A polluted beach in Alabama during the BP oil spill disaster of 2010. Photo: Kari Goodnough/Bloomberg
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Steven Poole on Naomi Klein: Could climate change action rejuvenate worldwide democracy?

In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate, Naomi Klein provides a vividly reported and densely researched argument for how our future should look.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate 
Naomi Klein
Allen Lane, 566pp, £20

Right-wing deniers of the robust findings of modern atmospheric science sometimes claim that the whole idea of global warming is just a front. What “warmers”, as they call them, really want is allegedly not just a sharp reduction in fossil-fuel emissions but a wholesale socioeconomic transition to tree-hugging socialism. Such cynics will be gladdened by Naomi Klein’s new book. For in it she does explicitly argue that the present “climate emergency” provides an excellent excuse for global revolution.

This is, for Naomi Klein, an acceptable version of “the shock doctrine”. In her brilliant 2007 book of that name, she demonstrated forensically that neoliberals have repeatedly exploited natural disasters, wars and economic crises to push through policies proclaimed necessary as a response but that they had always wanted anyway. (The rollbacks of public services after the 2008 financial crisis in the name of urgent “austerity” provided ample further confirmation of her thesis.) The shock doctrine, however, is apparently fine if it’s for a good cause. Here, global warming can be half welcomed as a “galvanising force” or a “catalyst” for building “societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well”.

Of course, Klein also believes – as do almost all scientists and non-specialists who aren’t shills for the oil companies – that anthropogenic global warming is happening. Yet the way she expresses the facts is often with the kind of exaggeration on to which self-proclaimed “sceptics” will gleefully fasten. She writes of a “crisis that threatens our survival as a species”, which it almost certainly doesn’t, though you would think that threatening famine, disease and flooding for hundreds of millions or billions of people was severe enough. Nor is global warming a threat to “life on earth” as a whole. Klein writes of “a battle between capitalism and the planet”, though the planet is in no danger at all.

Klein believes that we need to keep the rise in global average temperature within 2° Celsius to avoid the most catastrophic and brutal changes. She therefore spends the early parts of her book impatiently dismissing potential solutions that, in her view, will take too long, or are otherwise undesirable. In the United States and China, she writes, “The solar market continues to grow impressively. But it is not happening fast enough.” (And yet Germany already gets nearly a third of all its energy from a mix of renewables.)

Worse still than a too-slow solution is a hubristic one. Klein rehearses persuasively the reasons why geo-engineering – for instance, imitating the cooling effect of volcanoes by spraying tonnes of sulphate particles into the high atmosphere – is extremely risky. And nuclear power is bad because . . . Well, why exactly? Klein musters an impressive company of boo words in the following sentence: “Nuclear is a heavy industrial technology, based on extraction, run in a corporatist manner, with long ties to the military-industrial complex.” It represents, she continues, one of the “big corporate, big military, big engineering responses to climate change”.

Yet, like the shock doctrine, “big engineering” is bad only when it’s not good. For, elsewhere, Klein argues that the world needs an enormous public works programme to build new systems of “mass transit” and high-density housing. Figuring out how transport infrastructure escapes being counted as “big engineering” and therefore something to be sneered at is left as an exercise for the reader.

Klein argues with much more detailed and persuasive reporting against carbon markets, or the disturbingly comfortable relationship between some environmental organisations and oil companies. She is especially good on the failure of Barack Obama to take meaningful action on the climate, and on the depredations of “extractivism”, which in its modern form leads to fracking and the hell-scape of the Alberta tar sands.

Unfortunately, Klein periodically veers into hippie-ish mumbo-jumbo. She happily cites not only scientific evidence but eccentric sociological pronouncements by psychoanalysts and she accuses poor old Francis Bacon, one of the fathers of modern empirical science, of having a pathological desire to violate Mother Earth. This reader hurried swiftly on.

Having dismissed market-based or technological approaches that she deems too slow, Klein lavishes more attention – and patience – on grass-roots activism and nurturing environmentalism. This is typified by the indigenous peoples of her native Canada, who, as she demonstrates in a series of cheering scenes, are stopping new pipelines and drilling by asserting ancient land rights that as yet have not been definitively rejected by any court. (Though when some First Nation Canadians build a ceremonial bonfire to “burn continuously for days”, Klein doesn’t complain about the carbon emissions.)

Such on-the-ground battles are increasingly being won elsewhere in the world – including in the forests of Greece, or in rural Britain – giving rise to what Klein perceives as a virtual nation of environmental resistance that she christens “Blockadia”.

“The goal becomes not to build a few gigantic green solutions,” she concludes, “but to infinitely multiply smaller ones.” More Blockadia, more renewable energy and more confiscatory taxes on oil profits, on the way to a rejuvenated worldwide democracy: Klein portrays all this as the grand culmination of centuries of civil-rights struggles. Indeed, it seems that almost as great as her sincere and often movingly expressed fear of what decades’ more warming will do to our currently familiar environments and ecosystems is her fear of some solution to global warming that will not require a worldwide political transformation.

Any fix that enables “business as usual” to continue – a triumph of “big engineering”, say, in the form of nuclear fusion – won’t usher in all of the other things that Klein finds desirable and that many readers will, too, such as a universal basic income, renationalisation of utilities and better public transport. Yet, despite her pleas, science alone cannot tell us that these nice things are part of the mandatory response to global warming.

So how should Klein’s vividly reported, densely researched (with the aid of several assistants) and passionately argued book be considered as a rhetorical intervention? Evidently it isn’t designed to change the minds of denialists, nor will it seduce the global rich, who, she darkly warns, will have to pay.

It will not appeal to those who think that inventing genetically modified crops to feed more people during droughts is a good idea, whatever happens to the climate. (Klein dismisses such work because it is mostly done by – boo! – “agribusiness giants”; the reader’s suspicion that she has not quite worked out how her preferred form of non-industrial agriculture could feed the world’s population is not assuaged by her admiring reference to the anti-GM activist Vandana Shiva.) And it won’t appeal to those who judge that, although Klein’s vision of a more equitable world is all very splendid, it is not likely to happen any time soon.

But in using her powerful authorial brand to urge it at such length, Klein hopes to make it more likely – to help usher in “a people’s shock, a blow from below”. As such, the book is a utopian call to arms, much like the Communist Manifesto. Whatever else it does, it will also provide welcome confirmation for the conspiracy theories of her enemies. 

Steven Poole’s most recent book is “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” (Sceptre, £8.99)

Update, 22 September: This piece originally referred to Klein reporting against "carbon tax". This should have read "carbon markets", and we have updated it accordingly.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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