Matthew Rothschild: Tell us how you got interested in this global climate change movement after your Shock Doctrine?
Naomi Klein: My last book, The Shock Doctrine, really ends with climate change, and in a way it also begins. Hurricane Katrina bookends that book. It’s the opening and the closing.
For those of you who’ve read The Shock Doctrine, it’s about disaster capitalism and the use of different kinds of shocks to push through a very radical rightwing agenda of privatization and deregulation and attacks on the public sphere. And Hurricane Katrina is kind of a textbook case of that.
When I started The Shock Doctrine, it was going to just be a book about Iraq, but then I started to see how this tactic was being used in the wake of all kinds of different shocks: not just wars but economic crises. And then I noticed how it was starting to happen in the aftermath of natural disasters, some of them linked to climate change.
I end The Shock Doctrine with this quite frightening vision of climate apartheid, where if you have wealth and means you can survive this shock-ridden future, through an increasingly privatized response to disaster, which is what we saw during Hurricane Katrina, but if you depend on the state, you’re literally abandoned.
That was the horror of that catastrophe: the collision between heavy weather and weak and neglected public infrastructure and governance. Those levees that had been neglected collapsed, and it seemed like FEMA couldn’t find New Orleans for five days.
So this book is in many ways a sequel, and it’s a response to a lot of what I heard when I was touring with The Shock Doctrine: “How can we guard against this tactic?” And also, “Is there a progressive way to respond to crises that actually gets at the root causes of why these disasters are coming so fast and furious?”
And of course there is a progressive tradition of responding to crises with deep social change for the better: So I started to see how climate change could be the catalyst. This was first explained to me by a Bolivian trade unionist, Navarro Llanos, who describes how climate change can be a catalyst for a Marshall Plan for Planet Earth.
Once I wrapped my head around that—about how the climate crisis forces us to confront inequality between nations and within our nations—I could see a path forward that was a way to deal with our economic crisis of inequality and the climate crisis at the same time.
Matthew Rothschild: So how do we get after that deep social change you’re talking about?
Naomi Klein: The first step is just naming the fact that we cannot deal with this crisis without a profound shift in ideological direction, in the values that govern our society. So a fair amount of the book is diagnosing why we have failed, and that we have failed is pretty much an uncontroversial position: Emissions are up 61 percent since we started trying to solve this crisis. What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working.
The environmental movement occupies a funny place on the left. There are parts of it that are genuinely progressive, genuinely left, but it also has deep roots in a much more conservative tradition about elites conserving bits of wilderness for the their hunting and hiking enjoyment. Because of that conservative side of that movement, there has been an allergy to what is seen as politicizing the movement. So the discourse is, “This is beyond left and right, it’s right and wrong, this affects everybody.”
Such a discourse has erased the genuine inequalities and interests.
And it has failed to make some really obvious points, like: This is the essence of a collective crisis; we cannot respond to a crisis of this scale and nature without basically breaking virtually every rule in the free market playbook. We need to regulate corporations; we need to tax the polluters; we need international law. We need all these things we’ve been told we can’t have. We need to intervene in the market. We need to subsidize what we want. We need to punish what we don’t want.
The climate crisis hit us at precisely the moment when all of these ideas were falling so radically out of fashion. We moved very far in one ideological direction, and it’s pretty much tied our hands. Think of all the privatization in the 1990s—key years in the climate debate—when our governments were systematically selling off many of the sectors that are most critical for responding: railways, transit systems, energy grids. It would be really useful if we hadn’t sold those off!
And indeed, what I show in the book is that as people start to take climate change seriously, as they are in Germany, where you have this very dramatic energy transition going on, they are having to confront the logic of privatization, and there has been a wave of what’s called “remunicipalization,” where hundreds of cities and towns have voted to take back their energy grids and transition to renewable energy.
I also show how free trade deals are very actively standing in the way of what we need to do. Governments that introduce good green policies get penalized. I live in Ontario, and we had a good green energy plan that set ambitious reduction targets but also had a really great job-creation component that required that anybody who wanted to take advantage of our feed-in tariff program needed to produce a certain percentage of their solar panels and wind turbines locally. It created 35,000 jobs, but it was successfully challenged at the World Trade Organization as an unfair protectionist policy.
Matthew Rothschild: Here in the United States things seem a little harder. We still have market fundamentalism ruling the waves here. What do we need to do here?
Naomi Klein: You need a massive ideological shift. And this idea of trying to avoid it is exactly the wrong approach. The urgency of climate change should bring an existential imperative to doing what we already know we need to do: which is radically shift the pole in the other direction--to the left.
The climate issue can be a real coalition builder between different sectors. We’ve become so siloed. We’ve lost the tradition of broad-based social movements that come together in common cause.
We know there’s a democratic crisis in this country that has to do with people not being represented, not often be allowed to vote, and the tremendous power of corporate money over politics. And this stands in the way of pretty much anything progressive that people might want to do. It certainly stands in the way of climate action because we’re up against the richest sector in the world, with the deepest pockets.
They don’t just have money to bribe; they have money to burn. And they do it.
Matthew Rothschild: They’re going to extract every drop of fossil fuel until the Earth burns up, if we don’t stop them.
