Naomi Klein: ‘Only mass social movements can save us’
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Sid Shniad
2014-10-21 20:28:50 UTC
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*Climate and Capitalism October 19, 2014*
Naomi Klein: ‘Only mass social movements can save us’

*John Riddell reviews ‘This Changes Everything’ — a rich resource of fact
and argument that every climate justice activist should read, use and

*[image: Klein - This Changes Everything]*

*This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate *
by Naomi Klein
(Alfred A Knopf, 2014)

*reviewed by John Riddell*

Despite endless conferences, treaties and solemn promises, greenhouse gas
emissions have risen 61% since 1990, and the rate of increase is
accelerating. As Naomi Klein tells us in her new book, *This Changes
Everything*, we are now experiencing an “early twenty-first century
emissions explosion.”

The reason for this ominous failure, she shows*, *is that the present
capitalist profit system itself is incompatible with climate and
environmental stability. Our only hope is the rise of mass movements with
the combined goals of saving the environment and achieving social justice.

*This Changes Everything *is a rich resource of fact and argument: it’s a
book that every climate justice activist should read, use and share.

*‘The Right is right’*

Klein begins with a 2011 conference of prominent and well-financed U.S.
climate deniers, whose main objection, she discovered, was not to the
science of global warming but to the radical implications of actions to
rein it in. Such measures require “heavy-duty interventions: sweeping bans
on polluting activities, deep subsidies for green alternatives
Everything, in short, that these think tanks 
 have been busily attacking
for decades.” For many conservatives, she adds, quoting Australian scholar
Robert Manne, climate science is “an affront to their deepest and most
cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of ‘mankind’ to
subdue the Earth and all its fruits and to establish a ‘mastery’ over

These hard-core rightist ideologues, Klein concludes, understand the
significance of climate change better than most of those in the political
center, “who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and

*The free market trumps climate *

Mainstream political leaders like Barack Obama and (grudgingly) Stephen
Harper, acknowledge the climate crisis and tell us they are responding to
it. For 35 years they have claimed to be working to reduce carbon
emissions. Klein leads off her extended analysis of their record – and that
of their allies among pro-establishment environmental NGOs – by describing
the devastating impact of the trade treaties that now bind the governments
of all major states.

“Green energy programs – the strong ones that are needed to lower global
emissions fast – [are] increasingly being challenged under international
trade agreements,” Klein says. Major powers are launching lawsuits against
each other’s wind and solar energy programs citing the provisions in these
plans encouraging local sourcing of green energy equipment.

The U.S. has launched such suits against India, challenging its ambitious
solar energy program, and against China, over wind power. And yet, with
brazen hypocrisy, Washington denounces China and India at the United
Nations for not doing enough to cut emissions, claiming this as an excuse
for U.S. inaction.

The people of Ontario fell victim to such an attack, Klein notes. The
province’s climate action plan, the Green Energy Act, created 31,000 jobs
in the local solar and wind power industry between 2009 and 2014, but when
it was challenged by the European Union and Japan as a violation of World
Trade Organization (WTO) rules, “the province wasted little time in nixing
the local content rules.”

The renewable energy programs in question represent the governments’
attempts, inadequate to be sure, to carry out promises made during world
climate negotiations. Yet they are being snuffed out by these same
governments on the basis of trade treaties.

“The trade and climate negotiations closely paralleled one another, each
winning landmark agreements within a couple of years.” World Trade
Organization negotiations concluded in 1994; the Kyoto protocol on reducing
carbon emissions was adopted three years later. The treaties are two
solitudes — each seemed to “actively pretend that the other did not exist.”

Yet it was clear from the start which treaty would prevail in case of
conflict. The Kyoto protocol “effectively functioned on the honour system,”
while the WTO agreement was “enforced by a dispute settlement system with
real teeth,” often enforcing harsh penalties.

Thus asymmetry was built in from the start: trade deals were the foundation
of the new “globalized” world order, while climate agreements have been
little more than public relations exercises.

*Globalization’s dirty underside*

The trade system has other less obvious but more damaging climate impacts.
Food production, for example, accounts for between 19% and 29% of world
carbon emissions but the treaties have “helped to entrench and expand the
energy-intensive, higher-emissions model of industrial agriculture around
the world.”

