Naomi Klein: Why saving the climate means fighting capitalism

The author of This Changes Everything on anti-capitalism and the role of youth
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You make the case in this book that we cannot adequately address climate change so long as our sociopolitical system is based on the idea of infinite growth. We can have a healthy climate or we can have unfettered capitalism, but not both. Can you elaborate on why you put capitalism at the centre of your analysis?

I think it's already at the centre of our response to climate change. It's at the centre, even if not explicitly, every time Stephen Harper says we can't have a science-based climate policy and still have a healthy economy, every time he rationalizes the expansion of the tar sands based on the need for Canada to pursue a policy of economic growth, which he equates with jobs.

That's where it becomes complicated, because economic growth and job creation do not always go hand in hand. We've seen this demonstrated in Canada, where yes, the growth of the tar sands creates a lot of well-paying jobs in Alberta, and people from all over the country are travelling to get those jobs. That's true. But the inflated petro-currency is simultaneously ravaging the manufacturing sector in provinces like Quebec and Ontario.

Nonetheless, our politicians are pretty frank about this. Stephen Harper, when he was in Australia, went even further, talking about how any government which claimed it would put climate policy ahead of economic growth was lying.

As part of my research for this book and the documentary that goes with it, I spent some time in Greece, which is probably the most austerity-ravaged country in Europe, and it's just been punished again and again by the European Central Bank. Germany just forced it to accept round after round of brutal austerity. We hear about that, and we see the protests in the street, and I think we understand that tragedy of how people are being sacrificed on the altar of economic crisis and in the name of coming back to growth.

What is less reported is that part of this has also meant a full-scale attack on some really strong environmental policies in Western Europe. This is happening in Greece, it's happening in Spain, it's happening in Portugal, where countries are told that they can no longer afford their renewable energy programs, their subsidies. And more than that, in Greece they're being told that their way out of crisis is to drill for oil and gas in their beautiful seas in the Mediterranean and the Ionian. The message is very explicit: you have to sacrifice your beautiful environment — which in fact is at the centre of Greece's economy, because it's a tourism-based economy and a fishing-based economy — in order to attract foreign investment and come to growth.

So we're already being told that capitalism and climate are at war. All our politicians are saying it, even if they're not using that language. And what I'm saying is that capitalism is winning, and that's a really big problem, because this is the only home we have.

If you see the many other problems with this growth-based system, which is ravaging social programs and causing massive unemployment and ever-widening inequality, then the fact it is also destabilizing the life support systems on which we depend should be supercharging all of our movements.

The other reason I put capitalism at the centre of the argument is because that's what the numbers tell us. We have a global carbon budget, there's a fair bit of scientific consensus about this, and we know how much carbon can be emitted by all the countries in the world and still leave us with a decent chance, a 50/50 chance, of staying below two degrees of warming.

If we are to stay within that budget, and if we are to pursue those emission reductions based on the principles enshrined in the UN climate convention, it requires that wealthy countries start their cutting first, because we started the emitting first. That means that we need to cut our emissions by somewhere in the area of eight to ten per cent a year, according to the Tyndale Centre, which is a very well-respected climate research centre in England. Those levels of emission reductions have never happened outside of catastrophic economic crises.

It's possible to do this is a way that's not only not brutal, but actually creates a fairer, more humane society. But we can't do it within the confines of the capitalist system we have.

It's really only happened in the aftermath of the Great Depression, where you've seen such dramatic reductions year after year. These kind of emission reductions just aren't compatible with a growth-based economy. We need to have not a violent, wrenching crash, of the sort that has delivered those sorts of emission reductions before. We need to have managed and strategic degrowth, where we shrink the parts of the economy which are responsible for our emissions, and expand the parts of our economy that protect people, that fight inequality, and that are easier on the environment, like the care-giving professions, the arts, education.

So we can do this. It's possible to do this is a way that's not only not brutal, but actually creates a fairer, more humane society. But we can't do it within the confines of the capitalist system we have, because our system doesn't allow us to design our economy. We're supposed to leave everything to the market.

You devote the first chapter of your book to a fascinating look at the political right and the rise of climate denial. You attribute this rise in climate denial among hard-core conservatives to the realization that as soon as they admit climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time. You also tell a funny story about the insurance industry group co-habitating with the Heartland Institute, despite their different positions on climate change.

I was wondering if you could tell us more about your time undercover at the Heartland conference on climate change skepticism, and what you've learned about the right, and how the reality of climate change threatens their worldview.

