines and expand battery storage to connect remote sources of affordable wind and solar power to our electricity grid.

To meet Green New Deal objectives, these and other infrastructure projects should adhere to some core criteria. To create good, high-paying jobs, projects should be required to pay workers family-sustaining wages, hire locally, offer training, and sign project labor agreements with unions. To tackle climate change and pollution, priority should be given to projects and materials that reduce climate, air, and water pollution or help communities prevent climate disasters. And to counteract racial and economic inequity, priority should be given to projects that benefit low-income people and communities of color, with community benefit agreements used to ensure support for community-defined priorities.

 2. Buildings That Slash Energy Costs

Each time that a building is retrofitted to save energy -- e.g., installing more energy-efficient heating, windows, insulation, ventilation, lighting, and appliances -- it supports good jobs, slashes energy bills, and cuts climate pollution. What if we decided to retrofit buildings across the country? An ambitious Green New Deal plan to weatherize America would create hundreds of thousands of construction, installation, and manufacturing jobs; save families and businesses billions of dollars; and move us closer to climate stability. We could achieve these goals with new national energy-efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, public investments to fund weatherization projects, and requirements that those projects pay prevailing wages and offer training in working-class communities.

3. A Clean Manufacturing Revolution 

Manufacturing helped create the US middle class, offering a path for millions of families to make a decent living. Though corporate-led globalization and unfair trade deals have weakened our manufacturing base, the urgent need to tackle the climate crisis presents an opportunity to create a new generation of manufacturing jobs. That is, so long as we replace policies that pad CEOs’ profits with ones that pad families’ pockets by supporting manufacturing growth, clean air and water, and a stable climate. Here are a couple of examples of such policies that could form part of a Green New Deal:

  • Buy Clean: Each year the federal government spends billions of our tax dollars to buy goods, from steel for bridges to paper for offices. A national “Buy Clean” law, building on a Buy Clean policy recently passed in California, would help stimulate clean manufacturing by requiring that tax dollars be spent on goods manufactured under conditions that protect our air, water, and climate. The law also would help workers and reduce inequity by supporting businesses that pay family-sustaining wages, hire and train local workers, and locate job opportunities in working-class communities and communities of color.

  • Local Wind and Solar Manufacturing: How can workers and local communities capture the gains of the transition to a clean energy economy?  One way is to enact "buy local" policies that encourage local manufacturing of wind turbines, solar panels, and other essential clean energy components. Indeed, at least seven states already have such policies. A Green New Deal could spur significant job growth in clean energy manufacturing with a new federal law offering incentives for clean, renewable energy, tied to requirements for components to be made in local businesses that offer workers high wages and dignified working conditions. 

4. A Green Brigade to Restore Natural Resources

The original New Deal included the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) -- a massive, job-creating campaign to protect our natural resources. A Green New Deal could include a similar nationwide campaign -- a Green Brigade, so to speak -- to employ hundreds of thousands of people in restoring our essential ecosystems. Revitalized wetlands, forests, and parks would help communities reduce the threat of climate disasters, increase our capacity to trap climate pollution, and create and protect green spaces for all to enjoy. Unlike the original CCC, which disproportionately benefited white men, this program must create jobs and community benefits for all, with priority access for people of color, women, and working-class communities. Here are examples of specific projects that could be pursued:

  • Forest Growth and Fire Safety: We need to redouble our efforts to shield communities from forest fires as climate change fuels more and more-deadly fires that threaten communities in western states like California. Green New Deal projects could employ people to reduce fire risks by managing land near urban areas and making homes more fire-resistant. Meanwhile, teams of tree planters could help expand our forests that are effective at trapping climate pollution.

  • Wetlands Restoration: Wetlands not only filter water and trap climate pollution but also help buffer communities from the hurricanes, storms, and floods that are becoming more severe with climate change. However, our wetlands are rapidly disappearing -- Louisiana loses the equivalent of a football field of wetlands every 100 minutes, exposing Gulf Coast communities to increased climate risks. A Green New Deal could hire and train local workers to bolster communities’ efforts to restore the wetlands that protect their homes.

  • Hazardous Waste Cleanup: Across the country, thousands of communities -- disproportionately communities of color and low-income families -- live near hazardous-waste sites, including former industrial facilities and abandoned mines that leach toxins into the air and water. Green New Deal workers could be trained to safely clean up such waste to help ensure clean air and water for all.

5. Regenerative Agriculture

While large-scale industrial agribusiness contributes significantly to climate pollution, family farms can actually trap more climate pollution than they produce. By investing in family farmers who turn manure into compost, plant cover crops between harvests, and avoid tilling, we can better equip farmers who are tackling climate pollution. Such practices also can boost farmers’ economic security by helping them produce more plentiful harvests and better withstand the droughts that are becoming more frequent with climate change. A Green New Deal could offer family farmers fair pay and resources to implement such productive, climate-friendly practices, thereby supporting the livelihoods of oft-neglected small farmers and rural communities.

These are just a few policy ideas for a Green New Deal. The list of ideas will grow and change as the national conversation on a Green New Deal broadens to include more and more frontline communities.

At least one thing will remain constant, though: the need to think big. To tackle the twin crises of climate change and inequity, we need solutions that match the scale of the problems. And to find and achieve systemic solutions, we need all hands on deck. So please let us know: What big ideas do you have for a Green New Deal?