A week and a half ago, just as a blizzard was barreling up the East Coast, I traveled to my hometown, Canandaigua, NY, and before a standing-room-only audience of more than 400 at Finger Lakes Community College, had a conversation with author and climate activist Naomi Klein.
Our talk was part of the George M. Ewing Forum, named in honor of the late editor and publisher of our local newspaper. He was a worldly and informed man, dedicated to good talk and a lively exchange of ideas. The forum brings to town a variety of speakers each year, some of them from the area, others not.
The Finger Lakes region is a beautiful part of the country. As has often been said, it runs on water, and as I grew up, there was an increasing realization that what we have is an invaluable natural resource we could be in danger of losing. Over the years, the threats have grown ever more complex with greater hazards revealed as pollution and development have encroached on the landscape. As a result, much of our audience was composed of environmentalists and concerned citizens, including a contingent from We Are Seneca Lake, the grassroots campaign fighting against the use of crumbling salt mines under the hillsides to store fracked natural gas and liquefied petroleum gases. (One of its leaders is biologist, mother and Moyers & Company guest Sandra Steingraber.)
The conversation with Naomi Klein was billed as “Capitalism vs. The Climate: Reflections on the 2015 UN Climate Conference,” and while we certainly spoke a great deal about that recent climate agreement in Paris, our talk ranged more widely as we discussed her life and work, politics, the continuing right-wing denial of global warming, and the climate justice movement.
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the bestseller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She’s a member of the board of directors for 350.org, the global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis. Among many other honors, in 2015 she received The Izzy Award – named after the great writer and editor IF Stone — celebrating outstanding achievement in independent journalism and media.
Klein’s most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, was shortlisted for the 2015 PEN Literary Awards in the nonfiction category. A documentary based on the book, directed by Avi Lewis, was released last fall.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. I began with the most basic question:
This changes everything — how?
Naomi Klein: So the ‘this’ in This Changes Everything is climate change. And the argument that I make in the book is that we find ourselves in this moment where there are no non-radical options left before us. Change or be changed, right? And what we mean by that is that climate change, if we don’t change course, if we don’t change our political and economic system, is going to change everything about our physical world. And that is what climate scientists are telling us when they say business as usual leads to three to four degrees Celsius of warming. That’s the road we are on. We can get off that road, but we’re now so far along it, we’ve put off the crucial policies for so long, that now we can’t do it gradually. We have to swerve, right? And swerving requires such a radical departure from the kind of political and economic system we have right now that we pretty much have to change everything.
We have to change the kind of free trade deals we sign. We would have to change the absolutely central role of frenetic consumption in our culture. We would have to change the role of money in politics and our political system. We would have to change our attitude towards regulating corporations. We would have to change our guiding ideology.
You know, since the 1980s we’ve been living in this era, really, of corporate rule, based on this idea that the role of government is to liberate the power of capital so that they can have as much economic growth as quickly as possible and then all good things will flow from that. And that is what justifies privatization, deregulation, cuts to corporate taxes offset by cuts to public services — all of this is incompatible with what we need to do in the face of the climate crisis. We need to invest massively in the public sphere to have a renewable energy system, to have good public transit and rail. That money needs to come from somewhere, so it’s going to have to come from the people who have the money.
And I actually believe it’s deeper than that, that it’s about changing the paradigm of a culture that is based on separateness from nature, that is based on the idea that we can dominate nature, that we are the boss, that we are in charge. Climate change challenges all of that. It says, you know, all this time that you’ve been living in this bubble apart from nature, that has been fueled by a substance that all the while has been accumulating in the atmosphere, and you told yourself you were the boss, you told yourself you could have a one-way relationship with the natural world, but now comes the response: “You thought you were in charge? Think again.” And we can either mourn our status as boss of the world and see it as some cosmic demotion — which is why I think the extreme right is so freaked out by climate change that they have to deny it. It isn’t just that it is a threat to their profits. It’s a threat to a whole worldview that says you have dominion over all things, and that’s extremely threatening.
Just after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Bloomberg Business Week published a cover story and the cover said, “It’s global warming, stupid.” And now here we are, the two of us sitting here the day after a massive snowfall on the Atlantic seaboard. What’s that telling you, me and the rest of us to think?
That we’re really stupid? [laughter] I mean I do think that Sandy was a turning point. If you look at the polling around climate change in this country before Sandy, that was kind of the low point in terms of Americans believing that climate change was real and that humans were causing it. And I think that there have been so many messages, you know, whether it’s the California drought and the wildfires or the flooding that we just saw in the American South — it’s just getting harder and harder to deny that there’s something really, really strange going on.
