Naomi Klein on the Failures of the Environmental Movement

      A worker holds up a climate change protest sign outside the lignite-fired power station in Jänschwalde, Germany, which belongs to Vattenfall, a Swedish group.

This week in the PhoenixWen Stephenson profiles Naomi Klein  "black-clad and sharp-tongued mistress of the global anti-corporate left, friend to Occupiers and scourge of oil barons"  as she turns her attention to the cause of climate justice. Below is a longer excerpt from their conversation  about Klein's alliance with's Bill McKibben, her views on the environmental movement, and the ways in which her struggles to become a parent informed her views on climate (and vice versa). This interview took place on November 8, 2012. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Wen Stephenson: How did your collaboration with Bill McKibben and come about? What led you personally into this? 

Naomi Klein: My first engagement with the climate issue was around the issue ofclimate debt. I was actually doing research about reparations for slavery, writing a long piece for Harper's, in 2008. I've always been very interested in the Durban anti-racism conference [in Durban, South Africa]. In the lead-up to that UN conference in September 2001, the reparations movement in the United States and in Africa really took off. It was becoming incredibly mainstream. Manning Marable was having pieces published in Time magazine, it was on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

But a lot of things got blown off the agenda on [Sept. 11, 2001]. One of them was the fact that we were actually having a discussion about reparations in that moment. And so "Durban II," in 2008, was in Geneva, and I wanted to write a piece looking at what had happened to the reparations debate. So I went to Geneva for that conference, and it was very interesting. Somebody said to me, this movement has changed, now it's about climate debt — and we believe we can make the argument for a North-South transfer of wealth much better now on the issue of climate, with concrete scientific targets, because the numbers are so clear. We know who emitted the carbon, we know who's dealing with the effects, it's a much clearer case. And it has the same results — you actually get some payback. I had my first meeting with a group of activists in Geneva about climate debt. That's how I entered the issue.

And then I went to Copenhagen, in 2009, and I was mostly covering the demands for climate debt and reparations, since that was really the strong demand coming from the global south in Copenhagen. That's where I met Bill for the first time. And I was so impressed with 350, at Copenhagen, and what strong advocates they were for the island nations and for science. All the big NGOs just seemed to be playing politics — you know, what can we get here? — and I loved the way 350 didn't do any of that. They just focused on what science demands. So everybody's talking about 2 degrees [C], and they're talking about 1.5, for the island nations to survive.

Copenhagen was so transformative for me, on many levels, both because it was a disappointment and also because, when you spend time with people representing the island nations and sub-Saharan Africa, you know, they're using words like "genocide" to describe climate change. And it makes the American delegates very, very uncomfortable.

We don't have language to describe what it means to knowingly allow a nation to disappear because it's not convenient for us to stop it. So we can say it's not genocide, because genocide is the willful destruction of culture. We don't want your culture to disappear, we just don't care enough to stop it. Our goal is not for you to lose your country, our goal is just for us to be able to continue doing what we're doing. But we know that in doing what we're doing, it will have this effect, and we're going to do it anyway. What is that? We can't plead ignorance. We're making a decision. What do you call that? It certainly feels like genocide to the people who are experiencing it.

So that was where 350 really first came on my radar. I was so impressed with the way they were loyal to the science, and the way they were standing so firmly in solidarity, particularly with the island states.

WS: So, how did "Do the Math" come about?

NK: "Do the Math" is a movement that grew out of numbers. I was reading the original "Carbon Bubble" report, which was produced by this group, the Carbon Tracker Initiative, in the UK. It's called "Unburnable Carbon: Are the world's financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?" It's really kind of a weird report, because it's geared toward regulators in the UK, and it's making the case to regulators that there is a bubble in the market, much like the subprime mortgage bubble — and after the subprime bubble, market regulators are supposed to be taking bubbles seriously, and doing something to prevent another shock. So they make this case they've found a bubble. The world's governments came together in Copenhagen and agreed to keep the global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees [C], and we know that X amount of carbon can go into the atmosphere to give us a chance of meeting that goal, we all agree on this, and yet, if you look at what these companies are doing, if you look at the reserves these companies have, the carbon they already have in reserve, then we're five times over that amount.  So you have a problem, regulator. This can't happen, obviously. This bubble's going to burst. 

So I read this report and thought, we are screwed. I didn't think, Oh, there's a bubble, it's going to pop. I thought, we're the bubble — we're going to pop. Because, with all respect to the wonderful people who did this report, on whichthe whole "Do the Math" concept is based, I think it's very naïve to treat this as a market bubble. What's actually happening is these fossil fuel companies have looked at that 2-degree target, with their lawyers, and decided it's bullshit. They looked at the fact that the deal in Copenhagen wasn't binding — that these governments have no intention of keeping carbon levels below what it would take to stay below 2 degrees — and they've come to the conclusion that they can get away with this. They've decided to go ahead and destroy the planet. And their shareholders agree.

So I called Bill and said, these are crazy numbers, we need to do something about this. And he was already on it, he'd been looking at the same numbers, and was thinking about what we could do. And we decided that divestment was the way to go — that was the way we're going to get their attention. Because this is not a crisis for the fossil fuel industry unless we turn it into one. And that's our job. That's the job of the movement. 

And the fact that it's youth-led is so powerful. It starts with young people saying to those who've been entrusted with their education and preparing them for the future, saying, why are you gambling against my future? Do you believe in my future, or not?

I think this is part of a broader moment for young people, realizing that this whole culture, this whole economy, is betting against their future. The focus on rising tuitions, and student debt, and joblessness — young people are already feeling that their elders, the people who should be making sure they have possibilities in their future, are conspiring against that future in all of these ways, by weighing them down with debt, creating an economy where their hope for a job with dignity is so diminished. Young people are already fighting for their future on those fronts. And this is the ultimate fight for their future. 

I don't think young people should be abandoning those other fights for the climate fight. I think we need to see this as all of a piece. And we need to be fighting for their future on all these fronts.

WS: Maybe this is a generational thing, but I know there are traditional green types who take real offense at this idea that the fossil fuel industry is the enemy  in other words, that we ourselves are not the enemy, but Exxon is  as though you and Bill, and all the rest of us, are letting ourselves off the hook.

NK: There are two things I'd say. One is, yeah, it's gonna be really hard work to get off fossil fuels. If you're trying to get off any kind of drug, the work is yours, the hard work of detox, nobody can do it for you. Nobody's going to make it easy to get off fossil fuels. But the first rule is, get the pushers out of your face. And that's the role the fossil fuel companies play. They are making it intolerably, impossibly hard for us to do that hard work of getting off the stuff.

Tags: bill mckibben, climate change, environment, global warming, naomi klein

    • Naomi Klein
    • Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the international bestsellers, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and No Logo. Her regular columns for The Nation magazine and the Guardian newspaper are syndicated internation...

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