Naomi Klein Believes That's What We'll Need
by Mimi Bluestone
From the Spring 2015 issue of Jewish Currents
Reviewed in this Essay: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein. Simon & Schuster, 2014, 576 pages.
NAOMI KLEIN THINKS the climate crisis can catapult us into a better world. If we build a movement broad and powerful enough to reject the tyranny of fossil fuels, she believes that we will inevitably find ourselves shaping societies that are healthier, more livable, and more deeply democratic.
Klein throws down a challenge to deregulated capitalism’s insatiable hunger for consumption. “Climate change pits what the planet needs to maintain stability against what our economic model needs to sustain itself,” she writes. “But since that economic model is failing the vast majority of the people on the planet on multiple fronts, that might not be such a bad thing.”
We don’t have a lot of time. Scientists say that since the Industrial Revolution we’ve already pumped out 60 percent of the carbon emissions that humanity can release in total — ever — if there’s to be any hope of keeping planetary warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) or less. Even at 2 degrees we will see more climate calamities; at any level of warming, the effects are unpredictable and probably not linear, and there may be tipping points and unstoppable processes that scientists don’t yet understand.
Beyond 2 degrees, civilization may not survive. Most experts estimate, however, that if we keep burning fossil fuels at current levels, temperatures will rise by 6 degrees by 2050.
KLEIN BLAMES our collective failure to face this crisis on our broader failure to derail extreme, neoliberal capitalism and its holy trinity of policies: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of corporate activity, and low corporate taxes courtesy of slashed public spending. She lays out the history of globalization agreements since NAFTA in 1988, and places it alongside the chronology of international climate summits, beginning with the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. As if in two parallel universes, world leaders have called for action on climate while separately promoting accelerated trade and mega-consumption. One result: global carbon emissions were 61 percent higher in 2013 than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began. “We are not stopping the fire,” Klein writes, “we are dousing it with gasoline."
With globalization, much of the world’s manufacturing has moved from higher-wage countries with stronger environmental laws to low-wage places with nonexistent pollution controls. “Exploited workers and an exploited planet are, it turns out, a package deal,” Klein observes. Elites, meanwhile, believe that their control of resources will save them from climate chaos, much as Goldman Sachs’s private backup generator stood ready during Superstorm Sandy. This way of thinking writes off “huge swaths of humanity” even as it calculates how to wring profit from calamity.
Putting out the fire will require actions that are a lot more inconvenient than switching to more efficient light bulbs. Klein believes it will take wholesale bans, taxes, penalties, major public investment in public works, public takeovers of privatized utilities — all the varieties of collective, government-directed action that drive the right crazy. Klein argues that conservatives understand very clearly that if the crisis is real, we really do have to change everything — which is exactly why so many of them reject the very notion of climate change. “These hard-core ideologues,” she writes, “understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the ‘warmists’ in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless."
Klein eviscerates many “Big Green” environmental groups, such as the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund, for playing what she says is an inside-the-Beltway game while the world is burning. That approach was effective in the more bipartisan 1970s, when a newly invigorated environmental movement won important victories, including the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Toxic Substance Control Acts. But the formula has not worked since the Reagan years. Klein blames Big Green groups that still pin their hopes on Capitol Hill for squandering precious time by refusing to advocate policies that would seriously limit fossil fuel use. By convincing everyone else that they had the issue covered, they have undermined more militant environmentalists.
The Big Green climate agenda has included promoting carbon-trading credits and advancing natural gas as a “bridge” to an eventual future based on alternative energy. Klein calls the carbon-trading programs “a scam magnet.” She documents “perversions” in which corporations have forced people living in rainforest areas to end sustainable fishing, planting, and wood-gathering so that corporations can claim the territory as a carbon sink and cash in their good-guy environmentalist credits.
Natural gas poses a different set of problems. Gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, but producing gas via hydraulic fracturing — fracking — changes that equation. Fracked gas, in comparison with conventionally produced gas, emits 30 percent more methane, a global warming gas far more potent than carbon dioxide because it traps more heat and lingers longer in the atmosphere. The influx of “cheap” natural gas also discourages switching to solar and wind power — the “Great Transition” that Klein contends we must make as quickly as possible.
BECAUSE OF RECENT ADVANCES in wind and solar technology, Klein (and others) argue that no “bridge” fuel is needed. She points to Germany, which since Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster has been weaning itself off nuclear power. Germany now generates 25 percent of its electricity using wind and solar power, and aims for 55-60 percent by 2035. Denmark generates 40 percent of its power from renewables, mostly wind, and aspires to be fossil-fuel free by 2050. Klein sees no reason the rest of the world can’t do the same. She extolls a report by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and University of California-Davis’s Mark Delucchi showing how wind, water, and solar power could replace existing energy sources by 2050 at a cost “similar” to current levels. The barriers are social and political, their study says.
But fossil-fuel addiction dies hard. Rather than make the transition to alternatives, some scientists, environmentalists and magnates are exploring schemes to build what Klein terms “a parasol for the planet.” These geoengineering methods include Solar Radiation Management (SRM), which calls for injecting particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. Scientists promoting this idea note that the technology, although untested, is pretty cheap.