We have a structural problem, because you can simultaneously understand the medium to long-term risks of climate change and also come to the conclusion that it is in your short-term economic interest to invest in oil and gas. Which is why, you know, anybody who tells you that the market is going to fix this on its own is lying to you.
And I’ve always been struck, too, by the military’s embrace of the reality of climate change, that they’ve been warning us for years about this. Because that’s why they’re going to have to fight a lot of the time.
Yeah. And I think that’s becoming clearer and clearer as well because — you know, I have to give credit to John Kerry in terms of the fact that he’s been out front making the connection between the civil war in Syria and climate change, that before the outbreak of civil war, Syria experienced the worst drought in its history and that led to an internal migration of between 1.5 and 2 million people, and when you have that kind of massive internal migration, it exacerbates tension in an already tense place.
In addition to that, beforehand you had the invasion of Iraq, which also had a little something to do with climate change in the sense that it was a war that had maybe a little something to do with oil [laughter], which is one of the substances causing climate change.
You also have the military burning these vast amounts of fossil fuels and yet saying global warming is a danger. But speaking of John Kerry, that brings up [the UN climate summit in] Paris. That was a month and a half ago now. Kerry described it as a victory for the planet. Michael T. Klare had said that Paris should be considered not just a climate summit but a peace conference, perhaps the most significant peace convocation in history. What do you think?
Michael said that before the summit, making the argument that if we don’t do what’s necessary in the face of the climate crisis, if we don’t radically bring down emissions and get to 100 percent renewable energy — which we can do very, very rapidly — if we don’t do that, then we’re going to be facing a world of conflict.
That became particularly relevant because two weeks ahead of the summit were those horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and then the world conversation really shifted, you know, almost as dramatically as after 9/11, where it was just like, okay, we were talking about climate change. That conversation is pretty much over and now we’re going to be talking about security all the time.
I was in Paris for three weeks in this period and it was pretty striking that the summit, even though it was in Paris, even though there were I believe 40,000 people who came to Paris for the summit, it barely made the front page of Le Monde and Libération except for a couple of days, because the focus was so fervently on security issues.
So, you know, we need to make the connections, and it’s not — to me it’s not about saying this is more important than security, because that’s not a conversation you can win. I mean if people feel immediately threatened, that is going to trump climate change. It’s about showing the connections and saying these are not separate issues. We live in an interconnected world, in an interconnected time, and we need holistic solutions. We have a crisis of inequality and we need climate solutions that solve that crisis.
So in terms of what to make of Paris, the truth is, I think that the deal that those politicians managed to negotiate, there was all this euphoria. I’ve never seen leaders congratulate themselves so fervently. [laughter] It was truly unseemly. “We are awesome!” Yeah. [laughter]
And I have to say that the reporting was far too deferential, far too credulous. There were headlines like, you know, this agreement marks the end of the fossil fuel era. And then a couple weeks ago there was a piece interviewing executives from all the major oil companies about whether they felt that the Paris agreement was going to impact their business model and all of them [who] agreed to talk said not at all. And Exxon said, “We don’t expect it to impact any of our assets” and specifically said, “We don’t believe this will lead to a single stranded asset.” And now, since we know that the fossil fuel companies have five times more carbon in their proven reserves than is compatible with a two-degree temperature target — and what’s in the agreement is that we should actually try to keep it to 1.5 degrees warming Celsius — if they’re saying it’s not going to impact their assets, what they’re saying is, “Look, this is a nonbinding, non-legally binding, non-enforceable agreement and we’re going to continue with business as usual as long as we can.”
That said, the fact is that there is a very ambitious target in the agreement, [but] no policies to make it a reality, okay? So the agreement says that we pledge to keep temperatures below two degrees and we’ll endeavor to keep them below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now, we have already increased temperatures to one degree Celsius, okay? So we’re already in the dangerous era of climate change. But we can’t stop now. It’s just the nature of it. You know, we’ve already locked in impacts. So 1.5 is an extremely ambitious target. We would need to be cutting our emissions by at least 10 percent a year or more in wealthy countries if we were going to take that target seriously. If you add up all the targets that governments brought to Paris — because the way it was structured is, we have a goal, but because we don’t believe in regulation or anything top down — and this is where the ideology comes in — everybody can just go home and voluntarily say what they’re going to do and then we’ll add it all up and hope it works out. And it turns out, no, it doesn’t work out. It adds up to three to four degrees of warming.
Did you feel that the fact that after the terror attacks there was a clamping down on people being able to demonstrate and protest outside the conference, did that have an effect, do you think, on the meetings?
