OPENWIDE Special Feature: Interview With Naomi Klein

Headshot of Naomi Klein sitting in a desk in front of a bookshelf

As FIMS counts down to its System Error Conference, taking place this coming Saturday, OPENWIDE editor-in-chief Chris Ling had the opportunity to speak with Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, the conference’s keynote speaker. Naomi’s notable works include No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She is currently working on a new book and film debuting next September, emphasizing  the revolutionary power of climate change. 

Can you tell me briefly about the focus of your recent research?

This project has been 5 years in the making and comes out in September. It’s a book and a film, and it is, as the title of the talk suggests, about the revolutionary power of climate change. By that I mean it’s about how climate change can be a catalyst for economic and cultural transformation. It’s an attempt to shift the narrative that we have of climate change that generally tends to be very grim and apocalyptic, and that generally tries to motivate people through fear: ie. the world is ending and we have to do something. My own research led me to the conclusion that if we took this crisis as seriously as it deserves to be taken, in terms of the threat that it poses to the future of life on earth- not just humanity but many species- then it would require a radical rethinking of how our economy is organized. What originally drew me to it was a conservation I had with Bolivia’s negotiator at the World Trade Organization. I met with her in 2008 in Geneva working on a story for Harper’s Magazine, not having to do with climate change. She presented me with the argument for why there needed to be a global marshal plan, or a global New Deal, where there would have to be a transfer of technology and resources from the North to the South to compensate countries like Bolivia that were losing their glaciers because of climate change, yet had done basically nothing to contribute to the crisis because they were too poor. They hadn’t emitted greenhouse gases in any significant amounts. She pitched this as a way to right the wrongs of colonialism. Countries like Bolivia have had huge amounts of natural wealth extracted from it over hundreds of years. That conversation was the beginning of the genesis of this project. I eventually wrote a piece for Rolling Stone, which they headlined Climate Rage (which I didn’t think was a very good choice of headline) about the idea of climate debt. That was in the lead up to the climate summit in Copenhagen.

Basically this requires a large-scale rethinking of north-south capital flows and the global political economy?

That’s what that piece was about: looking at the fact that this is really been what has deadlocked climate negotiations. Every time there is another summit, it breaks down over the issue of who is most responsible for this crisis: who should bear most of the burden. Countries like Canada have been really intransigent about the idea that we should lead. The position our governments generally take is: China and India are now generating as much or more as us, so we’re not going to take any greater responsibility. But if you calculate it not per person but based on population, we are still emitting vastly more than they are. More to the point, we’ve been doing it now for close to 200 years, and it’s the nature of the crisis that carbon stays in the atmosphere for a very long time so it’s about the accumulated emissions. It just deadlocks over this point. It’s very clear to anyone who follows climate negotiations closely that this will not get unlocked until there’s some kind of real progress made on the issue of whether or not the North is willing to take a leadership role. So far, that hasn’t been the case, but I think that could change.

 Especially when those countries in the global North are engaged in neocolonial practices that continue to exploit the power relations which keep those in the global South under their thumbs.

That’s where I think it becomes a more hopeful prospect- that it could break some of those patterns once and for all. These issues surrounding colonial debt come up again and again, because these are countries that are poor because of centuries of extractive policies. There have been movements in the past to reclaim these debts in various ways that haven’t gotten anywhere, but the thing about climate change is that these claims have a huge amount of science behind them. People don’t actually debate the science, because it’s clear. We know when the carbon was emitted. We know who was responsible for the bulk of the carbon in the atmosphere that’s causing global warming. It’s a pretty airtight case, so it becomes a question of political will. And political will can change; I believe in the power of social movements and I always have, and I think that the biggest problem we have on climate change is that there isn’t a broad enough base social movement behind it. There’s a lot of shared responsibility for that. I think its shared by the green groups as well as the broader left because in general, the left which tends to be concerned with issues of human rights and economic inequality has not engaged with climate change nearly as much as it should have. It’s treated as a [strictly] environmental issue, as opposed to a social, human rights, economic issue. I think that’s starting to change. I think in your generation, there’s much more of an understanding of climate change as a human rights issue. A lot has changed in Canada because of the leadership of First Nations. The fact that we’re hearing more and more directly from impacted communities has changed this and taken it from an issue that, say, Greenpeace was talking about, and made it into more of a human rights issue which I think it needs to be.

On that, recently the Dalhousie Student Union and Enviro Western have mobilized their student councils to divest in fossil fuels. Specifically, what role do academic institutions have in taking initiative to bring climate change to the forefront of a more human rights-based issue?

