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Naomi Klein on Climate Debt: Why Rich Countries Should Pay Reparations to Poor Countries for the Climate Crisis.

StoryNovember 23, 2009
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With the Copenhagen climate summit two weeks away, bestselling journalist Naomi Klein examines the grassroots movement behind the climate debate proposal that argues all the costs associated with adapting to a more hostile ecology — everything from building stronger sea walls to switching to cleaner, more expensive technologies — are the responsibility of the countries that created the crisis. Klein also discusses the tenth anniversary of the Seattle WTO protests and the tenth anniversary of her first book, No Logo. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the bestselling author of The Shock Doctrine. Yes, author and independent journalist Naomi Klein joins us from Toronto, Canada, to talk about the latest shocks to the economy and, with the climate summit in Copenhagen just two weeks away, the coming together of a global movement for climate justice. She is just out with the tenth anniversary edition of her first book, the international bestseller No Logo. And her latest articles include “Climate Rage” for Rolling Stone Magazine and “Copenhagen: Seattle Grows Up” for The Nation.

Naomi Klein, Welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with the issue of climate change and, as you put it, climate rage. Tell us what’s happening.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, that piece in Rolling Stone is looking at a growing demand for the repayment of climate debt. And this is really a relatively new framing for the climate crisis, but — and it’s coming predominantly from the developing world, led by the government of Bolivia and other Latin American governments, and it’s been joined by the coalition of least-developed countries, which are primarily in Africa.

And essentially what they’re saying is that the climate crisis, as we know, was created in the industrialized world. There is a direct correlation between industrialization — what we call development — and carbon emissions. So, in fact, 75 percent of the historical carbon emissions have been produced by only 20 pecent of the world’s population. And then we have this cruel geographical irony, which is that the effects of climate change are felt overwhelmingly in the developing world, in the parts of the world that are least responsible for creating the crisis. So, according to the World Bank, 75 to 80 percent of the effects of climate change are being felt in the developing world. So you have this inverse relationship between cause and effect. So, it is in this context that we’re seeing a growing movement from the developing countries that really are on the front lines of climate change, saying that the rich world that created this climate crisis owes them a debt, owes them tangible reparations for the creation of this crisis.

And those reparations should be paid in three forms. First, through deep emission cuts in the developed world, in the rich world, 40 percent — at least 40 percent below 1990 levels. This is a figure we’ve heard a lot. In addition to this, they’re saying that the rich world, the G8 countries, the industrialized countries, should pay for the costs, the huge costs, that poor countries face in adapting to climate change. In addition to that, they’re also saying that they would like to leapfrog over the dirty energies, the fossil fuels that are fueling the climate crisis. But they point out that this is expensive, that this is more — it’s more expensive to shift to cleaner green technology than it is to develop with cheap, dirty fuels, which is the way that we did in the rich world. So, they’re saying, “We will change, but we don’t think we should have to pay this additional cost because of a problem that is not of our creation.” So, essentially, the climate debt argument is the “polluter pays” argument, which is a familiar argument to people in the United States. It’s a basic principle of jurisprudence. And they’re saying — another way of putting it is “you broke it, you bought it.”

AMY GOODMAN: Talk specifically about the countries that are raising these concerns and saying, “We shouldn’t have to pay.” For example, in Africa.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, the African Union, the coalition of African states, have been very clear that their primary demand out of Copenhagen are these deep emission cuts and serious funding for adaptation to climate change. And, you know, in eastern Africa right now, you have massive — you know, you have serious droughts affecting millions of people. That’s just one example of the kind of costs that are being incurred because of climate change already. So we’re not talking about projecting into the future, some hypothetical future; we’re talking about right now.

But the main push, as I said, is actually coming from Bolivia. And Bolivia has an extraordinary climate negotiator, who I quote in the Rolling Stone piece, named Angelica Navarro, who I first met in Geneva. She was actually Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization. She’s very clear, very tough, multilingual. It takes a lot of strength to stand up to the sort of pressure that a small country like Bolivia faces, whether at the World Trade Organization or now in the climate negotiations. And Angelica Navarro is really up to the task, and she has been giving these really inspiring speeches at summits in the lead-up to Copenhagen and has really been a galvanizing force for other developing countries.

