Capitalism vs. the Climate: Naomi Klein on Need for New Economic Model to Address Ecological Crisis

September 18, 2014
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Naomi Klein

journalist and best-selling author. Her new book is This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Her previous books include No Logo and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

As the United Nations prepares to hold one-day global summit on climate change, we speak to award-winning author Naomi Klein about her new book, "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate." In the book, Klein details how our neoliberal economic system and our planetary system are now at war. With global emissions at an all-time high, Klein says radical action is needed. "We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis," Klein writes. "We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe — and would benefit the vast majority — are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets."

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TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Scientists from NASA have confirmed that last month was the warmest August on record globally. Much of the world, including central Europe, northern Africa, parts of South America and the western portions of North America, saw much higher than normal temperatures. According to the National Climatic Data Center, August was the 354th consecutive month with a global average temperature above the 20th century average. The news comes as flooding in India and Pakistan has killed more than 400 people and displaced nearly a million. The flooding is the worst to hit the Kashmir region in half a century. Severe drought in Central America has left nearly three million people struggling to feed themselves. And California is suffering its worst drought in over a century. Meanwhile, a new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council has found more than 22 million people were displaced from their homes by extreme weather last year—more than three times the number of people displaced by war. In the Philippines alone, over four million people were displaced by Typhoon Haiyan.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, world leaders will gather here in New York for a one-day climate summit called for by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Climate activists have planned a series of events leading up to the U.N. summit. On Sunday, more than 100,000 are expected to take part in the People’s Climate March here in New York. More than 2,000 "People’s Climate" events are planned worldwide in 150 countries. On Monday, climate activists are planning to stage a mass sit-in in the financial district of New York in an action dubbed "Flood Wall Street."

Well, today we spent an exclusive hour with the acclaimed journalist and author Naomi Klein. She is just out with her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It’s her first book since her 2007 best-seller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Before that, she wrote No Logo.

Naomi Klein, welcome back to Democracy Now! Congratulations on the book.

NAOMI KLEIN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: What changes everything?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, climate change changes everything. And it changes everything for the reasons Juan just outlined. We are on—it’s already upon us, and we are on a road towards warming of four to six degrees Celsius. We’ve reached .7 or .8 degrees Celsius, and we’re already seeing these effects. Once you get to warming of that level, the models start to break down. I mean, climate scientists don’t know what to expect. Things start going nonlinear. And so, it changes everything about our physical world, if we just simply do what we’re doing and continue down this road. So, the argument I’m making in the book is, we do have the opportunity to get off that road, but in order to do so, we have to change pretty much everything, or some really fundamental things, about our economic system.

The good news is that the things we need to change, many of them are broken anyway. We need to make vast investments in the public sphere, which would create millions of good jobs. We need to invest in healthcare, in education, in the sciences. And in so doing, we will tackle one of the most intractable problems we face, which is gross wealth inequality. We can’t fight climate change without dealing with inequality in our countries and between our countries. So the argument I’m making is really quite a hopeful one. I think if we do respond to climate change with the decisiveness that the scientist are telling us we do, if we respond in line with science, we have a chance to remake our economy, the global economy, for the better. But this is not going to be the kind of change that comes from above; it’s going to be the kind of change that is demanded by mass movements from below.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Naomi, but one of the central theses of your book is that the inability, so far, of our society to be able to deal with climate change goes to the heart of the system.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you say at one point, "we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis."

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you elaborate on that?

NAOMI KLEIN: So the book starts from the premise that the things we have done to try to address this crisis have failed. And this is not a controversial position. It can’t be, when we look at the numbers. And the numbers don’t lie. Governments started negotiating towards emission reduction in 1990. That’s when the official negotiations started. And since that time, emissions have gone up by 61 percent globally. So, it’s not just that we’re not solving the problem, it’s that we’re making it a lot worse.

And in concrete terms, we see this every day. I mean, we see the contradictory messages of those alarming reports—ever more alarming reports—coming from scientists, on the one hand, and on the other hand, political leaders doubling down on the dirtiest and highest-risk fossil fuels. We’re tearing up this continent to get at shale gas, to get at tar sands, to get at coal in mountains. You know, we’re detonating mountains. We are just going for it on the most horrendous level. So, how do people even hold these contradictions in their mind?

So, there have been all these theories put forward about why "we," you know, have failed to deal with climate change. And you often hear theories related to human nature—you know, we just can’t deal with a crisis that’s far off in the future. Or the political system is blamed, that politicians think short-term and this is a long-term crisis.

