Can Climate Change Cure Capitalism?

Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein; drawing by James Ferguson

Every fall, an international team of scientists announces how much carbon dioxide humanity has dumped into the atmosphere the previous year. This fall, the news wasn’t good. It almost never is. The only time the group reported a drop in emissions was 2009, when the global economy seemed on the verge of collapse. The following year, emissions jumped again, by almost 6 percent.

According to the team’s latest report, in 2013 global emissions rose by 2.3 percent. Contributing to this increase were countries like the United States, which has some of the world’s highest per capita emissions, and also countries like India, which has some of the lowest. “There is no more time,” one of the scientists who worked on the analysis, Glen P. Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, told The New York Times. “It needs to be all hands on deck now.”

A few days after the figures were released, world leaders met in New York to discuss how to deal with the results of this enormous carbon dump. Ban Ki-Moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, had convened the summit to “catalyze climate action” and had asked the leaders to “bring bold announcements.” Once again, the news wasn’t good. It almost never is.

“There is a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response we heard here today,” Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela’s widow, told the summit in the final speech of the gathering. “The scale is much more than we have achieved.” This mismatch, which grows ever more disproportionate year after year, summit after summit, raises questions both about our future and about our character. What explains our collective failure on climate change? Why is it that instead of dealing with the problem, all we seem to do is make it worse?

These questions lie at the center of Naomi Klein’s ambitious new polemic, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. “What is wrong with us?” Klein asks near the start of the book. Her answer turns upside-down the narrative that the country’s largest environmental groups have been telling.

According to these groups, climate change is a problem that can be tackled without major disruption to the status quo. All that’s needed are some smart policy changes. These will create new job opportunities; the economy will continue to grow; and Americans will be, both ecologically and financially, better off. Standing in the way of progress, so this account continues, is a vociferous minority of Tea Party–backed, Koch brothers–financed climate change deniers. Former president Jimmy Carter recently summed up this line of thinking when he told an audience in Aspen: “I would say the biggest handicap we have right now is some nutcases in our country who don’t believe in global warming.”

Klein doesn’t just disagree with Carter; she sees this line of thinking as a big part of the problem. Climate change can’t be solved within the confines of the status quo, because it’s a product of the status quo. “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war,” she writes. The only hope of avoiding catastrophic warming lies in radical economic and political change. And this—again, according to Klein—is the good news. Properly understood, the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere represents an enormous opportunity—one that, well, changes everything. “The massive global investments required to respond to the climate change threat” could, she writes,

deliver the equitable redistribution of agricultural lands that was supposed to follow independence from colonial rule and dictatorship; it could bring the jobs and homes that Martin Luther King dreamed of; it could bring jobs and clean water to Native communities; it could at last turn on the lights and running water in every South African township…. Climate change is our chance to right those festering wrongs at last—the unfinished business of liberation.

Klein begins by presenting the grim math of climate change. The world is, at this point, supposedly committed to holding warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a goal enshrined in a document known as the Copenhagen Accord, which President Barack Obama helped negotiate in 2009. This goal, as Klein points out, “has always been a highly political choice,” chosen more because it is—in theory at least—still attainable than because it actually represents a “safe” level of climate change. (“We feel compelled to note,” a group of prominent climate scientists has observed, “that even a ‘moderate’ warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society.”)

What’s going to determine how much the planet on average warms is how much CO2 gets added to the atmosphere in total. To have a reasonable shot at limiting warming to two degrees, the general consensus among scientists is that aggregate emissions since industrialization began in the mid-eighteenth century must be held to a trillion metric tons. Almost 600 billion of those tons have already been emitted, meaning that humanity has already blown through more than half of its “carbon budget.” If current trends continue, it will burn through the rest in the next twenty-five years. Thus, what is essential to preserving the possibility of 2 degrees is reversing these trends, and doing so immediately.

A simple way to start cutting global emissions would be for all nations to reduce their CO2 output by the same proportion—say, by half. The obvious downside to this strategy is that it would, in effect, reward those countries that have contributed the most to the problem, while punishing those that have contributed the least. (One reason—perhaps the reason—the West is wealthier than the rest of the world is that it figured out much earlier how to exploit fossil fuels.) A more equitable approach would be to ask historically high emitters—and here we are talking about the nations of Europe and especially the US—to cut their emissions more deeply. And indeed, it’s pretty much taken as a given in climate policy circles that if there’s to be any hope at all of hewing to 2 degrees, the EU and the US will have to cut their emissions drastically—by 80 percent or more over the coming decades.