But also, you know, she is taking a demand that is coming from groups like the Third World Network, Focus on the Global South, Jubilee South, coalitions of NGOs and climate justice groups, that have been making these demands on the outside of summits. But what’s interesting now is that these demands have entered inside the summit. They’re at the negotiating table. And, of course, there is extraordinary resistance from the United States and the European Union, Canada, Australia, to the idea that they shouldn’t just be giving money to the developing world to adapt to climate change, to deal with climate change, out of the goodness of our hearts, out of a sense of charity, but actually out of a legal obligation. And this is a frightening concept, as you can imagine.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, last week —

NAOMI KLEIN: But the case for it, Amy, is very strong. Just to add — sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rejected widespread predictions that the summit in Copenhagen would be a failure.

BAN KI-MOON: Reading the latest news reports, however, you might think that Copenhagen is destined to be a disappointment. That is wrong. To the contrary, we can, and I believe we will, reach a deal in Copenhagen that sets the stage for a binding treaty as soon as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to what Ban Ki-moon is saying?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, the problem is that the definition of success in Copenhagen has been lowered and lowered. A few months ago, the definition of success in Copenhagen was countries agreeing to lower emissions to levels that climate scientists were demanding. And the science is very, very clear that we really do need cuts of 40 percent below 1990 levels. The other definition of success was rich countries coming to the table with levels of funding for the developing world that once again meet the actual need. And we know what those types of figures are. The World Bank, for instance, has estimated that the cost faced by developing countries to simply adapt to a changing climate, dealing with droughts, dealing with increased flooding, is $100 billion a year. The cost of leapfrogging over those dirty energies, as I was saying earlier, that’s $500 billion to $600 billion a year. That’s a figure from independent UN researchers. But now what we’re hearing from the UN is their hope for Copenhagen is that they can get developed countries, rich countries, to agree to $10 billion a year. So, Amy, they’ll turn around and say that that is a success, but that’s simply not a success. So, the definition of success is just being pushed lower and lower.

And this is really — you know, this is a troubling issue, and it’s an issue that a lot of environmentalists, climate justice activists, are going to have to confront, because with an issue like climate change, urgency matters. Maintaining a sense of urgency in the face of this crisis really matters. So there is a danger, a very real danger, of creating an illusion of doing something about the problem in Copenhagen, you know, having Obama go make another terrific speech, which he’s very good at, claiming it’s a breakthrough that the US is talking about emission cuts of between — now they’re saying between 14 and 20 percent below 2005 levels, which is just absurd. It has nothing to do with the science. And then this $10 billion a year figure, which, once again, there’s such a huge gap between that figure and the lowest possible figure that we’re hearing from the World Bank, which is $100 billion. So, we have to be very careful about what’s called success, because if you turn around and say it’s a success to have the US commit to 14 percent cut from 2005 levels and to throw in a couple billion dollars a year out of the goodness of their hearts, while still not recognizing historical responsibility, then you lose some of this crucial urgency in confronting this crisis. So I think it’s very important for the climate justice movement not to allow politicians to pass off failure as success.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, the issue of President Obama going — he’s going to be in the region, right? He’s going to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. He also just recently was in Copenhagen. He was there to push for Chicago to get the Olympics. But he has not said that he’s going, although sixty-five world leaders have. The top three carbon polluters — the United States, China and India — have not said that they will attend the meeting. Your response?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, you know, John Kerry is now publicly calling on Obama to go, and I think now that that’s happened, my assumption is that Obama will go. I don’t think Kerry would be saying this if it wasn’t already pretty much decided that he will go. And I think that this whole process of lowering the definition of success, so that essentially failure can be passed off as success, is really — much of it is about creating the conditions for Obama to go and claim that failure is success. So, frankly, Amy, I think he will go, but I don’t think that we should allow that to be a definition of success.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we are, of course, going to be there. Democracy Now! will be there in force, en masse, to cover what’s happening for the two weeks. We’ll be covering what’s happening at the summit, and we’ll be covering what’s happening in the streets. Naomi, it’s the tenth anniversary of the Battle of Seattle, the protests in Seattle, Washington. I’m going to be there in a few days, and there’s a lot of conversation about what that has meant. But before we go to break and talk about this ten years later, talk specifically about what’s planned for Copenhagen in the streets.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, the latest column I wrote for The Nation is about this line that you can draw from Seattle to Copenhagen. But I called the column “Seattle Grows Up,” because I think we are also seeing an evolution of the movement that came to world attention on the streets of Seattle. I think there’s been a profound deepening of the coalitions between groups that are primarily focused on poverty, on development, on debt, and people — and environmental groups that have traditionally just been focused on environmental issues. We saw that in Seattle, the beginnings of that coalition, with the famous “Teamsters and Turtles” coalition.

