Change the world, not the climate

Issue: 145

Camilla Royle

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014), £20

On 21 September 2014 New York saw the biggest ever demonstration on climate change, a march of up to 400,000 that filled large areas of Central Park and took three hours to leave its assembly point. In This Changes Everything anti-capitalist writer Naomi Klein argues that climate change means we are faced with a near impossible task. But she also looks to movements around the world that are starting to face up to that task.

Politicians have been aware of climate change as a policy issue for decades (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was set up in Rio de Janeiro in 1992) but they have done little to deal with the problem. Klein argues that at one point climate change could have been addressed with fairly simple measures, but, tragically, we have left it so late that we now face a procrastination penalty. According to scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin, wealthy countries need to reduce their overall carbon emissions by 10 percent every year starting now if we are to give ourselves even a 50/50 chance of limiting warming to 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. These cuts are clearly far more ambitious than the recent pledges by Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping—to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent over ten years in the United States and for China’s emissions to still grow but to peak in 2030. In a recent interview for Human Geography journal, Klein referred to the deal as “baby steps in the right direction” but argued that it needs to be weighed against the relentless drive towards free trade that both leaders are part of. Currently we are heading for something more like a 4ºC temperature rise, which will drown coastal cities and cause heat waves on a scale never seen before. We know that one way or another the world is going to change dramatically in the next few decades. Either we can radically alter the type of energy we use or climate change will reach much more dangerous levels.

For Klein much of the problem is due to bad timing. Politicians started to see climate change as a problem at around the same time as they also embraced neoliberal ideology. It is one thing to debate the numbers in international forums but an entirely different task to start saying no to fossil fuel companies. Obama has been willing to talk, much less willing to face up to big oil and gas and ban their activities such as the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline which will run through the US.

Sensible policies were attacked as “protectionist”. In 2010 the Canadian province of Ontario passed the Green Energy and Green Economy Act, creating 31,000 jobs in an area deeply affected by the decline of auto manufacturing. The Italian company Silfab set up a solar panel manufacturer in a former auto-parts factory and employed workers who already had the skills, such as using robotic arms, to make solar panels. In 2014 the Silfab factory is in crisis, with investment drying up, and is facing closure. The WTO ruled that because Ontario’s legislation required businesses to hire local workers and source equipment locally it obstructs free trade and is in violation of their rules (pp65-69).

“Green” capitalism has also been tried and failed as a solution. Klein points out how Richard Branson, despite apparently seeing the light after a PowerPoint presentation by Al Gore, has done little to live up to his aims of diverting the power of profit towards halting climate change. At the same time he has aggressively expanded the airline sector of his business and tried to launch a space travel project. As Klein points out, though, it is not just Branson’s risk seeking behaviour that’s at fault but the whole system that he is part of.

Klein vividly describes landscapes vandalised by extractive industry. The pacific island of Nauru has “a ravaged interior” stripped of phosphate for the fertiliser industry down to its “sharply protruding bones, leaving behind a forest of ghostly coral totems” (p163). The gulf coast, which she visited after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, is described as a giant womb filled with delicate floating larval creatures that are almost defenceless against the poisoned water (p426). And in Klein’s native Canada open pit mining for Alberta’s tar sands has “skinned alive” an area of land that could grow to the size of England if extraction continues. The oil companies have to fire cannons every few minutes to stop birds landing on the eerie silver tailing ponds and being killed. In 2014 those ponds were found to be leaking into the Athabasca river; local doctors have reported increased rates of cancer in their patients including rare bile duct cancers (p327).

Klein argues that the environmental movement, and people like Branson, have traditionally thought of the Earth as something we look down on from above. Certainly the image of the planet seen from space has been a recurring feature of environmental imagery since about the 1960s when photos from space started appearing. Klein feels that this is the wrong way to think of the problem. If you look down on the Earth it’s too easy to make decisions on behalf of people, for example by suggesting that one part of the world should grow more forests to make up for another’s coal fired power stations.

