Naomi Klein on climate failure: "It's not that we've done nothing. We've done the wrong things"

We can't fight global warming without taking on the system, the journalist tells Salon

By Lindsay Abrams

Published September 17, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Naomi Klein   ( Kashi)
Naomi Klein ( Kashi)

For Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, the lines are clearly drawn. It's the climate or our current economic system -- we can't have both.

Look at it this way, and it's easy to see why climate change denialism is so strongly entrenched in our culture and why the fight against global warming, as her provocative argument goes, has failed to result in meaningful action.

But if you see our current economic system as a failure, as Klein unequivocally does, then that's not such a terrible choice. In fact, it's an opportunity: for policies that improve lives, for lessening economic inequality, for creating jobs and for reinvigorating democracy, all in conjunction with reducing emissions. "For a great many people," Klein writes in her new book, "This Changes Everything," "climate action is their best hope for a better present, and a future far more exciting than anything else currently on offer.”

Nowhere is that more clear than in the sprawling grass-roots network Klein calls "Blockadia," pockets of resistance where communities with the most to lose are already starting to fight back against the systems that are allowing climate change to happen. It's here, she writes, and not through "the slick green groups and the big U.N. summits," that a new, grass-roots climate movement is taking shape.

In the lead-up to the People's Climate March (and to its more radicalized follow-up, "Flood Wall Street," where she will be appearing) Klein spoke with Salon about why she thinks we're at a turning point, and why she welcomes an angrier, more politicized fight. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I want to start with the big question: The book is centered on this choice between, as you write, "allowing climate disruption to change everything about our world, or changing pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate." How do you boil something that huge down to something we can actually take action on? Where would you even propose starting?

Well, the thesis of the book is we are not going to do this with the little baby step approach that we've had so far, that we fundamentally need a battle of worldviews. We need to talk about what values are going to govern our society and we need to win some ideological battles. I'm making the argument that in responding to climate change, we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to fix some fundamentally wrong things about our economy. We have the ability to address the jobs crisis. We have the ability fix our ailing infrastructure and reinvent it. We have the ability to close the inequality gap. But we're not going to do any of that unless we address the core question of whether or not we believe that humans can do good when they act collectively, whether there is a positive role for government, whether we believe the role of government is just to pursue growth at all costs. There's been this idea that the way to win victories on climate is to depoliticize it, to act as if we can do this without engaging in politics. I'm putting forward an alternate theory: that only by engaging in politics will we win the big victories. We cannot shy away from the big fights.

Your critique of baby steps taken so far -- and of the big green groups' collaboration with corporate partners -- has already been pretty controversial. Couldn't one argument be that the climate movement has needed time to build up to something this momentous, and that small changes were better than nothing for a while, even if we need more drastic action going forward?

Honestly, I think we've lost some precious time. I think it's happened for understandable reasons. But the history I tell in the book is of a real directional decision made in the 1980s in large parts of the environmental movement to play the inside game when a war was being waged on the idea of environmental regulation -- when Reagan was arguing that there was something communist about so-called command and control regulation. Large parts of the movement made a strategic decision not to fight back, and to try to come up with so-called solutions that would bring the polluters on board. And I think that's been a disastrously failed strategy. And I don't think those baby steps have brought us to this point. I think the failure of those baby steps have brought us to this point. And now there is a new climate movement emerging that is on the front lines of that failure, because their communities are being fracked, because they have refineries in their backyards, and mountaintop removal on their lands and they are directly threatened. They are in the sacrifice zone. And that has awoken a new militancy, which we also see in the fossil fuel divestment movement.

But I think it's understandable why, in the 1980s and '90s, it seemed impossible to take on this ideology. I think it's a lot more understandable than it is now, in the sense that this ideology was so hegemonic in that phase that I can understand why it seemed impossible. The good news is there are a whole lot more people who are upset for a whole lot of other reasons with the same model that is destabilizing the climate: because it's deepening inequality, because it has so corrupted politics. So there are so many opportunities to build alliances and to build a deeper and broader movement, so that now we can have that ideological discussion. I think that has more to do with just the failures of the fact that we've been living with market fundamentalism now for more than three decades, and the track record is abysmal, and yet even so, there are large parts of the environmental movement that still don't want to make common cause with other parts of the broader left because they're still playing that inside, corporate game.