Now we’re seeing something much deeper. And it is this idea of climate debt that is bringing together groups, like — as I was saying, like Jubilee South, like Action Aid, groups that have mostly been focused on anti-poverty, on development, and are now are seeing climate change as the single greatest barrier to human development around the world, but also seeing the call for climate reparations as an opportunity for — and to quote Angelica Navarro, Bolivia’s ambassador to the climate negotiations, who I was talking about earlier — when she talks about the need for the developing world — developed world to pay our climate debts, she says if this happened, then we would have a Marshall Plan for Planet Earth, which is a very exciting prospect, because it means that you have the opportunity to tackle simultaneously two of humanity’s most intransigent challenges, most intransigent problems — climate debt, on the one hand, and inequality, on the other — so the bringing together of these two forces. And that’s what’s going to be, I think, really, really exciting in Copenhagen. And a lot of the people and a lot of networks that grew out of Seattle are going to be activated in Copenhagen and have only grown stronger in recent years.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back and talk about ten years after the Battle of Seattle protests, overall. It’s also the tenth anniversary of the release of your book No Logo. I want to talk about world branding.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’re on the road in Medford, Oregon, and we’ll soon be in Seattle. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Naomi Klein. She’s author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, before that, No Logo. And the tenth anniversary of that book is upon us, and it’s being released in a tenth anniversary edition.

But Naomi, before we talk more specifically about Seattle, what about the specific actions planned for the streets of Copenhagen at the climate summit?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, you know, it’s going to be a maze, Copenhagen. It’s the largest environmental gathering in history, larger even than the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. So there’s going to be a lot happening all around the city.

But here is where I think it’s really different from Seattle. In Seattle, the World Trade Organization was really the enemy for the activists in the street, and the goal was to shut down the meeting, both from the outside and the inside. And you had this interesting coalition of activists in the street with that message, that “No WTO” message. And then you had coalitions of developing countries inside, emboldened by these protests in the street, emboldened to stand up to the pressure from the European Union and the United States. And ultimately it was that sort of pincer that collapsed the meeting.

In Copenhagen, it’s a different dynamic, because the fact is that the people in the streets overwhelmingly support the mission of the meeting in Copenhagen. And so, they’re not saying no to the idea of a climate summit. In fact, they’re saying yes, and they’re revealing, highlighting, that in fact it is the world leaders, particularly world leaders from the heavy-emitting countries, like the United States and Canada, who are the naysayers, who are the ones who are saying, “No, we don’t actually want to tackle the climate crisis. We don’t want to make the emissions cuts that are needed, that are required by science.” So, in a sense, it’s an inversion, where it’s the activists who are saying, “Yes, we believe in this mission.” And it’s the politicians, really, who we need to reveal as being the ones who are actually saying no, even as they claim to be saying yes, and even as they claim — even as they sell failure as success.

So, it’s really tricky for activists, in terms of figuring out how you interact with a summit like this. So, there’s one day, for instance, the 18th, December 18th, where activists are going to be kind of storming the conference center, nonviolently, but using civil disobedience. But their goal, they say, is not to shut down the meeting, but to open up the meeting and to have a forum inside the meeting to talk about real climate solutions, like leaving fossil fuels in the ground, dirty fossil fuels, particularly things like the Alberta tar sands, talking about solutions like climate debt that we’ve been discussing, and exposing the fallacies of the claim that the market can solve the climate crisis, because, of course, that’s what we’re going to be hearing a lot of in Copenhagen — market-based solutions, cap and trade, emission trading, carbon sinks, basically creating a huge market in pollution. And you have many of the same players that crashed the global economy, like Goldman Sachs, salivating over the idea of being able to have a speculative bubble over carbon. So that’s the dynamic. It’s not saying “no,” not saying “shut down,” but saying, “Open up. Let’s talk about real solutions.”

