A week and a half ago, just as a blizzard was barreling up the East Coast, I traveled to my hometown, Canandaigua, NY, and before a standing-room-only audience of more than 400 at Finger Lakes Community College, had a conversation with author and climate activist Naomi Klein.
Our talk was part of the George M. Ewing Forum, named in honor of the late editor and publisher of our local newspaper. He was a worldly and informed man, dedicated to good talk and a lively exchange of ideas. The forum brings to town a variety of speakers each year, some of them from the area, others not.
The Finger Lakes region is a beautiful part of the country. As has often been said, it runs on water, and as I grew up, there was an increasing realization that what we have is an invaluable natural resource we could be in danger of losing. Over the years, the threats have grown ever more complex with greater hazards revealed as pollution and development have encroached on the landscape. As a result, much of our audience was composed of environmentalists and concerned citizens, including a contingent from We Are Seneca Lake, the grassroots campaign fighting against the use of crumbling salt mines under the hillsides to store fracked natural gas and liquefied petroleum gases. (One of its leaders is biologist, mother and Moyers & Company guest Sandra Steingraber.)
The conversation with Naomi Klein was billed as “Capitalism vs. The Climate: Reflections on the 2015 UN Climate Conference,” and while we certainly spoke a great deal about that recent climate agreement in Paris, our talk ranged more widely as we discussed her life and work, politics, the continuing right-wing denial of global warming, and the climate justice movement.
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the bestseller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She’s a member of the board of directors for 350.org, the global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis. Among many other honors, in 2015 she received The Izzy Award – named after the great writer and editor IF Stone — celebrating outstanding achievement in independent journalism and media.
Klein’s most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, was shortlisted for the 2015 PEN Literary Awards in the nonfiction category. A documentary based on the book, directed by Avi Lewis, was released last fall.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. I began with the most basic question:
This changes everything — how?
Naomi Klein: So the ‘this’ in This Changes Everything is climate change. And the argument that I make in the book is that we find ourselves in this moment where there are no non-radical options left before us. Change or be changed, right? And what we mean by that is that climate change, if we don’t change course, if we don’t change our political and economic system, is going to change everything about our physical world. And that is what climate scientists are telling us when they say business as usual leads to three to four degrees Celsius of warming. That’s the road we are on. We can get off that road, but we’re now so far along it, we’ve put off the crucial policies for so long, that now we can’t do it gradually. We have to swerve, right? And swerving requires such a radical departure from the kind of political and economic system we have right now that we pretty much have to change everything.
We have to change the kind of free trade deals we sign. We would have to change the absolutely central role of frenetic consumption in our culture. We would have to change the role of money in politics and our political system. We would have to change our attitude towards regulating corporations. We would have to change our guiding ideology.
You know, since the 1980s we’ve been living in this era, really, of corporate rule, based on this idea that the role of government is to liberate the power of capital so that they can have as much economic growth as quickly as possible and then all good things will flow from that. And that is what justifies privatization, deregulation, cuts to corporate taxes offset by cuts to public services — all of this is incompatible with what we need to do in the face of the climate crisis. We need to invest massively in the public sphere to have a renewable energy system, to have good public transit and rail. That money needs to come from somewhere, so it’s going to have to come from the people who have the money.
And I actually believe it’s deeper than that, that it’s about changing the paradigm of a culture that is based on separateness from nature, that is based on the idea that we can dominate nature, that we are the boss, that we are in charge. Climate change challenges all of that. It says, you know, all this time that you’ve been living in this bubble apart from nature, that has been fueled by a substance that all the while has been accumulating in the atmosphere, and you told yourself you were the boss, you told yourself you could have a one-way relationship with the natural world, but now comes the response: “You thought you were in charge? Think again.” And we can either mourn our status as boss of the world and see it as some cosmic demotion — which is why I think the extreme right is so freaked out by climate change that they have to deny it. It isn’t just that it is a threat to their profits. It’s a threat to a whole worldview that says you have dominion over all things, and that’s extremely threatening.
Just after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Bloomberg Business Week published a cover story and the cover said, “It’s global warming, stupid.” And now here we are, the two of us sitting here the day after a massive snowfall on the Atlantic seaboard. What’s that telling you, me and the rest of us to think?