What role is there for corporations that are actively working on green tech, or on ways to replace fossil fuels? Where does someone like Elon Musk fit into this kind of revolution?

Well, I definitely think there's a role for the market in solving this crisis. You look at a company like Sungevity, for instance, in California, that has helped pioneer the model of affordable solar panels that people lease instead of buy. That was a huge breakthrough. When I made the argument that there's a fundamental clash between our economic model and what we need to do to solve climate, that's not the same as saying, “Nobody can make money in responding to climate change and the private sector has no role in a response.” What I'm talking about is structurally, we have gone so far down the wrong road. It's not that we've done nothing. We've done the wrong things.

Our emissions are up 61 percent since 1990. Because of that, and because of just the nature of how greenhouse gases behave in the atmosphere and the fact that they unfortunately stick around, once you've emitted them, for a couple of hundred years, there's a cumulative impact of that failure. There is, what Michael Mann, the Penn State climate scientist, calls a procrastination penalty. There's only so much carbon we can emit before we drastically increase our chances of pushing temperatures above 2 degrees, which supposedly our governments have agreed we don't want to do. If we want to stay within that budget, if we want to keep a 50/50 chance of keeping temperatures below 2 degrees, we now need to cut our emissions so rapidly and so deeply that it poses a challenge to the logic of growth for growth's sake. It means we need a much more managed economy and figuring out “What parts of our economy do we want to grow?” Yes, we want to grow renewable energy. But no, we can't just grow all forms of consumption. Some consumption needs to contract. That's the clash. It's not just saying there's no role for green businesses. Absolutely there is, but at the same time, we can't leave it to green businesses to just do this for us. I think sometimes there's a confusion: “OK, so these companies are thriving and doing well; that means the market can fix this for us.” It can get us partway there but it can't get us to zero, which is actually where we need to go in an alarmingly short time. Regulation will get us there. Big public investments will get us there. And a more strategic economy will get us there. In combination.

You start with climate deniers, and acknowledge that climate change, when looked at this way, really threatens to overturn their fundamental ideology. So obviously they're going to fight tooth and nail to prevent this sort of overhaul, and it would follow that all the effort to say “This is the science” isn't going to convince them, is a waste of time. So how do you confront that fundamental opposition?

The truth is, I don't plan to spend any time fighting with climate change deniers -- with outright deniers, people I describe as hard deniers in the book. To me, where the real battle lies is in the middle, with people who don't deny the science but are still looking away. That's why I start the book with this talking about my own climate denial. Not denial like the Heartland Institute but that state of knowing and not knowing.

I’ve heard it called "stealth denial."

Yeah, I think we're all aware of those dozens of decisions we make every day: “OK, I'm not going to click on the story about the melting glaciers. I'm going to click on the celebrity gossip.” I think online news makes us all more conscious of the decisions we make to look away. I'm much more interested in thinking about how we get ourselves -- all of us who are in various states of denial -- outside of that hard, intractable denial to stop being afraid of looking at this crisis. And, for me, a big part of that is imagining a way out of this crisis that is not all doom and gloom, that does solve other immediate crises. That's why I'm trying to connect these dots. On the one hand, you can see that as overwhelming. On the other hand, I think a lot of what's kept us from acting is the idea that this is far off and other things are immediate. So I think we do have to connect it to more immediate needs and crises. And they are connected. It's not a false connection. This is why I say climate change is not an issue; it's a message. This is our home, right? Everything fits inside this. So we shouldn't be surprised when it connects to everything we do.

You make the case that there are a lot of economically logical reasons to mitigate climate change, and that the left can learn from the right by making those points. But you also make the bigger point that it's a moral argument, and that climate action needs to become a moral imperative. Is that the thing that's more important to emphasize at this point?

I think it's both. It's immoral to allow countries to disappear beneath the waves when we have the power to prevent that from happening. It's immoral to leave our children a world that is depleted of life and fraught with intense dangers that are also preventable. But I also make the argument that the things we need to do to stop catastrophic warming, they underline how interconnected we all are. If you look at relationships between the global north and the global south for instance, you can make moral arguments for why we should have more aid going to developing countries, and those are good arguments. But what climate does is it also adds a self-interest to that, where it's not only that there needs to be more equity between the global north and the global south, it's that unless we do this, then we can be pretty much guaranteed countries like China and India will continue developing on a path that is going to destabilize the global climate system. So unless we embrace principles of climate equity, we're all cooked. It's both moral and it's self-interested.

