Naomi Klein Knows a Green New Deal Is Our Only Hope Against Climate Catastrophe

In her new book, Klein argues that our current crisis cannot be separated from a long history and brutal present of human exploitation.

KLEIN-COVER SPLIT
Naomi Klein. (Photo by Kourosh Keshiri)

When I spoke with Naomi Klein in August, it was day 13 of Greta Thunberg’s transatlantic crossing on the Malizia II, a zero-emissions racing sailboat. Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who doesn’t fly because of the carbon impact, was making her way to Manhattan for the UN Climate Action summit. Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for the Green New Deal, opens with a portrait of Thunberg and a discussion of the youth climate movement. For decades, Klein writes, children have been used as mere rhetorical devices in the discourse of climate change. We have been implored to act on climate change for the sake of “our children.” But, as Klein told me, it is “obvious that this has not worked to inspire decision-makers to do what was necessary.” Now, young people are no longer content to be treated as tropes. “They are speaking and striking and marching for themselves, and they are issuing the verdicts about the entire political class that has failed them.”

The essays collected in On Fire also come together around a central verdict: that the climate crisis cannot be separated from centuries of human exploitation. Colonialism, indigenous genocide, slavery, and climate disruption all share a history. Not only did these historical processes establish the extractive industries that have led to climate change, but they established an extractive mindset, “a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard,” Klein writes. Climate activism must fight both. We need a “shift in worldview at every level.”

For Klein, the Green New Deal represents precisely this. Formulated by climate activists and proposed by representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, the Green New Deal offers a way to transform our infrastructure at the scale and speed required by climate change while simultaneously transforming the economic model and underlying worldview that has caused it. Detractors may call it a random laundry list of progressive initiatives, but for Klein the brilliance of the Green New Deal lies in its supposition that its initiatives—from renewable energy to universal health care—are anything but unrelated. Ecological breakdown and economic injustice are inextricably linked. The solution must be holistic. The Green New Deal offers a way both to “get clean” and to “redress the founding crimes of our nations.”

We spoke about the politics of the climate crisis and the “almost unbearably high” stakes of the 2020 election. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Lynne Feeley

Lynne Feeley: Many of the essays in the book focus on what you call the “deep stories” that are interfering with people’s willingness to confront the climate crisis. Can you discuss what these stories are and how they are blocking climate action?

Naomi Klein: Some are the economic stories of neoliberalism—about how things go terribly wrong when people try to work together and how, if we just get out of the way of the market and let it do its magic, the benefits will trickle down to everyone else. I’ve written a lot over the years about how the orthodoxy of neoliberalism—privatization, deregulation, low taxes, cuts to social spending—conflicts very, very frontally with what we need to do in the face of the climate crisis. MORE

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Solving the ecological crisis requires a mass movement: system change, not climate change

“Solving the ecological crisis requires a mass movement to take on hugely powerful industries. Yet environmentalism’s base in the professional-managerial class and focus on consumption has little chance of attracting working-class support. This article argues for a program that tackles the ecological crisis by organizing around working-class interests.”

Image result for working-class interests Had it not been for working class movements, what would our society be like? We should ask: In Sweden and Norway, where the working class took power and set the direction for a democratic society, what were the results?

The climate and ecological crisis is dire and there’s little time to address it. In just over a generation (since 1988), we have emitted half of all historic emissions.1 In this same period the carbon load in the atmosphere has risen from around 350 parts per million to over 410 — the highest level in 800,000 years (the historic preindustrial average was around 278).2Human civilization only emerged in a rare 12,000 year period of climate stability — this period of stability is ending fast. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report suggests we have a mere twelve years to drastically lower emissions to avoid 1.5 C warming — a level that will only dramatically increase the spikes in extreme superstorms, droughts, wildfires, and deadly heat waves (to say nothing of sea-level rise).3 New studies show changing rainfall patterns will threaten grain production like wheat, corn, and rice within twenty years.4 A series of three studies suggest as early as 2070, half a billion people will, “experience humid heat waves that will kill even healthy people in the shade within 6 hours.”5You don’t have to be a socialist to believe the time frame of the required changes will necessitate a revolution of sorts. The IPCC flatly said we must immediately institute “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”6 The noted climate scientist Kevin Anderson said, “… when you really look at the numbers behind the report, look at the numbers the science comes out with, then we’re talking about a complete revolution in our energy system. And that is going to beg very fundamental questions about how we run our economies.”7

