We are all “sleepwalking toward apocalypse,” author and activist Naomi Klein declares in On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, her new book demanding radical action to save a dying planet.
If we don’t end carbon emissions quickly, the future of our planet is in serious jeopardy. According to the Green New Deal, which Klein co-authored, America has ten years to do it. A burgeoning youth movement recognizes the dire situation. On September 20, 2019, youth around the world organized climate strikes, demanding change. And while its leader Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old Swedish environmental activist whose autistic condition––she sees the climate situation in black and white––has illuminated the dissonance between the rise in global temperatures and the lack of political action, many of us simply turn our heads and look the other way.
In On Fire, a collection of reporting, essays, and public talks, Klein argues that the denial of climate change is not actually about disputing science, but, rather, fearing the radical redistribution of power and wealth necessary to heal the planet. Issues such as gender, race, economic inequality, climate change, and corporate overreach should not be seen in silos, Klein contends. They are inextricably interwoven, and only a holistic approach to equalizing society will suffice.
I spoke to Klein, who is a senior correspondent for The Intercept and the inaugural Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University, about what climate change denial is really about—and why cost-benefit analyses are not the answer to the crisis.
Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: To understand the action required to fight climate change, you make the case that we should look to historical precedents, specifically between 1930 and 1950, to guide us. What can we learn from that period of U.S. history?
Naomi Klein: When we think about whether or not societies can retool themselves quickly, launch a flurry of transformational policies in a very short period of time, the three historical precedents that are usually invoked in climate discussions are the New Deal under FDR, World War II mobilization in North America and in Britain, and the Marshall Plan after the Second World War. None of these historical precedents are perfect analogs for what we need. But they’re still useful to think about, in large part because one of the biggest barriers to doing what is necessary in the face of climate breakdown is a sense of inevitable apocalypse. A message that we just simply aren’t capable of moving as quickly as is needed. And so we’re hearing more and more, not climate change denial, but climate defeatism. Recently there was that high profile piece by Jonathan Franzen saying, “Stop pretending we can stop climate apocalypse.” So it’s still useful to learn the lessons because they all, each in their own way, are examples of societies moving very, very quickly in the face of pressing crises.
You say that we’re pretty much past the point of arguing against the science of climate change. So what is the resistance really about?
So there are still people who deny the science, but what the latest polling is showing is that their numbers are dwindling. And, particularly on the Republican side, younger Republicans do not deny climate change nearly as much as their parents do. It’s not that climate change denial is not still a factor––it is. But what I look at in the book is the socio-political science that shows that there is an incredibly tight correlation between political ideology, or worldview, and your opinions on whether or not you can trust the science on climate change. What the research shows is that people with a strong hierarchical worldview, people who have a comfort level with inequality, who agree with positions like “people pretty much get what they deserve,” or “the government should get out of the way of the market,” things like that, overwhelmingly, in the United States, tend to deny the reality of climate change.
This is not at all a scientific disagreement. They deny the reality of the science because they understand that if the science is true, it is a profound attack on that hierarchical worldview. Because if the science is true, the ultra free-market playbook, of “get out of the way of the market, privatize as much as you can, slash taxes, cut social services”––all of that––really clashes with the kinds of public investments that are absolutely necessary.
This is where the historical precedents around the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the war effort, what they all show is that change doesn’t happen unless the government becomes very involved in planning and managing the economy, in telling corporations what they can and cannot do. Right? This is what happened during the Second World War when factories were retooled for making military products. It’s also what happened during the Marshall Plan. So the whole free market playbook collapses. That’s why treating this as a problem that can be solved with better science communication is quite misguided. Because it really isn’t the science that is at the heart of the debate––it’s the political and ideological and worldview implications of the science.
