Naomi Klein on climate change and capitalism

Klein calls climate change an ’existential crisis for the human species.’
Naomi Klein
(Maclean’s photo)

Naomi Klein, 42, is the left’s most visible and controversial figure. The Canadian author and journalist shot to global prominence in 2000 with No Logo, the movement Bible for anti-globalization activists. In This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, hitting shelves Sept. 16, Klein calls climate change an “existential crisis for the human species.”

Q: Are we screwed?

A: I feel like one of the ways in which we are screwed is that a lot of people have come to the conclusion that we are, and therefore it’s not even worth trying. Yes, if we stay on the road we are on, we are [screwed]. But that doesn’t mean we can’t grab the wheel and swerve. And I think we can.

Q: Where do we start?

A: If we want a 50-50 chance of staying below two degrees [the global temperature rise scientists think will lead to disaster], we have to respect the principle of equity, meaning that the countries that have been emitting longest need to cut our emissions between eight and ten per cent a year, starting now.

Q: That’s a huge ask.

A: It would require very dramatic social change. It would require regular people in every country sending a very clear message to their political leaders that they see climate change as an existential crisis. And it would require that climate change receive wartime levels of action.

Q: Can you give an example of the kinds of action you see as necessary?

A: In Germany, you see a very rapid rise of renewables. That gives me a lot of hope. Germany is a country Canadians can relate to: the economy is not that different from ours. They have managed a dramatic energy transition, starting from six per cent of their energy from renewables. Now they’re at 25 per cent with a goal of 60 per cent.

Q: And yet emissions are actually up.

A: Angela Merkel is not simultaneously standing up to the coal lobby. So Germany continues to mine huge amounts of lignite coal, which has been called brown coal, and exports it. That shows it’s not just about putting in some good incentives. You also have to stand up to the fossil fuel lobby.

Q: Can you point to other, concrete actions we’ll need to consider?

A: In Germany, in hundreds of cities and towns, electricity grids that had been handed over to private operators have been taken back by municipalities, with the goal of being part of the energy transformation; this “re-municipalization” also keeps the proceeds from the financial benefits in the community, which is simultaneously an answer to austerity. That’s the kind of politics we need to have. We’re not asking people to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment.

Q: A win-win?

A: That’s the kind of win-win we’re going to need. The green movement has been obsessed with win-wins for a long time. That usually means wins for the coal company and, supposedly, wins for the climate. So offsetting is a win-win. As I argue in the book, those are actually lose-loses. Usually, the people who lose are the most vulnerable—the kids who get asthma living next to the refinery that doesn’t get shut down, or the indigenous people who get pushed off their land because their forest got turned into a tree museum by a big green group. The win is for the coal company because they don’t have to change. This is often called the strategy of the low-hanging fruit, which means we’re going to do the easy stuff first, and save the hard stuff for later. The big green groups have been really enamoured with that argument. It’s proven disastrous.

Q: But you argue we must also change capitalism, as currently practised.

A: The book isn’t “We must do X, Y, Z”—it isn’t a formula. But in order for us to make the kind of progress we need to make in the short amount of time we have left we must confront the reigning, unquestioned ideology that sees privatization as always good, and doesn’t question the logic of austerity, doesn’t question the logic of pro-corporate, free trade deals that have stood in the way of progress on climate. That’s not necessarily the most popular message. But emissions are up 61 per cent since we started trying to fix this problem in the early 1990s. Obviously, that strategy isn’t working.

Q: You’re also fighting a losing battle. In the U.S., the number of people who believed fossil fuels cause climate change sank to 44 per cent in 2011—from a high of 71 per cent in 2007.

A: There’s some evidence of a rebound in the last couple of years. But what’s interesting about those figures is they’re so politically stratified. In the States, if you identify as a Democrat, the belief that humans are driving climate change is still in the 70s. Where it’s collapsed is on the right side of the right side of the political spectrum—hardcore conservatives have become climate change deniers. Which was not always true. I think a lot of people on the right understand the challenge that climate change poses to capitalism better. They understand their world would be threatened if they admitted that business as usual was warming the planet catastrophically. So they’re choosing to deny the science rather than allow their world view to collapse. That’s a rational choice. I’m not going to spend any time fighting with deniers. My book is aimed at the disengaged centre: the people who believe it’s happening and yet feel totally hopeless about it.

Q: Don’t you see examples of capitalist successes on this front?

A: Look, I’m not saying that markets have no role in combatting climate change. I think the right market incentives can play a huge role—we can point to all kinds of companies doing great stuff. The issue is not to say the market has no role. It’s the idea of leaving this to the market. We can mint solar and wind millionaires and still not get there because we have these hard targets we have to meet. There will have to be a strong role for the public sector, a strong role for regulations and, yes, incentives. But the idea of just leaving our collective fate to the market is madness. You wouldn’t treat any other existential crisis in that way.

Q: It also means bringing in some really heavy-handed, top-down regulations.