The radical climate movement has long coalesced around the slogan “system change, not climate change.” The movement has a good understanding that capitalism is the main barrier to solving the climate crisis. Yet sometimes the notion of “system change” is vague on howsystems change. The dilemma of the climate crisis is not as simple as just replacing one system with another — it requires a confrontation with some of the wealthiest and most powerful sectors of capital in world history. This includes a mere 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of the emissions since 1988.8 The fossil fuel industry and other carbon-intensive sectors of capital (steel, chemicals, cement, etc.) will not sit by and allow the revolutionary changes that make their business models obsolete. MORE

NOTES:

    1. Paul Griffin, The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017(London: Carbon Disclosure Project, 2017), 5.
    2.  Elizabeth Gamillo, “Atmospheric carbon last year reached levels not seen in 800,000 years” Science.
    3.  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5 °C.
    4.  Maisa Rojas, Fabrice Lambert, Julian Ramirez-Villegas, and Andrew J. Challinor, “Emergence of robust precipitation changes across crop production areas in the 21st century,” Proceedings of The National Academy Of Sciences (early view, 2019).
    5.  Climate Guide Blog: “Non-survivable humid heatwaves for over 500 million people,” March 9, 2019.
    6.  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC approved by governments,” October 8, 2018.
    7.  Democracy Now, “Climate Scientist: As U.N. Warns of Global Catastrophe, We Need a “Marshall Plan” for Climate Change,” October 9, 2018.
    8.  Griffin, 2017.

Naom Chomsky: “The Task Ahead Is Enormous, and There Is Not Much Time”

Now in his 90th year, Noam Chomsky is still blessing us with his insights. Here he is on climate change, US empire, antisemitism, Venezuela, and much more.

Noam Chomsky speaks during a program titled “Why Iraq?” attended by an overflow crowd at Harvard University November 4, 2002 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. William B. Plowman / Getty

Harrison Samphir recently spoke with the renowned dissident and philosopher about climate change, Venezuela, Iran, antisemitism, US empire, and more. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) suggest that, if emissions remain unchanged, by 2100 sea levels could rise by more than eight feet. This would irreversibly affect many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Do you think there’s a chance we may avoid this?

If anything like that happens, the calamity will be on a scale that is almost imponderable, most severe as you say for the poorest and most vulnerable, but awful enough for the rest of society as well. And it is not the most threatening current projection. We are approaching ominously close to the level of global warming 125,000 years ago when sea levels were 6–9 meters higher than today, and the rapid melting of Antarctic sea ice threatens to narrow the gap, possibly by nonlinear acceleration, some recent studies suggest.

Is there a chance to avoid such catastrophes? No doubt. There are well-worked out and sound proposals; economist Robert Pollin’s work on a Green New Deal is the best I know. But the task ahead is enormous, and there is not much time. The challenge would be great even if states were committed to overcoming it. Some are. But it is impossible to overlook the fact that the most powerful state in human history is under the leadership of what can only be accurately described as a gang of arch-criminals who are dedicated to racing to the cliff with abandon.

…I don’t think we can count on market forces. The time scale is all wrong. Much more drastic action is needed. Those most responsible for destroying the environment can be curbed by regulatory mechanisms that are in principle available, and should be under democratic control. It’s not just a matter of curbing major polluters. Major structural changes are necessary to deal with what is in fact an existential crisis: efficient mass transportation to mention only one example. Far more substantial efforts in decarbonization, to mention another. Here the market is sending all the wrong signals, lethally in this case. Venture capital can make more profit with new apps for iPhones than in long-term investment for decarbonization, which is starved for funds.

It is well to recall the warning of Joseph Stiglitz thirty years ago in a World Bank Research Publication, before he became chief economist of the World Bank (and a Nobel laureate): we should beware of “the religion” that markets know best. “Religion” is not a bad term for the obsession with market solutions in the neoliberal age. And like other fanatic religious beliefs, it has led to not a few disasters.

It is hard even to find words to capture the scale of the crimes they are contemplating. A small but telling example is a 500-page environmental assessment produced by Trump’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calling for cancelling new automotive emissions standards. They have a sound argument. The study projects that by the end of the century temperatures will have risen 4 degrees Centigrade. Auto emissions don’t add that much, and since the game is pretty much over, why not have fun while we can — fiddling while the planet burns.