I’m putting forward a different theory. And that theory is, OK, all of these other things play a part, but the biggest problem is that this crisis landed on our laps at the worst possible historical moment. James Hansen testified before Congress in 1988, and he said that he could now decisively make the link between carbon emissions and warming. That was the moment when we lost all plausible deniability. Scientists knew beforehand, but this was the moment where it became the mainstream issue. That year, when the editors of Time magazine had to choose their "Man of the Year"—they were still calling it a "Man of the Year" then—they chose planet Earth and put planet Earth on the cover. That was the kind of consciousness that was rising.

So what I do in the book is I ask, OK, what else was happening in 1988? Well, the free trade deal between Canada and the U.S. was signed, a historic moment in the advance of corporate globalization. And the next year, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Francis Fukuyama is declaring history over. This was—you know, this, in many ways, is the story I told in The Shock Doctrine of how that triumphant ideology of market fundamentalism, as Joseph Stiglitz called it, swept the world. This was the moment when they declared victory, and there was no alternative, as Margaret Thatcher used to say.

So, the problem we had is that we have the essence of a collective problem. We can only solve it with real regulation, making the polluters pay, telling them they can’t dig the carbon out of the ground. And we need to come together collectively to respond to this crisis. We need to invest in the public sphere. But it hits us at the precise moment when all of these things become nonstarters—you have to cut back the public sphere, you can’t regulate, you have to embrace pure laissez-faire economics. And so, the argument I’m making is, we cannot solve this crisis without a profound ideological shift.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Naomi Klein is with us for the hour. Her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "The History of Climate Change Negotiations in 83 Seconds," and if you’re listening on the radio, check it out at democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, when Democracy Now! was at the 2011 U.N. climate change conference in Durban, Amy spoke with Marc Morano, publisher of the Climate Depot, a website run by the climate denier group Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. She asked him about President Obama’s record on climate change.

MARC MORANO: His nickname is "George W. Obama." Obama’s negotiator, Todd Stern, will be here today. They have kept the exact same principles and negotiating stance as President George Bush did for eight years. Obama has carried on Bush’s legacy. So, as skeptics, we tip our hat to President Obama in helping crush and continue to defeat the United Nations process. Obama has been a great friend of global warming skeptics at these conferences. Obama has problems, you know, for us, because he’s going through the EPA regulatory process, which is a grave threat. But in terms of this, President Obama could not have turned out better when it came to his lack of interest in the congressional climate bill and his lack of interest in the United Nations Kyoto Protocol. So, a job well done for President Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Marc Morano of Climate Depot. Naomi Klein, in your book, This Changes Everything, you talk about him. In fact, you talk about a number of these groups. You open with them in a chapter called "The Right is Right."

NAOMI KLEIN: OK, well, let’s be clear: They are not right about the science. They’re wrong about the science. But I think what the right understands, and it’s important to understand, that the climate change denier movement in the United States is entirely a product of the right-wing think tank infrastructure, the groups like Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute. The Heartland Institute, which people mostly only know in terms of the fact that it hosts these annual conferences of climate change skeptics or deniers, it’s important to know that the Heartland Institute is first and foremost a free market think tank. It’s not a scientific organization. It is—just like the other ones I listed, it exists to push the ideology, the familiar ideology, of deregulation, privatization, cuts to government spending, and sort of triumphant free market, you know, backed with enormous corporate funding, because that’s a very, very profitable ideology.

And when I interviewed the head of the Heartland Institute, Joe Bast, for this project, he was quite open that it wasn’t that he found a problem with the science first. He said, when he looked at the science and listened to what scientists were saying about how much we need to cut our emissions, he realized that climate change could be—if it were true, it would justify huge amounts of government regulation, which he politically opposes. And so, he said, "So then we looked at the science, and we found these problems," right? So the issue is, they understand that if the science is true, their whole ideological project falls apart, because, as I said, you can’t respond to a crisis this big, that involves transforming the foundation of our economy—our economy was built on fossil fuels, it is still fueled by fossil fuels. The idea in this—we hear this from a lot of liberal environmental groups, that we can change completely painlessly—just change your light bulbs, or just a gentle market mechanism, tax and relax, no problem. This is what they understand well, that in fact it requires transformative change. That change is abhorrent to them. They see it as the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world, but it is the end of their world. It’s the end of their ideological project. So, that is unthinkable, from Marc Morano’s perspective and Joe Bast’s perspective. So, rather than think about that, they deny the science.

