Web Only / Features » September 18, 2014
Naomi Klein: ‘We Can’t Dodge This Fight’ Between Capitalism and Climate Change
The author explains why right-wing climate-change deniers are more right than you think.
The Left, such as it is, has kind of opted out of [addressing] climate change. With some exceptions, the climate has never taken off as an issue—it's always sort of tacked on.
That the clock on climate change is ticking—and louder by the day—is not news to anyone. Like many people, journalist Naomi Klein spent years feeling overwhelmed by scientists' increasingly apocalyptic pronouncements about impending planetary doom, and largely opted to ignore them. She had her hands full exposing the abuses of multinational corporations like Microsoft and Nike in her first book, No Logo (1999), and the imposition of free market policies and expanding inequality on unwilling populations around the globe in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine.
But Klein came to realize not only that climate change was so all-encompassing and urgent that it couldn’t be ignored, but also that it creates a unique opportunity. Climate change “could be the best argument progressives have ever had,” she says, to create the kind of bottom-up mass movements that can not only force action on the environment, but fight economic inequality, create more democratic societies, rebuilding a strong public sector, addressing historical gender and racial injustices, and a litany of other issues.
Doing so, however, won't simply require changing a few lightbulbs. “We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism,” Klein writes. In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, she explores the failures of “Big Green” environmental groups and supposedly benevolent CEOs, the right-wing climate deniers who actually understand the stakes of climate change better than many progressives, and the grassroots movements coalescing to fight climate change. Klein spoke with In These Times from her home in Toronto.
Your book begins with a discussion of the Right and climate change denial. This makes sense both because the Right has waged a very effective campaign to insist that global warming isn't real and to block potentially helpful legislation, and because, you argue, they actually understand what's at stake in addressing climate change better than most liberals do: It will require a total overhaul of free-market capitalism as we know it. Why does the Right understand climate change better than the Left?
Naomi: First, it's important to understand that the climate-change denier movement is often entirely a product of free market thinking. The conferences like the annual Heartland Conference, the publications—they're overwhelmingly published by right-wing think tanks like CATO, the American Enterprise Institute and [the] Heartland [Institute].
Heartland is most famous now as a climate-change deniers institution—I think a lot of people have only heard of it in the context of their annual climate change conference. But Heartland is a free market think tank, first and foremost. It's been around for a long time. It exists to push the hardcore neoliberal platform of deregulation and austerity policies, anti-labor policies. It's a familiar package.
When I interviewed Joe Bast, the head of the Heartland Institute, at the conference a couple of years ago, he was very frank about this with me. He said that he became interested in climate change not because he found a problem with the science, but because he understood that if the science was true and left unchallenged, it would mean “anything goes” in terms of government regulation. You'd have to intervene in the market. You'd have to invest in the public sphere. Basically, their entire ideological project would be dead in the water.
So they dug in, as he explained, and found what they believed were flaws in the science. If you look at who deniers actually are, it’s clear that what’s driving them is a desire to protect the neoliberal project.
They're absolutely right that a crisis of this magnitude requires collective action, requires investment in the public sphere, requires strong regulation. That doesn't mean that it requires socialism. Within that, there's a big range of state responses—some of which, in my opinion, are very undesirable, some more desirable. But the idea that you can just have a laissez faire response to climate change is pretty absurd.
The reason that's relevant is because that's what a lot of the main [environmentalist] groups have been telling us: that we can leave this to the market. Well, the track record for leaving it to the market is 61 percent emission increases since we've been supposedly dealing with climate change.
In reading your chapter “Big Green” on the major environmentalist groups—which you give a pretty thorough excoriation—I was struck by the way the right- and left-wing responses to climate change mirror the political shifts of the Right and Left in the era of neoliberalism generally. On one hand, you have the Right, which actually understands what’s at stake and has taken hardline stances to prevent any kind of mildly progressive action, and on the other, you have a liberalism that is just drifting further and further rightward, largely capitulating to the Right’s agenda. Can you talk about Big Green?
