The politics of climate change

Author and journalist Naomi Klein has become one of the world’s leading figures in the battle to avert climate disaster. Here she delves into the intersection of capitalism, climate and government policy.

Investigative journalist and author Naomi Klein made her name as a defender of the little guy. In 2000, her first book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, became a call-to-arms against the corporations making huge profits off sweatshop labour, as well as a bible for a growing anti-corporate movement. Her second tome released in 2007, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, takes the reader from CIA-sponsored secret experiments in psychiatric shock therapy conducted in the 1950s and 60s to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Along the way, she traces the rise of a politics which thrives off public fear and a parasitic form of capitalism which exploits times of crisis for profit. For the past ten years though, as she has pivoted her focus from economics and abuses of power to the looming climate disaster, the little guy” has taken the form of the planet itself. I realised there was nothing else to focus on…it had to be this,” she tells me from New York. The day before we speak she was in-conversation with Greta Thunberg at a climate event in the city. As soon as we finish speaking, she’s scheduled to do another interview about her latest book — On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. Combining new research and essays, as well as collected pieces of journalism, it is the culmination of 10 years of work and activism. It was interesting putting it together,” she says. So much has changed in that 10 years; when I was writing some of the essays now collected here, climate issues were treated as completely marginal, like way left-field. And now, here we are — it’s gratifying to see how quickly a political shift can happen, as more and more politicians take on board the need for rapid change. On the flipside, it’s scary to see how quickly the far right has risen in the same period — in part because there have not been credible responses from the left, which speak to people’s real economic needs in a hopeful way.” That timespan, she points out, also acts as a stark warning: We often think of climate change as a crisis that’s very slow moving — but in the time that this collection covers, we’ve lost most arctic summer ice, we’ve lost most of the Great Barrier Reef, as we speak we are losing major parts of the Amazon — and these are the major features of our planet. So it’s a reminder that this is not static — as we fail to act, we lose so much.” 

Here we discuss the murky intersection between politics, capitalism and climate.

Was climate a big concern during your childhood?

Not really. I grew up in the 80s. I remember my brother telling me something about it… he was confusing climate change and the hole in the ozone layer. It was really when I was writing No Logo (where I looked at the globalisation of manufacturing) that I became more aware that the model of consumption I was writing about was unsustainable. Particularly in the fashion industry and in electronics… the way things were being made was relatively new. So instead of one company owning its factories and building them close to home, manufacturing was outsourced to this global network of contractors and suppliers. 

I was aware when I was doing that research, 20 years ago, that this was a very high carbon way to run the world. But I wasn’t as attuned to the climate impact of that as I was to the labour impact – the toll it was taking on human lives. 

Was there a particular turning point that made you switch your focus to the climate?

Definitely Hurricane Katrina, which was in 2005. I was working on my book The Shock Doctrine – which was about what I was calling disaster capitalism”. It’s actually a phrase that’s being used a lot in the UK now, in terms of what Boris Johnson is doing in an attempt to crash Britain out of the European Union. And it basically means the kinds of profits that can be made in an atmosphere of crisis. 

I was focused on precisely the kind of thing that you’re living through in the UK, the connection between crisis and this very profitable strain of capitalism. And I was also looking at war, which was being increasingly privatised and outsourced to [private contractors like] Halliburton and what was then called Blackwater.

In the midst of writing and researching that, Hurricane Katrina happened. New Orleans was flooded and many of these private contractors that I’d come across when I was reporting from Iraq showed up in New Orleans. Blackwater, Halliburton – they all clearly saw this Hurricane as a for-profit opportunity. They wanted the contract to do private security and to house evacuees. All this used to be the purview of aid agencies, it wasn’t something you tried to make money off of, right? But I saw this kind of gold rush mentality like: Ok, all the people are gone, now we can privatise the school system, now we can close down the public hospitals”. And so what I saw in New Orleans was this intersection between free market fundamentalism and the kinds of shocks that we’re going to see more and more of in the context of climate disruption. 

The worst of that storm happened because so much public infrastructure had been left to rot. The storm defenses had been neglected. New Orleans should never had been flooded – by the time Katrina got to the city it had been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm. But it broke through the defenses because they had not been repaired. I’d spent my whole life writing about economic injustice and human rights, but it was obvious in New Orleans that these issues can’t be pried apart. If we starve our public sphere, we’re going to be way more vulnerable to these climate shocks. And then under this ravenous economic system that we have, every shock becomes an opportunity for more plunder and more inequality.

That made me realise that I couldn’t treat this as an issue that was separable, and tell myself a story of how the big Green non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were dealing with the climate stuff so the rest of us didn’t have to. So that led to the work that I’ve been doing now for more than a decade. 

Yeah, in your book it definitely feels like it’s not just about climate but a whole system of interlinking issues and narratives which are feeding off one another — and which are all contributing to the crisis. Which of these do you think we should be most aware of?

