Future Tense

Fighting Climate Change and Capitalism at the Same Time

A Q&A with Naomi Klein.

Photo by Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images
Canadian author Naomi Klein in Copenhagen in 2009.

Photo by Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images

According to social activist and perennial agitator Naomi Klein, the really inconvenient truth about climate change is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism.

Three years ago, Klein wrote a powerful essay for the Nation that tackled this idea. Now, she’s turned her argument into a hefty book, which was released last week—just days before hundreds of thousands took to the streets in New York City, many of whom carried banners strikingly similar to the messages Klein supports. (Klein sits on the board of directors at 350.org, an organization at the heart of the growing grass-roots uprising against climate inaction, and which helped organize Sunday’s march.)

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is focused on exposing how the relentless pursuit of growth has locked us in to a system that’s incompatible with a stable climate. The bottom line is, the reality of global warming has forced civilization into a hard choice: Either continue on as usual, committing the planet to growing inequality as the effects of climate change escalate and disproportionately affect the poor, or try a radically different path.

Klein also includes success stories that offer glimpses of what she calls the “next economy”—that is, one that’s focused on working within the bounds of a finite planet, instead of always digging deeper into the ground to fuel the next spurt of growth. (For example, she cites the Land Institute in rural Kansas, which is working to develop perennial varieties of wheat and corn.)

Klein, whose first book helped lead a global movement against sweatshops, tells me that she was surprised by the outcome of the five-year research project that produced the bulk of This Changes Everything. “The truth is that this is the hardest book I have ever written, precisely because the research has led me to search out such radical responses. I have no doubt of their necessity, but I question their political feasibility every day, especially given that [the science of] climate change puts us on such a tight and unforgiving deadline.”

Consider this book a warning shot to the status quo, and a companion for those that see themselves as part of what promises to be the world’s next big social movement.

I spoke with Klein by phone on Wednesday.

On Sunday, more than 300,000 people were in the streets in New York. In stark contrast, Tuesday’s U.N. Climate Summit didn’t accomplish much. How do you feel about “progress” toward a climate treaty through official U.N. channels?

It’s been quite an amazing week. [Sunday’s march] was, I think, a real turning point. A lot of debates have sharpened up a bit. I’m excited. After the march, it was kind of jarring to go to the U.N. I definitely did not get the feeling that they were even managing to convince themselves.

Some shit-disturber decided it would be a good idea to invite me into the private-sector portion of the U.N. summit Tuesday, which had unprecedented participation from CEOs. It was definitely the highest net-worth room I’ve ever been in. They were conducting what amounted to a telethon for the Earth. It was pretty unimpressive.

I think U.N. countries officially pledged a little more than $1 billion to the fund designed to help low-income nations adapt.

Yes, and I think almost all of it was from France. At one point in that room, there was a debate over whether France’s pledge was in euros or dollars. Yeah. It was in dollars.

So what’s the next step in terms of climate action? How do we get from 300,000 in the streets to 30 million?

Everybody that’s trying to get anything progressive done in this country knows that the biggest barrier is getting money out of politics. Climate can be a shot of adrenaline in the pre-existing movement to get money out of politics. So, it’s not a brand-new movement. What excited me about Sunday is the huge participation from labor. People in that movement clearly see that a climate-justice agenda would be a serious benefit to their members. The post-carbon economy we can build will have to be better designed.

All these new reports say that the transition to that next economy will be cheap. So why isn’t it happening? Elites like to think of everything as a win-win, but it’s not true.* It’s the wealthiest corporations on the planet that will win; everyone else will lose. No number of reports is going to change that. You actually need a counter-power.

During Sunday’s march, there was also a big representation from low-income communities of color. They’ve got refineries in their backyards. They understand that not only does climate action mean a healthy community—it’s also the best chance at tacking inequality.

