SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
OVER THE PAST YEAR, spurred by the stark October 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and propelled by a surging youth movement, the politics of climate change in the United States and globally has undergone a radical shift. Unlike four years ago, when the unfolding catastrophe was at best an afterthought in the presidential campaign, the 2020 Democratic candidates are talking seriously about climate policy as never before. The proposal known as the Green New Deal, calling for a 10-year national mobilization to transform and decarbonize the US economy — in line with climate science and centered on economic and social justice — not only has significant grassroots support but the endorsement of top-tier candidates and more than 100 congressional co-sponsors.
This shift, aside from taking nearly everyone in politics and the media by surprise, is largely the result of social movements — often led by young people, Indigenous communities, and people of color — that have been building power for a decade and more. Throughout this time, one of the most important voices of the climate justice struggle has been Naomi Klein, the journalist, activist (co-founder of The Leap), and author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), The Shock Doctrine (2007), and No Logo (1999). Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, shows why she has been called the GND’s “intellectual godmother.” Collecting articles and lectures from 2010 to 2019, and framed by a lengthy introduction that stands on its own as a substantial new piece of Klein’s writing, the book traces the development of ideas, organizing principles, and still unresolved questions at the heart of climate politics at this unprecedented moment.
In this interview, rather than look for fundamental points of disagreement (which might well prove futile), I asked Klein the kinds of questions I often ask myself when I’m honestly wrestling with what we’re up against — the kind that don’t have easy answers and can’t be reduced to talking points. Our conversation took place on August 15 and has been edited for length and clarity.
WEN STEPHENSON: The first time we talked, if you can believe it, was almost seven years ago.
NAOMI KLEIN: I remember it very well, because Toma was five months old.
Exactly, this was the fall of 2012, when the fossil-fuel divestment campaign was just launching. I remember you told me at the time that you’d struggled with the decision to have a child, like so many people do, and I’ll never forget one thing you said: that in the end, you’d “rather fight like hell” than give the “evil motherfuckers” — fossil fuel executives and lobbyists — “the power to extinguish the desire to create life.” I thought that was a profound statement. Looking back, how does that sound to you now?
Do I call people motherfuckers as much? [Laughs.] Um, you know, it’s interesting. I did struggle with the decision, as we talked about, and one thing I think is healthy is that more people are talking about the fact that they struggle with this decision. Because, when I was thinking about it, it felt really lonely and embarrassing that climate would be a factor in a decision like that. So I think it’s healthy that people in their 20s are talking to each other about their fears. And I still don’t believe this is a question that I or anybody can answer for someone else. It’s fundamentally about our bodily autonomy.
I would add that I think it’s extremely important to have conversations in our communities about the struggles so many of us are having in terms of whether or not to have kids, and how to be a responsible parent in an age of extinction, but we also need to have a discussion about the fact that people are going to continue to have babies, and we need to talk about how to build a world where those kids can thrive in post-carbon societies. That’s the conversation that matters most.
I don’t want us to become so focused on our individual decisions that we lose track of the fact that there are going to be more kids — and we need to build a world and infrastructure for them where they’re able to live post-fossil-fuel lives in a way that’s not at war with the planet. That’s the task at hand.
We always have to remember that we’re having these conversations in the rubble of neoliberalism, and we’ve all been raised in a culture that’s trained us to see ourselves as atomized, individual consumers before we see ourselves as political actors who can actually effect massive change. And I want us to remember that we have that power too.
I have two kids, ages 15 and 19, and I worry that they’ve absorbed, and are constantly absorbing, the cynicism and, frankly, the “doomism” — or whatever we want to call it — that’s all around us in this culture. How do you deal with that? I’m curious what you say to those who delight in deriding and caricaturing climate activism — whether it’s an attack on Greta Thunberg or on Bill McKibben — as well as, because they’re closely related, those who argue that all is lost, that it’s too late to make a difference, so if you bother lifting a finger you’re a deluded fool. It seems to me those folks are doing the work of the carbon lobby, whether they realize it or not.