So when I say "the right is right," I think that they have a better grasp on the political implications of the science, of what it means to how we need to change our economy and what the role of the public sphere is and the role of collective action is, better than some of those sort of big, slick, centrist green groups that are constantly trying to sell climate action as something entirely reconcilable with a booming capitalist economy. And we’re always hearing about green growth and how it’s great for business. You know, yeah, you can—there will be markets in green energy and so on, but other businesses are going to have to contract in ways that requires that strong intervention.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But how do they then deal with nations like Germany, where there has been significant government intervention as a result of citizen protests—Germany is now close to 25 percent renewable energy—as a model where, even within the bounds of some kinds of regulated capitalism, it is possible to make substantial change?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. Yeah, and it’s interesting. I have a fair bit about Germany in the book. And one of the arguments I make in the book is if you look at which countries have adopted climate action, you know, of a significant kind, there’s a strong correlation between countries that have a social democratic tradition, that have not fully embraced deregulated capitalism, and are willing to intervene in these ways and protect the public sphere and that green transition. You see that in the Scandinavian countries. They’ve always had some of the greenest policies. I’m not saying they’re perfect. You’ve got Norway, which has become a petro-state. But you also have some amazing examples like Denmark.

And then, with Germany, you know, Germany, even though it prescribes strict neoliberal austerity programs on countries like Greece and so on, Germany has never been a full neoliberal state. And this is the legacy of the Second World War. They have a strong social safety net. So, Merkel, under pressure from—you know, Germany has probably the strongest environmental movement in the world, and in particular, a very strong anti-nuclear movement. And they demanded this transition. And under pressure from the left opposition parties working with the government, they introduced this incredible energy transformation that has shown us, if we have the right policies in place—and they have a bold national feed-in tariff program that has encouraged decentralized renewable energy—we can change very quickly. And this is—the number you cited is correct: 25 percent of Germany’s energy now comes from renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, much of it small-scale and decentralized.

But here’s the catch, and this is where you see the clash of ideologies, even in a country like Germany that is willing to put these incentives in place. Germany’s emissions have gone up, last year, the year before. And that’s kind of remarkable. How could that be in the midst of this transition? Well, it’s going up because they have—Merkel has been unwilling to break the cardinal rule. She’s been unwilling to say no to the fossil fuel companies. So, the coal lobby, which is very strong in Germany, has been permitted to continue to dig up lignite coal, which is the dirtiest of the coals, and to export that energy, even though the demand for it is going down in Germany.

So this is why it isn’t just about saying yes, although it is about saying yes to the energy that we want and putting those right incentives and policies in place. We also have to say no to the kinds of energy that we don’t want. And this is why—you look at Obama, you know, who just for three years has been spinning his wheels over the Keystone XL pipeline. He just can’t bring himself to just say no to this project that, you know, has so many liabilities and isn’t necessary to fuel the U.S. economy. But it just seems like the word "no" just can’t seem to escape his mouth. And this is what it means to have politicians who are products, really, of this deregulatory age.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But meanwhile, as he talks about global warming, under Obama, as you note in your book, there’s been an explosion in oil production right here in the United States and the enormous amount of carrying of rail freight that now carries oil across the country.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, at tremendous risk, yeah. I mean, this is the point, is it’s not—you know, we sometimes talk about business as usual or doing nothing. It’s worse than that. We’re doing exactly the wrong things. We are doubling down. We’re in the midst of a fossil fuel frenzy in North America.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to President Obama. This is him in 2012 when he appeared in Cushing, Oklahoma, to announce his support for TransCanada to build the southern leg of its Keystone oil pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some. So, we are drilling all over the place, right now. That’s not the challenge. That’s not the problem. In fact, the problem in a place like Cushing is that we’re actually producing so much oil and gas in places like North Dakota and Colorado, that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it to where it needs to go.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama 2012 in Oklahoma announcing his support for TransCanada. Now, Naomi, you’re a Canadian journalist and activist. Your first arrest was outside President Obama’s house, the White House, protesting the Keystone XL. Talk about what he’s saying there.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, it’s interesting. And, you know, yeah, I was arrested with more than a thousand other people. It was a huge act of civil disobedience. And, you know, it’s so interesting because we need huge infrastructure investments, and we’re making the wrong ones, you know? I mean, if we’re going to double down on fracking in the way that Obama’s policies have advocated, we’re building—they want to build these huge export terminals. These infrastructure projects are billion-dollar projects, right? This is money that isn’t going into the renewable energy infrastructure that we need to roll out—wind and solar. And we know we can do it. I mean, we have research out of Stanford University by Mark Jacobson that is saying 100 percent renewable energy is within our grasp. But, you know, when you double down on the fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, then it starts to compete with renewable energy. It’s not just, you know, an all of the above. It takes away the market. And we are at this moment when we’re seeing the tremendous potential of these technologies. And there’s sort of a temptation among free marketeers in this country to just sort of say, "Look, you know, the price of solar is going down fast, we can just leave this to the market." The problem is, these fossil fuel companies are so rich, they don’t just have money to burn, they have money to bribe. They have basically bought the whole political system, so they have the ability to undercut the rollout in all kinds of ways, you know, using groups like ALEC, imposing taxes on renewable energy.

