For a Future to be Possible
Capitalism & Climate Change
An interview by Bill Moyers
BILL MOYERS: Has having your first child changed the way you see the world?
NAOMI KLEIN: Well it definitely lengthens your timeline. I'm really immersed in climate science right now because of the project I'm working on is related to that. So you know there are always these projections into the future, you know, what's going to happen in 2050? What's going to happen in 2080? And I think when you're solo, you think, "Okay, well, how old will I be then?" Now I'm thinking how old will he be then? But I think that everybody cares about the future. And I cared about it when I didn't have a child, too.
BM: In America we are so complacent about climate change.
NK: The statistics are quite incredible. In 2007, according to a Harris poll, 71 percent of Americans believed that climate change was real and human-caused. By last year, that number went down to 44 percent. But then you look at the coverage that the issue's received in the American media: that dropped dramatically from 2007 when Hollywood was on board and "Vanity Fair" launched an annual green issue. Stars were showing up to the Academy Awards in hybrid cars. There was a sense then that we all have to play our part, including the elites. It has been lost, which is why it's got to come from the bottom up this time around.
BM: What diminished public enthusiasm for doing something about it—attention from the press, the interest of the elite? What is it?
NK: I think we're up against a very powerful fossil fuel lobby. They have every reason in the world to prevent this from being the most urgent issue on our agenda. Go back 25 years to when this issue really broke through. Jim Hansen of NASA testified before Congress and said, "I believe it is happening. And I believe it is human-caused." That was the moment where we could no longer deny that we knew. Scientists actually knew what well beforehand, but that was the breakthrough moment, 1988. The Berlin Wall fell the next year. The 'end of history' was declared.
Climate change in a sense, “appeared” at the worst possible historical moment. It requires collective action. It requires that we regulate corporations; plan collectively as a society. And at the moment that it hit the mainstream, all of those ideas had fallen into disrepute. It was all supposed to be free-market solutions. Governments were supposed to get out of the way of corporations. Planning was a dirty word; what communists did. Anything collective was a dirty word. Thatcher had declared "There's no such thing as society."
Now if you believe that, you can't do anything about climate change, because here we have the epitome of a collective problem: our collective atmosphere. We can only respond to this collectively. The environmental movement responded to that by personalizing the problem: "Okay, you recycle. You buy a hybrid car." And it endorsed business-friendly solutions like cap and trade and carbon offsetting. They don’t work. Every once in a while, people would get all excited that we were really going to do something about the issue: the Rio Summit, the Copenhagen Summit or when Al Gore came out with An Inconvenient Truth. Then it would just recede, because it didn't have the collective social support it needed.
On top of that, you have, we've had this concerted campaign by the fossil fuel lobby to buy off the environmental movement, defame the environmental movement, infiltrate the environmental movement, and spread lies in the culture. They have been very effective.
BM: Environmental writer Glenn Scherer found that the lion's share of the damage from America’s extreme weather over the last two years—floods, tornadoes, droughts, thunderstorms, windstorms, heatwaves, wildfires, has occurred in Republican-leaning 'red states'. But those states have sent a whole new crop of climate change deniers to Congress.
NK: My sister lives in Oklahoma. It is shocking that James Inhofe, the foremost climate denying senator is from a state that is so deeply climate-afftected. So the powers of denial are amazingly strong. If you are deeply invested in free-market ideology, if you really believe with your heart and soul that everything public and anything the government does is evil and that liberation will come from corporations, then climate change fundamentally challenges your worldview—precisely because we have to regulate. We have to plan. We can't leave everything to the free market.
In fact, climate change is the greatest single free-market failure. This is what happens when you don't regulate corporations and you allow them to treat the atmosphere as an open sewer. It isn't just, "The fossil fuel companies want to protect their profits." It's that it's that climate science threatens a worldview. Democrats still believe in in climate change, in the 70th percentile. The whole drop off in belief has happened on the right side of the American political spectrum. So the most reliable predictor of whether or not somebody believes that climate change is real is what their views are on a range of other political subjects. What do you think about abortion? What is your view of taxes? People who have very strong conservative political beliefs cannot deal with climate science, because the implications threaten everything else they believe.