My view is that that intensely hierarchical world view, that dominance-based worldview that really believes that it is okay for a small elite to have an inordinate amount of power and wealth, because they essentially deserve it and everybody else deserves their fate, is a worldview that deserves to crash. It’s at the heart of our ecological crisis. It is at the heart of treating nature as if it is nothing more than wealth for us to extract, imagining ourselves to be able to completely dominate the natural world as well as the people seen as closest to it, whether they are indigenous people or Africans or women. That’s a part of that worldview, and it’s crashing on many fronts. I think climate change is the ultimate challenge to it. And we shouldn’t shy away from talking about, “What stories do we need to tell that are in line with what we are seeing in the world that we rely on to survive?”
You say that the late 1980s, when we were first becoming aware of climate change, was “historically bad timing” in terms of our ability to take action––which is the opposite of Nathanial Rich’s argument in the New York Times, claiming that the timing couldn’t have been better. Can you talk about what was happening at that time?
So, Nathaniel Rich, in a very prominent way, made this argument that the reason we are failing to do the things that are necessary in the face of the climate crisis to preserve a habitable planet has to do with something fundamental about human nature––that we are wired against any kind of personal sacrifice in the face of a medium-term threat. The way he supports this human-nature based argument is by pointing to the period of the late 1980s, when it seemed that all the stars were aligning for a strong response to climate change. So he talks about the moment in 1988 and ‘89 when you had James Hanson testifying on Capitol Hill that he now had 99 percent certainty that humans were changing the climate. You had the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change after the first meeting of government to talk about the climate crisis and emission reduction in 1988.
He tells the story that no one was denying it. The fossil fuel companies hadn’t started funding the opposition. Everything was sort of good-to-go on climate action. And then we just punted—as in, we humans. So the counter-narrative that I tell is that, actually, the stars were not aligned for formative climate action in 1988 and 1989. Those UN meetings were only the tiniest fraction of the story of what was actually happening in the world. The Berlin Wall was about to fall. The first free trade agreement was signed. The end of history was being declared. It was the high ideological watermark for the neoliberal economic project––that “there is no alternative” triumphalism.
And at that moment, when you had elites in Western countries declaring consensus about slashing government, slashing taxes, slashing social services, Ronald Reagan saying “the nine most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help'”––which is something that would come as a great surprise to the people of Puerto Rico, who really wanted there to be a government to help them––all of that made it incredibly difficult to do the things that were necessary in the face of the climate crisis. Which, once again, required big investments in the public sphere to bring about a dramatic energy transformation, re-imagining how we live in cities, planning for different kinds of agriculture. I mean, this was a case of epic historical bad timing.
And why shouldn’t the failure to take action be blamed on human nature?
If it’s human nature, we’re doomed. Right? But if, if we look at this within the ebb and flow of these historical tides and we see that, no––there was a very human-created ideological project that was created by a relatively tiny percentage of humans on this planet, and was resisted by a great many more humans around the world. And oftentimes imposed with great violence and the overthrow of governments and all kinds of anti-democratic measures through the World Bank and the IMF—which is what some of my previous writing has been about, The Shock Doctrine. Then what we see is that this is highly contested. Humans are many different things. At different moments in history, humans have different parts of our complex characters catered to by different ideological projects. And neoliberalism happens to cater to our most short-term, our most individualistic, our most consumer-minded, our least collectivist parts of ourselves, right? Humans are complicated. We are greedy and individualistic and short-term. We are loving and empathetic creatures of our communities. So different ideological moments and different political projects unleash those parts of ourselves in different ways.
If we look at the New Deal Era or the war era effor—when you had victory gardens, and 40 percent of the produce that Americans were eating was coming from victory gardens, or we saw the end of leisure driving because fuel was being conserved for the war effort, or we think about the kinds of social solidarity expressed in the New Deal Era––those were policies that unleashed the more collectivist parts of what it means to be human.
If we fast-forward to our current moment, you juxtapose the youth climate rally in New Zealand, which was happening at the same time as the Christchurch shooting, claiming that the two are “mirror opposite reactions to some of the same historical forces.” How so?