Yeah, I think they’re very different groups you’re talking about. Those who are actively attacking Greta or the climate movement in general, and caricaturing it and lying about it, are doing the work of the carbon lobby — and they may well know it and don’t care. But I think the sense of futility is different. I think there’s a whole lot of people who do care, but they don’t think there’s any point. And they’re not mocking Greta, they just think it’s pointless, you know? And I see them as very, very different constituencies to engage with. I actually don’t think it’s worth my time, or anyone’s time, to engage with hard deniers, because generally the people who are spending their time actively attacking the climate movement are so invested in a worldview that is massively threatened by the reality of climate disruption, that even if they stopped denying climate change we wouldn’t want them on our team — as we are seeing with the rise of eco-fascism.
But I do think it’s absolutely worth engaging with the great many people who are worried, who are afraid, but have convinced themselves that activism doesn’t ever accomplish anything, that it’s a waste of time, and who have no lived experience with it, have never really learned about history in school except as the work of singular “great men.” And yes, that is fertile territory for us. I think there are a lot of minds that can be changed. I think hope is a muscle that we practice, so the more we’re able to have experiences with one another, having wins, even though they’re small, the more we shed that sense of inevitability about the future.
So if there’s one thing you’d say to my 15- and 19-year-olds, it would be?
Join the climate strikes! But really, there are a lot more young people — young people are leading this moment. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to feel cynical in isolation, staring at a screen, in a context in which you’re not actually feeling your collective power. There’s nothing like being in the street with a few thousand, or a hundred thousand, other people, to suddenly feel powerful. The idea that you could change something becomes less absurd.
I think it’s important to couple that with the recognition that there’s a cycle of inflation and deflation, emotional and psychological, where you participate in the great march, and then you come down, and you’re like, “Oh. But now…”
Yeah, and you read some devastating story.
Yeah, and it’s so important to prepare people as they enter movements, young people especially, for what is really the hard work of an ongoing, sustained social movement, that it’s not just about going out and marching once a year or whatever.
And also that we are all going to be living with loss and grief. We have to build not just movements but communities, inside movements and in our lives, where people are able to be cared for when they don’t feel hopeful. Like safe spaces where people can say, you know, today I think we’re going to lose. And just be able to maybe weep about that, or scream about that, for a while — and not feel pressure to be constantly optimistic, because I don’t think that’s sustainable. I actually think it’s not sane.
I want to get to your new book. I wrote something not too long ago in The Nation, arguing that the only thing worse than climate catastrophe is climate catastrophe plus fascism.
I agree entirely. Like, the only thing worse than your racist, Fox News–addled uncle who denies climate change is your racist, Fox News–addled uncle who stops denying climate change.
And gets serious about it.
Right, and gets serious about it, and says, all the more reason we have to fortress our borders and let them die in the desert and drown in the Mediterranean. That white supremacy that was barely under the surface has to become more explicit to justify all that.
In the new book’s opening section, which is far more than just an introduction — at 53 pages, it’s more like Part One — you open with this beautiful telling of Greta Thunberg’s story and the surging youth climate movement we’re seeing. And then you bring it around to this really dark, chilling description of the mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a whole section on rising eco-fascism — you wrote this well before the El Paso terrorist shooting — and what you aptly call the “climate barbarism” of Trump and Salvini and others. Can you unpack that a bit for us? What is climate barbarism?
