Naomi Klein: To fight eco-fascism, Canada needs Green New Deal champions

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Naomi Klein. Image: Adolfo Lujan/Flickr

"This is all wrong."

Climate activist Greta Thunberg's speech at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City on Monday, in which she condemned world leaders for their "empty words" and "fairytales of eternal economic growth," went viral immediately.

If the international political establishment's failure to treat the climate crisis as an emergency that requires a total, radical transformation of our economies and societies is, as Thunberg put it, "all wrong," then the global scale and grassroots ambition of the mass mobilization for climate justice is exactly right.

Just a couple days prior, four million people took to the streets in 185 countries around the world to demand serious climate action from world leaders. Climate actions will continue throughout this week, culminating in a massive climate strike on Friday, September 27 in Canada.

We spoke with Naomi Klein about her new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal; the Global Climate Strike; what's at stake in the upcoming Canadian federal election; and how the movement for a Green New Deal can counter a rising tide of eco-fascism. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sophia Reuss: On Friday last week, we saw millions of people around the world join the Global Climate Strike. This upcoming Friday, people in communities across Canada are planning to strike. In past interviews, you've said that Canada owes the world a climate debt. How did we accumulate that debt, and what will it take for Canada to repay it?

Naomi Klein: Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Climate Convention, which says that all countries have a common responsibility to act on climate change, but that that responsibility is differentiated. It's known as the "common but differentiated responsibility" clause. This is something that successive Canadian governments have agreed to throughout the 30 years since governments have been meeting to talk about lowering emissions. So it isn't news that Canada has a responsibility as a large historical emitter of greenhouse gases. This is true of all of the major industrialized economies that have been burning carbon on an industrial scale for a couple hundred years.

[Canada has] more responsibility than countries that have a very small carbon footprint or have only started emitting large amounts of carbon relatively recently. What that means is that we need to move faster to lower our emissions in line with what scientists are telling us. They're telling us that we need to have [reduced] global emissions in the next 11 years, which the IPCC report from last year told us we needed to do if we want to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That means that countries like Canada have to do it even faster to make atmospheric space for countries that have smaller carbon footprints.

But also, part of that differentiated responsibility is that we need to pay into the UN Climate Fund, which is a flawed financial mechanism, but it's the only one we've got right now. We need to provide financing for poorer countries to deal with the impacts of climate change, and to leapfrog over fossil fuels and go straight to green [technology], and also to help communities keep their carbon-sequestering forests intact. We need forests to stay intact. It's to the benefit of the whole planet, so it shouldn't only be the responsibility of relatively poor countries to give up revenue that they could be getting if they felled those forests [...] and if we don't want them to do it, we need to help.

What are the components of a Canadian response?

I think there's a few components to this. One is ambition. Meaning, if global emissions need to be cut in half in 11 years, Canada needs to do more. We need to cut faster. We also need to pay. We need to provide climate financing, and there are also responsibilities to provide asylum. I don't think that we can talk about our climate responsibilities without talking about migrant rights, and really questioning the legitimacy of our borders at this stage in history where so many millions of people are being displaced and have a right to seek asylum.

There are many drivers of migration right now. Climate is one of them. Climate is also a contributor to conflict. It's an accelerant to conflict. It's really hard to pry it apart from any of the other drivers to migration. But we currently don't even recognize climate refugees under international law, so we don't have the mechanisms really to address this. It's unfortunate that a lot of the ways in which we're talking about a Green New Deal right now are not making the links with migration, and then not making the links enough with international financing either.

You just published a new book, titled On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. In On Fire, you talk about the rising tide of eco-fascism, a political ideology that endorses fascist and often ethno-nationalist solutions to impending climate breakdown, and warn that we need to build the mass movement for a Green New Deal now, or eco-fascism may bloom in its place. I'm wondering whether you're seeing the seeds of eco-fascism in Canada?

Well, I think that [is] the surging xenophobia that we see, represented by Maxime Bernier's party [The People's Party of Canada], the billboards opposing so-called mass migration, increasing incidents of hate crimes. None of this is new, but they're part of a global trend that sees more and more violence directed towards migrants. We're seeing more incarceration of migrants by the state, and this is even though Canada positions itself as being so progressive on [immigration]. We've had an indefinite detention of migrants for a long time. We've had a government that has marketed itself as being anti-Trump when it comes to migration, but at the same time has been sending very different messages to migrant communities telling them not to come to Canada, upholding the Safe Third Country Agreement.

