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Climate and capitalism: Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein was at HKW Sunday night for a sold out lecture. Couldn’t get a ticket? Here’s a look at the lively discussion.

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Photo by Kourosh Keshiri

It’s not surprising that Naomi Klein was here to a sold out crowd for her lecture, “The Decision: Capital vs. Climate” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt and it’s not surprising she has so many friends in leftist, green Berlin. Her alter-globalisation manifesto as outlined in 1999’s No Logo and her critical analysis of economic policies in 2007’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism were essentially calls to action and resistance against what she sees as the neoliberal agenda. In her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, she casts a wider lens and addresses the incongruity between market fundamentalism and the maintenance of a healthy and sustainable environment.

The talk saw Klein covering a lot of ground, from the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, to the anti-austerity movements in Greece and elsewhere, to Germany’s energy transition and its continuing dependence on lignite coal production. After the lecture, Klein reinforced her populist likeability by answering questions from the moderator, Twitter users and members of the audience.

When you were in Frankfurt recently, speaking at the protests against the European Central Bank, you talked about a ‘friendly merger’ between the anti-austerity movement and the climate justice movement. What would this look like?

This question of what this merger would look like, I mean, in a way I see climate change as a new lens through which we can see many old problems, and of course it shows all of these connections because everything is inside of climate change. It’s not like an issue like healthcare next to education, it’s like, this is the earth’s atmosphere. We are already underneath this big tent. The coalition is life, really. I came to this issue actually because the argument was made to me that climate change was the best way to win justice for the global south, justice for colonialism. This was an argument that was made to me by a Bolivian trade official. She presented the case to me that I’d never heard before, for climate debt. I made allusions to it during my speech – we’ve been [producing carbon] for two hundred years longer, we have a debt. But that’s not a new issue exactly, because the inequality between north and south was supercharged by the burning of carbon. I mean, coal supercharged the colonial project. It didn’t create colonialism, but it sure put it into hyperdrive, right? So in a way, climate change is only the latest chapter in this story, and I think it deserves to be seen as one story. That’s why I see it as very organic to build coalitions in this way.

Are you optimistic about the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, or should we be skeptical of the degree of change that can be achieved?

I think there is a real danger of repeating this Copenhagen narrative, of overplaying the importance of the summit to save the world. This was the narrative that a lot of big NGOs played into. This is where I think this kind of apocalyptic narrative can get particularly dangerous. In fact there’s a medical condition that psychoanalysts in the UK have coined, called the “Copenhagen Syndrome” to name the depression that people went into after the Copenhagen summit failed, because so many people who were involved in it got deeply depressed afterwards. So I don’t think it’s a joke. I think we need to be realistic and not overly optimistic, I think we need to look at the targets on the books for China, the US and the EU. Look at to what degree the carbon budget looks like. We will not get a science-based deal in Paris, it’s not possible. So I think we need to not go to Paris with that sort of posture of supplication that we went to Copenhagen with, a “Please dear leaders, do this for us”. I think we should put the pressure on for sure, try to improve the targets, and I do believe that the fact that the price of oil is down is significant and it creates some opportunities for the potential to introduce carbon taxes, because when the price of oil is double it’s really tough to ask people to pay more at the pump. But you could introduce a progressive carbon tax, which gives the bottom half of earners more back in credits, and ask more from higher income earners. You could put a pretty hefty carbon tax in place at a moment like this, so I think we should be demanding it. Things can move quickly, a lot can happen in eight months, but not a miracle. I think we should think of Paris as a megaphone for the movement.

How can you gain broad-based support for the climate movement while also allaying people’s fear of implementing profound change in their lives?

The argument I’m making is that a lot of people want change already, you know? And they certainly want change in Greece, it looks like they want change in Spain. There is a huge amount of dissatisfaction with this model. And indeed the other problems created by it are so pressing that one of the biggest problems that I face in making this argument is that people are too focused on those other problems to have mental space to even think about climate change, and I think we see this really clearly in Europe, with how the economic crisis impacted Europe’s climate leadership, right? Leading up to the Copenhagen summit, Europe wasn’t perfect but it was the leading light. And post-2009, with the exception of just a few countries including Germany, the continent abandoned that leadership in the name of economic crisis, and this was true of the left and the right. I quote in my book an interview I did with Alexis Tsipras before he won the election, where he said frankly, “Syriza was a party that used to concern itself a lot with climate change, we used to talk about it a lot.” But he said that since the crisis hit, they haven’t talked about climate change. So I don’t see that the challenge is asking people to give up some wonderful life. The challenge is laying out a clear and persuasive justice-based agenda that clearly shows people why and how responding to climate change can improve their qualities of life. If you take the science seriously, that we need to keep 80 percent of proved fossil fuels in the ground and that represents trillions of dollars of unearned profits that are currently being counted on the ledgers of fossil fuel companies. They fight very hard to protect those profits. They fight like they mean it, they fight with commitment, they fight with creativity, they are willing to do whatever it takes. The problem with climate change is that on the other side we have a lot of people who say they care but not that much, you know? They rank it 20th on the list of things they care about. So if you are able to marry a climate agenda with those things that people care about, like health care, education, jobs, and you make it a bread-and-butter issue, they will fight.

Could basic income policies help to foster pro-climate sectors?

