Hope, not fate

Time is running out if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change. But Naomi Klein says that a total overhaul of capitalism might just give us a chance. By Kevin Gopal

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Earlier this year the CEO of the world’s largest oil and gas company joined an anti-fracking lawsuit because of plans to erect a 160ft water tower near his Texas home.

Rex Tillerson of Exxon complained that the value of his property would be harmed.

This is the sort of exquisitely painful ironic detail to be found in Naomi Klein’s new book. But it’s also where she finds hope.

Companies like Exxon are addicted to extracting fossil fuels, says writer and activist Klein, even though the future of the planet depends on them staying in the ground.

But as the reserves of conventional oil are diminishing, the energy companies are seeking what they call more innovative ways of supplying gas and oil – including fracking, which involves blasting huge amounts of water and chemicals into shale rock to fracture it and release natural gas.

And this isn’t happening miles out to sea or in the distant, easily overlooked ancestral homelands of indigenous people. It’s happening at the foot of the gardens of the likes of Tillerson – and they don’t like it.

Far from being a cleaner alternative to conventional oil, recent research suggests the methane emissions from fracking make it much dirtier than its advocates claim. Methane is a more dangerous global warming gas than CO2.

Fracking looks less like innovation and more like the helpless behaviour of desperate addiction

Fracking is only making it harder to avoid the two degrees centigrade rise in global temperatures that most climate scientists agree could trigger catastrophic effects, including melting of the ice sheets and rises in sea levels. Seen like this, says Klein, fracking – which has also provoked protests in Lancashire and Salford – looks less like innovation and more like the helpless behaviour of desperate addiction. But if the crisis has forced even Tillerson to consult his lawyers, it’s also an opportunity.

Klein’s previous book, The Shock Doctrine, charted the way political leaders seized on natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or economic crises to push through right-wing policies of privatisation, cutting public spending and lowering taxes.
Her new book, This Changes Everything, picks up where The Shock Doctrine left off but is “something different”, she tells The Big Issue in the North. “It’s about people shock and a progressive response to the crisis that gets to the root of why disasters happen. It’s an antidote to the shock doctrine.”

The antidote for Klein involves nothing less than the overthrow of the dominant free-market economic model, in which corporate power will be reined in, government spending is increased to build low-carbon economies, and people seize back democracy from the grassroots up. This is not about just installing more efficient lightbulbs.

Naomi Klein cover
This article was first published in The Big Issue in the North, 13 Oct

“It’s too late to stop climate change from coming; it is already here, and increasingly brutal disasters are headed our way, no matter what we do,” writes Klein. “But it’s not too late to avert the worst, and there is still time to change ourselves so that we are far less brutal to one another when those disasters strike. And that, it seems to me, is worth a great deal.”

In the book, Klein’s vast sweep of research begins in Washington at the Heartland Institute’s conference – “the premier gathering for those dedicated to denying the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet”. She hears a succession of speakers convinced that climate change is a Commie plot to overthrow the American way of life – and finds the evidence many are funded by big oil money.

But although she emphasises how wrong the deniers are about the science, in another way she finds them more honest than some who profess themselves to be on the side of the planet.

She is particularly scathing about big environmental groups that have allowed themselves to be hijacked by corporate interests and relates the astonishing story of the Nature Conservancy, which took over some land in Galveston Bay, Texas from oil giant Mobil to protect one of the last remaining breeding grounds of the threatened Attwater’s prairie chicken. In 1999, it sunk its own gas well inside the preserve.

It’s as breathtaking a tale as Tillerson’s anti-fracking protest, but big green groups further the energy companies’ interests in other ways too, points out Klein, particularly in their support for “market-based solutions” to climate change “that have provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuels sector as a whole”. The big green groups got seduced by the access they were given to the corridors of power, and started to back so-called win-win solutions they claimed would benefit the environment while allowing the pursuit of profit to carry on unfettered.

It’s a dangerous illusion, says Klein, citing the opaque world of carbon credits and trading, and carbon offsets. These are not only a distraction from the priority of stopping pollution, she says, but actively contribute to global warming. She quotes research finding “overwhelming evidence that manufacturers are gaming the system by producing more potent greenhouse gases so they can be paid to destroy them”.

She skewers the techno-optimists pushing geo-engineering ideas

Klein’s dispassionate prose in the book only heightens the nightmarish logic. She skewers the techno-optimists pushing geo-engineering ideas, such as space mirrors that reflect the sun’s heat away from the earth and the “Pinatubo Option”, which would mimic the effect of the Philippines volcano by blasting sulphuric acid droplets into the atmosphere to prevent the sun’s heat reaching the ground. Coolly, Klein points out that this could make blue skies a thing of the past, prevent astronomers from seeing stars, reduce the capacity of solar power generators – “irony alert” – and create serious drought in Africa.