BM: Are you convinced that there are no free-market solutions?
NK: The market can play a role. There are things that government can do to incentivize the free market to do a better job. But is that a replacement for getting in the way, actively, of the fossil fuel industry, and preventing them destroying our chances of a future on a liveable planet? No. We have to do both. We need market incentives on the one hand to encourage renewable energy. But we also need a government that's willing to say no, you can't mine the Alberta tar sands and burn enough carbon to declare “game over for the climate”.
BM: We had a crisis in New York since Hurricane Sandy. We couldn't get gasoline for the indispensable vehicles that get us to work, to the supermarket, our sick friends or neighbors. We are all the fossil fuel industry, are we not? I have two cars that I keep filled with gasoline.
NK: We often hear that we're all equally responsible for climate change, that it's just the rules of supply and demand. I think the question is: if there was a fantastic public transit system that really made it easy for you to get where you wanted to go, would you drive less? If it was possible to recharge an electric vehicle, as easily as to fill up your car with gasoline, and that electricity came from solar and wind, would you insist, "No, I want to fill my car with dirty fuel"? I don't think we would.
People are willing to make changes. We recycle and we compost. We ride bicycles. There's actually been a tremendous amount of willingness and goodwill for people to change their behavior. But where people get demoralized is when they see, "Okay, I'm making these changes, but emissions are still going up, because the corporations aren't changing how they do business." So no, I do not think we're all equally guilty.
BM: Obama managed to avoid the subject all through the campaign. He hasn't exactly been leading the way.
NK: He has not been leading the way. He spent a lot of time on the campaign bragging about this ridiculous notion of an “all of the above energy strategy”, as if you can develop solar and wind alongside more coal, more oil, more gas, and it's all going to work out in the end. It doesn't add up. I think personally the environmental movement has been a little too close to Obama. Big environmental groups went along with his messaging, talking about energy security instead of climate change, because they were told that that wasn't a winnable message. I just think it's bad strategy.
He got re-elected, but you know what? I think Hurricane Sandy helped him get re-elected. Look at the last minute Bloomberg endorsement. Bloomberg endorsed Obama because of climate change, because he believed that this was an issue that voters cared enough about that Independents would swing to Obama over climate change. The polling supports that this was one of the reasons why people voted for Obama over Romney. They were concerned about climate change and they felt that he was a better candidate on climate change.
The truth was we had a terrible, terrible candidate on climate change, and we had a candidate on climate change who requires a lot of pressure. Now maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but I think that people learned the lesson of the past four years. People now understand that what Obama needs—indeed what we need—is a real independent movement with climate change at its center, that's going to put pressure on the entire political class, and directly on the fossil fuel companies on this issue.
The new strategy is to go where the problem is. And the problem is the companies themselves. We are launching the "Do the Math" tour which aims to kick off a divestment movement. We are going after these companies where it hurts, their portfolios, their stock price.
We are modelling it on the anti-apartheid divestment movement. It's called "Do the Math" because of this new body of research that came out last year. There is a group in Britain called "The Carbon Tracker Initiative", a fairly conservative group that addresses itself to the financial community. They identified a market bubble and were concerned about what it meant to investors. The numbers that they crunched factor in that if we are going to ward off truly catastrophic climate change, we need to keep the global average temperature increase below 2 degrees centigrade.
They also measured how much the fossil fuel companies and countries who own their own national oil reserves currently have in their reserves, what they already lay claim to. It's already inflating their stock price. It's five times more than we can possibly burn while staying below the 2 degree centigrade limit. The whole business model for the fossil fuel industry is based on burning five times more carbon than is compatible with a liveable planet. What we are saying is: "Your business model is at war with life on this planet. It's at war with us. And we need to fight back."
