Naomi Klein on climate change.Can social movements save us?

Naomi Klein has done it again with her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. She challenges the existing ignorance and denial on climate change and administers her own form of shock doctrine on that all-consuming issue. I do find, however, that her complete reliance on the power of social movements to bring about needed and urgent change is flawed and incomplete.

By way of background, there is by now widespread scientific consensus that climate change is occurring as a result of human activity. Carbon emissions are being trapped in the atmosphere and warming the planet. If we do not reduce fossil fuel consumption, scientists say, the results will be catastrophic. In fact, the collapse of ice sheets and the ensuing rapid rise in sea levels has already begun.

There are vast proven fossil fuel reserves in the world, a good deal of it trapped in the sticky bitumen of the Canadian tar sands. According to Bill McKibben, the climate change activist behind a group called, 80 per cent of the oil, coal and gas on our planet must stay in the ground if we are to limit the future rise in global temperature to two degrees Celsius. Klein says that this is more of a political than a scientific target. Increasingly, scientists tell us that even a temperature increase of two degrees could be disastrous. Yet governments have found it impossible to take action that would attempt to limit the increase to that goal.

Endless negotiations

Negotiators from 196 countries finished a round of talks in Lima, Peru in December 2014, in contemplation of yet another round of talks in Paris in 2015. Climate change negotiations to curtail the emission of greenhouse gases began with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and have been going on ever since — but in the intervening 22 years emissions have continued to rise.

“What is wrong with us?” Klein asks, and that is the central question in her book. There are personal shortcomings to be sure (our own greed and denial) but Klein says the problems are systemic. “Our economic system and our planetary system are at war,” she says.

We have been pouring carbon into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution and the rapaciousness of capitalism has only grown more destructive with the development of ever more powerful technology. Communism was environmentally ruinous as well but it no longer reigns anywhere and has been replaced by oligarchic capitalism in Russia and authoritarian capitalism in China.

Tinkering won’t do

Klein rightly dismisses those who claim that the challenges posed by climate change can be met without major changes to the reigning economic system. She says that we have driven past that point on the planet’s freeway and that the only hope we have is to create massive economic and political change. We not only have to replace our sources of energy but we have to consume less of it.

Klein is pessimistic, even dismissive, about what she calls “fossilized democracies” and their ability to deliver the required change. She cites a Venezuelan political scientist as saying that we live in a post-democratic society where the interests of financial capital prevail over the democratic will of the people.

She believes that the best hope in curbing the destructive excesses of “extractivism” lies with the global popular movements. A good portion of her book is devoted to visiting and describing various grassroots actions which she calls “Blockadia.” These include First Nations in Alberta opposing tar sands extraction and others opposing natural gas fracking in New Brunswick, while student and faith groups are organizing campaigns of divestment from oil companies.

“None of this is a replacement for major policy changes that would regulate carbon reduction across the board,” she says. But she adds that the emergence of a networked, global movement means that when climate campaigners meet with politicians and polluters to negotiate there will be thousands of militants in the street to ramp up the pressure — “and that is very significant indeed.”

Writing the laws

Significant yes, but someone must actually write the new laws and enforce them just as they did during the New Deal in the U.S., a legislative example which Klein points to admiringly. For such a new deal to happen today, we need more than pressure exerted by the social movements; we also must have a renewed politics controlled by citizens and not special interests such as the carbon industry.

The new politics must be informed and prodded by diverse social movements. As important as they are, however, the sum of groups involved in Blockadia cannot, on their own, deliver the legislative and regulatory changes needed to avoid the calamitous future that unchecked climate change is already beginning to deliver.