That we’re really stupid? [laughter] I mean I do think that Sandy was a turning point. If you look at the polling around climate change in this country before Sandy, that was kind of the low point in terms of Americans believing that climate change was real and that humans were causing it. And I think that there have been so many messages, you know, whether it’s the California drought and the wildfires or the flooding that we just saw in the American South — it’s just getting harder and harder to deny that there’s something really, really strange going on.
We have a structural problem, because you can simultaneously understand the medium to long-term risks of climate change and also come to the conclusion that it is in your short-term economic interest to invest in oil and gas. Which is why, you know, anybody who tells you that the market is going to fix this on its own is lying to you.
And I’ve always been struck, too, by the military’s embrace of the reality of climate change, that they’ve been warning us for years about this. Because that’s why they’re going to have to fight a lot of the time.
Yeah. And I think that’s becoming clearer and clearer as well because — you know, I have to give credit to John Kerry in terms of the fact that he’s been out front making the connection between the civil war in Syria and climate change, that before the outbreak of civil war, Syria experienced the worst drought in its history and that led to an internal migration of between 1.5 and 2 million people, and when you have that kind of massive internal migration, it exacerbates tension in an already tense place.
In addition to that, beforehand you had the invasion of Iraq, which also had a little something to do with climate change in the sense that it was a war that had maybe a little something to do with oil [laughter], which is one of the substances causing climate change.
You also have the military burning these vast amounts of fossil fuels and yet saying global warming is a danger. But speaking of John Kerry, that brings up [the UN climate summit in] Paris. That was a month and a half ago now. Kerry described it as a victory for the planet. Michael T. Klare had said that Paris should be considered not just a climate summit but a peace conference, perhaps the most significant peace convocation in history. What do you think?
Michael said that before the summit, making the argument that if we don’t do what’s necessary in the face of the climate crisis, if we don’t radically bring down emissions and get to 100 percent renewable energy — which we can do very, very rapidly — if we don’t do that, then we’re going to be facing a world of conflict.
That became particularly relevant because two weeks ahead of the summit were those horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and then the world conversation really shifted, you know, almost as dramatically as after 9/11, where it was just like, okay, we were talking about climate change. That conversation is pretty much over and now we’re going to be talking about security all the time.
I was in Paris for three weeks in this period and it was pretty striking that the summit, even though it was in Paris, even though there were I believe 40,000 people who came to Paris for the summit, it barely made the front page of Le Monde and Libération except for a couple of days, because the focus was so fervently on security issues.
So, you know, we need to make the connections, and it’s not — to me it’s not about saying this is more important than security, because that’s not a conversation you can win. I mean if people feel immediately threatened, that is going to trump climate change. It’s about showing the connections and saying these are not separate issues. We live in an interconnected world, in an interconnected time, and we need holistic solutions. We have a crisis of inequality and we need climate solutions that solve that crisis.
So in terms of what to make of Paris, the truth is, I think that the deal that those politicians managed to negotiate, there was all this euphoria. I’ve never seen leaders congratulate themselves so fervently. [laughter] It was truly unseemly. “We are awesome!” Yeah. [laughter]
And I have to say that the reporting was far too deferential, far too credulous. There were headlines like, you know, this agreement marks the end of the fossil fuel era. And then a couple weeks ago there was a piece interviewing executives from all the major oil companies about whether they felt that the Paris agreement was going to impact their business model and all of them [who] agreed to talk said not at all. And Exxon said, “We don’t expect it to impact any of our assets” and specifically said, “We don’t believe this will lead to a single stranded asset.” And now, since we know that the fossil fuel companies have five times more carbon in their proven reserves than is compatible with a two-degree temperature target — and what’s in the agreement is that we should actually try to keep it to 1.5 degrees warming Celsius — if they’re saying it’s not going to impact their assets, what they’re saying is, “Look, this is a nonbinding, non-legally binding, non-enforceable agreement and we’re going to continue with business as usual as long as we can.”
That said, the fact is that there is a very ambitious target in the agreement, [but] no policies to make it a reality, okay? So the agreement says that we pledge to keep temperatures below two degrees and we’ll endeavor to keep them below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now, we have already increased temperatures to one degree Celsius, okay? So we’re already in the dangerous era of climate change. But we can’t stop now. It’s just the nature of it. You know, we’ve already locked in impacts. So 1.5 is an extremely ambitious target. We would need to be cutting our emissions by at least 10 percent a year or more in wealthy countries if we were going to take that target seriously. If you add up all the targets that governments brought to Paris — because the way it was structured is, we have a goal, but because we don’t believe in regulation or anything top down — and this is where the ideology comes in — everybody can just go home and voluntarily say what they’re going to do and then we’ll add it all up and hope it works out. And it turns out, no, it doesn’t work out. It adds up to three to four degrees of warming.
