As the world faces an existential crisis–climate change, not the global coronavirus pandemic–it is fitting that Noam Chomsky, arguably the most influential public intellectual of the last half-century, is fixing his attention on a solution. Chomsky, perhaps best known as the father of modern linguistics, has spent decades speaking truth to power as a vocal anti-war activist, from the Vietnam War to the drone strikes under Barack Obama. And while he is associated with the American Left, he prefers to align with the “libertarian socialist” camp and has been deeply critical of both major U.S. parties.
In his new book, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal, Chomsky and renowned economist Robert Pollin answer questions posed by C.J. Polychroniou on the global climate catastrophe, spelling out what, exactly, could happen if we do not take immediate action to stop carbon emissions. In the book, Chomsky tackles the economic arguments related to the Green New Deal: how neoliberal economic policies since Ronald Reagan got us into the current mess, and why the new proposal actually will be good for American workers.
I spoke with him over Zoom from his home office in Arizona, and our conversation touched on how climate change will create new jobs, the biggest myths about the Green New Deal, and why the Republicans in Congress are worse than the Nazis.
Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: One of the things you’ve written is that people are going to have to be convinced of the urgency of the threats we face. How can that happen?
Noam Chomsky: If you look at the coverage of the conventions, there’s not one word about it, not a word. People are incapable of imagining what is not immediately in front of their eyes. So, if they see a storm, they might think about it. But when they see that the Greenland ice sheet has reached the point of irreversible melting, it sort of shoots off into the back of their minds. It’s going to destroy the species unless we overcome this.
You argue that we need to revive the labor movement. Can you talk about the importance of the labor movement in connection to the climate crisis?
Well, look over modern history. The labor movement has been in the forefront of just about every significant action for social change, reform, and so on. The U.S. labor history happens to be unusually harsh and brutal. Well, the labor movement has been very vibrant, but it’s repeatedly been crushed by force. And that was true in the 1920s: it had virtually disappeared. The Depression hit in 1929, and it took about five years for the labor movement to start to revive. And then it led the thrust toward the New Deal, which we’ve been living with since.
When Reagan and Thatcher came in, they understood this very well. Their first actions were to destroy the labor movement––illegal strike-breaking under Reagan, which was pretty effective. But nowadays the labor movement is quite weak. It could reconstitute. And if it does, it should be in the forefront of this, so these are issues that immediately affect working people.
One example: Even before the pandemic, the oil and gas prices were sharply declining. Companies were going out of business, wells were not being closed, which is very dangerous because they leak methane and so on. There are about 100,000 workers involved in this. They can be put to work immediately and constructively just to close the wells. Okay? Make sure that the wells are closed and not leaking huge quantities of methane. Not a huge sum of money, but it requires some concern for working people and that’s lacking.
The Democrats gave up on the working class 50 years ago. The Republicans are violently opposed to working people. They pretend otherwise, but it’s clear from what they do, so nobody’s pushing it. Actually, you can read it in the business press, Bloomberg Businessweek proposes it, another picks it up. Then, there’s the Green New Deal, which is essential for survival. One strong component of it is engaging working people.
How does that happen under the Green New Deal?
There’s a huge amount of work to be done simply in retrofitting homes, construction development, and mass transportation. All of these activities engage a huge part of the labor force, installing solar heaters, solar panels, and so on. Well, that should be a large part of the Green New Deal. But of course, it takes legislation, initiative, popular movements to press it. These things are happening, but not on a sufficient scale to make it work.
I mean, the Republican Party programs, of course, are just asking for total disaster and calamity. And the Democrats have a somewhat better program. In fact, the best on paper, the best program that’s ever been produced. But meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee’s cutting back on it. So, for example, both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris proposed cutting subsidies on the fossil fuel industries, which is insane. The democratic establishment cut it out of the program—over the objections of both the presidential candidate and the vice presidential candidate.
This is the kind of thing that takes lots of public activism to overcome. The Clintonite Democrats are basically moderate Republicans. They don’t want to see anything happen, and they control the “Party of Radicals,” which means that there has to be a lot of effort to get the chance to get a serious change.
In the book, you say that dismantling capitalism might be ideal, but there’s a problem with doing that now. How so?
It’s just out of the question. In order to overturn capitalism, you have to have huge masses of the population committed to overturning all of the basic institutions of society and creating new ones. Do you see any sign of that anywhere?
I believe you wrote that we just don’t have the time for it, in the face of this immediate crisis…
We have to work on it, but you have to create the situation. You can’t do it by snapping your fingers. Talking about getting rid of capitalism is like saying, “why don’t we have total peace on earth with everyone loving each other?” It’d be nice.