I do think it had an effect, yeah, I do. There was a blanket ban on demonstrations during the summit. The way the government defined it under the state of emergency was “any gathering of more than three people of a political nature was banned.” And this was quite extraordinary. I pointed out that even George Bush and Dick Cheney didn’t ban protests after 9/11. There was not a blanket ban across the board. And that was what the Hollande government did. And it was a very, very fraught situation for France because regional elections happened during the summit and the Front National, which is the sort of fascist party in France, was gaining in the polls and so the summit became this tool for the Hollande government that was supposed to be a fantastic public relations moment for them and they were bound and determined to get that happy picture at the end where everyone’s cheering and going, “You’re awesome.” And they got it. And I do think that if demonstrations had been permitted, there would have been a different kind of debate, in particular around an issue like agriculture.
Because one of the things that was really striking about the summit is that it was the most corporate sponsored UN climate summit that any of us had ever seen. There had been encroaching corporate sponsorship at previous ones but in France you got the nuclear industry, you got the private water industry, which is very, very strong in France, and these huge agribusiness companies that sponsored the summit. And so they were marketing their product as climate solutions, whether it was so-called drought-resistant GMO seeds, or they call it climate-smart agriculture, which is the new way they’re marketing GMOs, or companies like [GDF Suez], water companies seeing water scarcity as a market opportunity for obvious reasons or the huge nuclear power companies marketing nuclear power as a better alternative to renewables.
So they all had a big megaphone inside the summit because they had access, they were sponsoring, they had a whole forum to themselves. We knew that was going to happen but the streets were supposed to be ours. The streets were the social movements, this was where we were going to be presenting our alternatives. And then we were just told, “No. You have to stay — you’re not allowed on the streets. So you can still have your little alternative summit in the middle of nowhere in the suburbs that nobody’s going to go to.” And that’s the way it played out. So I don’t know that it would have changed the agreement, but I think it would have changed people’s understanding of what happened. I think there would have been a million people in the streets of Paris without that ban. That’s what they were projecting.
And even within the conference center itself, a lot of countries never got to speak.
Oh, it was so tightly controlled.
Because I think that they realized that they didn’t need a consensus, they just needed a majority to get it through.
And it was ugly. There was a moment where it was almost like a test of “will you stand with France? Are you really going to screw France in their moment of need?” It was just ugly. And you’re talking about countries that are fighting for their own survival. They’ve got a lot of skin in this game. So it was a very, very tightly controlled summit. The good thing is that it played out over two weeks — I mean, these are long events — and it was kind of amazing to watch the city get its courage back, because at the beginning of the summit people were really scared and really tentative about being in the streets and really not sure about whether they were being disloyal. But by the end people were ready to take their city back, they were ready to take their streets back, they were ready to defend liberty. This thing in France about liberté, that this is what’s under attack. And the way that we’re going to defend ourselves is that we’re all going to stay home? Or go shopping? As if any of this sounds familiar? [laughter]
But it was particularly striking because it was Christmas shopping season so everything’s lit up and everybody’s shopping. You’re allowed to shop and you’re encouraged to shop and all the Christmas markets are on and all the football matches are on, you just can’t protest. And so at a certain point the Parisians just said, “Screw it, we’re doing it.” And so in the end people did take to the streets again and I felt really lucky to be part of that process of people getting their courage back. And I think it was very important.
We have less than a year now, as of today, of Barack Obama’s administration. What is your assessment of him as an environmental president?
Well, you know, he certainly, in the final year and change in office, he is showing us what leadership looks like. And to me it’s all the more frustrating, in a way, that he didn’t do much more of this starting immediately. What he has done in the last few years shows that there was actually quite a lot of executive power, which people were saying from the beginning. You know, as soon as it was clear, in Copenhagen in 2009, that the Senate was blocking Obama from introducing meaningful climate legislation, the push was for him to use executive authority, use the EPA, use the tool of federal leases, and there was just a refusal to do it. And now we’re seeing it in the final years, but it’s very vulnerable. You know, it’s vulnerable to a next administration. And I’m not just talking about Trump. I’m talking about Hillary Clinton, because [initially] Hillary Clinton was, when it came to the Keystone fight, ready to rubber stamp that pipeline from day one.
So I think he’s doing what needs to be done to be able to say that he’s got a good legacy. But it’s not enough. I always remember the moment after the cap and trade bill fell, after it collapsed, Bill McKibben wrote an article to the environmental movement going, “Look, we tried it your way. We tried the polite lobbying, closed door, not making a fuss, you know, give the guy a chance, let’s compromise route, and it delivered less than nothing. So now we’re going to try something else. We’re going to try street pressure, outside pressure, civil disobedience. We’re going to try being a royal pain in the neck and see if that gets results.”
I think we waited too long and lost some precious time. Because the thing about climate change is, you know, you hear the clock ticking so loudly, right?