I'm not sure I was as undercover as I thought I was, by the way. I think they knew exactly who I was, but were so desperate for any kind of media attention that they just let me interview them and participated in this charade. I'll give them that credit. I actually think they knew exactly who I was, and I'm the one who deluded myself into believing I was undercover at the Heartland conference.

It was really interesting, especially interviewing the head of the Heartland Institute. People who are aware of the Heartland Institute generally know about it in association with climate denial because it is the premier climate change denial institute. They do annual conferences, and it always attracts lots of attention. They got themselves in trouble a couple of years ago when they bought a billboard comparing the people who believe in climate change to the Unabomber, Charles Manson, and Osama bin Laden. So they do these very splashy things, and their name has become synonymous with climate change denial.

What is interesting is that that the Heartland Institute is not a think tank that is devoted to science issues. It is a free-market think tank. It is very much like the American Enterprise Institute or the Cato Institute or the Heritage Institute. A few years ago it opened a part of its operations devoted to climate science, but mainly it is just like any of these think tanks that push for deregulation, privatization and austerity. And Joe Bast, who is the director, is an economist and not a scientist. He studied at the University of Chicago, and he is an affable fellow and what he said to me in the interview is that he didn't come to this issue because he found a problem with the science.

He's very open that when he heard about the science, he understood that if it was true, it would require — you would be able to justify, in his words — any sort of regulation and government intervention. And this idea was so intolerable to him as a libertarian that he then looked into the science and found what he considered to be flaws. So the point is that he wanted to find flaws in the science because it threatened his work, and he is open about that.

The climate change denial movement is a product of these free-market think tanks. It is not a product of a subset of climate research. It's these think tanks that have found three or four climate scientists willing to come to their conferences — mostly it's lawyers and PR specialists talking at this stuff. And I think it's important to understand that it comes from the same place that is constantly prescribing us this austerity agenda. In Canada, it would be the C.D. Howe and the Fraser Institute equivalent of these think tanks.

I think it's really telling. I make the argument that I think the right understands climate change better than the left. Here we are at war with the other policies that these same people have been prescribing since the 1970s — the privatization policies, the austerity policies, the deregulation and free trade policies — yet they took on climate change because they understood that if it was true, all the rest of it falls apart. If this ideology and the policies that they are advancing has created a situation that is destabilizing life on earth, they just lost the argument. They get it, so they are denying the science. So why on the left is this not at the centre of our argument? Why on the left is it so hard to understand that this is connected to what we believe in as well?

That is really what I learned from spending time with the deniers is that they get that some things are essential. I think they are wrong about the science but in many ways right about the politics. Not right in the sense that they are constantly holding up the spectre of a return to Stalinism or Maoism, but I think they understand the depth of the change. They understand that it requires a redistribution of wealth, and they don't like that at all. Rush Limbaugh attacked my book and said, "See, I told you this really is a Marxist conspiracy." It's not a Marxist conspiracy, but it is true that if we take the science seriously then we must invest massively in the public sphere. We must regulate these free trade deals that are standing in the way of our ability to keep carbon in the ground and to roll out aggressive renewable energy programs. So the whole agenda is imperiled, and yet there is this timidity on large parts of the left when it comes to being engaged with this issue.

You said at the Montreal launch of This Changes Everything that the divestment movement was one of the fastest growing such movements you had seen. That rapid spread has largely been on campuses and among students. Do you see the student movement, not only in Quebec but around the world, as the natural leader of this movement to save the planet?

I think there's a unique place for young people's voices in this. There's such a moral authority when students say to the administrators of the university and colleges that have been entrusted to prepare them for the future, "How can you prepare me for the future in my education on one hand and bet against the future in your financial activity, in the stocks in which you are placing your endowment? Do you believe in my future or not?"

I don't think it's just the university administrators that need to be challenged. You look at Justin Trudeau, who thinks he has the youth vote locked in because he is pro-pot. I think young people whom Trudeau was taking for granted should be in his face saying, "Sorry, we can't be bought off cheaply. Don't say that you are representing Canada's young people on one hand and then cheer for the Keystone XL pipeline and bring in the former BP lobbyist as your senior advisor on the other hand. That's a contradiction. You are either fighting for our future or not."

That sort of moral authority, which young people are finding as they find their voice in the fossil fuel divestment movement, can and will be extended into the broader political arena where they can hold all these so-called leaders accountable.