It’s hard to find the words to comment — and in fact it passed with little notice.

The attitudes of the leadership influence opinion in the Republican Party, whose members typically do not see global warming as a particularly serious problem. In fact it is ranked very low among crucial issues by the population in general (and the growing threat of nuclear war, the second existential issue, is not even listed in attitude surveys). MORE

 

Instead of squabbling over scarce jobs and incomes, we should jointly strive for a fair economic system

NYC ShutItDown People’s Monday march for Berta Cáceres in 2017. Photo: Alec Perkins/Wikimedia Commons

There’s an African proverb that is becoming uncomfortably apt to apply to many workers and citizens: “As the waterhole becomes smaller, the animals get meaner.”

In other words, as basic needs dwindle, so does the willingness to share what’s left. The merits of community and co-operation are superseded by a selfish survival-of-the-fittest mentality.

A big difference, however, exists between what happens at a shrinking waterhole in Africa and what happens in Canada when good-paying jobs are reduced, incomes fall or stagnate, and government services are cut back. The African waterhole gets smaller because of a drought. It’s a natural and unavoidable phenomenon. In Canadian society, however, the necessities of life for the most vulnerable among us are being deliberately restricted.

Our welfare “waterhole” is being siphoned away, its contents inequitably transferred from the pockets of the poor into the bulging bank accounts and stock portfolios of the rich and powerful.

There is no shortage of money in Canada. Our per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — the country’s entire financial output — has more than doubled over the past 50 years. But its dispersal has been ruthlessly skewed to favour the most opulent among us. Corporate executives, bankers, major investors and financiers wallow in wealth, much of it derived from taxpayer-funded billion-dollar bailouts of big corporations.

Maldistribution of income

That a barbaric maldistribution of income leaves millions of citizens, including hundreds of thousands of children, destitute and undernourished doesn’t bother the elite in the least. Their cherished capitalist system inevitably creates many more losers than winners, and always will. That’s its chief purpose. So the diversion of income from the needy to the wealthy is welcomed, and the wealthy can count on their right-wing political minions to block or minimize significant poverty reductions.

As long as progressive activists continue to accept the calamities of runaway capitalism as unpreventable, then their many protests, though admirable on their own, will be ineffectual.

MORE

Why It Is Too Late for the Green New Deal (As Presently Envisioned)

“We live in a strange world. Where we think we can buy or build our way out of a crisis that has been created by buying and building things.” Greta Thunberg

 

Image result for doomsday clockWe all owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who have articulated the Green New Deal (GND), especially Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement. We needed something that focused attention on how serious climate change has become and the need for government action. The GND has shattered the neoliberal insistence upon incremental, market-oriented climate mitigation.

But, considering the emerging climate science and our diminished carbon budget after at least three decades of denial, and with carbon concentration in the atmosphere higher than it has been in 3 million years, it is too late to speed up the slow transition from fossil fuels to renewables with government facilitated renewable building; too late to build renewables under a Keynesian plan that employs all the workers in transition; too late for a transition that makes money and lets us keep living our present lifestyles.

The GND challenged neoliberalism with a “Big Government Plan” for climate mitigation, but as presently envisioned, these policy actions remain completely within a market transition where renewables will only replace fossil fuels by out-competing coal, oil and natural gas.

The GND could greatly speed up this slow transition, but it’s still a plan to let fossil fuels compete for far too long; it still doesn’t regulate production and distribution; it still envisions supplying 100 percent of today’s energy, plus projected growth. The GND is ultimately predicated upon a growing GDP in a business-as-usual scenario where there is enough created wealth to redistribute to marginalized populations.

If it had been implemented in the ‘90s, this carbon-price aided decarbonization, with renewables out-competing fossil fuels, could have worked and largely solved our problem. But now, there is no time and no carbon budget left for such a slow transition; no time for a tapering period or for a carbon price to work its market magic. As Sunrise Movement founder Varsini Prakash told the Guardian, “If there was a free market solution to the climate crisis, we would’ve seen it in the last 40 years.”

It is already possible that we are on the wrong side of a threshold to that cascade of tipping points leading to Hothouse Earth and the destruction of all we love and care about, including the extinction of most species. Fossil fuels are now a potentially lethal toxin already at too high a level in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels must now be kept in the ground. Governments must regulate a scheduled, rapid managed decline of all fossil fuel production based upon the best science and risk management expertise.