Similarly, the massive shift of manufacturing to low-wage less-developed
countries, with inefficient energy industries, has led to an increase in
emissions. Swedish researcher Andreas Malm points to “a causal link between
the quest for cheap and disciplined labor power and rising CO2 emissions.”

Significantly, climate agreements measure emissions in the country where
products are manufactured, not where they are consumed. Thus about half of
China’s carbon emissions are export-related. By outsourcing, rich countries
have in effect exported their emissions.

*Betrayed by Big Green*

Unfortunately some major environmental groups supported the new trade
deals. When the NAFTA treaty was debated in the early 1990s, a strong
coalition of unions and environmental groups rallied to lead a massive
opposition to the deal, and “for a time it even looked as if they would
win.” At that point, proponents of the deal tacked on two “toothless” side
agreements, one for labor and one for environmentalists.

“The labor movement knew better than to fall for this ploy,” Klein says,
but leaders of many large environmental organizations capitulated. Some
groups held firm, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the
Sierra Club, but U.S. President Bill Clinton was still able to claim that
“groups representing 80% of national [environmental] group membership have
endorsed NAFTA.”

Klein devotes many pages to a much-needed exposé of Big Green, the
conservative environmental groups. Over time, she demonstrates, many NGOs
and foundations fell under the domination of the extractive corporations
whose power they were set up to contest, and now contribute to greenwashing
oil-industry operations. The Nature Conservancy, for example, partners with
BP and JP Morgan in fracking development, and has even drilled its own gas
well in the middle of one of its Texas nature preserves.

*Toward solidarity-based trade*

“It is not too late for a new kind of climate movement to take up the fight
against so-called free trade,” Klein says, calling for transfer of
resources and green technology to developing countries and measures to
support, not penalize renewable energy.

She could also have pointed to the success of mass hemisphere-wide
opposition in quashing the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas
(FTAA), one of the most dangerous of these schemes, a movement in which she
played a prominent role. Although she doesn’t mention it, that campaign
contributed to the formation of what might be called the anti-FTAA, a trade
and cultural alliance based on solidarity – the Bolivarian Alliance for the
Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which includes Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador,
Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Klein criticizes the dependence of majority-indigenous Bolivia on exports
generated by extractive industries. However, as Klein herself says
elsewhere of many indigenous peoples’ deals with extractive industries,
they face “a paucity of good choices”; at present extraction may be
essential to maintenance of sovereignty. Westerners who want
poverty-stricken natives to swear off extraction for the world’s sake must
ask, she says, “What are we going to do for them?”

Despite their poverty, some ALBA nations have registered significant
climate achievements, such as Nicaragua’s program to produce 70% of its
electricity by renewable energy. Indeed, ALBA’s very existence is step
forward along the path Klein outlines.

*Stranded assets*

The sense of unreality surrounding world climate negotiations is reinforced
by Klein’s observations on oil and gas corporations’ balance sheets. To
maintain stable share prices, Klein notes, these companies must demonstrate
that they have sufficient untapped reserves to replace current wells when
their production declines. “It is this structural imperative that is
pushing the industry into the most extreme forms of dirty energy,” she says.

Currently, the total amount of carbon in oil, gas, and coal reserves is
valued at about $27 trillion – more than half again as much as the annual
GDP of the United States. How much of that can be burned without launching
the world into uncontrollable global warming? The best available estimates
cited by Klein indicate that 80% of fossil fuel reserves – worth roughly
$20 trillion – must be left in the ground if the currently accepted goal of
limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius is to be achieved.

Alternative sources of energy are available – that’s not the problem. The
“loss” of these fossil fuel resources will make life better, not worse –
that’s not the problem either.

The problem, Klein says, is that “we need to keep large, extremely
profitable pools of carbon in the ground – resources that the fossil fuel
companies are fully intending to extract.” The $20 trillion in unusable
fossil fuel reserves is written into corporate balance sheets as “assets”
and sustains their share value. Oil company executives defend not the
public but their shareholders’ wealth – which means defending their ‘right’
to extract without limit.

To this end, corporations mobilize their immense wealth and social
influence to block any move to reduce the burning of their product – fossil
fuels. Under their influence, when governments act at all, it is to
encourage use of renewable energy rather than to restrain the rise of
carbon emissions. The oil industry and its many corporate allies have
maintained a blockade against measures to rein in rising emissions for 25
years and are in no mood to change course.