Climate barbarism is a form of climate adaptation. It’s no longer denying that we have begun an age of massive disruption, that many hundreds of millions of people are going to be forced from their homelands, and that huge swathes of the planet are going to be uninhabitable. And then, in response to that, rather than doing all the things that are encoded in the UN Convention on Climate Change, which recognizes the historical responsibility of many of the countries that happen to have a little more time to deal with the impacts of climate change — are insulated both by geography and relative wealth — instead says, look, we simply believe we are better, because of our citizenship, because of our whiteness, and our Christian-ness, and we are locking down, protecting our own, pulling aid. I wrote about this in This Changes Everything: there were these huge floods in the UK in 2012 or 2013, and you had the Daily Mail saying, this is why we need to cut foreign aid, because we don’t have enough money to help these other people, we need to help our own. There have been big hints that this was coming, and it’s now becoming more explicit, taking the form of young armed men going into mosques and Walmarts, taking aim at people with brown skin.
We live in societies, whether they admit it or not, that do rank human life based on race and religion. And climate change forces us to reckon with that, and ask, are we going to live up to the rhetoric of equality and the idea that we actually believe people are of equal value by right of being alive on this planet? If we believe that, we need to radically change our ideas of national borders, and we need to open our arms and talk about how we’re going to share what is left. Or are we going to double down and get monstrous? We are getting monstrous. It’s not a future idea, it is happening. It is the Salvinis, it is the Trumps, it is the Bolsonaros.
We see the response to the Green New Deal — oh, it’s too much, it’s too ambitious. But if anything it’s not enough. If anything, there’s not enough about immigration and borders, still, in the climate discussion. And that’s part of the reason I wanted to do this book. I feel like this is a moment when we need a much more expansive discussion of the interlocking crises of our time. If we don’t get out of this idea that these are separate crises, then the truth is that climate will always be pushed out of the way. Because it’s not more urgent than kids being ripped away from their families and dying in the desert — anyone who tries to win that argument is monstrous themselves. We either merge, join forces, or we lose.
I was going to ask if there are real, tangible ways the fight for a comprehensive Green New Deal can merge with the fight against this “climate barbarism.” But is there also, not just in the Green New Deal but in the push for “climate action” broadly, a danger of inflaming this eco-fascist blowback? A sort of white-nationalist “Yellow Vest” reaction?
Well, Le Pen is already making those connections. So, yeah, I think the danger of calling for “climate action” without being specific about the action that we want is incredibly dangerous. Because we don’t control what people do with their alarm, with their sense of fear and panic. So it’s actually irresponsible to just say we want you to act, to understand what a big emergency this is. We also have to provide a pathway in response to that. And that’s what we tried to do with The Leap a few years ago, and that’s what the Green New Deal is doing now. The time for saying our only job is to raise the alarm, and we’ll let other people come up with the solutions, is really over.
You write that defeating the kind of entrenched power we’re up against will take an “all-out war” — not the shooting kind, but a nonviolent struggle. Do you think that the climate justice movement in North America, and elsewhere, is playing it too safe, given what’s at stake? You told the Labour Party conference, in 2017, that “winning is a moral imperative.” The question is how, of course. But are we playing to win? Is politics as usual enough? Is activism as usual enough?
Well, we’re talking at a moment when, just a couple of weeks ago, Puerto Rican society poured into the streets, for day after day, night after night, every sector of society. It wasn’t a “march.” It was an uprising. As we speak, people in Hong Kong are doing the same thing. I have been on the left and part of movements for a few decades, before I was part of the climate movement, and one thing I know is that these effervescent moments — when all of a sudden there’s this tipping point when people have just had enough — it’s really hard to predict when that moment will be. They always take us by surprise. Occupy took us by surprise. The movement of the Indignados in Spain took people by surprise. Argentina overthrowing several presidents in three weeks took Argentinians by surprise — they’d been telling themselves they were the most conservative country in Latin America for many years. What happened in Puerto Rico took my Puerto Rican friends by surprise — why these emails and not countless other atrocities? We never know when it’s going to happen, when you have a moment that is not in any way playing it safe, when people are willing to put everything on the line. And we could both name 10 things that have happened in the past two weeks that could have been that spark. We don’t know what it’s going to be. But I believe it will happen. And the tragedy of contemporary history is that in the moments when it has happened — in Egypt, in Argentina, in Greece — people have not been ready with plans. And the big difference about our moment is that we are developing the plan. That’s the Green New Deal.