Naomi: Big Green are liberals—it’s a very liberal movement. The Left, such as it is, has kind of opted out of [addressing] climate change. With some exceptions, the climate has never taken off as an issue—it's always sort of tacked on. I think it's significant that when Occupy formed, the first manifesto that listed everything wrong with capitalism didn't mention climate change. To me, that's a telling oversight.
I think climate change is the best argument we've ever had against capitalism destabilizing life on earth. Yet somehow the Left has opted out. Part of that is the idea that the climate movement was Al Gore, for God's sake, and was Hollywood celebrities and liberals. We on the Left didn’t want to have anything to do with that, so let's leave it to the Big Green groups.
I think it's also a kind of fatigue on the Left, because there's so many issues we're supposed to be dealing with, and this seemed to be one issue that somebody else was dealing with. So it's not that lefties didn't think climate change was happening, they just treated it like, “Okay, I'm going to avoid this one, because I've got my hands full, and it doesn't seem that urgent.”
I don't think you can ever estimate the impact of people being afraid of making mistakes. Climate policy is an incredibly wonky world. Big Green has managed to take an issue that is actually pretty simple and make it amazingly inaccessible and arcane.
You've got two worlds that are both tricky. One is the science, and the other is policy. Both of them are seemingly very complex. It's not a very welcoming world if you're not in it. There's a lot of guys waving their charts at each other. And deniers have been really effective with their “gotchas.” There was this feeling that you had to hedge everything—that you couldn't make a connection between extreme weather and climate because they aren’t the same thing. There were no clear statements coming out for a while.
When you have language that's that hedged and complex and specialized, it sends a message to regular people that this is an experts-only club and you're not in it. I don't think the Left is immune from that.
You emphasize that capitalism is responsible for our climate predicament, but you also mention, mostly in passing, the need for a transformation in how all people in countries like the United States and Canada live. And at one point, you mention a turn away from some of the Enlightenment values that you associate with extractivism. When I hear people on the Left talk about turning away from some parts of Enlightenment and modernity, I sometimes get very nervous.
Naomi: I think we should be as clear as possible that [addressing climate change] isn't about being anti-technology. It's about the need for technology as a decentralized power. Technology can be at the center of just about any transformation, but that doesn't mean all technology is good.
We need to be careful of a completely anti-progress fetishizing of some idyllic past. But at the same time, hanging out with geoengineers really scared the hell out of me. What's clear is that the further we go down this road, and the more this Francis Bacon idea of progress becomes equated with taming and controlling nature, the more these ever-larger and higher-risk technologies are going to take hold.
I think we do need to talk about that fundamental issue of whether our place on earth is to dominate nature—whether we're at war with it. I'm not against science, but we're on the verge of scaling up the risks in a really frightening way if we don't ask ourselves some really tough questions about just how smart we are. We don't want to wallow in ignorance, but there are huge dangers in overestimating our intelligence.
Near the end of the book, you talk about growing impatient with the structureless movements that you've defended in the past, such as the anti-globalization protests around the turn of the century. Is this because of the urgency of climate change, or are there other reasons?
Naomi: I don't think I'm the only one. I think that's been an evolution, and my generation—the Seattle generation of anti-globalization activists—swung really far in an anti-structure direction. Anything that seemed like politics or institutions was regarded with great suspicion. What I see in the Occupy generation and in the anti-austerity movements in Europe is a desire to find a route that balances a real belief in decentralization and a rightful suspicion of centralized state power with a serious engagement with politics and policy.
That's why I spend a fair amount of time in the book talking about successes, imperfect as they are, of Germany's energy transition. It's a major social movement victory—Angela Merkel did not do this out of the goodness of her heart, she did it because Germany has the strongest anti-nuclear movement in the world and a very strong environmental movement more broadly.
The speed of Germany's transition is stunning. Twenty-five percent renewables in a decade-and-a-half, much of it via decentralized community-controlled co-ops. This isn’t “hey, let's do this, me and my friends starting an energy co-op”—this is a broad national policy that created a context in which you could have a multiplication of alternatives that coalesce into what I would argue is the most meaningful energy transition anywhere in the world.
