5 Crucial Lessons for the Left From Naomi Klein’s New Book

You can’t fight climate change without fighting capitalism, argues Klein in This Changes Everything.

Jessica Corbett and Ethan Corey August 21, 2014

Naomi Klein (Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)

In her pre­vi­ous books The Shock Doc­trine: The Rise of Dis­as­ter Cap­i­tal­ism (2007) and NO LOGO: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs (2000), Cana­di­an author and activist Nao­mi Klein took on top­ics like neolib­er­al shock ther­a­py,” con­sumerism, glob­al­iza­tion and dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism,” exten­sive­ly doc­u­ment­ing the forces behind the dra­mat­ic rise in eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion over the past 50 years. But in her new book, This Changes Every­thing: Cap­i­tal­ism vs. the Cli­mate (due in stores Sep­tem­ber 16), Klein casts her gaze toward the future, argu­ing that the dan­gers of cli­mate change demand rad­i­cal action now to ward off cat­a­stro­phe. She cer­tain­ly isn’t alone in point­ing out the urgency of the threat, but what sets Klein apart is her argu­ment that it is cap­i­tal­ism — not car­bon — that is at the root of cli­mate change, inex­orably dri­ving us toward an envi­ron­men­tal Armaged­don in the pur­suit of prof­it. This Changes Every­thing is well worth a read (or two) in full, but we’ve dis­tilled some of its key points here.

Klein argues that carbon trading programs create perverse incentives, allowing manufacturers to produce more harmful greenhouse gases, just to be paid to reduce them.

1. Band-Aid solu­tions don’t work.

Only mass social move­ments can save us now. Because we know where the cur­rent sys­tem, left unchecked, is headed.”

Much of the con­ver­sa­tion sur­round­ing cli­mate change focus­es on what Klein dis­miss­es as Band-Aid solu­tions”: prof­it-friend­ly fix­es like whizz-bang tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions, cap-and-trade schemes and sup­pos­ed­ly clean” alter­na­tives like nat­ur­al gas. To Klein, such strate­gies are too lit­tle, too late. In her drawn-out cri­tique of cor­po­rate involve­ment in cli­mate change pre­ven­tion, she demon­strates how prof­itable solu­tions” put for­ward by many think-tanks (and their cor­po­rate back­ers) actu­al­ly end up mak­ing the prob­lem worse. For instance, Klein argues that car­bon trad­ing pro­grams cre­ate per­verse incen­tives, allow­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers to pro­duce more harm­ful green­house gas­es, just to be paid to reduce them. In the process, car­bon trad­ing schemes have helped cor­po­ra­tions make bil­lions — allow­ing them to direct­ly prof­it off the degra­da­tion of the plan­et. Instead, Klein argues, we need to break free of mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism and imple­ment long-term plan­ning, strict reg­u­la­tion of busi­ness, more tax­a­tion, more gov­ern­ment spend­ing and rever­sals of pri­va­ti­za­tion to return key infra­struc­ture to pub­lic control. 

2. We need to fix our­selves, not fix the world.

The earth is not our pris­on­er, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our mon­ster. It is our entire world. And the solu­tion to glob­al warm­ing is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.”

Klein devotes a full chap­ter of the book to geo­engi­neer­ing: the field of research, cham­pi­oned by a niche group of sci­en­tists, fun­ders and media fig­ures, that aims to fight glob­al warm­ing by alter­ing the earth itself — say, by cov­er­ing deserts with reflec­tive mate­r­i­al to send sun­light back to space or even dim­ming the sun to decrease the amount of heat reach­ing the plan­et. How­ev­er, politi­cians and much of the glob­al pub­lic have raised envi­ron­men­tal, health and eth­i­cal con­cerns regard­ing these pro­posed sci­ence exper­i­ments with the plan­et, and Klein warns of the unknown con­se­quences of cre­at­ing a Frankenstein’s world,” with mul­ti­ple coun­tries launch­ing projects simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Instead of restor­ing an envi­ron­men­tal equi­lib­ri­um, Klein argues these tech­no-fix­es” will only fur­ther upset the earth’s bal­ance, each one cre­at­ing a host of new prob­lems, requir­ing an end­less chain of fur­ther fix­es.” She writes, The earth — our life sup­port sys­tem — would itself be put on life sup­port, hooked up to machines 247 to pre­vent it from going full-tilt mon­ster on us.”