There was a video you did for The Guardian last spring in which you said that sometimes capitalism gives us a gift, and that with the decline in global oil prices, the moment was rife for kicking the fossil fuel industry while it’s down. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that a little bit.
Oil has gone from $150 dollars a barrel to below $30 dollars a barrel in a period of 18 months. I mean this is incredible. Nobody predicted this. And, you know, it’s potentially a game changer. But it’s complicated, right? I mean it isn’t just, okay, well, this is going to be good for climate action, because when oil is cheap it encourages people to use oil. It encourages people to buy bigger cars, it encourages people to treat this commodity as if it is cheap, because it is cheap, and not think about the impacts. So we actually need oil to be more expensive. And that’s why this would be an excellent time to introduce a carbon tax.
But this comes back to the sort of central argument I’m trying to put out there, that we are not going to do the things that we need to do unless we engage in a battle of ideas. I don’t know, has anybody read or started reading Jane Mayer’s new book about the Koch brothers, Dark Money? I mean it’s an extraordinary book because it reminds us that we have been living, over the past 40 years, a very planned and concerted campaign to change the ideas that govern our societies. The Koch brothers set out to change the values, to change the core ideas that people believed in.
And there is no progressive equivalent of taking ideas seriously. So we’ve got lots of funding for campaigns for people working on all kinds of different areas but a metanarrative, like the Charles Koch metanarrative — and he’s said it explicitly — is that he is challenging collectivism, he is challenging the idea that when people get together they can do good. And he is putting forward the worldview that we’re all very familiar with that if you free the individual to pursue their self-interest that will actually benefit the majority. So you need to attack everything that is collective, whether it’s labor rights or whether it’s public health care or whether it’s regulatory action. All of this falls under the metanarrative of an attack on collectivism.
So what is the progressive metanarrative? Who funds it? Who is working on changing ideas that can say, “Actually, when we pool our resources, when we work together, we can do more and better than when we only act as individuals.” I don’t think we value that. So here we are in this moment when of course we should be introducing a carbon tax but it’s like almost unthinkable that we could. I mean, tax, we can’t say tax, everyone hates taxes, right?
So we can’t avoid those battles of ideas. We can’t avoid those big discussions about what our values are. Because if we don’t engage in them then we aren’t going to be able to introduce these very simple policy solutions. So yes, okay, the argument I made about the oil price shock is this creates the conditions where we could really change the game but we’re not going to be able to do it if we’re not willing to talk about an aggressive carbon tax. But to me, I think the Koch brothers are so interesting in the sense that it really does show us how much ideological ground we’ve lost. They never take their eye off it.
Charles Koch was asked recently whether he feels he has had enough influence. And his answer was revealing, he said, “Well, they haven’t nationalized us.” That’s his concern. So then you think about it, we would never, it would be so unthinkable to just talk about, well, why don’t we nationalize Koch Industries? That’s a crazy thing to say, but he’s thinking about it.
He’s also worrying about, “If I spend $900 million dollars on this election, by God, I want to get something back for my money.” And it’s frightening what he expects to get. But he’s disappointed in all the candidates, he said in that same interview.
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Yes, he’s disappointed but he knows it could be worse. It’s amazing how much money they need to spend. Another way of thinking about it is it’s extraordinary how much money they have to spend and they don’t always win. That’s amazing.
And I do think it’s going to get harder for fossil fuel companies. It really is going to get scary. And they’re terrified of the Exxon investigations because if Exxon has been systematically misleading the public, if they knew, all of this is going to be coming out, then this raises huge questions about the legitimacy of their profits. And Exxon is the most profitable company in the history of the world, $42 billion dollars in profits in a single year. And here we are unable to pay for public transit, unable to pay for the kinds of infrastructure that we need to deal with the crisis that they have created.
This is a conversation that they’re going to really try to have not happen. And I know there are people here who are working on a carbon tax. And it’s great but often you’ll hear people say, “Well, it has to be revenue-neutral. It has to be fee and dividend. Don’t call it a tax.” Because we accept the Koch framework as a premise that if we’re going to take money from people we have to give it all back, all of it. That’s what fee and dividend means, it means we will tax you and we’ll give you the exact same amount back that you gave us. That leaves the government with nothing. So what are you going to use to pay for transit? What are you going to use to pay for a renewable energy grid? How are you going to get to 100 percent renewables? We have to talk about the fact that we need more money. It has come from somewhere. So I think it is really worth studying how the center was moved in that way.
The famous Overton window, moving us rightward. And the degree, just going back to what you were saying about the degree of denial, it’s just so flabbergasting and I was hoping you would tell the story that you tell about covering the annual meeting of the Heartland Institute and what happened with Oklahoma’s US Senator Jim Inhofe, which is such a great story.