She then turns to philanthropists who pledge vast amounts of money to find solutions to climate change. Richard Branson promised to spend $3 billion on finding an alternative low-carbon fuel for jet planes. Harnessing the profits from fossil fuel-dependent businesses to tackle climate change is exactly what we need, believes Klein. Such a pity then that her research finds he’s actually spent a fraction of this money, come out against carbon taxes, set up new polluting airlines and masked it all with some green PR. And he’s continued to take subsidies off the British taxpayer to run his train companies.

This is where Klein effectively makes a link between environmentalism and wider political questions. Wouldn’t it have been better if Britain hadn’t privatised its rail service, she asks, and converted it entirely to electric, with that power coming from renewables?

Klein acknowledges that this link between environmental and political concerns goes back at least to the Seattle generation of global justice activism that she documented in her first book No Logo. “One of the strengths of that movement was that it broke down the barriers between labour and the environment,” she tells The Big Issue in the North. “But climate was not central to the movement.”

At the time she felt that the lack of organisation and the rejection of leadership and hierarchies was an advantage for young social movements, but as climate change has become ever more urgent, and more recent movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring have flickered but then faded, she says we can ill afford a “fetish for structurelessness”.

She says: “It’s been a tough time and there’s been a lot of despair. A lot of people have given up because they’ve invested a lot and either been smashed or not delivered. The main weakness was in being simply oppositional.”

“The Tyndall Centre is doing the most important work on climate science anywhere in the world”

The urgency of preventing the 2C rise is fearful. Klein particularly draws on the work of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change and its Manchester University-based deputy director Kevin Anderson, which is “doing the most important work on climate science anywhere in the world”, using conservative estimates and “following them honestly to their conclusions”.

Klein finds hope in the work of Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and Mark Delucchi of California University, who in 2009 published a study showing how 100 per cent of the world’s energy could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources as early as 2030 – with political will.

That’s a tight timetable but sufficient to prevent the worst of climate change.

Given the political will, how would we pay for such a transformation? A financial transaction tax, closing tax havens, a 1 per cent “billionaire’s tax”, slashing military spending, a carbon emissions tax and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies would net $2 trillion annually, says Klein – “certainly enough for a very healthy start to finance a Great Transition”.

Klein refuses to guilt-trip individuals about the carbon footprint of their lifestyles.

“A lot of people feel disqualified from taking action because they don’t live the perfect lifestyle. The people least able to afford the green premium that’s put on so many products, for example, are working class people. But the scale of action needed and the urgency mean they can’t be excluded.

“If you only included those people whose lives are a pure piece of carbon-related performance art then you’d have a movement of about 10 people.”

Instead, she draws hope from people who are not only opposing the extraction of fossil fuels where it threatens their livelihoods and wellbeing, but also putting forward their own economic and environmental solutions: the farmers and indigenous people of Canada resisting tar sands oil extraction, the Greek anti-mining movement, French anti-fracking activists, all of which she calls “Blockadia” – “not a specific place on a map but a roving transnational conflict zone”.

She has also drawn hope from the way the Occupy Wall Street movement didn’t disappear just because it was no longer on the front pages of mainstream media but morphed into Occupy Sandy, an organised relief effort to help victims of the 2012 natural disaster in north-eastern America. That started a conversation with local working-class people about climate change and was a “gamechanger”, she says, when environmentalism is often the preserve of the privileged.

Those hopes came to a head with the People’s Climate March in New York and in more than 160 countries last month.

“We should take inspiration from Germany’s move towards renewables.”

“That was a real moment of hope. I’ve not been feeling hopeful for a long time to be honest with you but I saw lots of people there I’ve not seen for a long time. It wasn’t just the amount of people but that it was so diverse. The march looked like New York, and not Manhattan but the Bronx or Queens.

“We should also take inspiration from Germany’s move towards renewables. One of the differences about the current movement is the focus on ownership, and in Germany it’s small-scale locally owned energy schemes that are growing. It’s not the case that this is about utopian pastoral dreamers but rather shows how bold national policies, well designed, can roll out effective responses effectively. Compare that with the UK’s lumbering subsidised nuclear policy.”

Her book, concludes Klein, is about a “path to science-based reductions. These transformations are actually popular.”

This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs The Climate is published by Allen Lane (£20)

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