This is a terrifying predicament to find ourselves in. Even warming of 2 degrees may result in “drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society.” Meanwhile, avoiding still-greater warming (and greater dangers) will require precisely those who’ve enjoyed the richest benefits of burning fossil fuels suddenly to forswear the practice. The situation justifies Klein’s sense of urgency and also her sense that there’s a disconnect between the soothing rhetoric of “Big Green” environmentalists and the enormity of the challenge. Can it really be that all that’s preventing us from making the policy changes that would avert disaster is a bunch of “nutcases?”

Klein traces our inaction to a much deeper, structural problem. Our economy has been built on the promise of endless growth. But endless growth is incompatible with radically reduced emissions; it’s only at times when the global economy has gone into free fall that emissions have declined by more than marginal amounts. What’s needed, Klein argues, is “managed degrowth.” Individuals are going to have to consume less, corporate profits are going to have to be reduced (in some cases down to zero), and governments are going to have to engage in the kind of long-term planning that’s anathema to free marketeers.

The fact that major environmental groups continue to argue that systemic change isn’t needed makes them, by Klein’s account, just as dishonest as the global warming deniers they vilify. Indeed, perhaps more so, since one of the deniers’ favorite arguments is that reducing emissions by the amount environmentalists say is necessary would spell the doom of capitalism. “Here’s my inconvenient truth,” she writes.

I think these hard-core ideologues 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 and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody.

Klein goes so far as to argue that the environmental movement has itself become little more than an arm (or perhaps one should say a column) of the fossil fuel industry. Her proof here is that several major environmental groups have received sizable donations from fossil fuel companies or their affiliated foundations, and some, like the Nature Conservancy, have executives (or former executives) of utility companies on their boards. “A painful reality behind the environmental movement’s catastrophic failure to effectively battle the economic interests behind our soaring emissions,” she writes, is that “large parts of the movement aren’t actually fighting those interests—they have merged with them.”

At one point, Klein seems to suggest that some groups have managed to avoid co-option through “clear policies against taking donations from polluters.” But on the very next page she points out that there’s really no way for even the most well-intentioned organization to stand apart from the fossil fuel economy. If donations are not coming directly from “polluters,” they’re coming from them indirectly, via individuals or groups that have made money by investing in polluting industries. Since, as Klein acknowledges, there’s no clear moral distinction between the two, “almost no one’s hands are clean,” and this includes her own. One of the backers of a film that’s being made to accompany This Changes Everything (and that’s being directed by Klein’s husband, Avi Lewis) is the Ford Foundation, which, as Klein herself notes, owns millions of dollars’ worth of stock in Shell, BP, and Statoil.

Klein’s analysis—of the direness of the situation, of the structural nature of the problem, of the generalized direct and indirect complicity—makes it sound as if This Changes Everything is a downbeat book. But it isn’t, or at least it isn’t intended to be. It’s deeply optimistic, indeed some may say maddeningly so. Klein contends not just that emission trends can be turned around in time, but that pretty much everything else that’s wrong with society today—inequality, unemployment, the lack of access in large parts of the world to electricity or clean water or health care—can be righted in the process. Climate change, she writes, “if treated as a true planetary emergency,” could “become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well.”

Early on in the book, Klein explains how she came to this conclusion. It was a few years ago, and she was in Geneva having lunch with Bolivia’s representative to the World Trade Organization, a woman named Angélica Navarro Llanos. Navarro Llanos explained to Klein that she saw climate change as a tremendous threat to her country—among other things, Bolivia depends on glacial runoff for much of its drinking water—but also, potentially, as its best hope. Being poor, Bolivia hadn’t contributed much to the world’s aggregate emissions; it was therefore in a position to declare itself a “climate creditor” and to demand money and technology from richer, “climate debtor” nations.

Up until this point, Klein writes, she hadn’t been much interested in global warming: “I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories.” Meanwhile, she flew so often that she’d earned “elite” frequent flyer status.

