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“On Fire”: In New Book, Naomi Klein Makes the Case for a Green New Deal to Save the Planet

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Amid mounting climate disasters across the planet, from the fires ravaging the Amazon to Hurricane Dorian’s destructive path through the Bahamas, we speak with renowned journalist, author and activist Naomi Klein. In her new book, “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” Klein looks unsparingly at the rise of ecofascism, as Western countries fortify their borders and white supremacy surges around the world in response to the climate crisis. But she also lays out another path forward in which mankind meets the challenge of global warming with radical and systemic transformation. “We do know that if we are going to lower our emissions in time, it is going to take transformations of how we live in cities, how we move ourselves around, how we grow our food, where we get our energy from,” Klein says. “Essentially, what the Green New Deal is saying: If we’re going to do all that, why wouldn’t we tackle all of these systemic economic and social crises at the same time? Because we live in a time of multiple, overlapping crises.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as millions of students prepare to walk out of class on Friday in a Global Climate Strike, we spend the rest of the hour with Naomi Klein. She’s out today with a new book titled On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.

AMY GOODMAN: A book reviewer in The New York Times wrote in today’s paper, quote, “If I were a rich man, I’d buy 245 million copies of Naomi Klein’s 'On Fire' and hand-deliver them to every eligible voter in America,” he said.

Well, Naomi Klein, welcome back to Democracy Now! Congratulations on this day, the publication date of your book.

NAOMI KLEIN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s called On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. People throw around that term. Certainly the candidates are talking about it, across the political spectrum, whether they’re for it or against it. What, to you, is the Green New Deal? And what is the crisis that we are facing?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, first of all, it’s great to be with you, Amy and Juan.

It is true that the Green New Deal has become something of a bumper sticker slogan, and it’s misrepresented on Fox more than it is accurately represented in the so-called liberal media, so there’s a lot of confusion about what this means. But I think, fundamentally, it is a transformational approach to the climate crisis that is on the scale of the crisis itself, that says that the actions we take have to be guided by science. And scientists are telling us that we need to cut emissions globally in half in a mere 11 years.

But it isn’t a single carbon-based policy, like a tax, you know, or cap and trade. It’s really about transforming the economy and making it fairer. Right? So, it’s battling poverty, it’s battling racism, it’s battling all forms of inequality and exclusion, at the same time as we radically lower our emissions, because we do know that if we are going to lower our emissions in time, it is going to take transformations of how we live in cities, how we move ourselves around, how we grow our food, where we get our energy from. So, essentially what the Green new Deal is saying: If we’re going to do all that, why wouldn’t we tackle all of these systemic economic and social crises at the same time? Because we live in a time of multiple, overlapping crises.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, one of the things you point out, Naomi, is — first of all, the critics are calling the Green New Deal insanely ambitious and prohibitively expensive to the American economy and to other nations, as well. But you point out that in the past there have been instances when the United States government has marshaled enormous forces and money to deal with problems. You talk about the original New Deal under FDR, and you talk about the Marshall Plan after World War II, both of which were attempts by, some would say, enlightened capitalists to deal with the fact the countries — Europe, after World War II, and the U.S. — were heading toward potential revolution —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — and that they had to respond to the popular movements by making radical investments and change. Talk about that further.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, absolutely. You know, I’ve been writing about the climate crisis for more than a decade and really trying to understand why it is that despite all of the scientific warnings, despite the fact that, sure, it’s expensive to deal with the crisis, but we know how not just expensive, but just the devastating human costs inaction carry, why have we talked and talked — our governments, why they’ve been talking for more than 30 years about lowering emissions, while global emissions have gone up by 40%.

And one of the reasons is that this crisis landed on our laps as a species at the worst possible moment in human evolution that a collective crisis of this nature could have landed on their laps — in our laps, which is the late 1980s, the high point of the sort of free-market zealotry, you know, right when the Berlin Wall is collapsing, right when history is being declared over, right when Margaret Thatcher is saying there is no alternative, there is no such thing as society. This was a huge problem, because here we’re being told that, really, we can’t do anything collectively, we have to scale back our collective action, we have to cut existing government programs, we have to privatize everything, when here we’re facing a crisis that requires unprecedented collective action, unprecedented collective investment, and yet we’re handing the tools over to private, for-profit companies, whether it’s water, whether it’s electricity, whether it’s transportation.