So the Heartland Institute, which is a free market think tank that hosts this annual climate change denial summit, their influence is waning. They’re very interesting, because I think that somehow they managed to market themselves as somehow having some scientific credibility, but they’re not. They are a free market think tank and when we interviewed Joseph Bast, the head of the Heartland Institute, I asked him how he got interested in climate change and he said, very frankly, “Well, we realized that if the science was true that would allow liberals to justify pretty much any kind of regulation, so we took another look at the science.” [laughter] He’s very frank about this.
And in the book the name of the chapter is “The Right is Right” because they’re not right about the science but I believe that they understand the implications of the science better than most liberals in the sense that they absolutely understand that if climate change is real, it is the end of their ideological project. The entire scaffolding on which their attack on regulations, attacks on collective action rests falls apart. Because of course you need collective action, of course you need to regulate corporations, it’s over, it’s game over for them. So they have to do everything possible to deny the science. And what’s amazing to me is how many liberal think tanks devote almost no energy to talking about climate change.
So the issue is how hard it is to change people’s minds when they’re as invested in these ideas ideologically but also funding-wise. Jim Inhofe gets a lot of money from the coal industry. So he was supposed to be the keynote speaker of this particular Heartland conference. It was advertised, people were extremely excited to hear from him. And Joe Bast announced in the morning that James Inhofe was sick and he was not going to be regaling them that morning. People were very disappointed. It came out later — we didn’t know this at the time — I looked into it after, what was wrong with Jim Inhofe because I wasn’t sure, was he really sick or did he just for some reason think it wasn’t a good idea to hang out with these crazies?
And it turns out he really was sick and he was sick because — and he explained this — he’d gone swimming in a lake in Oklahoma and it was in the middle of a heatwave and there was an outbreak of blue-green algae, which is linked to climate change. He basically had a climate change illness. [laughter] And this is why he could not speak at the climate denial conference.
But this did not make him go, “Oh, maybe they have a point.” He sent a letter just saying, “I can’t be there because I’m sick,” basically from his hospital bed going, “Keep up the good work.” [laughter] So people sometimes ask me, “Well, how can I change the mind of my extremely right wing uncle who only listens to Fox News and so on?” And I tell them, “Honestly, I’m not sure that you should devote that much energy to trying to change his mind. You can if you want to but first, there’s a much larger group of people out there who are not that invested in protecting an extreme ideological worldview or protecting their own financial interests who actually probably believe that climate change is real but are scared, don’t know what they can do about it, are sort of in a state of soft denial, like most of us are in, like, ‘Oh, I can’t look at it, it’s just too awful.’ That’s a much better place for us to invest our energy than trying to convince James Inhofe, because if getting a climate change-related illness didn’t impact him in any way [laughter], I don’t think you just laying out the science is going to help.”
I want to change course a little bit — what brought you to this point? How did you become this articulate advocate of this cause? What changed you? When you say, this changes everything, what changed Naomi Klein?
I think my wake-up call was definitely [Hurricane] Katrina. And I was writing the book that I wrote before this, I was writing The Shock Doctrine. And I was in New Orleans during Katrina while it was still underwater and doing reporting. I was there when all the lobbyists were descending on Baton Rouge with their wish lists: Close down public housing. Privatize the school system. And New Orleans, it was just such a horrifying thing to witness firsthand. To me, it’s one of those events that actually becomes more shocking with time. With some things you kind of get used to them, but I think actually what happened in New Orleans, it was so shocking that we couldn’t actually believe it or metabolize it, in particular the fact that African-American residents were given one-way tickets out of their city, forcibly relocated, at gunpoint, people were loaded onto buses. And there was no plan to bring them back. And while they were gone, their homes were bulldozed. I mean this is, to me, the more I think about it, the more shocking it becomes and there was so much happening in that moment that I actually think that we could not fully understand that this was — local residents were calling it genocide and I think they had every right to call it that.
I’ve been pretty apocalyptic up until now, but This Changes Everything is actually an argument for our best chance to build a better society. The flipside of the fact that the right understands — that if the science is true it means their ideological project collapses — is that if the science is true, and it is, it’s an opportunity to put forward another vision for how we want our society to function. We have to do it. There is going to be some kind of adaptation and transition in the face of climate change. There will have to be new infrastructure, there will have to be new jobs. What kind of jobs do we want them to be? Right now in California, 4,000 of the state’s 10,000 firefighters are prison inmates being paid $1 an hour to put their lives at risk fighting fires. That’s what this economic system does in the face of climate change. We could be fighting for them to be living-wage jobs. We could say the people who got the worst deal under the extractive energy model should be first in line to have energy democracy, to own and control their own renewable energy to create jobs and keep skills in communities.