A: The kinds of regulations that marked the golden age of environmental law in the ’60s and ’70s—the clean air acts, clean water acts, and so on—started to be dismissed in the 1980s as command and control, pseudo-Communist. When there was a problem identified, the response was: Okay, what rules do we put in place that ban the dumping of this toxin, or the emitting of this chemical? By the ’90s it became: How do we create a market in pollution, to create the right incentives? That was applied to climate change with disastrous results. Look at the European carbon market: I don’t think there’s anyone left to defend it, it’s completely collapsed. And yet when California and Washington think of passing their own climate legislation, they’re defaulting to emissions trading because challenging this ideology is so difficult.

Q: Brand-name environmental organizations command huge attention and respect. Do you believe they are more dangerous than climate deniers?

A: This is the most controversial part of the book so far. There’s a Twitter war going on about it today. It’s one chapter of 14 in the book.

Q: We thought Big Green was climate’s best hope. Where did they go wrong?

A: Now you’re just goading me.

Q: Come on—I realize that you don’t want it to swamp coverage of the book. But people don’t understand that the green organizations they’re supporting are also, for example, earning tens of millions investing in the big oil companies they’re purportedly fighting.

A: Look, one of the craziest things I discovered in my book is that the Nature Conservancy isn’t just taking money from fossil fuel companies, and isn’t just investing its own money in fossil fuel companies, but there is an oil well on their land in Texas! It doesn’t get much crazier than that. This oil well is on a nature preserve that was supposed to protect one of the most endangered birds in America. Under their watch all the birds have disappeared. The point is, I think it shows something about the extent to which some of these organizations have lost their way.

Q: But it’s not just the Nature Conservancy.

A: Some big green groups have made terrible deals with fossil fuel companies. I do name names in the book. I think they are going to become irrelevant.

Q: Fracking actually received some of its more vocal support from environmental organizations.

A: Some of the more pro-fracking [environmental] groups are reconsidering their positions. And some groups, like the Environmental Defense Fund, have doubled down. In the U.S., the EDF has really thrown its lot in with fracking, working with gas companies to develop what they call “best practices.” The largest green group in the world, the Nature Conservancy, is doing it—and taking money to do it. This has created very clear and very vocal divisions within the green movement. The Sierra Club had to completely change its position on fracking because of this grassroots uprising.

Q: How did those organizations lose their way?

A: A lot of people on the progressive side of the political spectrum kind of thought the environmentalists were dealing with this. These environmental groups are incredibly well-funded. So there was this feeling for a long time of like, “Okay, this is one issue we don’t have to worry about.” But some of them abuse that trust by making alliances with the forces we thought they were taking on.

Q: Then there were problems with the movement’s make-up.

A: The climate movement has really come down to earth in the last five years. It used to be, “We can offset pollution from a coal-fired factory here by planting a tree farm here.” Ever since the ’80s, it’s been about these slick NGOs, with their mass mailings—“Send us your money.” It’s not really a movement if you think about the civil rights movement or the women’s rights movements that are much more rooted in people’s living rooms and community halls and much more face to face. I think that’s been a real problem. It was entirely abstracted. But its origins were very much about love of specific places, about protecting beloved spaces.

We see that really clearly in the movement against the Northern Gateway pipeline. You see it all along the Keystone XL pipeline. We’ll see that really clearly in a couple of weeks when the UN climate summit opens in New York. A couple of days before is going to be what promises to be the largest climate march in North American history. What is really remarkable about that convergence is less the numbers, whatever they turn out to be, and more that this march will not look like any environmental protest I’ve ever seen. This is going to be a climate march that is much more diverse. And much more rooted.

Q: What are the protests over the proposed Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines all about? This isn’t just about a pipeline, is it?

A: The protests are more about a principle, and that principle is: when you are in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging. Our governments—both in Canada and the U.S.—refuse to draw the line and prevent fossil fuel companies from digging up massive new pools of carbon. The money, which our governments get a piece of, is just too tempting and too easy. So in the face of that failure to protect, regular people are drawing the line where they live, and they are doing it by saying no to pipelines crossing their lands, or fracking in their backyards, or whatever the extreme energy project on their doorstep happens to be. This process of saying no is building a networked global movement that some have taken to calling “Blockadia.”


Q: Why did you did choose to write about your choice to have a baby, and your struggles with infertility? It’s deeply personal stuff—new ground for you.

A: It was a hard decision. Truth is, I was ready to pull that chapter. I kept giving it to people going: “I shouldn’t include this, should I?” People kept going: “Absolutely.” It was sort of like, “Stop me, please.” My fear is that it feels narcissistic to write about one’s personal fertility journey when writing a book about such a massive subject matter. But I decided to write it because it did shape my views.

Q: In what way?

A: There was this sort of dialogue going on in my personal life. The five years it took to write the book were the five years I was going through this struggle to keep a pregnancy; then I got pregnant while I was writing the book and had my child, who’s two now. At the start I really did try to keep these journeys separate, but there were ways in which they informed each other.

Q: How so?

