Decarbonization Without Democracy: Tennis-Ball Politics and the EU Green Deal

Routledge Handbook on the Green New Deal (Forthcoming)

23 Pages Posted: 11 May 2021

See all articles by David R. K. Adler

David R. K. Adler

University of Oxford - Nuffield College

Pawel Wargan

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: May 10, 2021


In December 2019, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the arrival of the European Green Deal, hailed as a momentous step forward in the global movement for a Green New Deal. This chapter makes the case for a radical reassessment of the European Green Deal and its place in the history of the Green New Deal movement. We advance three core claims — about the Green Deal (GD), the Green New Deal (GND), and the politics of decarbonization, respectively. We argue first that the Green Deal is less a pathbreaking vision for an ecological future than an historic effort to greenwash Europe’s political and economic status quo. We move systematically through the components of the Green Deal to reveal that the green transformation promised by EU officials is better described as a strategy of green preservation. We argue second that the hollow promise of the GD in Europe holds critical implications for the politics of the GND everywhere. Many advocates of the GND have advanced the policy under the banner of ‘climate populism’, suggesting that its sweeping scope has the power to unite a broad coalition of workers, communities, and concerned citizens. We argue that the construction of an activism-to-policy pipeline that moved around — rather than through — the labour movement enabled EU policymakers to craft a green agenda that lacked the spirit and substance of the Green New Deal. We refer to this phenomenon as tennis-ball politics: green on the outside, and hollow on the inside. We argue third that the divergence between the Green Deal and the Green New Deal reveals an ugly truth about the politics of decarbonization. The contemporary climate movement has emerged in large part from the left side of the political spectrum, with the result that its most ambitious proposals — like the GND — reflect principles of equity and democracy that are held close by climate activists themselves. In many cases, this has led advocates of the GND to suggest that decarbonization is in and of itself a progressive or redistributive project. Our analysis of the Green Deal suggests, instead, that decarbonization can equally serve to preserve the unequal distribution of power between rich and poor, north and south, creditor nations and debtor ones. The danger of tennis-ball politics is not only its deception, promising a transformation it does not intend to deliver. It is also the prospect of its success, decarbonizing the continental economy from inside the democratic deficit.

Keywords: Green New Deal, Green Deal, European Union, European Integration, Climate Politics

Suggested Citation

Adler, David and Wargan, Pawel, Decarbonization Without Democracy: Tennis-Ball Politics and the EU Green Deal (May 10, 2021). Routledge Handbook on the Green New Deal (Forthcoming), Available at SSRN:

David Adler (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Nuffield College ( email )

United Kingdom

Pawel Wargan

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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