Naomi Klein’s Inconvenient Climate Conclusions

Published on
by
The New York Times

Naomi Klein’s Inconvenient Climate Conclusions

by
Andrew C. Revkin

Author and activist Naomi Klein. (Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times)

Naomi Klein, the author of a string of provocative and popular books including “The Shock Doctrine,” recently took on global warming policy and campaigns in “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” a much-discussed cover story for The Nation that has been mentioned by readers here more than once in the last few weeks.

The piece begins with Klein’s conclusion, reached after she spent time at a conclave on climate sponsored by the libertarian Heartland Institute, that passionate corporate and conservative foes of curbs on greenhouse gases are right in asserting that a meaningful response to global warming would be a fatal blow to free markets and capitalism.

She challenges the environmental left to embrace this reality instead of implying that modest changes in lifestyle and shopping habits and the like can decarbonize human endeavors on a crowding planet.

Please dive in. The piece is particularly relevant this week given the continued standoffs and disconnect between stated goals and behavior at the climate treaty talks in Durban, South Africa. Whether you embrace or dispute her conclusions, the article is a worthy and substantive provocation. I disagree with her in pretty profound ways, yet some of her points echo my assertion awhile back that greenhouse-driven climate change is “not the story of our time” but a symptom of much deeper issues. I contacted Klein, who kindly spent quite a bit of time engaging in an e-conversation about her argument. Here’s our chat:

Q.

First, I was happy to see you dive into the belly of the many-headed beast challenging the need for greenhouse-gas cuts (as was clear from your piece, you recognize that there’s no single species called “deniers”). There are lots of slings and arrows awaiting anyone exploring this terrain, as was the case with the Heartland meeting in 2008. What prompted you to do an in-depth look at global warming stances and the issues underlying this “crisis”?

A.

I got interested after attending the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. Like a lot of people who watched that train wreck up close, I came away wanting to understand the massive gap between the euphoric expectations of the environmental movement and the real political outcomes. When I got home, I was stunned by a new Harris poll that showed that the percentage of Americans who believed in anthropogenic climate change had plummeted from 71 per cent to 51 per cent in just two years. So here we were thinking that the world was on the verge of some kind of climate breakthrough while a large segment of the U.S. population was rejecting the science altogether. I wanted to understand how that could have happened.

I had a bit of an “a-ha” moment reading this paper by the excellent Australian political scientist Clive Hamilton, in which he argues that a great many American conservatives have come to see climate science as a threat to their core ideological identity. Then I read Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, which explains that many of the key scientists behind the denier movement hold a similar point of view – they are old-school Cold Warriors who came to see fighting environmentalism as a battle to protect “freedom” and the American way of life.

But as I read all this, I found myself thinking that from within the hard-right worldview, these responses were entirely rational. If you really do believe that freedom means governments getting out of the way of corporations and that any regulation leads us down Hayek’s road to serfdom, then climate science is going to be kryptonite to you. After all, the reality that humans are causing the climate to warm, with potentially catastrophic results, really does demand radical government intervention in the market, as well as collective action on an unprecedented scale. So you can understand why many conservatives see climate change as a threat to their identity. Too often the liberal climate movement runs away from the deep political and economic implications of climate science, which is why I wrote the piece. I think we need to admit that climate change really does demand a profound interrogation of the ideology that currently governs our economy. And that’s not bad news, since our current economic model is failing millions of people on multiple fronts.

Q.

Your examination of liberals’ views appropriately reveals the unwillingness – at least of “mainstream” liberals? – to acknowledge the full scope of what would need to happen on a world heading toward 9 billion people seeking decent lives. Certainly others — e.g., Growthbusters and the Post Carbon Institute — have not.

But you also seem to presume that the only strategy that can work is “radical government intervention,” when there are other approaches that have gained some traction — including no-brainers like strengthening standards and incentives for energy efficiency and conservation (which surveys show have very wide support, including among Republicans outside the obstructionist fringe, see p.5 here) while reviving long-eroded basic research and development in basic energy-related sciences. (Even George Will has warned the new Republican power brokers against neglecting science.)

A.

I agree that some market incentives and R&D investments are part of the solution, and I say so in the piece. But do I think they can get us to 80 per cent emissions reduction by mid-century? No. Not everything is win-win, some very powerful players are going to have to lose if we ever decide to get serious about climate change, which is why the denial movement is so well funded. A recent example is the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, which I have been a part of. We all know that real solutions lie in shifting to renewable energy. But in the meantime we also need to ask our governments to say ‘no’ to the dirtiest extraction projects on the planet – projects that, if fully realized, would make catastrophic climate change far more likely. And since the eighties, our governments have gotten really bad at saying no to corporations, in large part thanks to the triumph of the no-intervention (except when we need a bailout) “free-market” ideology represented by the Heartland Institute.