A: When I went to these fertility treatments—that ultimately failed—I’d see these parallels: I’d go to the clinic, then I’d go hang out with these would-be geo-engineers for the weekend in England. I became increasingly interested in the way in which we see the Earth as a machine, and our bodies as machines that can just be pushed. And not accepting any natural limits. And a sort of recklessness to risk.

Q: It also helped alert you to changes in the natural world.

A: The truth is, the fact that I was going through this in my personal life informed how I saw the research. I noticed patterns. I don’t think I would have been so attuned to how climate change was impacting the fertility of other species if I didn’t have my own fertility problem. I felt it was really valuable for me, personally, to hit a biological boundary. Because I think we tend to see our bodies as so resilient. Just as we have trouble believing the Earth has limits.

Q: You actually felt isolated from the environmental movement when you were struggling to get pregnant.

A: It drove me crazy—hanging around with environmentalists who were constantly talking about how we were doing this for our kids, and our grandchildren. I found it exclusionary, as somebody who was having trouble having kids. And really strange messaging too, as if we only care about the future for our kids! Then there was this “women as earth mother” idea—if you can’t have kids, does that mean that you don’t have a relationship with nature? I was really struggling with this.

Q: You were pretty ambivalent about whether you wanted to have kids yourself. What changed?

A: It was a combination of factors. Part of it was just realizing: “Okay, I’ve procrastinated for as long as I can.” I was 38. I was ambivalent. I wasn’t sure I didn’t want to. It was kind of in the spirit of “What the hell?” Then I lost my first pregnancy. Then I lost another one. And so on. It was also for me, personally, where I was at after The Shock Doctrine and I had been touring for a couple years. I didn’t want to do that—to keep touring. What had stopped me before was that I could not see how I could do the sort of work I was doing with a small child. I reached a point where I felt like, “If I don’t do this work for a few years, that’s okay.” Still, I think environmentally, it’s problematic.

Q: You were recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

A: I have a great prognosis, and don’t plan on talking about the illness more than that. I hope you understand.

Q: I thought you could have painted a more terrifying portrait of what awaits us if we continue to drag our feet. Were you worried about opening yourself to the same critiques you levelled at free marketeers in The Shock Doctrine?

A: It’s not that I’m afraid of that critique. It’s that I don’t want quibbling about the science. This is how a lot of the debate gets derailed. I don’t want to be derailed with quibbles about how many hurricanes there were in 2012. If I’ve failed to impress upon readers the severity of this crisis, that’s a failure. I try to paint a picture at the beginning of the book of the stakes—what it means that we have the World Bank telling us we’re on a four-to-six-degree temperature trajectory. To be in decade zero, and out of time. To sort of unpack that at the start of the book, then leave it behind. I even played with having none of it in the book—not because I’m afraid of it. But because I think people’s eyes glaze over a little bit.

I think this is one of the ways in which we have failed to deal with this crisis. We just think we can scare people, and that then they’ll become active. Actually scaring the hell out of people makes them want to curl up in a ball.

Q: You’ve felt a kind of grief over climate fears. Maybe that’s too strong a word?

A: No, it’s not. I don’t feel like that makes me unique. We focus too much on climate deniers and not enough on the more widespread “soft denial.” How is it possible to know about this crisis, then forget? What is all this aversion about—how can we know something so profoundly disturbing and then behave as if it isn’t happening? There’s a phrase that Argentines used during their dictatorship: We did not know what nobody could deny. Which is this state of knowing and not knowing. I think it has more applicability to the ecological crisis than we might think. Even when people say they don’t care, you scratch the surface, and there is terror.

Q: You’re a leader to a lot of people. With this book, you’ve written a plan of action, a way out of what you see as our greatest crisis, one that threatens our existence. Isn’t the natural next step to put yourself on a ballot?

A: I don’t think it is. I don’t think that’s my skill. I think this is what I do. I don’t know what the next step is. But I will say that I think it’s a tragedy that we don’t have a political party in Canada charting a way forward for the Canadian economy that’s not just about digging up the country. I think there is a huge opportunity to lay out an inspiring vision of a non-extractivist, non-exploitative economy. There’s this idea in Canada that Stéphane Dion made the environment his issue and that didn’t work out so now nobody else is going to. That’s tragic. Because I don’t think that’s why Dion failed.

Q: Do you ever get tired of the criticism you face whenever a new book comes out?

A: One of the things that does frustrate me is when I do find myself being attacked it’s almost always by guys.

Q: Do you enjoy the fight?

A: I enjoy both parts. I enjoy the recluse part—having that time to step back, and figure things out. But I intensely miss that engagement. I’ve barely done anything in the last five years.

Q: Was this the hardest book you’ve ever written?

A: It was definitely the hardest process. The Shock Doctrine was an angrier book. I sometimes feel like I wrote The Shock Doctrine with clenched fists. This book isn’t as angry. But it was definitely a tougher birth. And it did strike me—returning to the fertility analogy—that it is easier to make a human being.

Q: Is it your most important book?

A: It does to me. I don’t feel, like, “What’s the next issue?” This is our home. This is what I’m going to be working on for the rest of my life.