Climate Change Is an Opportunity to Dramatically Reinvent the Economy

An interview with author and activist Naomi Klein

Demolition of the cooling towers at the Didcot A Power Station in Oxfordshire (The Guardian/Coleman & Company)

For more than a decade, Naomi Klein has been calling attention to the invisible, abstract concerns that hide in the shadows of global trade: the exploitation of far-off workers, the environmental destruction, the corruption that contorts political systems. In her latest book, This Changes Everything, Klein tackles the unintended but inevitable consequence of fueling GDP with oil and gas and coal: a destabilized climate.

These days, the prevailing mood in response to climate change seems to be one of despair. It's too late. The problem is too massive. But Klein sees something else. She sees a possibility: that a more humane economy can be shaped by aggressively combating climate change. I spoke with her about the opportunity to transform society at the precipice of calamity. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Hamza Shaban: You write that climate deniers are wrong on the science, but compared to liberals, are more clear-eyed when it comes to the political and economic consequences of robust climate action. How so?

Naomi Klein: I’ve spent a fair bit of time hanging out with some of the hardcore climate deniers. And I think they’re very open about the fact that what brought them to this issue is not that they discovered a problem with climate science. It’s that they look at what the science is saying and they realize that if the science is true, it would upend their ideological project—because their ideological project calls for deregulation, austerity cuts, privatization of the public sphere, deregulated free trade. And if you just glance at the kinds of policies we would need in order to take the science seriously, it would mean strong regulations of the corporate sector; it would mean big investments in the public sphere to prepare ourselves for heavy weather and to lower our emissions rapidly. It would also mean transfers of wealth, which they’re not very big fans of.

So they’re faced with the problem that either the science is true and their ideology is in deep trouble, or the science must be a vast conspiracy and there ideology is fine. And they’ve chosen the latter for obvious reasons. But I do believe they understand that if we were to take the science seriously it would require upending the neoliberal consensus.

Shaban: In your last book, The Shock Doctrine, you argue that in the past four decades, corporate interests have used extreme shocks—natural disasters, wars, financial meltdowns—to ram through policies that blunt regulations, cut social spending, and push the privatization of public projects. Now you argue that climate change can be the “people’s shock.” What do you mean by that?

Klein: What I’m arguing in this book is that we need to return to the progressive tradition of responding to deep crisis by trying to get at the root causes of the crisis.

And the best example of that is the way in which the progressive movement responded to the Great Depression. It became an opportunity to change the way we organized our economies, to regulate banks, to launch social programs that got at the roots of inequality.

If we really believed that climate change is an existential crisis, if we believed climate change is a weapon of mass destruction, as John Kerry said, why on Earth would you leave it to the vagaries of the market? Can you imagine if after 9/11 if President Bush had just said: “You know, our liberty and way of life has been threatened so I’m going to propose a market solution to terrorism.” The truth is when our elites really believe that they face a crisis, as they did when the banks collapsed, they bend all kinds of free-market rules. That’s why the climate march happening this weekend is significant. Because it’s regular people literally sounding the climate alarm: We consider this to be a crisis even if our leaders are behaving as if it’s not. And I think that our only hope is in mobilizing from below, to say we believe in science, we believe that this is a crisis, and therefore we want to act like it.

Shaban: One of the developments in climate politics is the acceptance by liberal politicians and elites of an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, the idea of clean coal, incrementalism, minor lifestyle changes, carbon trading, and reducing the issue to the narrow frame of energy security. Do you think this is doomed to fail? Is this another kind of climate denialism?

Klein: Just to be clear, I think this is denying the politics of climate change, not denying the science. But I don’t think it’s doomed to fail; I think it’s failed.

A large part of the wonky climate-change world is still trying to prove that you can respond to climate change within the context of neoliberal orthodoxy. That it can be solved by putting just a few market mechanisms in place and then you can, as they say, “tax and relax,” and then we don’t need to have a full-throated ideological debate about what kinds of values we want to govern our society. And that’s where I think there is a form of liberal climate denial going on. They may not be denying the science, but they may be denying the implications of the science.

Shaban: Over the summer, the journalist Ezra Klein wrote a story at Vox listing the reasons he’s a climate pessimist, with the headline 7 Reasons America Will Fail on Climate Change.

Klein: I read that piece and I found it incredibly revealing. Ezra Klein is a very smart liberal who believes in reformist change. And I think it’s hard to define what the difference is between a radical and a liberal. To me, I’ve always thought that the real difference is that liberals believe in change from the inside and are generally suspicious and slightly off-put by the messiness of social movements. And leftists and radicals believe that social movements are responsible for the greatest progressive victories that we have ever won.