*A troubling imperative*

Averting climate disaster, Klein tells us, “will mean forcing some of the
most profitable companies on the planet to forfeit trillions of dollars of
future earnings by leaving the vast majority of proven fossil fuel reserves
in the ground. It will also require coming up with trillions more to pay
for zero-carbon, disaster-ready societal transformations.” And these
radical measures must be taken “democratically and without a bloodbath.”
This means we must oppose unfettered capitalism –the profit-based economic
and social system that wages war on our climate.

This requirement poses a question that Klein finds troubling. When has
there ever been a transformation that intruded on capitalist property to
such an extent – moreover, a change “demanded from below, by regular
people, when leaders have wholly abdicated their responsibilities”? In the
West, she says, the transformative social movements have been for human
rights – for blacks, women, gays, she says. “But the legal and cultural
battles were always more successful than the economic ones.”

As a precedent, she points to the movement in the nineteenth century to
abolish slavery, particularly as it developed in the United States. The
weight of slave capital in the U.S. economy then was comparable to the
weight of stranded fossil fuel investment today. For many decades the
slave-owners maintained full control over the U.S. state. But ultimately a
mass movement broke that control and abolished slave property forever. And
this was done democratically, although only at the cost of a protracted
civil war.

Klein’s analogy has merit. However, it is also worth considering the
precedent of socialist revolutions, even if they did not occur “in the
West.” One such revolution took place only 90 miles from the U.S., in Cuba.
In the 1990s, Cuba carried out the world’s most successful reduction of
fossil fuel dependency. Despite a damaging U.S. blockade, the Cuban
revolution continues to display creative vigor, most recently in the
country’s role as world leader in on-the-ground response to the Ebola virus

The experience of twentieth century socialist revolutions, while troubled,
is surely relevant to what we must now accomplish in the face of a systemic
crisis of capitalism triggered by climate change. It is hard to see how the
fossil fuel stranglehold can be broken without popular ownership and
control over dominant industries. This case is made in three books on
ecology and socialism that I’ve listed below.

*Mass social movements*

Klein’s book has a single overriding strength: a comprehensive analysis –
much broader than can be indicated here – that demonstrates that a movement
to overcome the climate challenge must confront the prevailing economic and
political system, and for that it must be massive, broad, and militant. A
substantial and inspiring part of her book is devoted to first-hand
accounts of what she calls “Blockadia” – grassroots movements on every
continent that are directly challenging the fossil fuel industry’s
destructive projects.

A movement on the climate issue alone cannot win, she says. Climate
activism must link up with “the unfinished business of the most powerful
liberation movements of the past two centuries, from civil rights to
feminism to Indigenous sovereignty.” “Climate change can be the force – the
grand push – that will bring together all of these still living movements.”

Calls for such a fusion are increasingly frequent. The liberation movements
Klein mentions – and labor, too – were in evidence at the great People’s
Climate March of 400,000 in New York on September 21 and in the surrounding
conferences, as well as in parallel actions in Canada and around the
globe. Naomi Klein’s book is an inspiring contribution to this movement,
which is increasingly becoming identified with the goals of climate justice
and system change.

“Only mass social movements can save us now,” Klein concludes. “If that
happens, well, it changes everything.”

*Click here for more Marxist essays and commentary by historian and
ecosocialist activist John Riddell <http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/>.*

*Related reading*


- Umair Muhammad. *Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of
Individualism <http://www.confrontinginjustice.com/>, *Toronto: 2014.
- Chris Williams. *Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist
Ecological Crisis <http://www.haymarketbooks.org/pb/Ecology-and-Socialism>.
*Haymarket Books, 2010.
- Ian Angus. *The Global Fight for Climate Justice: Anticapitalist
Responses to Global Warming and Environmental Destruction
Publishing, 2010.


- Naomi Klein: Climate change, unions, and a united left agenda
- Richard Fidler. “How Bolivia is leading the global fight against
climate disaster
- John Riddell. “Responding to capitalist global disaster: 1914 and today
- Umair Muhammad. “From direct action to organization, lessons from
Canada’s Line 9 sit-ins
- Ian Angus. “How to make an ecosocialist revolution
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