3. We can’t rely on well-inten­tioned” cor­po­rate funding.

A great many pro­gres­sives have opt­ed out of the cli­mate change debate in part because they thought that the Big Green groups, flush with phil­an­thropic dol­lars, had this issue cov­ered. That, it turns out, was a grave mistake.”

Klein strong­ly cri­tiques part­ner­ships between cor­po­ra­tions and major envi­ron­men­tal groups, along with attempts by green bil­lion­aires” such as Bill Gates and Vir­gin Group’s Richard Bran­son to use cap­i­tal­ism to fight­ing glob­al warm­ing. When cap­i­tal­ism itself is a prin­ci­pal cause of cli­mate change, Klein argues, it doesn’t make sense to expect cor­po­ra­tions and bil­lion­aires to put the plan­et before prof­it. For exam­ple, though the Gates Foun­da­tion funds many major envi­ron­men­tal groups ded­i­cat­ed to com­bat­ing cli­mate change, as of Decem­ber 2013, it had at least $1.2 bil­lion invest­ed in BP and Exxon­Mo­bil. In addi­tion, when Big Greens become depen­dent on cor­po­rate fund­ing, they start to push a cor­po­rate agen­da. For instance, orga­ni­za­tions such as the Nature Con­ser­van­cy and the Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Fund, which have tak­en mil­lions of dol­lars from pro-frack­ing cor­po­rate fun­ders, such as Shell, Chevron and JP Mor­gan, are pitch­ing nat­ur­al gas as a clean­er alter­na­tive to oil and coal.

4. We need divest­ment, and reinvestment.

The main pow­er of divest­ment is not that it finan­cial­ly harms Shell and Chevron in the short term but that it erodes the social license of fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies and builds pres­sure on politi­cians to intro­duce across-the-board emis­sion reductions.”

Crit­ics of the car­bon divest­ment move­ment often claim that divest­ment will have min­i­mal impact on pol­luters’ bot­tom lines. But Klein argues that this line of rea­son­ing miss­es the point, quot­ing Cana­di­an divest­ment activist Cameron Fen­ton’s argu­ment that No one is think­ing we’re going to bank­rupt fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies. But what we can do is bank­rupt their rep­u­ta­tions and take away their polit­i­cal pow­er.” More impor­tant­ly, divest­ment opens the door for rein­vest­ment. A few mil­lion dol­lars out of the hands of Exxon­Mo­bil or BP frees up mon­ey that can now be spent devel­op­ing green infra­struc­ture or empow­er­ing com­mu­ni­ties to local­ize their economies. And some col­leges, char­i­ties, pen­sion funds and munic­i­pal­i­ties have already got the mes­sage: Klein reports that 13 U.S. col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, 25 North Amer­i­can cities, around 40 reli­gious insti­tu­tions and sev­er­al major foun­da­tions have all made com­mit­ments to divest their endow­ments from fos­sil fuel stocks and bonds.

5. Con­fronting cli­mate change is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to address oth­er social, eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal issues.

When cli­mate change deniers claim that glob­al warm­ing is a plot to redis­trib­ute wealth, it’s not (only) because they are para­noid. It’s also because they are pay­ing attention.”

In The Shock Doc­trine, Klein explained how cor­po­ra­tions have exploit­ed crises around the world for prof­it. In This Changes Every­thing, she argues that the cli­mate change cri­sis can serve as a wake-up call for wide­spread demo­c­ra­t­ic action. For instance, when a 2007 tor­na­do destroyed most of Greens­burg, Kansas, the town reject­ed top-down approach­es to recov­ery in favor of com­mu­ni­ty-based rebuild­ing efforts that increased demo­c­ra­t­ic par­tic­i­pa­tion and cre­at­ed new, envi­ron­men­tal­ly-friend­ly pub­lic build­ings. Today, Greens­burg is one of the green­est towns in the Unit­ed States. To Klein, this exam­ple illus­trates how peo­ple can use cli­mate change to come togeth­er to build a green­er soci­ety. It also can, and indeed must, spur a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of our econ­o­my: less con­sump­tion, less inter­na­tion­al trade (part of relo­cal­iz­ing our economies) and less pri­vate invest­ment, and a lot more gov­ern­ment spend­ing to cre­ate the infra­struc­ture we need for a green econ­o­my. Implic­it in all of this,” Klein writes, is a great deal more redis­tri­b­u­tion, so that more of us can live com­fort­ably with­in the planet’s capacity.”

Jes­si­ca Cor­bett and Ethan Corey are Sum­mer 2014 interns at In These Times.
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