I think young people generally and academic institutions in particular have a very important role to play right now. On a basic level, I think young people have a tremendous moral authority to say to institutions that are tasked with preparing them for the future- to point out the raging hypocrisy of investing in corporations whose business model is to bet against that future. We have the numbers. It was so striking when we put those numbers out (based on the Carbon Tracker Work in the UK) that these companies already have 80 percent more carbon in their proven reserves than can be emitted into the atmosphere, and say that still leaves us a good chance of staying below 2 degrees warming, which is what all the governments in Copenhagen agreed to. In my view that, that’s a very weak target. The way in which these numbers were framed by the original research in the UK is that this is a market bubble. It research that was done for the investment community to say, look, this doesn’t add up. You have governments saying that they’re going to keep temperatures below 2 degrees, you’ve got businesses saying we’re going to burn more than 80 percent more carbon- this is a bubble that’s going to pop! I looked at that research and I said, “no that’s not at all what’s happening, what’s happening is that these fossil fuel companies have looked at what our governments are saying and are essentially calling our bluffs.” They don’t believe our governments are going to take action and they’re right to come to that conclusion. There’s nothing to indicate that our governments are serious about those targets. So if we want this to be a bubble, we’re going to have to pop it. That’s where divestment comes in. We need to create a crisis in the market, that will prevent them from burning that carbon or they will go ahead and burn it.

I think as students, you have a uniquely powerful voice in leveraging your own relationships of trust with your institutions of higher learning to point out this hypocrisy. Add to that the fact that so much of the research proving the reality of this crisis is coming from your institutions. It’s also important because there’s a new wave of environmentalism that is spreading across North America, one which has been around for a long time in the global South, which is really about leaving the fossil fuels in the ground. In my book I trace the history of that movement beginning in Nigeria in the ‘90s, to those who successfully kicked Shell out of their territory, and often don’t get the credit for starting this movement.  That’s the roots of the movement- it was even called ‘Operation Climate Change’ in the late 90s. It wasn’t just about the local impacts: they also understood that it was part of a global movement to fight climate change. This movement is spreading quickly in North America, which you see with the campaigns against the Keystone XL Pipeline, against frakking, in BC against the Northern Gateway Pipeline and in Ontario against Line 9. In each of these fights, the counterargument is always: ‘well this doesn’t matter, because you if you don’t build Keystone they’ll get the carbon out on the trains, and if they don’t get it out on the trains, they’ll get it out through Northern Gateway.’ All the various tentacles of this fossil fuel resistance are pitted against each other: ‘if doesn’t matter if you stop the tar sand because the real growth is in frakking.’ That’s why it’s so important to have this strategy that is going after the whole sector. I think real progress is being made in the grassroots, frontline resistance that’s happening at the site of extraction, and at the site of transportation, and now this layer of divestment that is taking on the whole sector.

How do we push this to the front of the Canadian political narrative? You talked about the left as often framing these environmental issues as niche topics- I’m thinking specifically about Trudeau recently criticizing the Harper government for not getting Keystone approved by the Obama administration. How do we bridge the gaps between the grassroots movements and the wider political narrative?

I think there are 2 main things that need to happen. In general, there needs to be a clear vision among grassroots organizations. I think there are some attempts to do that: you’ve got a People’s Social Forum that’s coming together this summer, bringing together labour an indigenous groups, and groups like the Council of Canadians. There’s attempts to break some of the silo-ing that goes on, where groups work in their own corners and there’s no attempt to connect all of the dots. During the speech I gave at the Founding Convention of UNIFOR, I was trying to make the case to this new union that represents energy workers in Canada, including those in the tar sands, that its in their interest in terms of building these broad-based social movements that will protect the gains of unions (they’re so much on the defensive right now). Its really [about] having a coherent alternate vision for what our economy should look like, not some extraction that is based on renewal and regeneration. We need to be putting forward that inspiring vision instead of constantly fighting rearguard actions just to defend what we have. It’s a very fear based narrative, just protecting what you have. I think if you had more of a convergence between first nations, human rights social movements of various kinds, and labour unions like UNIFOR that are positioning themselves as a new kind of trade union representing social unionism.

The task really is to put forward another vision for Canada, because Stephen Harper’s version is to dig lots of holes, put it onto trains and into pipelines. That’s his idea for Canada, that’s his idea for economic growth.  He doesn’t have any other ideas. That’s why they are so frantic. That’s why all they talk about is the Keystone XL Pipeline and Northern Gateway. It’s not just about oil and gas: its also about mining in Ontario. They have an extractivist mindset, and we don’t have any coherent alternative visions of another way to live on this land. That’s why I think it was inspiring when Idle No More emerged last year, because you caught glimpses of not just another policy, but another worldview. That’s what I think is needed in this moment. The other piece is putting pressure on the opposition parties. I think the Harper government is a write-off on this stuff. I don’t people should waste their time with the Harper government, but when you’re talking about Trudeau or Mulcair, I think that is worth doing. I think it’s really important for them to hear from young people that climate change matters. You see Trudeau going to Washington hawking the Keystone XL Pipeline, and that could really cost him. He needs to hear that message, and Mulcair does, too. None of them are putting climate change front and centre, because their pollsters are telling them that this is not a way to win an election. Its those two pieces of building an independent social movement from all the political parties, but then also putting real pressure on the opposition parties, and telling them that this is unacceptable.

If the Montreal student protests were any indication, the youth vote and youth social movements are hugely impactful. 