I see the book as a story of three fires that are interrelated. The first fires are the literal fires of a warming and overheated planet. The second set of fires are these political fires on the far right, which are in the process of normalizing the fortressing of borders and normalizing mass deaths in the Mediterranean, as in Europe with the de facto “let them drown” policy. Where it becomes illegal for humanitarian organizations to rescue people in the Mediterranean. Of course we are seeing this in the United States, with the dramatic escalation of the most brutal anti-immigration policies. More and more, we are seeing a portion of the far right not denying the reality of climate change, but invoking it as a reason to violently attack immigrants.
There was the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand, with more than 50 people at prayer. And that happened on the same day as the first student global climate strike. There were thousands of students who had walked out of school in Christchurch, as they had in cities around the world. But in Christchurch, their climate strike rally was interrupted when the police came in and said everybody had to disperse because there was a live shooting nearby. It was this horrific snapshot of two very different ways to respond to those fires.
One was the fires of the far right. And the other was the fires of global youth movement that is profoundly internationalist. It is really not interested in national borders at all. These are young people who are building a global youth movement, from Uganda to San Francisco. Greta Thunberg just sailed from Europe to the United States and will make her way to Chile for the next youth climate summit. It’s a profoundly internationalist movement and it is fighting for the rights of all children, for a justice-based response to climate change.
So even when you have verbal denials of climate change––you know, in the case of Donald Trump, he still sometimes seems to deny the science––the bigger picture is that this is a worldview that is about protecting its own, as they define it, protecting the in-group and otherizing everybody else—or even animalizing the out-groups, within the United States and without—as a justification for allowing people to die.
We’re seeing this in Trump’s rhetoric toward Central American immigrants. We’ve seen it more recently when he talked about people fleeing from the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, casting them as drug dealers who shouldn’t be allowed into the United States––when they’re fleeing for their lives. The days of overt climate denial on the right are numbered, and what we’re headed for, and what we are seeing, is actually climate barbarism, right? So this idea that, somehow, you’re gonna convince the Donald Trumps of the world that the science is real, and they’re going to come back to the UN and re-sign the Paris Climate Accord, and think about a justice-based response to climate change, is delusional. If they accept the science, they become more dangerous. Because that is used to supercharge these supremacist ideologies.
You’ve also written in The Shock Doctrine about how these critical moments can also render us vulnerable to corporate interests. How could even the acceptance of the Green New Deal go wrong?
There are certainly ways to profit in the short-to-medium term from climate shock––privatizing disaster response, building private detention centers for immigrants. And we’re already seeing all of this, but we’re also seeing that if we do not confront the incredible dangers of this hyper-nationalist, hyper-tribalist ideology on the right, then when climate shocks come, they are used as an excuse to not just reinforce borders but to cut foreign aid. In the UK, after heavy flooding, there were calls from right-wing tabloids to slash aid to poor countries and “look after our own.” This is why I think it is so critical to understand that the heart of the problem is that worldview, that ideology. And I don’t believe we’re going to see change on the scale required unless we’re ready for a shift in values.
We can’t be afraid to talk in the language of morality. There was a study that just came out, which Bill Gates was involved in, that did a cost-benefit analysis––that if we spend $1.8 trillion helping countries adapt to climate change, we could save $7 trillion in the long run. That kind of argument doesn’t work, because people’s lives are already being written off. I mean, if you’re comfortable allowing thousands of people to die in the Mediterranean, why would you spend trillions of dollars helping poor countries build sea walls or storm warning systems? It’s why I call it “climate barbarism”––we really have to name it, and we need to understand the danger of this ideology. Sure, there are cost-benefit arguments to make. But the much more important argument is about the value of human beings. The equal value of human beings, regardless of where they live. What we owe each other in an interconnected world, facing such a profoundly interconnected threat like climate change.
Editors’ Note: This article originally stated that Greta Thunberg is Norwegian. She is in fact Swedish.