We have examples of this working. Germany has created 400,000 jobs in their energy transition. And so much of it is decentralized and community-owned, 900 new energy cooperatives in Germany. So we can do this in a way that heals wounds dating back to our country’s founding. This can be a process of healing and reconstruction. I think it can be incredibly inspiring. I forget what the question was. [laughter]
I was actually asking how you arrived at this point in your life.
So I arrived at it because The Shock Doctrine is about how our current system deals with crises, deals with shocks. And when I started that book, I was talking about wars. I went to Iraq after the invasion and reported for Harper’s about how the Bush administration was treating Iraq as their sort of playground to introduce extreme pro-corporate policies, like a 15 percent flat tax and to privatize all of Iraq’s industries and to get rid of the labor code and all of that. And I was looking at the history of how economic crises were used to push through extreme privatization policies and we see it happening in southern Europe right now, in Greece and Spain and Portugal.
And then, as I was writing The Shock Doctrine, I started to see it happening after natural disasters. So the first reporting I did was after the Asian tsunami. This was a devastating natural disaster, not linked to climate change, but that tsunami cleared beaches in Thailand and Sri Lanka, in India. And in country after country what we saw was developers using that as an opportunity to push new land laws that allowed resorts to take land from farmers and small fishing boats. Sri Lanka introduced a water privatization bill two days after the tsunami. So my mind started to focus on natural disasters, then Katrina happened. So this is how we got to it. So for me Katrina was like, “Am I seeing the future?”
What I felt when I was in New Orleans was this was science fiction but now. The future’s already here, this science fiction future that we’re so afraid of is already here in most parts of the world. So even though I see an opportunity for the shock of climate change to be a positive transformational moment, and I see that also because when I was researching The Shock Doctrine, I also researched how shocks like the market crash of 1929 became progressive moments and moments to expand democracy and expand participation and the inverse of the shock doctrine.
I believe that climate change could be that if we seized it. But what motivates me is not airy-fairy, la-la, like this is going to be so great, what motivates me is New Orleans. What motivates me is Katrina. What motivates me is that if progressives do not enter this space with a vision of how we respond to crisis that brings us together rather than apart, we are looking at a future of Katrinas because there will be more and more climate shocks intersecting with weak and neglected public infrastructure.
When the successful campaign of the Koch brothers and their ilk, which has systematically defunded the public sphere, intersects with more and more shocks to the system, which climate change generates and also which capitalism just generates on its own through market shocks, like the 2008 financial crisis, what will happen under our current system is that rather than course correct, each shock becomes an opportunity for more and more privatization, which is what happened in New Orleans, more attacks on the public sphere.
So rather than learning the lesson of Katrina, which is if you neglect the public sphere, when shock comes, you will [be] completely unprepared. FEMA can’t find New Orleans for five days. People are abandoned on their rooftops and in the Superdome. The system, the state, is totally nonfunctional, [and] what’s the answer? Privatize the school system, shut down public housing and create this kind of corporate utopia.
And so the problem with climate change is it’s going to keep delivering more and more of these shocks, not just weather shocks, but budget shocks. You think about the price tag attached to an event like Sandy, many billions of dollars. And so it’s going to create bankruptcies. And so what happens? Look at Flint, Michigan, look at what’s happening across Michigan where cities are handing over power because they’ve gone bankrupt to private managers and then you have water crises and layering on top of that it’s not just inequality, it’s racism and fear, security fears. People become more fearful of each other. That’s the other thing we saw in New Orleans. There was this sort of vigilante violence.
So climate change is an accelerant. We often talk about how when you interview a climate scientist like Michael Mann or James Hansen and you say, “Well, did climate change cause this storm?” They won’t say that. “No, it didn’t cause it, but it loaded the dice. So we were going to have the storm anyway but because of climate change you’ve got this super storm.” So what I would say is climate change does that but not just with the weather. If you’ve got a racist society, if you’ve got a problem of racism in your society and then you add climate change to it, then it goes crazy. If you’ve got a problem with inequality and then you add climate change to it, then it becomes sci-fi. So what brings me to this is that I’m not just worried about things getting hotter, and this is what I think that I wish more environmentalists would wrap their heads around: This is not just about things getting hotter and wetter, it’s about things getting meaner. And that’s why we have to talk about values and who we want to be in the face of this crisis.