Otherwise there’s nothing to build on.
Not only that, but really, really dangerous forces take advantage. Look at Greece. Or in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was ready and not the grassroots youth movement.
You asked the question, is the climate movement playing it too safe? I don’t think this is going to be the climate movement, I think this is going to be an everybody movement. And the question is, are we going to have done the hard work, ahead of time, to be ready with a plan? I think we’re readier than we’ve been at any point in my lifetime, but we still have a lot of work to do.
It was amazing, because it was unprecedented, to see something like Jay Inslee’s massive, detailed climate plan. Not that it’s perfect in every detail, but people have said, whoever wins the Democratic nomination, just adopt that as the Green New Deal roadmap.
And so much of that is the result of really hard battles in Washington State — the climate justice movement coming out against shitty carbon taxes that weren’t justice-based, and taking a ton of flak for it. And then putting forth other ideas, and losing again, but actually doing the work to come up with the alternatives. As you know, it’s not just that Jay Inslee comes up with this thing.
Of course. And the thing about Inslee’s plan is, it’s radical. Lots of people agree that what really needs to happen on climate is a kind of radicalization of the mainstream. Just as social movements have always done, we have to take these ideas that are considered radical and make them mainstream. That’s what Bernie Sanders has done, and that’s what AOC and Justice Democrats and Sunrise Movement are doing with the Green New Deal. My question is whether ideological uniformity or purity is necessary. Is it conducive to winning, or does it become an obstacle? I mean, do we all have to be card-carrying Democratic Socialists to be part of the movement of movements that brings this about?
I think there are some non-negotiables that people have tried to establish. Like, you can’t take fossil-fuel money. And I think asking for a trusted messenger of some kind, someone with a track record, as opposed to having just thought of this and it polled well.
You know, FDR introduced the New Deal under huge pressure from forces that were far more radical than him. So does everybody have to be a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists? No. But it really helps if a whole lot of people are. If we look at the history of how the more progressive parts of the New Deal were won, it didn’t happen all at once. It happened under pressure. It was that constant push and pull. Alicia Garza said, I think in the 2016 elections, I’m not voting for a candidate, I’m voting for a terrain on which to fight. We need to be thinking about what the terrain will be for us to fight on. We can have preferences within that; there are better and worse scenarios. And at a certain point we’re going to have to fight really hard to avoid worst-case scenarios.
I mean, people know I’m for Bernie, I’m not being cagey. I support Bernie. But I’m not a “Bernie or Bust-er.” I can see different scenarios.
DSA just passed this resolution to not endorse anyone but Bernie.
Yeah, I don’t know, when I look at the push and pull of the New Deal era, it matters that there were these independent socialist forces that were holding FDR’s feet to the fire. And it doesn’t keep anybody from working on elections.
Sometimes I worry that there’s more than a little utopianism in the way the Green New Deal gets talked about, especially by younger folks. You know, that it will “solve the climate crisis,” or somehow automatically “fix” the structural injustices of our economic system, et cetera. And I wonder if it’s really necessary to offer utopia as an antidote to despair and dystopia, or if we can offer a clear-eyed realism, coupled with an ironclad resolve to fight — to be really clear about how massive and difficult this struggle is.
I mean, I do think there’s a problem with the fact that we still haven’t grappled with some of the toughest issues around rolling out a massive infrastructure program and increasing wages and lowering emissions at the same time. It’s fully possible, I say it in this book, that we could have a Green New Deal and a carbon bubble at the same time, because we have a fossil-fuel driven economy, and if we build a whole bunch of stuff, which we still need to do, high-speed rail and new energy-efficient housing, and all kinds of things, we’re going to burn a lot of fossil fuels while we’re doing it. And so I think it’s incredibly important that if we are blessed enough to find ourselves in this position, of figuring out how to do this, instead of just winning the conditions in which we could do it, then we have to keep ourselves honest. And we have to grapple with really tough issues about over-consumption. We have to be honest that we are asking people to consume less. We can’t dodge that forever. Not everybody, but the over-consumers, like you and me.