Instead of a climate mitigation plan that is shoehorned into the economic and political status quo, there is no time to taper-in mitigation to protect the economy: emissions must peak immediately and substantial emission reduction from the present high of more than 37 billion tons annually must happen immediately.

We don’t have until 2050 for a slow transition. We must cut emissions by half globally by 2030 — by 65 to 70 percent in wealthy countries like the U.S. and Canada. As climate activist Alex Steffen writes, our emission reduction curve has to bend so steeply that winning slowly becomes the same as losing. Thus, GND decarbonization is a plan to fail.

5 Ways Doug Ford’s Government Costs Us More

Neoliberal economic philosophy wants minimum government, regulation and services, minimum taxation, and the removal of all impediments to business’ efforts to maximize profits. Doug Ford is proclaiming Ontario is ‘open for business’. His government is an example of extreme neoliberalism. The other side of the coin, social democracy, proposes government is for people. It champions the plight of folks struggling with housing, those stuck in bad jobs with poor pay, families depending on public education to help their kids get ahead, and the sick. 

If there’s one thing top of mind for most folks, it’s the cost of living. Recent polling commissioned by the Broadbent Institute showed that whether it’s housing, healthcare, or simply paying for daily basics like food, Ontarians and the rest of Canada are worried that their largely stagnated incomes just can’t keep up. And they expect their government to start doing much more to make life affordable.

When Doug Ford rolled into office last June on a simple and effective slogan: “For the People”, many expected that under his rule their affordability concerns would be answered. Within the first few months however a pattern started to form of choices and policies that benefit special interest groups, while making life for the rest of us less affordable. This budget is yet more proof that Premier Ford will end up costing most folks more.

More healthcare costs on the way

It started on his second day in office when it was quietly announced that pharmacare for those under 25 was cancelled, closing the door on the promise of pharmacare for the rest of us. It’s a good deal for drug companies and insurers who make more money off of a fractured system of largely private coverage, where little is being done to control drug costs and premiums. It’s a crappy deal for the rest of us who continue to see our out-of-pocket costs for medications rise.

Yesterday’s budget plans to “save” another $200 million through the PC Government’s controversial plan to merge Health Units, but details are non existent and it’s always dangerous to cut a critical service like healthcare before identifying where the money will come from. Many public officers of health are saying it will likely mean less locally responsively service for people. MORE

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Because ‘The House Is on Fire,’ Naomi Klein Takes Centrism-Obsessed Media to Task for Failed Climate Coverage

Neoliberal mainstream media is being ignored by more and more people as they search out investigative journalism on social media. Check out stories on The National Observer , The Narwhal, Ricochet, or Rabble and ask yourself why these stories are either downplayed or ignored on traditional media.

“You can’t leave it all to the markets.”

Naomi Klein speaks to the audience at an April 30 CJR/The Nation town hall. Naomi Klein speaks to the audience at an April 30 CJR/The Nation town hall. (Photo: screenshot, YouTube)

News coverage of the climate crisis can no longer rely on the false pretense of objectivity, writer and activist Naomi Klein said Tuesday.

“There is a confirmation bias among the largest chunk of journalists out there who really pride themselves on being centrists,” Klein said Tuesday during a town hall at the Columbia Journalism School in New York. “There’s an absolute fetish for centrism, for seriousness defined by splitting the difference—and not getting too excited about anything”

The mainstream media is “profoundly distrustful of people who are saying ‘actually, the house is on fire,'” Klein said, citing the impulse among many journalists to remain objective and hear both sides.

“But guess what,” said Klein. “The house is on fire.”

MORE

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‘The Big Stall’ details how neoliberal think tanks blocked action on climate change

Neoliberalism is a philosophy that says growth and investor returns not hindered by government taxes and regulations will lead to economic prosperity. It results in the welfare of ordinary citizens and protection of the environment being ignored. It has been suggested that economic prosperity will trickle down to all eventually. On the contrary,experience has shown that neoliberalism results inevitably in a growing income gap in society.

The Bill Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada By Donald Gutstein, James Lorimer & Company Ltd. 2018 $24.95

The world’s biggest oil companies knew for years that climate change was real, but they did all they could to derail government action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Donald Gutstein’s latest book, The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada is a deep dive into the strategies that Canadian oil companies and their friends have implemented to prevent political action to slow and reverse catastrophic climate change.

