Naomi Klein’s latest blockbuster, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate, is a powerful rallying cry, both less and more radical than you might expect.
Klein calls for a revolution, but not the kind feared by the Right that would overthrow private property, or democracy, or establish a world government. In an interview last month, Klein told Crikey the book was not programmatic, as it does not try to spell out exactly policies that need to be adopted if we are to solve the climate crisis.
“I’m not a purist,” Klein said. “I get attacked on the Left for the fact that this is not a coherent socialist program, because I’m not driven by ideology.”
For Klein, the fault is on both sides of politics and everywhere in between, including the author herself. Environmental crusaders cop it too: This Changes Everything damns the appeasement of fossil fuel interests by conflicted, philanthropically funded “Big Green” groups searching for acceptable market-based solutions, and the billionaire green messiahs like Virgin founder Richard Branson and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who say one thing while doing another.
Klein’s radical call is for us to overthrow our view of the earth — not resource, but source — and our place in it, moving from an extractive system, which takes from nature, to a regenerative system, which protects life by taking and giving back.
Sounds hippie? It isn’t. This Changes Everything is a fierce denunciation of fossil fuels — not just the harmful pollution they create, but also the mindset that desires their industrial exploitation, which Klein traces back to Francis Bacon, inventor of the scientific method, who saw man as master who could “hound nature in her wanderings”, and James Watt, who found nature’s “weak side” when he invented the first coal-fired steam engine in 1776. That is the same year in which Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published, but though Klein ties these two events together, the book does not become a dry economic treatise on the failings of the free market.
Rather This Changes Everything is a cry, like a thousand slogans strung together by meticulous research, to defend life itself: the sacred ability of species to reproduce, of nature to regenerate, which is threatened by continued burning of fossil fuels. From the peer-reviewed study that associated fracking with higher birth defects in Colorado to the little-reported after-effects of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster to the air pollution choking China’s cities, fossil fuels are literally poisoning us, even as they warm the planet. Klein writes:
“Lethal when extraction goes wrong and the interred carbon escapes at the source, lethal when extraction goes right and the carbon is successfully released into the atmosphere.”
The response is Blockadia, the worldwide but localised resistance to increasingly extreme fossil energy, which is forming unlikely alliances between indigenous people (whose native title rights are often the last line of defence against development) and farmers, activists, workers — anyone joined by love of a threatened place and (so often) its life-sustaining water resources.
But Klein wants more than a switch from brown energy to green energy; she wants an end to inequality. No more environmental or human “sacrifice zones” — the dumping grounds that have always accompanied fossil fuel development. No more winner-takes-all.
“There is so clearly no way of responding to this crisis without massive public investment and redistribution of wealth …”
To achieve this, one over-arching principle is clear: polluter pays. Klein — who is also a director of the Bill McKibben-led climate movement 350.org — passionately backs divestment from fossil fuels (and investment in climate solutions), to confer on the industry the same status as tobacco companies:
“It might even create the space for a serious discussion about whether these profits are so illegitimate that they deserve to be appropriated and reinvested in solutions to the climate crisis.”
Higher taxes on fossil fuel companies would fund developing countries that are not responsible for the warming already locked in and that need help to avoid the extractive path out of poverty taken by the already industrialised countries. Klein writes that this is in our own self-interest, because it is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change:
“The resources for this just transition must ultimately come from the state, collected from the profits of the fossil fuel companies in the brief window left while they are still profitable.”
Alive to the possibility she is making an already hard task harder, Klein falls short of outlining the steps that need to be taken to solve climate and inequality at once. She is dismissive of regulatory tools we know might help, like carbon pricing and other market mechanisms, writing of carbon offsets that “the prospect of getting paid real money based on projections of how much of an invisible substance is kept out of the air, tends to be something of a scam magnet”. True, and Tony Abbott would agree, but that doesn’t mean all offset schemes are useless.
Klein writes that “a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income” (because it would give workers an alternative to dirty fossil fuel jobs). That is debatable.
Klein refers often to Germany, where local communities have taken back ownership of their energy grids when the incumbents refused to shift from fossil fuels. In Australia this jars a little, given publicly owned electricity networks have been more prone to gold-plated, carbon-munching inefficiency than their private rivals. But it is true that looming grid privatisations in NSW and Queensland, if they lock in fossil fuel dependence, will be a major setback for climate action in this country. Klein is too dismissive of the search for “miracle” technological solutions to climate change, when the continuing rise of solar, soon with power storage, really does feel like a miracle, close to upending the electricity industry globally.
Klein’s book attacks as “magical thinking” the hope of progressives that solutions to the climate crisis will come easily, drawing heavily on the work of leading UK scientist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who has argued no economy has never achieved the kind of -8% to -10% per annum emissions reductions necessary to give us a solid chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees, and that the tight carbon budget “demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony”.
As Klein told Crikey: “There is so clearly no way of responding to this crisis without massive public investment and redistribution of wealth … I would say the Right understands this and centrist liberals are constantly trying to finesse it and paper over it by claiming that ‘no, we can just have market-based policies and let’s not talk about north-south inequality’, because that’s hard to sell and they’re constantly imagining that there’s going to be some magic formula that makes climate action palatable to extreme conservatives, and it never will be. It is a losing battle.”