I think for now there’s an understandable reluctance to give anything to the crowd that says, “They’re coming after our hamburgers!” But I think there is a risk of endowing a Green New Deal with magical powers to lower our emissions without that hard work, or without the fight to win it in the first place.
But I still believe that rekindling some utopian imagination — that muscle has atrophied so much. We have grown up so thoroughly bombarded, and are surrounded so completely, with dystopian images of the future, and we’re getting more and more and more of it — and they’re getting better and better, you know, the HBO series Years and Years, which is a terrifyingly brilliant near-future, or Handmaid’s Tale. There’s a weird way in which we’re addicted to imagining the worst-case scenario of our future.
Our experience when we did the Message From the Future film — which is a fairy tale, I admit that — but people wept, because they were like, I had not allowed myself to imagine a future that was not terrible. I think there’s a space for that, for giving ourselves those little exercises, because most of us have never let ourselves do it. When we had our first meeting that led to the drafting of the Leap Manifesto, we asked ourselves, what does the future look like after we win? And a lot of people just sat there and looked at each other. They had never tried to answer that question before, no one had ever asked them. And so you realize, this is part of the work too. Grief is part of the work. Utopianism is part of the work. We don’t have much practice with any of it.
You said a moment ago that it won’t just be the climate movement, it’ll be the everybody movement.As I’ve recently argued, I actually think the climate movement’s time has passed, because the “climate fight,” as we’ve known it, or as we thought of it, is over — the nature of the struggle has shifted. It’s gone so long, and it’s so late, that what’s now required is so revolutionary that there’s no way a mere climate movement or even climate justice movement alone can build the kind of power necessary. We need a truly revolutionary democracy and human rights movement that’s all encompassing.
Yeah. We do. I said this at the end of This Changes Everything — this is the unfinished business of every liberation struggle. Because in so many liberation struggles, everything but the economic front was confronted. You can have equality on paper, but we’re not going to invest in schools, we’re not going to invest in infrastructure, we’re not going to invest in good jobs. I have always pictured it as these rivers flowing into each other — I like that image. And Michelle Alexander talks about the revolutionary river that we are all dipping into, that’s part of our history.
I’m not ready to write off the climate movement. I’m part of the climate movement, and part of other movements too. But I think we all know that the forces we’re up against are so powerful, and fight so dirty, that we won’t just not win, we will get crushed, if we are not fighting together with all we have.
To be clear, I’m not writing off the climate movement myself — maybe saying its “time has passed” isn’t the best way to phrase it — but it was never going to be strong enough, on its own, as a movement built only around climate change.
It’s a relic of the neoliberal silo-ing of movements. The climate movement could maybe win one piece of legislation, but it’s not going to win the transformation of the economy.
Yeah. And then the question is whether any of this is possible within our current political system, or if we actually have to change the political system that we have.
I agree, and I think one reason for hope is that we are having more debates about the structural crisis within democracy, that this is happening in parallel. When I look at history, and these moments when progressive change happened, it does tend to be like a dam breaking, and we do tend to see a lot of change very quickly, after long periods of no change.
I mean, for me, I see a pathway, I see how this could work, but I think that in some ways that makes it even harder. I feel like we’re coming to our senses so late in the game — and the possibility of a near-miss is so real. And a near-miss, in some ways, is worse than never having had a chance at all. That’s the risk of getting your heart broken. In life and in politics.
Wen Stephenson is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice (2015). A former editor at The Atlantic and the Boston Globe Ideas section, he has written for many publications, including The Nation, The Baffler, Slate, The New York Times Book Review, AGNI, and elsewhere.