And another example of this is that actually there will be an attempt to shut something down in Copenhagen, but that is focused on shutting down the port for a day, Copenhagen’s port, to highlight the corporate side of this equation — the shipping industry and how emissions-heavy it is. And so, not to shut down a meeting that actually the activists believe in, but to go after industry itself. So there’s going to be a lot of actions like that. A lot of thought and debate is going into how to craft actions that are really consistent with the goals of this movement.

AMY GOODMAN: And the delegates, the people who are involved in the climate talks, as opposed to the activists in the street — something interesting that happened ten years ago with the Battle of Seattle that also turned things were those inside who were saying, “You are not listening to us.” I mean, developing countries, for example, countries in Africa.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: What about those countries here, their role at the climate summit in Copenhagen?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, you know, it remains to be seen. As I said, some of the most interesting solutions are being put on the table by Latin American governments, like Bolivia, also Ecuador.

But what we just saw in Barcelona, which was, you know, the last major negotiating push before the meeting in Copenhagen, is that the coalition of African states walked out of the summit en masse, so it was basically a form of civil disobedience within the summit, in protest of the very low commitments for emission cuts coming from the developed world, which was interesting that the African bloc walked out, not because there wasn’t enough money for them, not because there wasn’t enough aid for them to deal with climate change, but because they don’t simply want aid. They want us in the rich world to actually change our way of life, because they are facing the effects of that. They’re on the front lines of climate change.

So, you know, I think we may see more of that in Copenhagen. But I’ll tell you, Amy, there was some — quite a bit of political fallout for the African negotiators for walking out in Barcelona. Some of the negotiators were recalled by their home governments, because they faced backroom pressure from Washington and the European Union, like, “Get your climate negotiators under control.” So I’m a little concerned that, you know, we saw that in Barcelona, maybe we won’t see that level of boldness from the African delegates in Copenhagen. But certainly, on paper, what they have been saying is that if they don’t believe this is a good deal, they will walk out.

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] reissuing it, No Logo at ten, the subtitle of the book, Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Talk about what happened in Seattle. Talk about this whole issue of branding.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, you know, Amy, the reason why I said yes when my publisher asked me whether I wanted to do a new edition, write a new introduction, I said yes because it feels like the right moment. It feels like there is something to learn from that political moment in 1999, 2000, when not just Seattle, but this movement against corporate power was exploding around the world. You know, many people date the sort of — the beginning of it to the Zapatistas in Mexico, but we saw, every time there was an International Monetary Fund summit, a G8 summit in Genoa, there would be these convergences of activists on the streets putting this economic model on trial. We were called by the media “anti-globalization activists,” but we were always very clear that we were not against globalization, we were against corporate rule. We were questioning capitalism, this unregulated, Wild West capitalism that was being spread by institutions like the World Trade Organization, like the International Monetary Fund.

And what was interesting, Amy, you know, think back to Seattle, 1999. We were making these arguments about corporate rule, but we were making it at the height of an economic boom, at the peak of an economic boom, in a boom town. I mean, Seattle was what was the center, along with Silicon Valley, of the dot-com boom. So there were a lot of people who were really willing to defend this economic model.

And here we are ten years later, and it’s a really interesting political moment. And this is why I did want to reissue the book and did want to reframe it, because I think the arguments that we were making — and we were really treated like these fringe radicals. I always remember that Thomas Friedman called us “flat-earthers” in the New York Times, and that was before he wrote a book telling the world that, in fact, the world was flat. But, you know, we were called “flat-earthers,” we were called extremists. But here we are in a moment where there’s absolutely a mainstream political opinion that there has been an utter integration, merger, between corporations and government — a takeover, really. And the arguments that we were making ten years ago about the failures of this economic model are now mainstream arguments.

