Getting the message
An interview with Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein’s new powerhouse of a book, This Changes Everything, is aptly titled. In it, the best-selling Canadian journalist argues that our collective attempts at solving climate change have failed for so long, that now it’s either change or be changed. That is: either we radically alter our society to get ourselves off fossil fuels quickly; or we will find our lives radically changed by climate chaos.
It’s not all bad news, though. Klein’s book, is an oddly hopeful one. Because such drastic action is needed on climate, she argues, this crisis offers an opportunity: to slash fossil fuel use, we’ll need to rewrite the rules of our lopsided economy, and in the process, we can create fairer societies.
She believes that can happen – if enough of us get on board to change our political culture.
It’s an original, bold look at the climate crisis, which is bound to provoke debate – something Klein is no stranger to (“they say I’m polarizing,” reads her Twitter bio).
The masterfully researched book is by turns a devastating and inspiring journey. Klein meanders through the ashes of past climate policy failures, demonstrating how the goal of corporate wealth has trumped planetary health. However, she also documents the rising power of local activist movements now growing around the globe, demanding (and building) an alternative future.
Leading these movements are many ordinary people who were rudely awakened by oil pipelines and fracking wells on their doorsteps. Yet Klein makes it clear that winning on climate is not just about saying no to fossil fuels, but about building local renewably powered economies at the same time.
Element spoke with Naomi Klein on the eve of her book’s worldwide release.
“There is a way in which climate change is a revelation,” she says. “It is a message telling us that our system is broken.”
Klein is unflinching in her assessment of where decades of international climate negotiations have gotten us: “This incrementalist approach has failed. Emissions are up 61 per cent from the time we started talking, negotiating seriously about emission reduction [in 1992]. That’s a catastrophic failure.”
She traces that failure to a cultural obsession with unfettered market capitalism as the solution to every social problem – a viewpoint that ascended just as the climate crisis was becoming widely understood in the 1980s.
“When you decide, okay we have an existential crisis and we’re going to deal with it by creating a convoluted market of pollution trading, that’s an extremely ideological decision,” she says. “It’s based on an ideology that markets are always better than regulation. But that idea is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even see it.”
“If civilisation is on the line it doesn’t make sense for us to be creating a convoluted market that’s prone to boom and bust and is a fraud magnet.”
She’s quick to point out the ineffectiveness of emissions trading market schemes – including New Zealand’s.
“If civilisation is on the line,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense for us to be creating a convoluted market that’s prone to boom and bust and is a fraud magnet.
“Fraud has been a huge part of the carbon market, and why wouldn’t it be? As soon as word gets out that you’re trading air, guess who shows up?
“We have so many examples of carbon markets failing. We don’t have any of carbon markets succeeding.”
After decades of such failures, we need firm government action, Klein insists. As she argues in the book, that means forcing polluters to pay, while investing in the public sphere (such as transport), and following examples such as Germany’s, where a return to local public ownership of utilities, stimulated by national policy, has sparked a renewable energy revolution.
How to change the political climate to make such reforms possible? That’s a chewier question than how to change our atmosphere. But as child of an activist family, and as a media veteran of popular uprisings around the world, Naomi Klein believes strong social movements can shift the conversation on climate.
“We are capable of coming together in crisis,” she says. “We’ve done it before in history. I believe it’s far more likely that change will come from mass social movements than from glossy NGOs.
“I think it won’t happen on climate until it stops being treated as a narrow environmental issue.”
So she’s aimed This Changes Everything at “people who are engaged on all kinds of other issues,” such as healthcare and poverty, inequality, food – saying, “this is not an issue we can outsource. This is an everybody issue.”
“I don’t believe a positive outcome is by any means guaranteed, and I don’t think it’s easy,” she admits. “But I can see it. I think it is possible, and exciting… I think we can build better societies in the face of this crisis that are fairer, and we can build cities that are more livable and more humane; and we can have stronger communities.
“I’m trying to highlight that path, and trying to share some of that excitement, because the only thing that will make it possible is if more people believe in it.”
With a lack of government action on climate change, author Naomi Klein says strong social movements may be
a force for change. NZH / File photo