Did you feel that the fact that after the terror attacks there was a clamping down on people being able to demonstrate and protest outside the conference, did that have an effect, do you think, on the meetings?
I do think it had an effect, yeah, I do. There was a blanket ban on demonstrations during the summit. The way the government defined it under the state of emergency was “any gathering of more than three people of a political nature was banned.” And this was quite extraordinary. I pointed out that even George Bush and Dick Cheney didn’t ban protests after 9/11. There was not a blanket ban across the board. And that was what the Hollande government did. And it was a very, very fraught situation for France because regional elections happened during the summit and the Front National, which is the sort of fascist party in France, was gaining in the polls and so the summit became this tool for the Hollande government that was supposed to be a fantastic public relations moment for them and they were bound and determined to get that happy picture at the end where everyone’s cheering and going, “You’re awesome.” And they got it. And I do think that if demonstrations had been permitted, there would have been a different kind of debate, in particular around an issue like agriculture.
Because one of the things that was really striking about the summit is that it was the most corporate sponsored UN climate summit that any of us had ever seen. There had been encroaching corporate sponsorship at previous ones but in France you got the nuclear industry, you got the private water industry, which is very, very strong in France, and these huge agribusiness companies that sponsored the summit. And so they were marketing their product as climate solutions, whether it was so-called drought-resistant GMO seeds, or they call it climate-smart agriculture, which is the new way they’re marketing GMOs, or companies like [GDF Suez], water companies seeing water scarcity as a market opportunity for obvious reasons or the huge nuclear power companies marketing nuclear power as a better alternative to renewables.
So they all had a big megaphone inside the summit because they had access, they were sponsoring, they had a whole forum to themselves. We knew that was going to happen but the streets were supposed to be ours. The streets were the social movements, this was where we were going to be presenting our alternatives. And then we were just told, “No. You have to stay — you’re not allowed on the streets. So you can still have your little alternative summit in the middle of nowhere in the suburbs that nobody’s going to go to.” And that’s the way it played out. So I don’t know that it would have changed the agreement, but I think it would have changed people’s understanding of what happened. I think there would have been a million people in the streets of Paris without that ban. That’s what they were projecting.
And even within the conference center itself, a lot of countries never got to speak.
Oh, it was so tightly controlled.
Because I think that they realized that they didn’t need a consensus, they just needed a majority to get it through.
And it was ugly. There was a moment where it was almost like a test of “will you stand with France? Are you really going to screw France in their moment of need?” It was just ugly. And you’re talking about countries that are fighting for their own survival. They’ve got a lot of skin in this game. So it was a very, very tightly controlled summit. The good thing is that it played out over two weeks — I mean, these are long events — and it was kind of amazing to watch the city get its courage back, because at the beginning of the summit people were really scared and really tentative about being in the streets and really not sure about whether they were being disloyal. But by the end people were ready to take their city back, they were ready to take their streets back, they were ready to defend liberty. This thing in France about liberté, that this is what’s under attack. And the way that we’re going to defend ourselves is that we’re all going to stay home? Or go shopping? As if any of this sounds familiar? [laughter]
But it was particularly striking because it was Christmas shopping season so everything’s lit up and everybody’s shopping. You’re allowed to shop and you’re encouraged to shop and all the Christmas markets are on and all the football matches are on, you just can’t protest. And so at a certain point the Parisians just said, “Screw it, we’re doing it.” And so in the end people did take to the streets again and I felt really lucky to be part of that process of people getting their courage back. And I think it was very important.
We have less than a year now, as of today, of Barack Obama’s administration. What is your assessment of him as an environmental president?