In a somewhat incoherent move, Tom Mulcair and the federal NDP have attacked the Liberals for supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, despite the even more emissions-intensive Energy East pipeline being the "cornerstone of the NDP leader's energy policy," as described by the Globe and Mail.

You mentioned at the Montreal launch that we have some better political options in Quebec than elsewhere, and the official opposition at Montreal's city hall, Projet Montreal, recently announced their full opposition to the Line 9B reversal, on fairly clear anti-extractivist grounds.

But at the federal level, how do we engage with the political system when no party is willing to stand against these pipelines and call for keeping the bulk of tar sands oil in the soil, something we know is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change?

This is a real problem. There was a campaign a couple of elections ago called Vote for Environment, and the idea was to vote for either the NDP or the Liberals, because you are voting for the environment so long as your vote helps get Harper out. How can anyone put that argument forward with a straight face now, when both Mulcair and Trudeau have picked their pipelines and are cheering for them and both of these pipelines represent massive tar sands production?

It doesn't matter if at the same time you are criticizing Harper for rolling back environmental regulations, because you completely undercut your argument if you're simultaneously in favour of expanding tar sands production under those precise conditions. So neither party has a credible science-based climate policy, and I think they need to hear that from their base, from the people who are taken for granted, particularly young people. And there is a short window before we are in campaign mode where policy is maybe a bit more malleable.

I think pressuring Harper on this, as we have seen, is not going to get us anywhere, as he said he's not going to take no for an answer. He said that about the Keystone XL and they made it clear that they are going to be pushing ahead with the Northern Gateway despite First Nations opposition that our Supreme Court has made clear is legally grounded. So they are going to be pushing ahead, and people are going to be resisting in the courts.

I think they needed to officially approve Northern Gateway because if they turned it down on the grounds that it was indeed too high risk, it would have been too easy for Obama to then say no to Keystone XL. They have officially said they are going ahead, but they may not be as aggressive because the opposition to Northern Gateway has been tremendously successful, and it remains to be seen how that is going to play out. At any rate, pressuring Harper is clearly not all that effective. But I do think that it's worth expending some political energy pressuring both the NDP and the Liberals while they're fighting with one another, particularly over the youth vote. They both want that vote, and Mulcair is particularly interested in Quebec.

What do we need from the media, when it comes to reporting on climate? Obviously Ricochet is one outlet founded on a critique of mainstream media, and there is much to criticize in how climate is covered, but we still need the mainstream media to reach as many people as possible. So if you could speak directly to journalists reading this, what are they doing well when it comes to covering climate, and what do they need to improve?

Well I do think that it's getting a little bit better. I think we were in a really grim period when it was barely coming up. I think there's this one problem that persists: we can talk about climate change around the UN climate summit or when an IPCC report comes out, but there's this feeling that it's somehow unseemly to talk about climate change when we are in the midst of extreme weather events and we are dealing with the repercussions of those events. Actually, that is when we need to talk about it the most. One exception was Hurricane Sandy, when there was this really shocking turning point the week after Sandy hit and New York was still flooded, when Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover with a scene of wreckage and the headline "It's global warming, stupid." That was a very, very powerful moment.

They just said it outright: there is a connection between these extreme weather events. I think there's a huge amount of timidity in the mainstream media around climate because the deniers, the hardcore deniers, they are a small segment of the population but they are a very vocal one, so they have the power to ruin journalists' days. It's almost like an annoy-and-conquer strategy. It's not like the journalists believe that climate change isn't happening because their inbox is being spammed by people talking about sunspots. It's just that you make these calculations as a journalist that you'll have your day ruined if you do this. It's important to understand that this is the strategy and they aren't just trying to get on air and they aren't just trying to get their side represented. They are also trying to get this off the air. So I think one of the most important things we can do as journalists is not be afraid to make the connections when the events are unfolding because that's when people really feel it.

I was really struck being in Alberta a couple of summers ago. We were filming in the tar sands, and Fort McMurray was partially under water because of flooding. The contents of the city's museum, its history such as it is, was floating down the street, and nobody would talk about climate change. Calgary was flooded, and the headquarters of all of the companies engaged in tar sands extraction were closed since they couldn't get to work. Trains carrying bitumen were teetering off the sides of bridges. That's the time to talk about climate change, and even the NDP wouldn't talk about it because there was this feeling that it would be too hard on people. They would feel attacked. Well guess what? It's hard but we've got to talk about it, and this is precisely when we need to talk about it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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