So, they’re fighting this at every turn, precisely because decentralized renewable energy, it’s really a different economic model than fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are—they’re inherently centralized. And you need a lot of infrastructure to get them out, and you need a lot of infrastructure to transport it, as Obama was explaining in front of all that pipe, right? Whereas renewable energy is everywhere. You know, the wind and sun and waves, they’re free. So almost anybody can become an energy provider. And this is, you know, the German model of the feed-in tariff. You can feed into the grid and become an energy producer, as well as provide your own energy. So, what the big fossil fuel companies understand is that this means that millions of people become competitors with them. And some people talk about fossil fuels as the energy of the 1 percent or even less, and renewable energy, if done right, if done in a really decentralized way, can be the energy of the 99 percent. And that’s what’s exciting.

And that’s an example of how responding to this crisis can—we can deal with our two biggest crises, or two of our biggest crises, at the same time: We can avert catastrophic climate change, and we can tackle inequality. And this is the reason why Germany has been so successful, is that because it’s decentralized—and this is the piece of the transformation we often don’t hear about, is that there have been 900 energy cooperatives created. Hundreds of cities and towns have decided to take back control over their energy grids from private operators that had privatized them in the '90s, so that they not only have renewable energy, but they keep the proceeds from that, they capture that, rather than having it go into the pockets of shareholders, and they use it to fund their services. So the money stays close to home. So, you're fighting austerity, you’re fighting inequality, and you’re fighting climate change at the same time.

So, there are all these sort of triple wins when we tackle this crisis. You see it in the food system, too. You know, we would decentralize our food system, have healthier food and lower emissions. And, you know, it is good for the economy. It’s just a different kind of economy. And the old economy is so profitable for the few, that they’re trying to block action at every turn. This is why it’s not hopeful, by the way, when Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. announce how great it is that they have, you know, hundreds of Fortune 500 CEOs coming to the U.N. summit to solve climate change for us, because this is not the model that they are going to be interested in.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the whole issue of how corporations are trying to, in essence, co-opt or take over the environmental movement. You deal a lot with the Big Greens, as opposed to the people’s environmental movement, specifically this whole issue of offsets and of some of the major organizations, like the Wildlife Conservation Society and others, actually being involved in helping to promote exploitation under the guise of environmental enlightenment.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, OK, so in the '70s and ’80s—well, up until 1980, really, when the Superfund Act was introduced, the motto was "polluter pays," right? It was, "OK, you're the one doing the polluting. There’s going to be penalties, and you’re going to pay for the cleanup." That was the working principle. And that was the thinking behind many of the big environmental wins of the '60s and ’70s. What happened in the ’80s is that there was a shift, an ideological shift, along with the broader ideological shift in society in the era of Reagan and Thatcher. There was a shift from "polluter pays" to "polluter plays," OK, to "Let's sit across the table from Wal-Mart and McDonald’s and Shell and BP," and to think, "And we’ll come up with a solution together. We will convince them that acting to protect the environment helps their bottom line, is good for business." And, you know, this was—what I get into in the book is trying to understand how this could have happened, right? Because it was a really bad idea.

You know, you can point, for instance, to Wal-Mart. It is true that Wal-Mart saves money by introducing energy efficiency, and it is true that Wal-Mart will do just about anything to save money. We know that about Wal-Mart. But we also know that Wal-Mart will expand as rapidly as it possibly can. So at the same time as its energy intensity has gone down, because it has introduced efficiency measures, with the help of groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, with whom it has partners, its emissions are still soaring because it is expanding so rapidly. So, the net effect is still significantly negative, but yet they get held up by many of these green groups as, you know, a sustainability leader.