Well, you know, he certainly, in the final year and change in office, he is showing us what leadership looks like. And to me it’s all the more frustrating, in a way, that he didn’t do much more of this starting immediately. What he has done in the last few years shows that there was actually quite a lot of executive power, which people were saying from the beginning. You know, as soon as it was clear, in Copenhagen in 2009, that the Senate was blocking Obama from introducing meaningful climate legislation, the push was for him to use executive authority, use the EPA, use the tool of federal leases, and there was just a refusal to do it. And now we’re seeing it in the final years, but it’s very vulnerable. You know, it’s vulnerable to a next administration. And I’m not just talking about Trump. I’m talking about Hillary Clinton, because [initially] Hillary Clinton was, when it came to the Keystone fight, ready to rubber stamp that pipeline from day one.
So I think he’s doing what needs to be done to be able to say that he’s got a good legacy. But it’s not enough. I always remember the moment after the cap and trade bill fell, after it collapsed, Bill McKibben wrote an article to the environmental movement going, “Look, we tried it your way. We tried the polite lobbying, closed door, not making a fuss, you know, give the guy a chance, let’s compromise route, and it delivered less than nothing. So now we’re going to try something else. We’re going to try street pressure, outside pressure, civil disobedience. We’re going to try being a royal pain in the neck and see if that gets results.”
I think we waited too long and lost some precious time. Because the thing about climate change is, you know, you hear the clock ticking so loudly, right?
There was a video you did for The Guardian last spring in which you said that sometimes capitalism gives us a gift, and that with the decline in global oil prices, the moment was rife for kicking the fossil fuel industry while it’s down. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that a little bit.
Oil has gone from $150 dollars a barrel to below $30 dollars a barrel in a period of 18 months. I mean this is incredible. Nobody predicted this. And, you know, it’s potentially a game changer. But it’s complicated, right? I mean it isn’t just, okay, well, this is going to be good for climate action, because when oil is cheap it encourages people to use oil. It encourages people to buy bigger cars, it encourages people to treat this commodity as if it is cheap, because it is cheap, and not think about the impacts. So we actually need oil to be more expensive. And that’s why this would be an excellent time to introduce a carbon tax.
But this comes back to the sort of central argument I’m trying to put out there, that we are not going to do the things that we need to do unless we engage in a battle of ideas. I don’t know, has anybody read or started reading Jane Mayer’s new book about the Koch brothers, Dark Money? I mean it’s an extraordinary book because it reminds us that we have been living, over the past 40 years, a very planned and concerted campaign to change the ideas that govern our societies. The Koch brothers set out to change the values, to change the core ideas that people believed in.
And there is no progressive equivalent of taking ideas seriously. So we’ve got lots of funding for campaigns for people working on all kinds of different areas but a metanarrative, like the Charles Koch metanarrative — and he’s said it explicitly — is that he is challenging collectivism, he is challenging the idea that when people get together they can do good. And he is putting forward the worldview that we’re all very familiar with that if you free the individual to pursue their self-interest that will actually benefit the majority. So you need to attack everything that is collective, whether it’s labor rights or whether it’s public health care or whether it’s regulatory action. All of this falls under the metanarrative of an attack on collectivism.
So what is the progressive metanarrative? Who funds it? Who is working on changing ideas that can say, “Actually, when we pool our resources, when we work together, we can do more and better than when we only act as individuals.” I don’t think we value that. So here we are in this moment when of course we should be introducing a carbon tax but it’s like almost unthinkable that we could. I mean, tax, we can’t say tax, everyone hates taxes, right?
So we can’t avoid those battles of ideas. We can’t avoid those big discussions about what our values are. Because if we don’t engage in them then we aren’t going to be able to introduce these very simple policy solutions. So yes, okay, the argument I made about the oil price shock is this creates the conditions where we could really change the game but we’re not going to be able to do it if we’re not willing to talk about an aggressive carbon tax. But to me, I think the Koch brothers are so interesting in the sense that it really does show us how much ideological ground we’ve lost. They never take their eye off it.
Charles Koch was asked recently whether he feels he has had enough influence. And his answer was revealing, he said, “Well, they haven’t nationalized us.” That’s his concern. So then you think about it, we would never, it would be so unthinkable to just talk about, well, why don’t we nationalize Koch Industries? That’s a crazy thing to say, but he’s thinking about it.
He’s also worrying about, “If I spend $900 million dollars on this election, by God, I want to get something back for my money.” And it’s frightening what he expects to get. But he’s disappointed in all the candidates, he said in that same interview.
Yes, he’s disappointed but he knows it could be worse. It’s amazing how much money they need to spend. Another way of thinking about it is it’s extraordinary how much money they have to spend and they don’t always win. That’s amazing.