We say "These are rogue companies. In particular we address young people whose whole future lies ahead of them. We are asking them to send a message to their universities—almost every university has a huge endowment, and there isn't an endowment out there that doesn't have holdings in these fossil fuel companies. So young people are saying to the people who charged with their education, "Explain to me how you can prepare me for a future, at the same time as you bet against my future with these fossil fuel holdings? You do the math and you tell me." I think there is a tremendous moral clarity that comes from having that kind of youth-led movement. We are really excited about it.
BM: By rogue corporations you refer to Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, BP and all of these huge capitalist institutions?
NK: Rogue corporations like those have a business model that externalizes the price of their waste onto the rest of us: the carbon that's spewed into the atmosphere that is warming the planet. And that price is enormous. We absolutely know that the future is going to be filled with many more super storms and many more costly, multibillion-dollar disasters. It's already happening. The last year in America brought more billion-dollar disasters than any year previously. Climate change is imposing massive costs already, yet what we see is squabbling at the state or municipal level over who is going to pay for it.
The public sector doesn't have the money to pay for what these rogue corporations have left us with, the price tag of climate change. So we have to do two things. We have to make sure that it doesn't get worse, that the price tag doesn't get higher. And we need to get some of that money back, which means dealing with fossil fuel subsidies. Post-Hurricane Sandy, everyone is saying, "Well, maybe this is going to be our wake-up call." Yet in New York City, there are arguments over how much to increase subway fares, which will make it harder for people to use public transit. That's because we don't have the resources that we need.
BM: You've been out among the areas of devastation. Why?
NK: For this book I'm currently writing about climate change, and a documentary to go with it, we are filming in the Rockaways, Staten Island and Red Hook, some of the hardest-hit areas. And also the relief hubs, where you see just a tremendous number of volunteers organized by Occupy Wall Street. They call it Occupy Sandy. The generosity and humanity are tremendous. One of the things you find out in a disaster is you really do need a public sector.
Coming back to what we were talking about earlier, why is climate change so threatening to those on the conservative end of the U.S. political spectrum? It makes an argument for the public sphere. You need public transit to prevent climate change. You also need a public health care system to respond to it. It can't just be ad hoc charity and goodwill.
So we need to look for models beyond unregulated corporate capitalism. There needs to be much more decentralization and a much deeper definition of democracy than we have right now. When you try to get big wind farms set up, there can be a lot of community resistance. This has happened in the U.S. and Britain, but not in Germany and Denmark. In the latter case, there are movements that have insisted renewable energy be community-controlled rather than centrally planned. There is a a sense of ownership—not by a big, faceless institution, but by people who actually live in the community that is impacted.
BM: You've written that climate change has little to do with the state of the environment, but much to do with the state of capitalism and the American economic system. Do you see an opening towards transformation with Hurricane Sandy?
NK: I do see an opening, because whenever you have this kind of destruction, there has to be reconstruction. What I documented in "The Shock Doctrine" is that these right-wing think tanks, like the American Enterprise or Cato Institutes and Heritage Foundation, have historically gotten very good at seizing such moments of opportunity to push through their agenda; policies that actually dig us deeper into crisis. After Hurricane Katrina, there was a meeting at the Heritage Foundation, just two weeks after the storm hit. Parts of the city were still underwater. The headline (in their minutes) was “31 free-market solutions for Hurricane Katrina”. But the proposals were things like “Don't reopen public schools, replace them with vouchers…Drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve…Build more oil refineries”. So here we have a crisis that was created by a collision between extreme weather (where climate change was certainly a factor) and an infrastructure weakened by years and years of neglect. And the so-called free market solutions to this crisis are, "Let's just get rid of the public infrastructure altogether and drill for more oil, which is a root cause of climate change." That’s their Shock Doctrine. I think it's time for a People's Shock.