SRM’s downside is that it could lead to a permanent haze over the Earth (a problem for solar energy generation, not to mention farming and people who enjoy sunny days). It could also accelerate ocean acidification, imperiling the food chain. Once begun, the process would have to be continued forever because if it were stopped, Klein says, “all the warming that you had artificially suppressed by putting up that virtual sunshade would hit the planet’s surface in one single tidal wave of heat, with no time for gradual adaptation.”
SRM and other geoengineering proposals share serious problems: There’s no way to test them without making us all guinea pigs, and because of variations in weather patterns and the effects of global warming, there’s no way to link specific outcomes to specific interventions without long-term, full-scale tests. Given the long history of technologies with unintended negative consequences, further toying with the Earth’s atmosphere seems to Klein to be the height of khutspe. “The hard-won lessons about humility before nature that have reshaped modern science... do not appear to have penetrated this particular bubble,” she writes, faulting geoengineers for ignoring the Earth as a player that might “go wild in ways we cannot imagine.” For fossil fuel companies and their allies, she declares, “anything is preferable to regulating ExxonMobil, including attempting to regulate the sun.”
SRM illustrates another key Klein theme: global inequality. The global North has enjoyed the fruits of excessive energy use, but the global South is experiencing some of its worst effects. Any fair international climate deals should therefore reflect the debt that industrialized nations owe the rest of the globe. But SRM could wind up standing this idea on its head. Scientists developing SRM acknowledge that making it work in some parts of the world means damaging others — “spatial heterogeneity,” a geoengineering advocate calls it, which Petra Tschakert, a geographer at Penn State, translates as “some countries are going to get screwed.” At a geoengineering conference funded mainly by Bill Gates, Klein sees a color-coded SRM scenario map that shows rainfall in North America and Europe looking just fine, but a bright red streak across Africa indicating severe drought. A weaker sun could also weaken the summer monsoons that large areas of Asia rely on for most of their rainfall, obliterating farming in those regions.
KLEIN BUILDS a powerful indictment of politicians, corporate elites, and big environmental groups. Yet this is not a pessimistic book. Two-thirds of the way in, Klein lands in Blockadia and finds her people.
Blockadia pops up anyplace in the world where people say “No.” Blockadia has surfaced in Nigeria, Romania, Canada, Greece, Ecuador, and Nebraska. Blockadia keeps growing because fossil-fuel companies are pushing into places with no history of fossilfuel extraction, bringing higher risk and dirtier methods: deep water drilling, tar-sands mining, fracking. The fuels themselves are dirtier, more flammable, and more prone to leak and explode than conventional fossil fuels.
Even communities that are far from extraction sites find themselves threatened by methane-leaking pipelines. Towns along railroad lines are endangered by “bomb trains” that move crude oil from tar sands and fracked natural gas along “virtual pipelines.” The explosion of one of these trains in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed forty-seven people in 2013.
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry’s credibility has been pretty much zilch since the BP Gulf oil blowout in 2010. No one wants extreme energy extraction nearby — not even ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who joined a lawsuit against fracking-related construction near his Texas home.
By pushing into more privileged communities, extreme energy has sparked alliances of ranchers, Native Americans, farmers, city dwellers, and those who rely on fishing for a living. These local alliances have knit their Blockadia outposts into a worldwide network. But the movement’s strength is deeply local. Unlike the Big Greens, Klein writes, these communities are “not looking to negotiate a better deal.” They’re attempting to protect the irreplaceable resources that sustain them, especially water. Of necessity, this becomes a pro-democracy movement, as communities fight off corporate control.
This Changes Everything carefully documents the essential role of Native Americans and First Nation Canadians in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere to protect local water resources. Their actions have caused costly delays for some tar-sands and fracking projects. In Klein’s view, any delaying actions buy time for emergent solar and wind technologies that already building the alternative fuel economy.
Beyond reducing greenhouse gases, these cleaner technologies offer possibilities for greater local control and the chance to foster a different kind of relationship with nature. Wind, water, and solar resources are intensely local. Instead of forcing the Earth to bend to human will, people who use these alternative resources find themselves adapting to the idiosyncrasies of local microenvironments.
People today are also “significantly less isolated than many of us were even a decade ago,” Klein adds as she expresses optimism about “what progressive forces will make” of the environmental crisis. “The new structures built in the rubble of neoliberalism — everything from social media to worker co-ops to farmers’ markets to neighborhood sharing banks — have helped us to find community despite the fragmentation of postmodern life.”
Her prescriptions for what to do with that communal sensibility can be confusing, however. Klein calls for drastically curtailing our consumption, then tells us (her assumed audience seems to be mainly North Americans) that we’ll be fine if we turn down our global energy use to 1970s levels. It’s not clear how this squares with her call for greater North-South equity. Other critics have complained that she ignores the impact of population growth altogether.
One book cannot encapsulate every dimension of the issues Klein bravely raises — but hers comes damned close. She connects the movement for climate justice with virtually every other struggle for justice. She writes with an informed and intelligent passion, untangling the web of forces that have brought us to the brink and offering a compelling vision of the movement that may just save our lives.
Mimi Bluestone is a climate activist, teacher, and writer who lives in Brooklyn.