If you have a culture that treats people like they’re disposable, that doesn’t value people, then, when you confront a crisis like climate change, those values will govern how you confront that crisis. And making a connection between the refugee crisis where the statistic was that 15 children died just this past week off of Greece, I think more than 45 people drowned. So if we live in a culture that allows people to disappear beneath the waves because we don’t value their lives enough, then it’s not that big a step to allow whole countries to disappear beneath the waves, which is what we are doing when we allow temperatures to increase by three degrees, four degrees.
I want to take some of these questions submitted by our audience: ““Of the candidates running for president, who do you believe will most effectively and aggressively move the issue of climate change?”
I think of the candidates Bernie Sanders has by far the best track record, so leaving aside the Republicans, it’s recognized by all the candidates that they’re sort of competing with one another over who’s more opposed to Keystone, who’s more opposed to Arctic drilling, who’s going to prosecute Exxon more and so on. So if we’re just looking at what people are saying, they’re actually pretty close together. Hillary’s climate policies are pretty good. Bernie’s are better.
But if we’re looking at track record, Bernie was standing with us on Keystone from the very beginning and Hillary was on the wrong side of Keystone in the beginning. So obviously I would trust him more, also because of where his money is coming from. And I think her ties to the oil and gas industry and the banks that fund them are really, really troubling. And frankly, I generally stay out of electoral politics and candidate endorsements and so on. And I haven’t endorsed a candidate. But I must say that it’s pretty darn exciting that Bernie and his operation have advanced as much as they have and have proven the critics wrong again and again. And this is a pretty interesting moment where a candidate as radical, if that’s what you want to call him, and plainspoken and certainly as independent as Bernie, could have as much momentum as he has. And I don’t agree with him on several foreign policy issues. And I don’t think he’s a perfect candidate. If I dreamed up who I would like to see, it probably wouldn’t be Bernie. But he’s doing it, so at a certain point you just have to say, “Wow, they’re pulling it off.”
Who’s not running that you would like to see run, Elizabeth Warren or someone like that?
Yes, I would have liked to have seen Elizabeth Warren run. I would have liked to see somebody who looked a little bit like the changing face of America. But that said, this is the person who is saying what needs to be said and who is building a movement that is gaining ground that people said could not be gained. So I had to ask myself, “Okay, well, why aren’t I publicly supporting Bernie?” These next five years are so critical when it comes to climate change. And even looking at what is going to happen based on what we find out in these Exxon investigations, who would we trust to make the most of that? To me it’s absolutely no question. I can’t think of anybody better than Bernie on that front — unless Bill McKibben himself decided to run.
“What is the most viable and efficient source of renewable energy?”
I think the sort of wonderful thing about renewable energy is that it isn’t one-size-fits-all. It really requires you to think about where you live and where you are in nature. And this is why I think when we think about shifting our energy from fossil fuels to renewables, it isn’t just sort of flipping a switch. It really is a paradigm shift because what fossil fuels sold was the illusion that it doesn’t matter where you live, the illusion of separateness from nature and dominance.
This was some of the most interesting research for me when I was writing the book was going back and reading the marketing material for the early steam engines. The way that the Watt steam engine marketed itself to British industrialists and the owners of fleets of ships was, “For the first time, you are the boss. You can sail your ships even when there’s no wind. You can build your factory wherever you want. You don’t have to be next to rushing water.” It’s very specific, right? Because before that you had to build your factories where there was hydropower. So that’s the wonderful thing about renewables, you actually have to think about where you live again. Maybe solar makes sense where you are, wind makes sense. It is not going to be the same everywhere or one will offset the other. I find decentralized renewables, whether it’s wind or solar or small scale hydro, to be most exciting because it decentralizes economic power at the same time that it decentralizes power. So because we face multiple crises, we have a crisis of concentrated wealth and concentrated power, why wouldn’t we seize the opportunity as we transition from fossil fuels to decentralized economic power as much as we can.
“Is it biologically possible to reverse climate change with seven billion people on the planet not just burning fossil fuels but eating, drinking, pooping, etcetera?”
So we’re not talking about reversing climate change. We’re talking about preventing catastrophic climate change, which is the road we’re on. At the same time as we can do everything possible to get to 100 percent renewable energy. It does mean reducing demand. But the issue around energy demand is much more about the consumption habits of a small minority of the world’s population than it is about numbers of people on Earth. It is a relatively small percentage of people on this planet who are responsible for the vast majority of emissions. Thomas Piketty has done a really interesting breakdown of the connection around wealth and emissions, showing that we really are talking about 10 percent of the world’s population being responsible for the vast majority of emissions.
So when we change the subject to population, which is what I think this is pointing to, my concern is that it’s not that population isn’t an issue. But I think that it changes the conversation away from the consumption habits of the wealthy to the procreation habits of the poor, which is convenient for us. But the truth is that where population is growing fastest are in parts of the world that are the poorest and have the lowest emissions, like sub-Saharan Africa. So there are certainly issues around how we consume but I don’t think that population is the overriding issue. I think it’s our consumption habits.