But yet, the mass movement that we were a part of ten years ago really isn’t present in the streets. And I think a lot of that has to do with, perhaps, the Obama effect in the United States, where everyone is still in this waiting pattern, hoping that he’s going to save the day. And that’s, you know, another reason, Amy, why I think Copenhagen may well be a turning point, particularly for young Americans. Many young people worked very, very hard on Obama’s campaign. And a large factor motivating them was their concern about the environment, their concern about climate, and they really saw Obama as an alternative.

There’s a lot of issues where you can make an argument about, you know, what is politically feasible at a certain time, but when it comes to climate — and I think a lot of young people feel this — there really isn’t much room for negotiation. I mean, this is something that Bill McKibben has been very clear about. You can’t negotiate with the science. It doesn’t go by Harry Reid’s timetable.

So, one of the things, I think, we’re seeing from many of the young people who worked on Obama’s campaign in the lead-up to Copenhagen is they’re returning to the issues, as opposed to just being sort of foot soldiers for the Democratic Party. And that’s, I think, one of the things that was exciting about the actions organized by earlier in the month, which were — sorry, last month, which were focused on a scientific target — right? — the 350 target, as opposed to focused on what John Kerry has — John Kerry wrote an article a couple of weeks ago calling on young people to organize to get his bill through the Senate. But the problem with the bill that he’s pushing through the Senate is that it actually won’t meet the needs of our climate crisis. So, I think young people are increasingly returning to the issues, as we were ten years ago in Seattle, focused on the issues, not focused on any one political party or their needs.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, I wanted to talk specifically about the kind of branding that you begin your introduction with, at ”No Logo at Ten,” how branding has changed. Give us some specifics.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I mean, it always — branding is expert at absorbing its opposition. So I gave a couple of examples of companies that had gone “no logo,” of an example of Absolut Vodka taking their label, their logo, off the bottle. And Starbucks opened, interestingly in Seattle, a store without their brand on it at all. They were trying to make their brand disappear. So you have this evolution in corporate branding.

But what I decided to focus on is not how corporate — the latest gimmicks and techniques of corporate branding, but rather how politicians were — and indeed, how government has absorbed the techniques honed by the corporations in the '90s in creating and selling their super brands, and now they're being used by political parties, by politicians, really, to sell themselves. And I’m afraid, I think, that that’s where Obama fits in, that he really is a super brand on line with many of the companies that I discuss in No Logo. And he has many of the same problems as the companies that I discuss in No Logo, like Nike and Apple and all of these — Starbucks, all of these 1990s sort of lifestyle brands that co-opted many of the — the iconography of transformative political movements, like the civil rights movement, the women’s movement. I mean, that was really the hallmark of 1990s branding.

One of the things in this — you know, a large part what I write about in No Logo is the absorption of these political movements into the world of marketing. And, you know, the first time I saw the “Yes, We Can” video that was produced by Will.I.Am, my first thought was “Wow! You know, a politician has finally produced an ad as good as Nike, that plays on our sort of faded memories of a more idealistic era, but yet doesn’t quite say anything.” We think we hear the message we want to hear, but if you really parse it, the promises aren’t there. It’s really the emotions.

And, you know, I think that that explains, in some sense, the paralysis in progressive movements in the United States, where we think, you know, Obama stands for something, because our emotions were activated on these issues, but we don’t really have much to hold him to, because, in fact, if you look at what he said during the campaign, like any good super brand, like any good marketer, he made sure not to promise too much, so that he couldn’t be held to it.

You know, Afghanistan is a very strong example, Amy. I mean, it’s hard to build the case that Obama is breaking a campaign promise, when in fact this — he is doing what he said he would do during the campaign, even if he made us think that he was a pro-peace candidate, even if he used the iconography, the imagery of the peace movement, even if he — you know, it’s the same thing with labor. “_Sí, se puede!_ Yes, we can!” This is the imagery of — this is the slogan of the Farm Workers. And even, you know, Obama’s —- you know, the famous -—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds, Naomi.

NAOMI KLEIN: — the famous poster, you know, this is like the poster of Ché. But this isn’t a real social movement, because it never made those transformative demands.

And that’s what social movements have to do. We have to get back to basics, Amy. And we’ll see it in Copenhagen.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, I want to thank you very much for being with us, author of The Shock Doctrine, and her latest book is the reissue of No Logo.

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