Naomi Klein: This is what has really kicked off the fossil fuel divestment movement, which I think is a real sign of hope: the fact that we see divestment movements on hundreds of university campuses, within faith organizations, trade unions, pension funds, city councils. This was catalyzed by some explosive research out of the U.K., the carbon tracker research, that calculated how much fossil fuel companies have in their proven reserves and compared that to how much carbon that scientists tell us we can burn and still stay below the agreed upon temperature target of 2 degrees Celsius. The researchers found that the companies already have five times more carbon in their proven reserves, already counted in their bottom line, than our atmosphere can absorb. So their business model is at war with life on Earth.
What’s happening with divestment is pretty critical not just because people are moving their money and potentially reinvesting it in some of the things we need as we wait for governments to act, but also because fossil-fuel profits are being delegitimized in the public debate. Any time people make the argument that these are morally illegitimate profits, therefore we want this public interest institution to separate itself from them, that brings us one step closer to a polluter-pays framework. If those profits are too morally illegitimate for Harvard to profit from, then the public also has a right to those profits to pay the costs for this transition.
Think of the tobacco companies, which became so delegitimized that, through a combination of public policy and court rulings, we were able to harness a good deal of those profits to pay for public health campaigns to get people to quit smoking. That’s the kind of model on a larger scale we need to help pay the bills for the climate crisis that’s already locked in and also to transition us away from fossil fuels.
Matthew Rothschild: Are there other signs of hope beyond the divestment movement that you can point to?
Naomi Klein: Yeah, I was tremendously heartened by the People’s Climate March in New York City.
Matthew Rothschild: What was that like? I wasn’t there.
Naomi Klein: It was an amazing day, and it was a day that was the result of a huge amount of work leading up to it. But even so, talking to some of the key organizers, everyone was surprised by just how big it was. It was beyond the wildest hopes and expectations to have 400,000 people in the streets.
But the thing to me that was most exciting, beyond the numbers, was the diversity of the march. I’ve been to a lot of climate demonstrations that were just a sea of white, and a march of the NGOs that didn’t have any kind of grassroots urgency.
What’s really shifted, which I chronicle in my book’s final section, “Blockadia,” is that there is a new climate movement, and it is the flip side of the fossil fuel boom we’ve been living through. This fossil fuel frenzy has set off its own opposition. I used to say about the WTO protests that we should thank the WTO because they built our coalitions for us. There is a way in which the fossil fuel companies have inadvertently built our movement in the past few years with their sheer ambition, with their sheer chutzpah, going into so many communities simultaneously.
And hey, we found each other, in part thanks to social media. And what was beautiful about the march was that a lot of these virtual connections for a day became physical as people came together, and all these parts of Blockadia marched in the streets.
The other thing that really gave me hope was seeing frontline communities that are downstream from extractive projects dealing with cancer clusters and high asthma rights really marching for their lives but also marching for the hope of a more economically just future. Trade unions were out in huge numbers marching for climate jobs, marching for the kind of infrastructure and social service investments that will get us out of this crisis.
This is really key: At the heart of our climate failure has been this urgency gap between the two sides in this debate, where you have the fossil fuel companies and the big agribusiness companies that understand they have huge amount to lose should we start taking climate change seriously. And they fight really hard, and they fight really dirty. And on the other side, you have some great climate activists, but you also have a lot of liberals, who care about climate change on a good day, but if anything else comes up it goes to the bottom of the list.
That’s why we need a climate justice response, which says, we need to put the frontline communities first in line to benefit from this transition, we need responses that close the inequality gap, that bring resources to people who need it most. And we need this approach not just because it’s morally right, but also because it’s the only way we’ll win. The only way you can win a battle against forces that have as much to lose as the fossil fuel companies and their allies is by building a movement made up of a lot people with a great deal to gain. And that’s what the climate movement has never really had in its Big Green manifestation. It’s been this abstracted issue you care about because it’s the right thing to do. That’s been because the justice side has been neglected.
Matthew Rothschild: You’re reminding me of a passage in This Changes Everything where you say it’s just not enough to meditate and go to farmers’ market and not drive a car, or, in my case, to drive a Prius. We’ve got to do more than that. What is the more than that you want us all to do?
Naomi Klein: The more than that is joining a movement and fighting for the regulatory changes we need. We always have to remember we’re organizing in the rubble of this successful ideological onslaught. And part of the success of that onslaught has been the recasting of us purely as consumers. It has been so successful that often the first question I get is, “What is the one thing I can do?” In other words, “What is the one consumer change I can make?” Because we’ve been trained so much to see ourselves as consumers. Farmers’ markets matter, and it’s better to bike than to drive, and it’s better to drive a Prius than an SUV, but we can’t mistake that for political activism. That’s not the same thing.
One thing I would just add is that things like farmers’ markets and sharing banks at a community level do matter because they show what’s possible, and they show that this isn’t punishment. In fact, it improves our quality of life and it strengthens community.
And that’s a climate response. We’ve already locked in some pretty heavy weather. One of the most important things we need to do to prepare for that weather is not just to build stronger seawalls but to build stronger communities, where people know each other and look after each other during crises. So I don’t mean to belittle all of that, but we also have to do political organizing.