Investment in public infrastructure is another form of government intervention in the market – not just R&D but building public transit systems and smart grids, and shoring up levees and sea walls and the like. There is no question that robust public infrastructure is key to both reducing emissions and preparing for the heavy weather that we cannot avoid. Yet for the right-wing think tanks that sponsor the Heartland conferences (not to mention the modern-day Republican party), this is ideological heresy. Their whole reason for being is to shrink the public sphere in the name of low taxes and the benefits of privatization. What I’m arguing is that the idea that we can win the climate fight without engaging in ideological battle over these core questions about the role of government has always been a fantasy. Trying to dodge this fight is a big part of why we lose, and we need to get over it. It’s no coincidence that the countries with the most enlightened climate policies are also, overwhelmingly, the most social democratic.

And by the way, it’s not just that most of the big green groups avoid the growth question (with notable exceptions, as you point out). It’s that the solutions that groups like EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) have pushed are very often consumption based: buy these light bulbs, drive a hybrid, etc… And often these changes make sense. But the not-so subtle impact of putting so much emphasis on individual shopping habits has been to reinforce both consumerism and individualism. Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser have written some wonderful stuff on this. In this report, for example, Crompton argues that environmentalists need to do more to challenge the individualistic worldview in their campaign work.

This is particularly salient in light of the social science I reference in my article, particularly the research coming out of Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, which has found that the major determinant of whether a person rejects the scientific consensus on climate change is whether they have a strongly “hierarchical” or “individualistic” worldview. One set of stats that didn’t make it into my piece: 78 per cent of subjects who display an “egalitarian” and “communitarian” worldview believe that most scientists agree climate change is happening (which is true) – compared with only 19 per cent of those with a “hierarchical” and “individualist” worldview.

For me, it follows from this that part of being an effective environmentalist is trying to win more people over to a worldview in line with the laws of physics and chemistry, rather than offering shopping advice and touting “market-based solutions.” Put another way: if we know that aggressive regulation and rebuilding the public sphere through collective action are integral to meeting this challenge, then we have a responsibility to say so, and to defend the worldview behind those policies.

Q.

You note that China, to which much of the world has ceded its manufacturing, is unabashed about its thirst for coal and other resources. But when that reality is combined with China’s (and India’s) prime imperative of sustaining growth, and with projections showing that nearly all of the growth in emissions of CO2 in the next couple of decades is coming in fast-emerging developing countries, it’s hard to see your prescription having any impact where it matters — in the atmosphere.

A.

I’m not sure why you think my prescriptions wouldn’t have an impact. A big part of what I’m arguing for is a major rethink of so-called free trade. China and India’s massive spike in emissions are intimately linked to their governments’ frenetic embrace of this export model of development, which always sacrificed environmental and labor standards in the name of rapid economic growth. (Arundhati Roy’s latest collection, “Broken Republic,” is indispensible for understanding how much resistance there is to this model within India.) If we in the Global North slow down trade by re-localizing our economies in sensible ways, that kind of meteoric rise in emissions slows down too.

Of course the need for a higher standard of living is painfully real in China and India, which is why another piece of the puzzle that I touch on in the piece is “climate debt,” something I’ve been writing about for several years now. Basically the argument is that we who live in the industrialized countries that emitted most of the carbon that created the climate crisis have to acknowledge our historical responsibility, first by leading the way on emission reductions, then by offering assistance to countries that did little or nothing to cause the crisis but are suffering the worst effects. That assistance can take many forms, from debt forgiveness to technology transfers, to direct economic support (perhaps through a tax on financial transactions). This assistance will provide opportunities for poor countries to meet their development goals in ways less ecologically costly than extraction-based exports.

Once again, the right understands this reality very well, which is why the Heartland crowd likes to claim that climate change is a socialist conspiracy to redistribute wealth. It’s not a conspiracy, but it’s absolutely the case that climate change raises very troubling questions about the true costs of the wealth that has accumulated in the Global North. It’s also the case that climate talks will remain virtually deadlocked until our governments deal with this thorny issue of historical responsibility. Again and again, this is the issue over which the talks stall.

Q.

Back in 2007, I conceived and spearheaded our “climate divide” package documenting how rich emitters were already insulating themselves from climate risk through wealth and technology, so I’m very cognizant of that issue.

But in 2009, as I reported more and more on the inherent threat of climate extremes in some of the world’s poorest places (sub-Saharan Africa, particularly) I became concerned that the uncertain impact of greenhouse-driven warming paled beside other drivers of risk (persistent poverty, doubling populations, and the existing pattern of super-drought). [These factors] would completely dominate, or at least obscure, a greenhouse contribution for decades to come.

As a result, Somalia is emblematic of what could be coming, but in no way is the human devastation there evidence of greenhouse-driven disruption.

Even if real, new adaptation money ever shows up, this guarantees intense competition for it among nations with differing levels of confidence in the source of their climate-related injuries, as described here and here.

Thoughts?

A.