A people's shock is what we saw after the market shock of 1929. The public wanted to get at the root of the problem. They wanted to get away from speculative finance and that's how we got some very good legislation passed in America like Glass-Steagal. Much of our social safety net was born in that moment. It was not a matter of exploiting crisis to hoard power for the few, or ram through policies that people don't want, but a building of popular movements and a deepening of democracy.
BM: The main thesis of "Shock Doctrine", which came out five years ago before the great crash, was that disaster capitalism exploits crises in order to move even greater wealth into the hands of the elites. You don't expect those people to change their appetites or their ways, because we face a climate crisis?
NK: I don't expect them to. I wrote "The Shock Doctrine" because I believed that at that point we didn't understand that during times of crisis certain sectors of the business and political class take advantage of our disorientation in order to ram through such policies I believed that if we had a name for it, a language for it, then the next time they tried it, we would fight back. We often become childlike and look towards a supposed expert class or leaders to take care of us. We become too trusting, frankly, during disasters.
BM: It used to be said that global warming was the great equalizer. It affected rich and poor alike. You don't think it does, do you?
NK: I've been tracking this now for about six years, More and more, there's a privatization of response to disaster. Wealthy people understand that we are going to see more and more storms. We live in a turbulent world and it’s going to get even more turbulent, so they are planning. So now there are private insurance companies offering what they call concierge service—the first to do so was A.I.G. In the midst of the California wildfires about six years ago, , you saw private fire-fighters showing up at people's homes, spraying them with fire retardant. This mansion would be standing while the one next door might burn to the ground. We might imagine firefighting is definitely a public good, something people get equally. But now we're finding that there's even a two-tiering of protection from wildfires.
BM: This kind of privatization is what you wrote about in "Shock Doctrine" –privatization or monopolization of resources by the rich in times of crisis, further dividing us as a society
NK: Yes, absolutely. One of the things about deregulated capitalism is that it is a crisis-creation machine. You take away all the rules and you are going to have serial crises: economic crises, booms and busts, or now ecological crises. You're just going to have shock after shock after shock. The way we're currently responding to it is that with each shock, we become more divided. The more we understand this is what the future looks like, the more those who can afford it buy their way out of having to depend on the public sector, and are less and less invested in collective responses. That’s why there has to be a whole other way of responding to climate crisis.
BM: You wrote recently that climate change can be a historic moment to usher in the next great wave of progressive change.
NK: It can be and it must be. It's our only chance. It's the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. We have been kidding ourselves about what it's going to take to get our emissions down to the extent that they need to. We need 80% lower emissions. That is such a huge shift.
I don't mean to beat up on the big environmental groups, because they do fantastic work, but I think that part of the reason why public opinion on this issue has been so shaky is that it doesn't really add up to say to the public, "This is a huge problem. It's Armageddon." You scare the hell out of people, but then you say, "Well, the solution can be very minor. You can change your light bulb. Then we should have this complicated legislation called “cap and trade” that no-one really understands. It means companies here can keep on polluting, but they're going to trade their carbon emissions. Someone else, somewhere else is going to plant trees on the other side of the planet and they'll get credits."
People look at that and think: "Okay, if this was a crisis, wouldn't be we be responding more aggressively, as we have done in the past during wartime, where there's been a collective sense of shared responsibility?" I think when we really do feel that sense of urgency about an issue—and we certainly should feel it about climate change—we are willing to sacrifice. We have shown that in the past. But when you hold up a supposed emergency and actually don't ask anything major of people, they actually think you might be lying; it might not really be an emergency after all. If this is an emergency, we have to act like it. Yes, this is a really fundamental challenge. But the good news is, we get to have a future for our kids.
Bill Moyers has been a broadcast journalist for over four decades, winning over 30 Emmy awards. He is the president of the Schumann Media Center, a non-profit organization that supports independent journalism.