Navarro Llanos’s take on the issue got her thinking, not so much about the threat, but about the best hope part. Climate change, Klein decided, was just what was needed to realign contemporary politics—“a people’s shock,” she calls it. It could trigger a global populist movement that would reverse decades’ worth of tax cuts, privatizing, and deregulation, not to mention centuries’ worth of oppression. “I began to see,” she writes,

all kinds of ways that climate change could become a catalyzing force for positive change—how it could be the best argument progressives have ever had to demand the rebuilding and reviving of local economies; to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence; to block harmful free trade deals and rewrite old ones; to invest in starving public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing; to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water; to remake our sick agricultural system into something much healthier; to open borders to migrants whose displacement is linked to climate impacts; to finally respect Indigenous land rights—all of which would help to end grotesque levels of inequality within our nations and between them.

This, of course, is a rather tall order.

Klein spends the final third of her book traveling around the world, visiting communities that are trying to block extractive projects of one sort or another—in some cases gold mines, in others natural gas wells. In these disparate efforts, which together have become known as “Blockadia,” Klein sees signs that just the sort of movement she’s hoping for is, in fact, beginning to build. She spends a lot of time in Canada—she lives in Toronto—with people like Al Lameman, the retired chief of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in northern Alberta. The Beaver Lake Cree have filed a lawsuit arguing that the Canadian government violated its treaty rights by turning its ancestral lands over to tar sands oil extraction, and Klein credits them and other indigenous nations with playing “a central role in the rise of the current wave of fossil fuel resistance.”

She also credits indigenous groups with showing that “Blockadia” isn’t just about blocking things. Toward the end of the book, Klein visits the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana. The Northern Cheyenne are fighting a proposed coal mine not far from the reservation. With a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, they also recently began to train young people to become solar-heater installers.

“Today, the mood among dirty-energy opponents in southeastern Montana is positively jubilant,” Klein writes. “What this part of the world has clearly shown is that there is no more potent weapon in the battle against fossil fuels than the creation of real alternatives.”

What would it take to radically reduce global carbon emissions and to do so in a way that would alleviate inequality and poverty? Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change, a group of Swiss scientists decided to tackle precisely this question. The plan they came up with became known as the 2,000-Watt Society.

The idea behind the plan is that everyone on the planet is entitled to generate (more or less) the same emissions, meaning everyone should use (more or less) the same amount of energy. Most of us don’t think about our energy consumption—to the extent we think about it at all—in terms of watts or watt-hours. All you really need to know to understand the plan is that, if you’re American, you currently live in a 12,000-watt society; if you’re Dutch, you live in an 8,000-watt society; if you’re Swiss, you live in a 5,000-watt society; and if you’re Bangladeshi you live in a 300-watt society. Thus, for Americans, living on 2,000 watts would mean cutting consumption by more than four fifths; for Bangladeshis it would mean increasing it almost by a factor of seven.

To investigate what a 2,000-watt lifestyle might look like, the authors of the plan came up with a set of six fictional Swiss families. Even those who lived in super energy-efficient houses, had sold their cars, and flew very rarely turned out to be consuming more than 2,000 watts per person. Only “Alice,” a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target.

The need to reduce carbon emissions is, ostensibly, what This Changes Everything is all about. Yet apart from applauding the solar installations of the Northern Cheyenne, Klein avoids looking at all closely at what this would entail. She vaguely tells us that we’ll have to consume less, but not how much less, or what we’ll have to give up. At various points, she calls for a carbon tax. This is certainly a good idea, and one that’s advocated by many economists, but it hardly seems to challenge the basic logic of capitalism. Near the start of the book, Klein floats the “managed degrowth” concept, which might also be called economic contraction, but once again, how this might play out she leaves unexplored. Even more confoundingly, by end of the book she seems to have rejected the idea. “Shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint,’” she writes, is “simply not an option today.”

In place of “degrowth” she offers “regeneration,” a concept so cheerfully fuzzy I won’t even attempt to explain it. Regeneration, Klein writes, “is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.”

To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.

Letters

‘Can Climate Change Cure Capitalism?’: An Exchange December 3, 2014