And I do think it’s going to get harder for fossil fuel companies. It really is going to get scary. And they’re terrified of the Exxon investigations because if Exxon has been systematically misleading the public, if they knew, all of this is going to be coming out, then this raises huge questions about the legitimacy of their profits. And Exxon is the most profitable company in the history of the world, $42 billion dollars in profits in a single year. And here we are unable to pay for public transit, unable to pay for the kinds of infrastructure that we need to deal with the crisis that they have created.
This is a conversation that they’re going to really try to have not happen. And I know there are people here who are working on a carbon tax. And it’s great but often you’ll hear people say, “Well, it has to be revenue-neutral. It has to be fee and dividend. Don’t call it a tax.” Because we accept the Koch framework as a premise that if we’re going to take money from people we have to give it all back, all of it. That’s what fee and dividend means, it means we will tax you and we’ll give you the exact same amount back that you gave us. That leaves the government with nothing. So what are you going to use to pay for transit? What are you going to use to pay for a renewable energy grid? How are you going to get to 100 percent renewables? We have to talk about the fact that we need more money. It has come from somewhere. So I think it is really worth studying how the center was moved in that way.
The famous Overton window, moving us rightward. And the degree, just going back to what you were saying about the degree of denial, it’s just so flabbergasting and I was hoping you would tell the story that you tell about covering the annual meeting of the Heartland Institute and what happened with Oklahoma’s US Senator Jim Inhofe, which is such a great story.
So the Heartland Institute, which is a free market think tank that hosts this annual climate change denial summit, their influence is waning. They’re very interesting, because I think that somehow they managed to market themselves as somehow having some scientific credibility, but they’re not. They are a free market think tank and when we interviewed Joseph Bast, the head of the Heartland Institute, I asked him how he got interested in climate change and he said, very frankly, “Well, we realized that if the science was true that would allow liberals to justify pretty much any kind of regulation, so we took another look at the science.” [laughter] He’s very frank about this.
And in the book the name of the chapter is “The Right is Right” because they’re not right about the science but I believe that they understand the implications of the science better than most liberals in the sense that they absolutely understand that if climate change is real, it is the end of their ideological project. The entire scaffolding on which their attack on regulations, attacks on collective action rests falls apart. Because of course you need collective action, of course you need to regulate corporations, it’s over, it’s game over for them. So they have to do everything possible to deny the science. And what’s amazing to me is how many liberal think tanks devote almost no energy to talking about climate change.
So the issue is how hard it is to change people’s minds when they’re as invested in these ideas ideologically but also funding-wise. Jim Inhofe gets a lot of money from the coal industry. So he was supposed to be the keynote speaker of this particular Heartland conference. It was advertised, people were extremely excited to hear from him. And Joe Bast announced in the morning that James Inhofe was sick and he was not going to be regaling them that morning. People were very disappointed. It came out later — we didn’t know this at the time — I looked into it after, what was wrong with Jim Inhofe because I wasn’t sure, was he really sick or did he just for some reason think it wasn’t a good idea to hang out with these crazies?
And it turns out he really was sick and he was sick because — and he explained this — he’d gone swimming in a lake in Oklahoma and it was in the middle of a heatwave and there was an outbreak of blue-green algae, which is linked to climate change. He basically had a climate change illness. [laughter] And this is why he could not speak at the climate denial conference.
But this did not make him go, “Oh, maybe they have a point.” He sent a letter just saying, “I can’t be there because I’m sick,” basically from his hospital bed going, “Keep up the good work.” [laughter] So people sometimes ask me, “Well, how can I change the mind of my extremely right wing uncle who only listens to Fox News and so on?” And I tell them, “Honestly, I’m not sure that you should devote that much energy to trying to change his mind. You can if you want to but first, there’s a much larger group of people out there who are not that invested in protecting an extreme ideological worldview or protecting their own financial interests who actually probably believe that climate change is real but are scared, don’t know what they can do about it, are sort of in a state of soft denial, like most of us are in, like, ‘Oh, I can’t look at it, it’s just too awful.’ That’s a much better place for us to invest our energy than trying to convince James Inhofe, because if getting a climate change-related illness didn’t impact him in any way [laughter], I don’t think you just laying out the science is going to help.”