I know some of the people involved in [the German movement]. Their roots are in the anti-globalization movement, too, and they used to be a lot more dismissive of engaging with politics. But people are getting their hands dirty. You see it in Seattle with the fight for minimum wage. You see it in Chicago with the teachers. You see it in Iceland with the anti-austerity movement birthing its own political structure. You see it in Spain with Podemos. More and more, there are these new political formations where people are trying to change the very nature of politics.
It's not only the climate science that makes me impatient. When I was defending the anti-globalization movement's structurelessness, I was mostly trying to fend off other people's attempts to co-opt the movement and say “Here's my ten-point plan.” I said, “Give it some time—we're going to come up with the plan ourselves.” But we didn't.
I wasn't saying that we didn't need to—I was looking for the catalyst and the framework. I think climate change—because it grounds the need for change in scientific necessity, puts us on a deadline and brings so many movements together—can be that framework, can be that catalyst.
I wanted to ask about the labor movement. You mention unions a few times in the book, in things like the Blue-Green Alliance. But clearly the labor movement in the U.S. and Canada are nowhere near where they need to be on the issue. For that new generation of environmentalists—“Blockadia,” as you refer to them in the book—how should they be viewing and interacting with unions?
Naomi: I think there's widespread self-criticism within the anti-Keystone movement (including from me) that it would have been better from the beginning to have a jobs component. After fighting Keystone for two years, a really good report came out about how the investment being made in Keystone could create many more green jobs, and how to do it, and getting some labor groups behind that.
I don't think that young environmentalists are angry at unions. I see actually a strong desire to work together and come up with models where there are just solutions embedded in them. There's definitely tensions around the pipeline sites. I think we will see in New York [at the People’s Climate March] a really strong labor presence—one of the things that's different and interesting about this convergence.
There's no end of missed opportunities on both sides. It's clear that sectors of the U.S. labor movement are wasting a lot of energy trying to protect a very small number of lousy jobs, as opposed to what could be a really large number of good jobs. But I also think we need to go beyond just talking about jobs—it's really about work.
The book does get into the fact that Keynesian solutions alone aren’t going to get us there. We need to be talking about contracting certain parts of our economy and expanding other parts of our economy. That means expanding caregiving professions. It means recognizing work that isn't recognized as work—caring for children and the elderly. It opens up the debate about basic income. We need to be expanding it beyond just a jobs discussion.
In some ways, that's even more challenging to the traditional labor movement, once we stop talking just about jobs but about how we value work more generally. I do think a fight about basic income, a real live debate about that issue, could bring together a lot constituencies. And it might be really good for labor.
In the book, you emphasize all of these potential ties between feminist issues, domestic workers, universal basic income, reparations, all of these issues that are starting to bubble up but are totally siloed from one another.
Naomi: The exciting thing for me is that the book can help encourage other people to go, “Hey, yeah, this is a climate issue. I need to write about this, she barely mentioned that.” And I've already gotten some of that feedback, saying, “You should have more on military and wars, and funding for basic research, and public education,” and really it's endless.
I hope that a lot of people on the left read the book and are inspired to write. Whether it's critiques or “you forgot to write this, and here's another thing,” or however it expresses itself. We need to have this debate.
Much of the news about the looming climate disaster can produce a sense paralysis and nihilism. You write very movingly in the book about how you moved past some of that paralysis, which lead you to decide to have a child. But do you worry about people coming to grips with not only the devastation that climate change will wreak, but the scope of the action that will need to be taken—dispossessing fossil fuel corporations of billions of dollars in profits, for example—and throwing their hands up?
Naomi: I don't think it's any more daunting than what people were trying to do with Occupy Wall Street. It's no scarier than taking on the banks. There's a force to fighting this existential crisis, collectively, that is both frightening and potentially catalyzing. I'm not arguing it's not frightening. But progressive movements always take on big challenges. I think we all know that we have to take on entrenched wealth and we have to take on grotesque inequalities in our countries and with corporate takeover of our politics. The question is not whether we have to do that—we all know we have to do that. We all know we can't dodge this fight.
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Micah Uetricht is the deputy editor of Jacobin magazine. He is an In These Times contributing editor and a former associate editor, and the author of two books: Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (Verso, 2014) and (with Meagan Day) Bigger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (Verso, 2020). He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @micahuetricht.
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