By contrast, Klein argues that environmental movements should be bottom up, drawing on people’s everyday experience and “attachments to different pieces of land” (p287). Many of the newer campaigns Klein identifies, which she refers to as Blockadia, have been based on such local demands. For example the anti-fracking movements in both the US and Britain have raised concerns about pollution affecting drinking water. The Heiltsuk First Nation in British Columbia have been organising against the construction of an oil pipeline that they fear could threaten their food supply. A concern for environmental justice has played a major role in igniting indigenous people’s movements such as Idle no More in Canada.

It could be argued that these campaigns are about social justice, often invoking the need for clean water or unpolluted air rather than about climate change as such. However, the examples Klein gives make the compelling case that people’s anger over the more immediate threats to their lives and health might be what mobilises them: “whether or not climate change has been a primary motivator, the local movements…deserve to be recognised as unsung carbon keepers, who, by protecting their beloved forests, mountains, rivers and coastlines, are helping to protect all of us” (p352).

Klein recognises that Marx referred to the “metabolic rift” that capitalism has created between humans and nature (p177). But, with her notion that climate change is a result of “bad timing”, she puts the emphasis on 1980s neoliberal capitalism, rather than addressing what is particular to capitalism as such in the way it deals with nature. She does argue that the roots of the problem go back further than the 1980s. With the invention of the steam engine and the expansion of coal mining in the 18th century, capitalism was able to overcome some of the limits imposed by nature. But it is not just a case of the wrong technology or ideology. For Marx, the system was characterised by the drive to accumulate for accumulation’s sake. This can leave individual capitals with no choice but to keep expanding to satisfy their shareholders. As Klein herself notes, fuel companies must keep up their reserve-replacement ratios; they must have at least as much oil and gas in known reserves as they do in production or they risk going bust.

Klein is very supportive of arguments for investment in climate jobs; it fits well with her overall thesis that leaving everything to the free market is bad for people as well as the environment. But she doesn’t see the central role that workers might play as part of a solution. She points to the fact that most workers in extractive industries want to leave the areas where they work as soon as they can afford to and concludes that they don’t have the same attachment to places as people who have lived in the same areas for generations.

Critics have also pointed to a tension in the book. On the one hand Klein wants local empowerment and democratic grassroots movements, but on the other hand, in a chapter called “Planning and Banning” she calls for “forceful regulation” by central governments. She argues that this tension can be resolved, looking to the example of Germany, where environmental movements have won the central government to adopting policy on renewable energy that is implemented nationally but involves feed-in tariffs that Klein hopes will facilitate local, collective control over energy generation.

Workers, especially in a centralised industry like fossil fuel extraction, hold huge amounts of power. There is a precedent in the Australian green ban movement of the 1970s, when building workers refused to do environmentally damaging work—albeit on a much smaller scale than what is needed now. Furthermore, workers have the potential to replace the capitalist state with their own institutions. A socialist society, where workers control production, would be much more democratic than a country with some environmentally friendly reforms such as Germany. If workers could link their demands for decent jobs with the concerns of Blockadia it might just be enough to start to change things at the speed Klein says is needed.

This Changes Everything is aimed more at providing the ammunition for campaigns than at engaging in theoretical debates. The book is clearly and passionately argued and contains research that has taken years to carry out. As such it will be a valuable resource, as will a planned film, also called This Changes Everything, scheduled for release in late 2015.

The book is so important that it has tempted some socialists to argue that we should avoid criticising it entirely (of course it has received criticism from the right: Telegraph blogger James Delingpole sees Klein’s arguments as “totalitarian”, “eco-fascistic” and a threat to our “hard-won freedoms”). To be clear, criticising aspects of the book from a Marxist perspective is not the same as arguing for ideological purity within the environmental movement, or that we should denigrate Klein as not revolutionary enough. But one of the tasks for Marxists should be to consider how our own ideas and traditions can complement Klein’s insights and address some of the questions around democracy and workers’ power that the book raises.

When This Changes Everything was launched in London 2,000 people attended to hear that capitalism is the problem. As Klein said during the event, “It’s not like capitalism is working apart from the climate change thing.” Klein turns climate change into a civil rights issue, a case of us versus them. It’s not that we don’t know what the problem is or don’t have the right technology; it’s that some people are making mega-profits while polluting the atmosphere. But Klein sees resistance bubbling up in places all over the world. Rather than starting from scratch to build a new climate movement she argues that the movements are already there and growing—let’s hope she’s right.