Along similar lines, “Shifting to sustainable organic agriculture is now being touted as a way to capture most of the excess CO2. Is this a real contender for dealing with climate change and why wasn’t it part of the Paris conference?”
Carbon offsetting and not organic agriculture, which is what this question is about, but other ways of using plants to capture CO2, are part of the Paris climate accord in ways that are worrying because one of the things that’s most striking about the Paris climate accord is that the word oil is not mentioned once, neither is coal. They talk about getting to zero net emissions, which is code for “you can emit as long as you plant lots of trees to absorb those emissions.” So there’s a lot of worries around how that will be done, not through organic agriculture but through tree farms and land grabs and the record of those kinds of projects is particularly bad for indigenous people, tends not to be done very equitably at all and is usually just an excuse for us to continue to pollute on the idea that if we plant trees somewhere else it will fix it for us.
But absolutely changing the way our agriculture system works, embracing agro-ecological methods that don’t use fossil fuel inputs and that sequester carbon in the soil is a huge part of the solution. And so is tree planting, by the way. Not to offset our emissions but actually to draw down carbon in the atmosphere that is already there because we are already at 400 parts per million. I’m on the board of 350 because we need to actually get down to 350. But this is a slow process and the best way is to do that, not tree farming but reforestation, sustainable reforestation and also agro-ecological farming.
“How do we activists engage and mobilize people whose lives are too busy, too consumer-oriented, too focused on improving opportunities and fortune for their children to consider climate change the number one political and economic issue that it is?”
It’s a great question and I think that the first way I’ll respond is how we don’t do it. We don’t do it by going, “My issue is more important than your issue. You may be worried about whatever your issue is, you’re worried about feeding your kids, you’re worried about education, but none of that’s going to matter if the world cooks, so you all should care about climate change.” That’s the way to really piss people off. [laughter]
I think that the way you do it is by coming together as a community — it’s something I think that can really only happen locally — and dream together. What would a response to climate change be that addressed the issues that are most important to people? I mean, of course, people are more focused on their kids’ futures and their immediate economic concerns and people are under enormous economic stress right now. And it’s not about saying, “Well, don’t worry about fighting for $15 dollars an hour, you should care about climate change.” It’s about saying, “We can create millions of living-wage jobs in public transit and in renewable energy, in reimaging our cities, we can improve our services, if we take this crisis seriously, if we engage in this battle of ideas.”
So I think politics is always about meeting people where they’re at and I think we have made some real errors in the environmental movement by engaging in this “My issue is bigger than your issue, what does it matter if everything burns?” That really alienates people because so many people in this country are engaged in legitimately very, very urgent issues, whether they’re fighting police violence, criminalization or for jobs that allow them to have a life and support their kids, or health care.
So it’s really about connecting the dots and laying out this vision. And it is an expansive vision and I think we need not to be afraid of that. I think there’s really two camps out there. There’s this sort of scarcity worldview where there’s a finite amount of political energy and we have to get people to care about climate change and not these other issues because our issue is so important. And there’s even a sense among some that maybe climate change is more winnable than some of those other issues. Poverty has always been with us but everybody’s affected by climate change, so we need to focus on climate change instead of that.
And then there’s the climate justice movement. And the climate justice movement is really about marrying the fights for economic and racial and gender justice with the imperative to get off fossil fuels. And I think that’s a much more winning strategy. It’s more complicated in terms of how you build those coalitions. It’s really, really hard to get in rooms with people you don’t usually work with and try to find common ground. But I think that it’s our only chance of winning. And I say this because when you think about the math of fossil fuel divestment, the fact that these fossil fuel companies have five times more carbon in their reserves that is compatible with what our politicians say we need to do, they’re fighting for their survival. That’s why they fight so hard. That’s why they pour so much money into opposition groups and it’s not a coincidence that the Koch brothers made their money in fossil fuels, they have so much to lose if we take this crisis seriously.
And I think that the climate movement has always been hurt by this perception that this is a luxury issue, that this is the issue for people who don’t have more urgent economic issues to worry about. And it’s that kind of idea that this is kind of a bourgeois concern. And so I think that when climate action is married with those urgent needs for jobs and better services and a better quality of life for people, that’s when people will fight to win. That’s when people will fight because they’re fighting for their lives. And they’re fighting not just for the future, they’re fighting for their present. And I think that’s the kind of movement we haven’t had yet. We haven’t seen what that looks like yet.
That’s a great place for us to end. Naomi, thank you so much.