The author, a former communications professor and co-director of the media-monitoring project NewsWatch Canada at Simon Fraser University, follows the individuals and organizations that have shaped Canada’s energy and environmental policy over the last four decades.

Gutstein doesn’t neglect the politicians (he devotes a chapter to Alberta NDP leader and just-defeated Premier Rachel Notley), but he spends more time on the players who fly slightly under the public radar or whose impact is felt long after they’ve fallen from view. People like Maurice Strong, appointed the first head of Petro-Canada by Pierre Trudeau and the secretary-general of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, who said in his opening speech that “There is no fundamental conflict between development and the environment.”

That this position, articulated in 1972, could sum up current official Canadian climate change policy, wasn’t inevitable, argues Gutstein. Justin Trudeau’s “clean growth economy” — a mix of investing in ‘green’ technologies and “getting our oil to new markets,” — can be traced to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s. But we can’t only blame the ideological context Trudeau inherited. There has been a concerted campaign to stall and prevent significant action on climate change by fossil-fuel industry lobbyists and policy think-tanks. MORE

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Green New Deal is a way out of neoliberalism wreckage

Image result for ricochet: At a time when the federal NDP is struggling to assert an identity and progressive Canadians are struggling to find a party, the Green New Deal could be a godsend

At a time when the federal NDP is struggling to assert an identity and progressive Canadians are struggling to find a party, the Green New Deal could be a godsend

If you want to be alarmed at the way climate change is thought about in the Canadian political mainstream, have a look at what National Post columnist Andrew Coyne wrote a few weeks back. In surveying the climate policies of the major federal parties, he concludes,

“The choice before Canadians … is between policies that do nothing [those of the Conservatives and the upstart People’s Party], or that do too little at too high a cost [those of the Liberals], or that do too much at much too high a cost [the emissions reduction targets of the NDP and the Greens]: between the inadequate and the insane. It’s not terribly inspiring, but that’s democracy.”

What Coyne considers “insane” are precisely the targets that climate science is telling us have to be met. And of course he isn’t alone or on the fringe — just the opposite. In neoliberal times, his views are very typical. A couple generations of policymakers, technocrats, and public intellectuals have soaked in our reigning ideology to the point where it doesn’t even feel like ideology to them; it’s basic logic or common sense or the limits of the possible or, simply, economics. Avoiding climate breakdown is not a moral or existential imperative but an option that can be rejected should it come at “too high a cost.”

The result is a nice symbiosis, as we see in Canada. There is a special urgency to loosen the vise-like grip in which neoliberalism has for too long enclosed the political imagination. That’s why it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the Green New Deal breaking into the mainstream ever since Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrats’ rising democratic socialist star, presented it as a congressional resolution last month. MORE

Earth’s inhabitants stranded in a leaking neoliberal lifeboat

Early photograph of Hornsea Lifeboat. Photo: Bradford Timeline/Flickr
Photo: Bradford Timeline/Flickr

For the past 50 years, the world’s most renowned scientists — including more than a hundred Nobel Prize winners — have been imploring corporate and political leaders to curb climate change before it reaches catastrophic levels.

“Planet Earth is finite,” they warn. “Its ability to absorb wastes is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. And we are fast approaching many of Earth’s limits. Current economic practices cannot be continued without the risk that vital global ecosystems will be damaged beyond repair.”

These warnings, including the latest most urgent appeal by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have been ignored. Not surprisingly, since the dominant global economic system — capitalism — depends for its very survival on the maintenance of unlimited economic growth, despite the inescapable catastrophic consequences.

Most governments have not only tolerated this corporate onslaught on the environment, but have actively subsidized and supported it. They have in effect become business-oriented minions, dedicated to putting corporate interests ahead of the public interest. They offer corporations the planet’s resources to plunder as they wish, with little or no constraints.

Given the dependence of all of Earth’s inhabitants on the planet’s basic life-support capacity, you would think that even the most eminent CEOs and billionaires would by now have started to have doubts about the infallibility of their “free-market” doctrine.

A few of them are indeed having such qualms, but serious dissent from the prevailing business-knows-best ideology is financially risky and thus rare. So the scale of corporate pillaging continues unabated. MORE