Do you feel like other social and political movements right now see climate change as something that plays into what they're trying to achieve, or has this mostly been overlooked so far? For example, you bring up the reproductive rights movement, and we don't typically see a lot of overlap there.

I think a lot of that is a product of just how siloed and NGO-ized the liberal left world has become in that, in general, we don't build bridges between our movements, even when it's obvious that we have a meta issue like, for instance, campaign finance. I mean, everybody has an interest in getting money out of politics. But it's really hard to get people to work together. There's been a ton written about the role of foundation funding and how different groups are fighting for the same pot of money, but I think the larger issue is: We don't really have social movements anymore. We don't have broad-based social movements in the way they do in Europe or in Latin America, where more of a tradition has been kept alive of the idea of these big, broad coalitions that come together in common purpose. I think maybe during the Bush years we saw glimpses of that. But during the Obama years, I think everyone has gone back to their corners, their issues, their silos, and we missed tremendous opportunities. Something like fighting for public transit isn't even seen as a climate issue. This is something that urban activists fight for. When people were rioting in Rio for free public transit, it was amazing to me that the global climate movement didn't go, “Whether or not these people see themselves as climate activists, they are climate activists, because this is what we need and we need it in every city." So there are amazing missed opportunities in both sides.

I think, as I said before, that there has been a sense on the left for a long time that climate was this issue that the big, slick, green groups that seemed to have so much money -- that this was their issue. And it was the one issue you didn't have to worry about because somebody else was worrying about it and everybody has too much on their plates anyway, so you could tune out climate. Not that you didn't care about it or think about it, but gosh you had a lot of other things to care about and think about. I think that's changing and I think that's changing as events change. Hurricane Sandy was a game changer for New York and New York activists, and I think we're going to see the results of that on the streets during the U.N. Climate Summit, in that the connections between housing rights and general inequality were so obvious as the storm played out, as it was in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. I'm really excited by this moment because I think that the march in New York and the events around the U.N. Climate Summit are really going to be a kind of coming out party for a different kind of climate movement that is much more diverse, much more rooted in front-line communities that are dealing with the immediate effects of the fossil fuel economy because their kids have asthma, because they have toxic sites in their backyard, because they've got pipelines running through their land, because their land is slated for fracking. The connection between the immediate and the "little further down the road" is very clear.

So it's going to be angrier, and I think that's good. And that sense of urgency that's been missing from the climate discussion -- "Yeah, I care about climate change but not that much” -- I think we'll see people who understand that climate is intimately connected to the things they care most about.

I've been speaking with some of the organizers of the Climate March and something they're really pushing is the inclusion of communities that haven't been traditionally part of the conversation.

I think some amazing organizing has gone on in the months leading up to this point and I think it'll be a bit of a game changer in terms of, hopefully, just how the public views climate action: maybe as less of a sort of privileged, “if you don't have anything else to care about, you can care about climate change” sort of thing.

What are you hoping comes after that? More Blockadia? More protests?

I think that this does mark, for a lot of the Blockadia-type groups -- the people who have been involved in fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, or fighting fracking, or refineries or other toxic sites -- I think these weeks in New York and the lead-up to the march have been definitely the most decisive connection to the big climate issue and the big climate debate and the whole U.N. world. The people who are fighting fracking know there is a climate layer to why they're fighting, but they're mostly fighting because they're worried about their water and their land. So these movements are now really understanding the climate imperative, and they're engaged in the need for national policies, statewide policies and also international policies to get us where we need to go. Because I do think these movements deserve credit for keeping more carbon out of the air than a lot of that sort of summit-hopping climate activism. But I think we all know that it's not enough, that we do need across-the-board policies as well.

And it all needs to be discussed together. 

Yeah. So concretely, what comes next is, I think, building momentum toward the next big climate summit, which is in Paris in 2015. I think that does matter and a lot of people are focused on that.

Lindsay Abrams

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Anti-capitalism Capitalism Climate Change Naomi Klein People's Climate March