I think the narrative at the heart of, certainly our society here in North America, is that everyone can have more and more; that we have infinite resources. That’s really baked into our national identity – we were founded as nations of spare” Europes. Look at the very names of the cities in the so-called New World” – New England, New France (which is what Quebec was called), New South Wales – it’s like, hey, we found an extra England”. The whole idea was that Europe, at that time, was coming up against the limit of depleting nature. The great forests of the continent had been felled and there was a crisis of extinction, as all the great game had been hunted. And then, lo and behold, here are these supposedly new” continents – which are not new, just new to Europe – and the wilderness is so vast that it’s beyond the imagining of the original European explorers. 

The idea was that these new worlds could never be exhausted or depleted. I have these quotes in the book from early European explorers who were just dizzy with the idea of infinite nature. And I think this is a huge part of the reason why, in countries like the USA or Australia, you have this particularly virulent strain of climate change denialism – because the fact is, we have hit the limits. It’s not only climate change, it’s plastic in the oceans, it’s extinction – even though there was a lot of nature in the so-called New World”, it can still be depleted. And it has been.

But I think that hits up against a core idea of our who we are as a country. And for the people invested in those narratives, to admit that climate change is real is to admit that the whole architecture of our worldview is wrong. So they just say no”.

That mentality underpins the entire capitalist system — so do you think we’d need to dismantle capitalism to avert climate disaster?

In the immediate term, no. For a start, we simply don’t have time. But I do believe that we cannot do what is necessary in the immediate term, without challenging the logic of the market itself. Because the immediate term solutions challenge market logic. We need to take back control of the assets that were privatised like the rails and electricity. These are absolutely central to helping us adjust to the transition [of a carbon-free future], but we don’t have a lot of control over them because they’ve been auctioned off. 

I think part of getting to 100% renewable energy, at the speed that we need it, means that we have to carve out some of the things that are now part of our economy – but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a market. It just means that we have to say ‚“this is more important than profit. This is more important than an ideology that has failed us, and we need to put the habitability of our planet above all of that”. You know, if you want people to use public transit instead of driving, the best way is to make it really good and make it free. That is possible to do but it isn’t going to fit a market model. 

And that’s where the Green New Deal comes in – could you explain what it is and what it represents?

It is a reference to the original New Deal which was not just a policy but really a governing principle that president Roosevelt governed under in 1933. He came to power in the midst of the Great Depression, and there was devastating unemployment, poverty and hunger in the United States. The New Deal was a new governing philosophy that put people and their needs at the centre. Investing in infrastructure, putting people in employment programmes, investing in arts programmes which got people working, giving people things to do so that they could earn and provide.

The Green New Deal isn’t a single climate policy; it’s a vision for the post-carbon economy. It takes what scientists have told us we need to do, which is to get to 100% renewable energy in a very rapid timeline, but does it in a way that is designed to battle poverty, economic exclusion and under-employment of all kinds. And I’m really heartened to see that most of the Democratic candidates who have a shot at winning [in 2020] have endorsed the Green New Deal very aggressively. It’s extremely significant that it’s now seen as kind of a litmus test for candidates – will they endorse the Green New Deal?

And the idea has taken hold in many places outside of the US. In Europe there is the Green New Deal Coalition. All of our countries have some kind of memory of a time when there were these big investments in the public sphere, and they produced things that we’re all now really proud of. In the UK I think the best historical analogy would be the kinds of investments in healthcare and housing that happened in the aftermath of the WW2, and that produced the NHS

How do you think Brexit is or will impact climate policy?

I think at the moment, it’s blotting out all conversation, including that about the planet. 

What’s interesting about Brexit is that a lot of people who voted in favour were reacting to many decades of economic neglect, of austerity, of just being left behind. And the original promise of Brexit, to those communities, was we’re going to have more money for public services, we’re going to have all this new money for the NHS, we’re going to have a national jobs programme”. So I think the benefit of a New Deal-style response to climate change – if someone brings it to the British public, say as part of an election campaign – is that it’s a much more constructive response to the very real crisis that the Brexiteers were exploiting in order to push an agenda that we now know is absolutely not going to be battling austerity. Quite the opposite. In fact, it’s likely to deliver a huge amount of economic hardship.

Is there one thing that you want people who’ve read the book to go away and do?

Well, the truth is, there is no one thing. The age of what can I buy, how do I fix this through my shopping and consumption choices?” has really passed. This is a crisis that we are only going to rise to together. If we organise ourselves, if we find our collective power. Find a local group, plug in. Find spaces with likeminded people where you can feel some of the grief that is inevitable in confronting this – don’t try to navigate that alone. But also feel the hope. The kind of economy that’s outlined in the Green New Deal is not just better than apocalypse, it’s better than what we have right now. It’s fairer, it’s more humane. It would transform our cities so that we’re not constantly battling against traffic and noise. It would break down so much social isolation which is fuelling so much depression, despair and addiction. There is a lot to gain and it isn’t just what we protect in the natural environment, although that’s incredibly important, it’s also what we gain in our daily lives. 

On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal is out now

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