Absolutely. I think politicians do learn lessons, because sometimes they take the wrong lessons. I think what we saw in Quebec was that if you have a really powerful social movement, you’re going to get the attention of the political class. If they ignore it, it’s at their peril, and that’s the lesson that [Jean] Charest learned. In general, I’m a strong proponent of building counter-power, as opposed to playing the political party game, but I do think that you can’t ignore the political process altogether.

On the other hand, university presidents at large US schools such as Harvard and Brown have recently rejected divestment strategies. Can you comment on that?

 From what I can tell, so far, its galvanizing the movement. I don’t think people are giving up. Anybody who knows the history of the South African divestment movement knows that it’s shocking how quickly we got victories on divestment. I think maybe it seemed a little too easy at first; before Bill [McKibben], whom I work closely with at, had even started the tour, you had a couple of schools that were on board. You had the mayor of Seattle coming on board. There were a couple of almost too-easy wins right out of the gate, but if you look at when you have big money at stake, like at Harvard, its going to be a huge fight, a multi-year fight, just as it was with South African divestment. The idea that you get discouraged with the first no, frankly, is not a luxury that people in [many] communities have, so I think that students with tremendous privilege at schools like Harvard should not be discouraged either.

There have been some real victories. Seattle came on board right away, and has provided real leadership for other cities. One of striking [moments] in the launch of the divestment movement was in Boston, where I went to speak with Bill for the launch of the [350] campaign. It was so incredible. We went out on stage and I think there were 2500 people in that room. They were on their feet before we even said a word.  People were so ready for it. On one level, it was gratifying, but another level, what took us so long? This raises deep questions about why the mainstream environmental movement has been so slow to go after the financial entities that are at the heart of this crisis. One of the things that I’m writing about in my book is that so many of these [large environmental] organizations have partnerships with Shell, with BP- they themselves are invested in these companies. I wrote a piece for The Nation last year about how groups like the Nature Conservancy and WWF were invested in fossil fuel companies with their own endowments. It’s really shocking. I think [Boston] was a constituency that was just waiting for this, that was completely ready. They were just waiting for someone to say: do this. And we did it. Obviously there are a lot of places where we have a more uphill battle, where people are much more invested [in fossil fuels], and more resistant, and that’s going to take longer. But I do think that the question deserves to be asked of where were the big green groups? Why did it take 350 to suggest this?

What about the role of the media in all of this? How do we go about changing the discourse in the mainstream media? Like the political narrative, climate change is often framed as a separate issue.

 In the mainstream press, this tends to be very compartmentalized as a green issue or as an environmental issue. What I find weird is that most newspaper editorial boards in Canada consider themselves to very enlightened on climate change, but when it comes to what their position is going to be on a pipeline, they are very resistant to make those connections. Part of it is that we have a certain narrative about what an environmental issue is: its ozone depletion, its species extinction, its these narrower issues, although none of it is really narrow. There were the green groups, and they dealt with those issues, and there were the environmental reporters, and they dealt with those issues- it was a little compartment. Now we have climate change, and people are still acting as if climate change is just an environmental issue, and that it can still be dealt with by these same constituencies, and be left in that box. In fact, [climate change] encompasses our entire economy, and our entire worldview. The message of my project is that climate change is way too important to leave to the environmentalists. This is not an environmental issue- it’s a civilization issue. It’s a humanity issue. Its understandable if you trace history: it came out of the Real Earth Summit, it came out of a certain narrative, certain groups were there first, but it really needs to be liberated from that box. And that’s true in our media, this continued compartmentalization, not making those connections. But the media are like political parties. If you build a strong enough social movement, they’ll follow. My advice is that activists should not waste too much time thinking about how to attract the media and change the media, but get busy changing the story and the media will come to you. Just think about Occupy Wall Street, or the Quebec student protests. It’s about having your own story.

I often wonder what life would have been like if Al Gore had been elected President in 2000 instead of George Bush. Theoretically, what do you think the state of North America’s political economy and the global climate would have been if that had been the case?

I can understand why you ask that question, because your experience of Al Gore is the Inconvenient Truth Al Gore. But I remember Gore when he was vice-president, and the truth is, yes, he always prioritized the environment, but he was a staunch neo-liberal. It was under him that some terrible compromises were made in the original drafting of the original Kyoto Protocol, and bears a huge part of the responsibility for why that agreement is as limited as it is, because he pushed for carbon trading to be the key development mechanism. He got a lot of the big environmental groups onside for NAFTA, and the whole free trade agenda, and really if you look at the numbers and how we ended up in such a bad place, so much has to do with the fact that climate change arrived right when you had this acceleration of corporate globalization. In the late 80s, early 90s, when all the free trade deals were being signed and the WTO was being created, this is when emissions began to soar – because consumption was soaring globally. I know that a Gore presidency would not have in any way changed that. In the same way that Obama has been such a disappointment, I don’t think we can overpersonalize this. I think both Gore and Obama probably feel this intensely, but when you’re in that office, and you’re shackled within this ideology, it so deeply limits what you’re capable of accomplishing. And that’s why we have to talk about the ideology itself.

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