So I think the real value of really calling it a Green New Deal and harkening back to an earlier age, it reminds us, actually, it is possible to deal with collective crises. There’s so much fatalism and doomsaying right now, that is really making these appeals to human nature. Of course, Jonathan Franzen is the highest-profile, most recent example. But we hear this argument all the time: Humans can’t do something on this scale; humans are incapable of doing anything but just sort of satisfying our basest, most immediate interests. And so, people hear this. They hear that this is all we are. And so they feel hopeless, right?

And so, I think the important — what is important about reminding ourselves, OK, well, in the face of the Great Depression, in the face of the deepest economic crisis this country has ever faced, there was huge collective action, and — you know, whether it was the Civilian Conservation Corps planting 2.3 billion trees, setting up hundreds of camps across the country, tackling soil erosion, 800 new state parks, whether it’s hundreds of thousands of new works of art during the original New Deal, or, as you said, Juan, the Marshall Plan, which reminds us of another time of collective action. You know, as you said, it wasn’t just governments handing down these programs from on high out of the goodness of their hearts. It was the push and pull of social strife, strikes, militant action, rising socialism. And this came to be seen as a compromise. We need to remember this history, because it reminds us that this thing called human nature that gets evoked, telling us that we are doomed, is not fixed. Humans are many things. And we have been different in the past, and we can be different again.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, you use the term “climate barbarism.” Explain.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I use that term to describe the fact that — you know, we often talk about governments, like the Trump administration, as governments that are committed to climate change denial. I don’t think they deny the reality of climate change. I mean, Donald Trump has had to adapt the construction of his golf courses because of rising sea level. They all know it’s happening. But they think they’re going to be all right. They think their families are going to be all right. They think wealthier countries are going to be all right. And these governments are adapting to climate change. They may not be adapting the way the United Nations would like them to adapt, by cutting emissions, by building seawalls, whatever it is. They’re building border walls. They are adapting through this unleashing of white supremacist ideology, and creating the intellectual rationale for allowing millions of people to die. I mean, that’s what I mean by climate barbarism.

We are already seeing many thousands of people being allowed to die in the Mediterranean. We’re seeing people left in migrant detention facilities that are a lot like concentration camps, whether it’s offshore camps set up by the Australian government, whether it’s the European Union sending people to the Libyan camps, and now the Trump administration setting up its own camps. This is — I think, should be understood as a kind of climate change adaptation. This is how they are proposing to deal with a world in which millions of people are being forced from their homelands. We already know, just yesterday, from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, that 7 million people in the first six months of 2019 have been forced to move because of floods, droughts, disasters, many of them linked to the climate crisis.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of some of these disasters, one of the particularly powerful essays in this book — and it should be clear, this is a collection of essays that you’ve written over about a 10-year period on the issue of climate — is titled “The Season of Smoke.” And you talk about your going back to your family’s homeplace in British Columbia for your regular summer vacation in 2017, and you were stunned by the changes that were occurring all around you as a result of all of the wildfires that were engulfing the western parts of the United States and Canada. I’m wondering if you could talk further about that.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. So, that essay is an attempt to sort of capture the — I guess, the relentlessness of some of the ways in which the climate crisis plays out, because, obviously, it is these sort of acute disasters, these record-breaking storms, that capture our attention, as well they should. But I think part of the reason why we’re seeing a shift in polling around the climate crisis — and we are seeing a shift in the United States, where not only are more people understanding that, yes, it is real, yes, humans are causing it, but people are ranking concern for climate change as their number one or number two concern. There’s a real sense of urgency. And I think the biggest reason for that is simply that so many people’s lives are touched by it — by storms, by flood, by drought.

But smoke impacts huge numbers of people. So, even if you aren’t right by the wildfire and having to evacuate, for the past several summers in the Pacific Northwest — and the one I write about was 2017, but it was also true of 2018 — the entire region was just enveloped in smoke for well over a month. And you had the sort of impacts on respiratory health and just this sense of profound unease, which is what I was trying to capture in that essay, of just this general kind of — like, the sun and the moon looking so very strange, these little red or orange dots in the sky — and, of course, the inequalities that always accompany this. So, the migrant fruit pickers, for instance, across the border in Washington state, were having to pick fruit in these horrific conditions. And they’re not good to begin with, right? And as workers collapsed on the job, they were just sent home like defective goods. So, you know, part of what I’m exploring in that essay, of course, is what the U.N. is now calling “climate apartheid,” where you have this extreme inequality of impacts.

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Naomi Klein: Greta Thunberg Is a “Prophetic Voice” in Fight for Climate Justice

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