There is no doubt that climate assistance can be highly divisive, especially if countries are fighting over scraps. But in a way, I think you’ve just made the argument for why climate change forces us to have a deeper discussion about failed paradigms. The countries that are most vulnerable are those that have been laboratories for neo-liberal economics and Cold War (or “War on Terror”) dirty wars, leaving behind non-existent public infrastructure and lots of angry guys with guns (as Christian Parenti shows so well in his new book, “Tropic of Chaos”). This is precisely why I argue that climate change isn’t an issue, it’s “a message,” telling us that we need radically new ways of thinking about progress and power. Otherwise we are just dealing with the symptoms.

Q.

On us leading the way, it’s fine to think this would result in others de-carbonizing, and I’m all for the moral imperative of the established emitters leading the way, but a lot of discussions with folks in (or deeply analyzing) developing countries over the years provide me with little confidence that the Alphonse-Gaston stasis  would be broken by us stepping first.

A.

I’m slightly more optimistic. China and India have already invested heavily in emission reducing technologies, despite the fact that they are not required to do so under Kyoto.  In fact China has been doing so much, the U.S. has challenged its renewable energy policies at the WTO (another argument for why “free trade” is a menace to climate action). I’m convinced that if the U.S. had come to Copenhagen with science-based emission targets, it would have been a game changer. Partly because when the U.S. refuses to accept its historical responsibility, it strengthens the hand of developing country politicians who want to cloak polluting, destructive and often corrupt development practices in anti-imperialist rhetoric.

But it’s also the case that these governments are under intense popular pressure within their own countries to adopt less ecologically damaging policies. (This will be very clear during the upcoming summit in Durban, a city with a highly mobilized and militant movement against environmental racism. See: groundwork.org.za.) China’s environmental movements are also formidable, as are India’s, though they often express themselves as battles against mining or mega-dams. If developing country governments are no longer able to play the anti-imperialist card to defend dirty development, these movements will be much better positioned to win significant environmental victories.

A great recent example is Bolivia: Evo Morales’s government has championed the idea of “climate debt” at the UN, but at home Morales has been pursuing development projects that don’t match his rhetoric of environmental concern. Over the past few months, Morales has faced an internal uprising, led by indigenous groups, and was forced to make significant concessions. So part of what we need to be thinking about is: what policies are most likely to empower environmental defenders in the Global South? And one of them is for us to stop being such easy villains. When it comes to politics, I guess I don’t believe in any kind of stasis, as this autumn’s “Occupy Wall Street” explosion attests…

Q.

[This question was posed yesterday, considering Klein's argument along with similar prescriptions from David Roberts of Grist and Joe Romm at the Center for American Progress (read Romm's capping thought in the linked post).] One question that’s bubbled up for me is whether your (and David Roberts’ and Joe Romm’s) push for a drastic approach could be seen as simply a looking-glass version of “shock doctrine”?

A.

I think we’re all trying to avoid the really big shocks that would likely come with the temperature increases we are locking in, and that we aren’t calling for targets that are more drastic than those many countries have already agreed to in principle, then betrayed with their actions (certainly that’s the case with my own country’s actions — Canada).

Shock Doctrine, as I define it, is a purely opportunistic, anti-democratic tactic, designed not to solve problems but to exploit them. We are trying to solve the problems, at their root. Moreover, I would argue that Obama won an electoral mandate in 2008 for serious climate action, and simply lacked the courage and commitment to follow through with the leadership necessary to turn his promises into policy. He can blame Congress, but we know he has never led, so we don’t know what real leadership would have produced.

Any notion that Roberts, Klein or Romm will come up with a communication approach or political innovation or “Occupy”-style campaign that could produce the pace of change they seek where it matters (think, again, of India, China and regions with no energy choices outside of firewood, dung or kerosene) is as doubtful to me as my notions of fostering a culture of innovation, care and connectedness may be to them.

And we’re all almost certainly wrong in one way or another in any case, given how both nature and technological leaps continue to surprise the best planners and analysts. I also don’t share former Scientific American editor John Rennie’s confidence that politicians, led by public conern, will someday set their agendas based on the “objective facts” on climate risk.

This is how Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain  described the climate policy challenge in 2005 and, if anything, his statement is more germane now given prospects for prolonged international financial ills: “The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge.”

In a situation like this, as I wrote in a reaction to Rennie, I see powerful logic in taking steps on energy and resource conservation that are no brainers, while building the capacity for people to be adaptive, alert, innovative, caring and connected and thus capable of sustaining the human adventure with a mix of resilience and inventiveness as signals shift.

Here’s a closing thought.

In her piece, Klein, spends a lot of time focused on the valuable body of social science research I’ve also explored here showing the normal nature of the wide range in human perceptions of global warming (and other kinds of risks saddled with complexity and uncertainty).

Getting comfortable with that reality means getting comfortable with differing views, and with a picture of the path forward that is utterly human — meaning variegated, imperfect, the result of pushing, nudging and pulling, of activism and resistance, invention and inertia, argument and, hopefully occasionally, common purpose.

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