I think basic income actually is one of those policies that isn’t seen as a climate policy, but should be seen as a climate policy for precisely that reason. A lot of the reason why people take jobs that are in dirty energy, or are just simply lousy jobs, you know the kind of jobs that David Graeber writes about, that are just fuelling consumption and pay lousy wages and are just feeding this machine, is because we don’t have a social safety net. And there’s no choice. So I think putting in that net, and helping people get out of that cycle, is absolutely one way that we can address climate change. When I was talking to my friends in Italy about “Blockupy” before it happened, the reason I went to Frankfurt was because my friends in Italy convinced me I should go and make the climate case. But at the time I spoke with them, they were having this vociferous debate about what the slogan of the protests in Frankfurt should be. Should it be, “They want capitalism without democracy, we want democracy without capitalism,” or “The right to be lazy,” which was what a certain faction of them wanted it to be. I think it would have been very subversive for much of Southern Europe to come to Frankfurt under the banner “The right to be lazy”. But I also think they could have made a really strong low-carbon argument around that slogan.

The International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity took place in Leipzig recently. What is your take on the de-growth movement, and can it take a role in the wider climate movement?

I have lots of friends and colleagues in the de-growth movement, and I actually spoke by Skype to that conference in Leipzig. There’s a lot of overlap in the policies that the people in the movement are talking about and the policies I’m talking about in the book. I have said this in the friendliest possible way to my friends in the de-growth movement – as something of an expert on branding – I don’t think de-growth is a good brand. The truth is, I agree that growth is the problem. But just because growth is the problem that does not necessarily mean that de-growth is the solution. Because it’s absolutely clear that we need to grow large parts of our economy. What we need to do is shift to a deliberate economy. Obviously we need to grow the parts of our economy that are going to get us off of fossil fuels. You’re going to grow your energy and transit sector as you transition, but we also can, must, and should grow those parts of our economy that are already low-carbon. The caregiving professions – I think we should recognize nurses as climate workers, and teachers as climate workers, and artists as climate workers. And we should insist that we grow those parts of our economy. And I think that particularly in a time of relentless austerity, when people hear the word “de-growth” I think they just hear, “contraction, ouch”. And I don’t think that’s the right word. I think what we’re talking about is choosing what we want to grow and what we must contract, and being deliberate about it.

Last year’s Cowspiracy by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn looked at the root causes of environmental destruction, and it found the biggest cause was the raising of cattle, not the activities of fracking or coal production. Why does nobody talk about this issue extensively?

Industrial agriculture, particularly cattle-rearing, is a huge contributor to the climate crisis, and it’s another example I think of how we often hear that small solutions are not compatible with the size of the problem, which is the argument you often hear for why we need nuclear power instead of decentralized renewable energy. But then you look at an example like Germany’s energy transition which shows how with the right policies you can move so quickly with many, many small solutions, many small energy cooperatives, many local answers. And the same is true of agro-ecological farming. And many top-level UN studies looking at the climate impacts of agriculture have come to the same conclusion: that agro-ecological farming, which isn’t the same as industrial-scale organics, but has some similarities and is using traditional knowledge and combining it with the best science and using mixed crops, not mono-cropping. This is where I would differ slightly. What some people take away from Cowspiracy is that the answer is voluntary vegetarianism, right? There are different ways to raise cattle, some of which actually encourage carbon sequestration. The way it’s done on an industrial scale does the opposite. For a long time we have placed too much emphasis on individual consumer decisions. I think it is important, and part of what has made people feel hopeless is that a lot of people who care about climate change did all the good things, right? They ride their bike, they take transit, they don’t eat meat, they recycle, they don’t use plastic bags; and emissions are still going up. I mean, in my city they have city-wide composting, they’ll pick it up from your house, but Canada’s emissions are 30 percent higher than they should be under the Kyoto protocol, and that’s because of the Alberta tar sands. It’s been a failure to overemphasise those individual decisions, which creates its own version of the Copenhagen syndrome, because then people go, “Look I did everything and now I’m just going to give up.” The upside of it is that a lot of the things that we do, the lifestyle changes that we make also make us healthier, so we do them anyway with or without climate change, but I do think that we need to do both. Those individual actions, I’m not discounting them, but we also need to be talking about the policies. And that’s true for agriculture as well. I mean, we subsidise the hell out of industrial agriculture. These are policy solutions we should be talking about, not just the individual decision of whether or not you’re eating industrial meat.

What is the importance of civil disobedience, and how does it factor into the climate change movement?

People are engaging in civil disobedience who you would not expect to engage in civil disobedience, and that’s part of what’s giving it its power. [At the Keystone XL pipeline protest] We had people of all ages getting arrested, more than 1000 people outside the White House. It was not your usual suspects. I think a lot of what keeps us looking away from climate change is that there’s such a dissonance between what we feel when we hear these incredibly scary facts and statistics, or when we see these images from disaster zones, and that existential terror that that provokes in us when we realize that our home, our place of safety is becoming unsafe to us. And yet we live in a culture that in every way is taking us in the wrong direction, telling us to buy more, shop more, double down on the same activities. That creates such a powerful sense of cognitive dissonance in us that we can’t stand the reality. One of the things that happens when you join a movement is that it closes that gap between those emotions and our actions, and there’s a real relief in that. I think that’s why civil disobedience is happening – it’s a kind of therapy.