What role does the media play in the public’s perception of the climate crisis? In light of fake news and a fractured media landscape, can we come to an agreement about what’s going on?
Well, it’s not entirely a fractured landscape. There’ve been good studies of media outreach by the business press and peer research and so on, and the results are pretty interesting. So one major study took about 30 media, print, TV, radio, the full range, and asked people which ones they go to, and they divided into Republicans and Democrats. Among the Democrats, it was a pretty broad spectrum, most of them. Among Republicans, it was very narrow, focused on Fox News, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh. That’s what they hear. Now, what they hear is what you just said: fake news. Everything’s invented, Rush Limbaugh, four corners of deceit, science, academia, government, and media. They thrive on the deceit. Well, if half the population has that drummed into their heads every day, every year, you’re going to get stranger attitudes.
So, for example, a large majority of Republicans think that, truly, Trump is doing a fine job on the pandemic. It’s like living in another universe. And that’s the core problem of the media. There’s a dyad consisting of the Republican administration and Fox News. Trump says something, Sean Hannity repeats it. Trump looks at the television, and the next morning he sees it and he repeats it. And it goes to almost half the population, with nothing else. So you have a very dangerous situation. It’s not that the other media are wonderful. There’s plenty of flaws, but at least there’s some level of seriousness.
There are a lot of people who are worried they won’t be able to work under the Green Deal. And there are myths––such as, when Trump said it will “take away your airplane rights.” What are the big myths and misconceptions about the Green New Deal?
One misconception is it will be hugely expensive. In fact, look at the careful analysis by very good economists, Robert Pollin and Jeff Sachs and others. Turns out, it would be a small fraction of the expenses for the Second World War. Did the world collapse because of the expenses of the Second World War?
They weren’t the right kind of expenses. You don’t need tanks and jet planes. We needed other things. But the resources are certainly there, and this a small percentage of it. It will, in fact, and should, and must, phase out the fossil fuel industries. There’s all sorts of scare stories about that: we’re not going to have electricity at night; we will have to be confined to a kerosene lamp; and so on. It’s all nonsense.
But when you keep drumming it into people’s heads over and over, they’ll believe it. Like they believe that Trump is doing a fine job with the pandemic, when he’s just murdered about [200,000] Americans with his incompetence and malfeasance. But it’s a wonderful job, because he’s our hero! Okay?
I can’t help bringing up memories from childhood. When you look at Germany in the 1930s––they didn’t take polls, but the scholarly estimates show that probably 90% of the population supported Hitler. Well, at least you could find a reason for that. There were successes. It was conquering Europe. It was improving the economy. All that was real. Now, it’s nothing. It’s a disaster. And you still have the same phenomenon. It’s an amazing example of how concerted propaganda can work.
So are you saying that the Republican Party today is worse than the Nazis?
Much worse. Hitler wanted to murder all the Jews, killed 30 million Slavs, all kinds of horrible things. Hitler didn’t call for destroying all organized human life on earth. That’s the Republican Party program. It’s not an exaggeration; it’s literally true.
This is a global problem. How should a country like the U.S. help the less fortunate countries?
The United States is by far the most powerful country in the world, if not in world history. It has enormous advantages, not approached by any other country or even group of countries, so of course it has responsibilities. The way it’s fulfilling these responsibilities is the actions of a mad lunatic, wrecking ball with no ideas in his head how to change things. So, therefore, destroyed the Iran deal, the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization.
Destroy everything in sight because that’s the only way you can make a mark, if you want to be in the public domain. Meanwhile, make sure to pour dollars into the pockets of your primary constituency of corporate power, private wealth. They’ll let you get away with your antics. That’s what we’re facing.
Do you have hope for the future?
There’s many reasons to hope. Take a look at the streets of the country, the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement is the biggest social movement in American history with support beyond anything that’s ever been registered in the past. It’s not alone. It’s a sign of substantial changes in popular consciousness, popular understanding.
In September, there’ll be the first international meeting of the Progressive International Organization, founded by the Bernie Sanders movement in the United States. Yanis Varoufakis is bringing in participants from the Global South. It’s meeting in Iceland, where the prime minister is a member. These are forces, many more can be mentioned, that are countering the drive towards destruction. And it’s a major class war, you could say, on an enormous scale, and it will be played out in the next decade or two. And that’ll determine the fate of the world. So yes, there’s hope—but not if people give up.