What was interesting to me about Ezra's piece, and also frankly a lot of what I’m hearing from journalists as I launch the book, is I expected to be having debates about the science, about the policy. But basically what I’m being told by liberal journalists after liberal journalist is: “I agree with you about the science and the policy prescriptions. Where I don’t agree is the idea that social movements can change things.” I think that climate change is really highlighting this essential difference between radicals and that sort of don’t-get-too-excited-about-anything fetish-for-centrism that is so powerful in American politics, in particular among liberals.

Now I thought there was something uniquely bizarre about putting that in the form of a list. I was imagining other listicles throughout history like: 7 Reasons Slavery Will Never Be Abolished. The Top 8 Reasons Women Will Never Get to Vote. Luckily there were crazy radicals who believed otherwise. And it wasn’t because they figured out the averages and really crunched the numbers and made a chart.

Shaban: Changing the Earth’s climate in ways that will be incontrovertibly disastrous seems to be easier to accept than the prospect of altering the fundamental, growth-based, profit-seeking logic of capitalism. Why is that thinking so embedded in our society?

Klein: It’s easier to imagine ourselves drifting toward a climate meltdown than it is to imagine ourselves deliberately changing the economy. But it’s worse than that. For a lot of powerful people it’s easier to imagine deliberately intervening in the Earth’s climate system through geoengineering—trying to dim the sun and fertilize the ocean—than it is to change the economic system in ways that would challenge the logic of unfettered growth.

Think about that. It is seen now in many beltway circles to be more serious to talk about dimming the sun than to talk about saying no to fossil-fuel pipelines that aren’t built yet.

Shaban: Students across the U.S. are demanding that their universities divest their endowment holdings from fossil-fuel companies—can you explain the long-term rationale for this kind of activism?

Klein: I think that the divestment movement is really driven by a sense of what is right and wrong, what is moral and immoral. First and foremost, the divestment movement is about naming fossil-fuel profits as odious profits.

In terms of an economic argument, it’s less about bankrupting Exxon Mobile, or having a serious impact on the bottom lines of these companies, but they are part of a movement that is trying to delegitimize these companies and eventually turn them into the kinds of pariahs that tobacco companies became. That impacts politicians being willing to take fossil-fuel money, and could impact media outlets being willing to take fossil-fuel money.

Many students who I talk to are most excited about the idea that they cannot only demand that their school divest from fossil fuels, but also that they invest that same money in a just transition away from fossil fuels. That’s where you can start to have more of an impact, where alternatives become more economically viable and provide more competition for the fossil-fuel companies.

Shaban: Why is the concept of global equity so important and why is it so difficult to enact in international negotiations?

Klein: It’s important for practical reasons because the issue of whether countries that started emitting first are going to start cutting first, whether there is going to be a transfer of resources to help the Global South leapfrog over fossil fuels and also adapt to heavier weather that’s already locked in is always the central debate at every U.N. climate summit and always the issue over things breaking down. When the U.S. didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, this was the reason. It was because it was seen as unfair that China and India were not subject to the same emissions cuts because the U.S. is a country that always wants to pretend it was born yesterday, that history doesn’t exist. This is a global challenge. It shows that we are connected. We all have our reasons to act equitably but it’s extremely challenging.

Shaban: One of the themes of your book is stitching together a grand political coalition that extends beyond the environmental movement. You suggest that we might be better off collectively demanding a minimum income than advocating for a carbon tax. Can you elaborate on this?

Klein: If we were to adopt what the Europeans call a “strategic de-growth policy” where we were to engage in that kind of serious transition and try to lower our emissions in line with what scientists are telling us, then we need to make sure we do that equitably. The only way you are going to have sign-on is if people are not being asked to choose between having a job and destabilizing a climate. One of the ways to do that is to have a stronger safety net, because when you have no safety net, and people’s lives are much more precarious, they’re going to be more prone to putting the immediate needs of feeding their family, entirely understandably, before what’s seen as a longer term goal of making sure your kids have a stable climate to grow up in.

So we need to introduce policies that give ourselves better choices.

I think a much more plausible strategy is looking at the constituencies that are already engaged and already organized on a range of issues. They are fighting austerity, they are fighting for housing, they are fighting for healthcare, they are fighting against police brutality, and for immigration and for getting money out of politics, and it’s important to find those intersections of places where there is common ground and to build a kind of umbrella movement that harnesses the urgency of the climate crisis.