All of this is interrelated. What we're seeing on one end is more militarization on the border, or incarceration of migrants by states, including Canada. Canada is not exempt from this, even though some Canadians like to tell themselves that we are. We are also seeing a transnational movement that identifies itself explicitly as eco-fascist. This is a movement that has adherents in Canada. It's a movement that is very much alive in Europe, in Australia, in New Zealand, in the United States, and we've seen some very high-profile, extremely violent expressions of it. Most recently with the El Paso shooter who went into a Walmart, and specifically said in his manifesto that he was killing Mexicans at a Walmart because he does not think that Mexicans can have the same way of life as Americans.

It's an explicit articulation that his worldview of eco-fascism involves protecting this high-carbon lifestyle exclusively for white, Christian Americans, and waging violence on migrants who deigned to believe that they had a right to engage in that lifestyle as well. And in New Zealand on March 15, there was an atrocious hate crime at two mosques that stole the lives of more than 50 people. The killer in that case identified himself as an ethno-nationalist and eco-fascist. Those are words from his manifesto. He equated migration with an environmental despoliation of white-dominated nations. I believe that we are going to see outright climate denial receding on the far right, and more and more ecological scarcity weaponized as an argument for extreme forms of racist violence.

So what do you make of Maxime Bernier's climate denialism, and how could it evolve?

He's a climate change denier, but I think the days of overt climate change denial are numbered. It's getting harder and harder to uphold that position. The think-tanks that have been at the centre of this, like the Heartland Institute, are really becoming less and less influential. I think for a long time there was far too much focus on, "Well, how do you convince climate change deniers to believe the science?" As if -- if you are a far-right-Fox-news-watching-racist who denies the reality of climate change, that suddenly realizing that the science is true is going to make you suddenly want to adhere to the UN Convention on Climate Change? No. You actually become even more dangerous within the architecture of that worldview, which is based on a brutal ranking of human life and believing that some lives are more valuable than others. If you then accept that we have entered an age of ecological disruption, and indeed that there will be more scarcity, then that's not going to bring out the kinder, gentler side of that ideology. You have to be real about this.

In a few weeks, Canadians will head to the polls to vote in the federal election. Do you see any of the political parties currently treating the climate crisis with the vigor needed to both address the rise of eco-racism and win a Green New Deal for Canada?

I think that both the NDP and the Greens have some really strong climate policies, and I think it does represent progress that they are both running on something they're calling a Green New Deal. I think there are strengths and weaknesses for both parties, and I continue to feel that the Greens don't have a strong enough economic justice and racial justice analysis, or commitment. But the NDP plan, while I think it goes a lot farther than they've gone in the past in terms of really connecting the dots between jobs, social services, and the need for a science-based emission-reduction plan, the money's just not on the table.

I think the biggest difference between what we are seeing from the NDP and what we're seeing for instance from Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren south of the border is that the NDP is still so afraid of being accused of being fiscally irresponsible that they're just not talking about the types of figures that we need. [Their plan is] much too modest in terms of funding. So you know what? I think my message about this election in Canada is that we need to elect some climate champions. We need to elect some Green New Deal champions. People who really do get this understand the ambition, aren't afraid of it. And I don't think, frankly, that we're seeing that from any of the leaders of the political parties.

But I think we can see it in individual candidates. I think what Our Time is doing in terms of really identifying who the Green New Deal champions are is tremendously helpful. And I think the big lesson of what's happened in the U.S. in the past year since the midterm elections is that it can be a complete game changer to elect a few really insurgent candidates who are not toeing the line of the leadership of their party, but are willing to go further. The reason why the Green New Deal has redefined U.S. politics, and the reason why the majority of candidates vying to lead the Democratic Party have all pledged their allegiance to the Green New Deal, is not because Nancy Pelosi or any of the leaders of the Democratic Party thought it was a good idea. In fact, they insult it at every turn.

The reason it's happening is because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected, Rashida Tlaib was elected, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and because the Sunrise Movement pushed it from the outside, and there were people on the inside who were there to receive it, and to carry it forward. I think there are some real champions who are running in this election. I've not mentioned them. Simply, Min Sook Lee for Toronto-Danforth, Paul Taylor for Parkdale-High Park, Matthew Green for Hamilton Centre, and Svend Robinson for Burnaby North-Seymour. I would encourage people to go to the Our Time website and do their own research, and try to elect some champions who are going to shake things up. Because I think our best-case scenario in this election is that we keep Andrew Scheer out, but we deny the Liberals another majority, and we have a minority government that can't afford to ignore the people or ignore the science.

Sophia Reuss is's assistant editor.

Image: Adolfo Lujan/Flickr

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