I think people are just incredibly depressed and hopeless about the prospects for change. I’m not sure a general strike would be the best next step, but it’s true that so many people are unhappy with this economy. There just isn’t a vision for what the next economy would look like. Climate change can provide the parameters for that, an economy that’s within the boundaries for what the planet can sustain.

As you’ve written before, when people get depressed or desperate, they’re more willing to think about high-risk solutions. There’s nothing more high-risk than geoengineering when it comes to climate. In your book, you reference a one-day Future Tense forum a few years ago: “Geoengineering: The Horrifying Idea Whose Time Has Come?” (Note: Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State.) You use geoengineering as an example for where capitalism is leading us. I imagine it was—interesting—getting to know that world a little better.

When I was at the geoengineering conference in England, which I wrote about in the book, it was held in a venue kind of like Downton Abbey. It felt very weird to be locked in this country manor and talking about turning down the sun. A conference from Audi was set up next door—we were sharing the mansion with them. Here we were, having this incredibly depressing discussion and they were cheering in the next room.

The people that work on geoengineering are careful to say, “this is not a substitute for emission reductions,” but a lot of people do think of it that way. It’s crazy that interfering with hurricanes is easier to think about than changing the rules of capitalism.* It really does show how locked in we are to this ideology.

To be honest, both geoengineering and ending capitalism feel like impossible tasks. What are some practical next steps?

Well, we need to finance this transition somehow. I think it needs to be a polluter-pays principle. It’s not that we’re broke, it’s just that the money is in the wrong place.

The divestment movement is a start at challenging the excesses of capitalism. It’s working to delegitimize fossil fuels, and showing that they’re just as unethical as profits from the tobacco industry. Even the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune are now recognizing this.

The next step is, how do we harness these profits and use them to help us get off fossil fuels?

Well, that’s going to have to be legislated. Fossil fuel executives aren’t going to just give away their billions.

Exactly. Exxon needs to pay—it’s the most profitable company on the planet. It’s also the descendent of Standard Oil.

In the book, I talk a lot about Richard Branson’s pledge to donate all the profits from his airline to fight climate change. When he made that announcement, it was extraordinary. The problem is, no one held him accountable—well, besides me and my underpaid researcher. But at least Branson’s heart was in the right place. These profits are not legitimate in an era of climate change. We can’t leave this problem to benevolent billionaires.

What happened at the U.N. Tuesday was the same thing. Instead of a science-based treaty, with carbon targets divided equitably among nations, what you had was governments and corporations randomly making voluntary pledges and hoping it added up to something.

You said you’ve been working on this book for five years. What changes have you made in your own life in that time to change your own footprint? What can readers of your book do?

That’s a complicated question. I think the environmental movement has overstressed the consumer side of it. When you start talking about sacrifices, pretty soon people start feeling like chumps. In my town, we have centralized composting, a new system of better bike lanes, and plastic bags are charged for. But Canada’s still missing our carbon targets.

Still, that doesn’t mean individual changes aren’t important. I’ve made all kinds of changes. I fly one-tenth of how much I was flying before I started on this book.

In your book, you said you waited to have kids until your late 30s, in part due to your concern over an increase in climate change impacts. Do you have any advice for new parents? How are you raising your 2-year-old son to be a climate change warrior?

One of the most important things that we’re all going to need in a rocky future is stronger networks. Showing our kids that the value of community beyond just their nuclear family is in some ways the most important thing we can do for preparing them for the storms to come and passing on the values that we need to respond to this crisis, the values of solidarity.

As for our son, we’re kind of making it up as we go along. He really loves trucks, but he likes electric vehicles and riding trains as well. Maybe we can help steer him more toward that direction?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Correction, Sept. 25, 2014: This piece incorrectly transcribed two quotes from Naomi Klein. She said elites (not capitalism) like to think of everything as a win-win. She also said that it’s crazy to think that launching giant space mirrors or interfering with hurricanes is easier to think about than changing the rules of capitalism (not shutting down capitalism).

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.