AMY GOODMAN: You break news in This Changes Everything, like, for example, talk about what The Nature Conservancy is doing drilling.

NAOMI KLEIN: Mm-hmm, yeah. The Nature Conservancy is—it’s the largest green group in the world. They operate in dozens of countries. And I was interested in them because, you know, as Juan was mentioning, offsets. Because of this partnership model that took hold in the 1980s, when attention turned to solving the climate crisis at the end of the '80s and in the ’90s, the question that was asked was, "OK, how do we solve this crisis in a way that is win-win?" And "win-win" meant in a way that is good for business and good for the environment. That was the starting assumption, right? So, what's good for business is to be allowed to continue emitting, if you offset those emissions somewhere in the world. And sometimes this theory is called the "low-hanging fruit theory," meaning let’s do the easy stuff first, OK? The problem with this theory is that essentially what these groups are saying is it’s hard to take on Shell, you know? It’s hard to take on BP. It’s hard to take on the big coal companies. And it’s easy to buy, you know, land from indigenous people, who aren’t politically powerful, on the other side of the world and make them promises about how it’s going to make them rich. And so, there have been scandal after scandal in the carbon offset industry, where people essentially feel their land is being grabbed. Once you decide that a forest is going to be a carbon offset, is going to be a sink, then somebody needs to guard those trees, so people lose access to their land. There’s all kinds of problems with the offset model. But the biggest problem—because I do think there can be a progressive way of compensating some of the poorest people in the world for doing what they’re already doing, which is protecting the land. I think there is a way of doing that. The problem is, it shouldn’t be happening so that, you know, a coal company here can continue burning coal and giving kids asthma in some of the poorest areas in this country. So the problem is the interplay between allowing the emitters to continue doing what they’re doing and using that as—and using offsets as a rationale.

So, yeah, The Nature Conservancy has been probably the world’s biggest advocate of the offset model as a solution to climate change. And I was preparing for an interview with their top official, who ended up canceling at the last minute. But over the course of this research, I came across a story from 2003 in The Washington Post about how there was all kinds of sort of dodgy things happening at The Nature Conservancy with land deals. And one of the things that The Washington Post discovered was that on a piece of land in Texas that The Nature Conservancy had acquired, actually been donated by Mobil at the time, called Mobil now, ExxonMobil, to save one of the most endangered species in the world, the Attwater prairie chicken, after they had taken control of the land, they had decided to drill for gas on that land themselves. And there was a big scandal about this, and The Nature Conservancy announced that they wouldn’t be doing this anymore. You would think that an environmental group would not have to say that they won’t drill for gas on a piece of land that is supposedly a preserve for one of the most endangered species, but they actually made that a policy.

But there was some small print, which is, you know, "unless we have to respect an ongoing contract." So, my researcher, Rajiv Sicora, came across this document online which was a paper that was presented at a petroleum conference, an engineering conference, that was quite recent, where somebody from The Nature Conservancy was talking about how they had a well in Texas and they were claiming that this was the most sort of environmentally sensitive oil well. And it became clear, as we dug into it, that they were still drilling for oil, and in fact had drilled a new well. So, yeah, that, to me, was one of the most shocking revelations in the book, was to discover that the largest green group in the world itself is operating or has contracted out oil and gas drilling on a nature preserve.

AMY GOODMAN: And the species have disappeared from that area.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, all the Attwater prairie chickens are gone from that piece of land. And according to The Nature Conservancy, there’s no connection between their drilling activity and the disappearance of the birds. There’s a debate about that among conservationists. But, you know, the very idea that a group that is supposedly fighting climate change could itself be drilling for oil and gas—they started off mostly getting gas, and now it’s mostly oil coming out of the well. You know, even—they say that they’re locked in, the contract requires that they do that. And I guess the question I’m asking is, you know: Have they really fought as hard as they possibly can to get out of that contract?

But more importantly, what does this tell us about how close parts of the environmental movement have become to the oil and gas industry? Now, this is really changing, and now we have a whole new wave of environmental activists who are demanding the divestment of fossil fuel holdings from their schools, their religious institutions, their cities, so there is a whole new wave of environmentalism that is, I think, partially responding to these cozy relationships of the Big Green groups with the polluters.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about what’s happening inside the U.N. on Tuesday and then what’s happening outside, this weekend, with what’s expected to be the largest climate march in history, when we come back. We’re talking to the journalist and activist Naomi Klein. Her new book is out this week; it’s called This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Stay with us.


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