Naomi Klein at Wharton on Climate Change

Thursday, April 28, 2016, 8:37 am
Robert Shelton

Photo of Naomi Klein by Kourosh Keshiri courtesy

Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein spoke the evening of April 4th to a nearly full house in the Wharton Center’s Great Hall, on the Michigan State University campus. Before she came on stage, a giant screen behind the speaker’s podium announced her timely topic and ultimately hopeful thesis: “How climate change is going to change everything (for the worse—or the better).”

With self-depreciating humor and well-documented evidence, Klein took an hour to summarize the core arguments of her most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, which was published in September of 2014. The dates actions were—or were not—taken are crucial for Klein’s stories of climate exploiters, climate deniers, and climate activists. It is also crucial to recognize that one person—she uses herself as a key example—can be all three.

Klein opened with a short clip from a new (2015) documentary film she wrote and her husband, Avi Lewis, directed. It is also entitled This Changes Everything, and illustrates her book’s arguments by visiting seven environmentally challenged locations across the globe. Klein then moved another step closer to the present by discussing the late-2015 Paris Climate Change summit, held there three weeks after the November 13th terrorist attacks. Klein used the proximity of the attacks to the conference to underscore the tense, post-shock atmosphere in which the latter produced what, she stressed, really were both strong diplomatic breakthroughs and seriously insufficient, non-legally-binding political commitments to address present and future ecological catastrophes.

Klein’s previous book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), encourages us to notice whenever political actions (or inactions) occur in the aftermath of literal as well as metaphorical seismic shifts. In her East Lansing talk, Klein did not ignore or slight Paris’s positive breakthroughs, as an overheated environmental Cassandra might. Instead, she insisted that the diplomats had set “good goals,” and had wrestled vigorously over detailed arguments supporting a 2oC maximum increase in average global temperatures versus those for a 1.5oC increase, the latter maximum being vital to the Island Nations’ “One-Point-Five to Stay Alive” campaign.

That was some of the good news. Some of the bad: the governments behind those diplomats then declared themselves unable to achieve these goals. “3oC to 4oC is what,” Klein said, “the governments could come up with, one by one.” She continued, “We know what we need to do—and we’re willing to do roughly half of it.” The diplomats, following the lead of the large majority of climate scientists, had spoken of changes that must happen; the governments, in turn, offered voluntary actions, ones (as Klein concluded) that are putting us “on the road to a 6oC rise,” on the road to “for the worse.” (1.5oC=2.7oF, 2.0oC=3.6oF, 3.0oC=5.4oF, 4.0oC=7.2oF, 6.0oC=10.8oF increases. As a considerate Canadian, Klein included these conversions to Fahrenheit in her lecture.)

Across the hour, her warnings were numerous and clear. But so too was Klein’s insistence, from the outset, that something good is happening—something that adds a necessary counter-note to the all-too-easy-to-ignore doomsday alarms. Klein’s essential message, then, about the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Paris at the end of 2015 was that its results were “amazing and terrifying, at the same time.”

This “both/and” vision also drives her 2014 book, her 2015 film, and her life, especially since 2009. On this April 2016 evening, she told the Wharton Hall audience that “Contradiction is at the heart of my lecture tonight.” Moreover, readers of This Changes Everything could note an important source for Klein’s enthusiasm for beneficial contradictions. In that book’s introduction, Klein describes being in Geneva, in April 2009—yes, she provides the month and year, on page 5—where she met with Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO), “a surprisingly young woman named Angélica Navarro Llamos,” who, Klein continues, “saw climate change both as a terrible threat to her people—but also an opportunity.” Navarro Llamos helped Klein move away from “either/or” towards “both/and.”  

Before exploring one of the evening’s hovering big questions—as she put it, “How can or will the climate movement keep politicians to the One-Five goal?”—Klein took several minutes to trace her personal arc, stating straight out, “I’m not a life-long climate person. I was, for a long time, a soft climate denier.” Moreover, she then invited her listeners to appreciate that “We’re all in some sort of climate denial.”

Her own wake-up call to climate activism, though she did not recognize it as such at the time, took place a decade ago, in New Orleans, right after Hurricane Katrina. She was there doing research for The Shock Doctrine, but even in 2005 she felt her soft denial of climate change being challenged by, as she called it, the daunting combination of “heavy weather and weak, neglected infrastructure, both hard and soft.” “Hard” here evoking engineers and levies; “soft,” the social, economic and racial dysfunctions that, she said, “made us make monsters of those who were left behind.”

Hurricane Katrina occupies pride—or shame—of place in The Shock Doctrine. For This Changes Everything, it becomes just one more harsh illustration of how, as she said in her lecture, “climate change is also about how things are getting meaner and uglier.” After witnessing a devastated New Orleans (in 2005) and learning from Navarro Llamos (in 2009), Klein began to more directly link the Shock Doctrine’s false (albeit crucial to modern capitalism) notion of Perpetual Disaster and the very real prospect of fatal (to us all) environmental change for the worse. Capitalism vs. The Climate, indeed.

Klein began the second, sustained half of her talk by asking, “Why are we in this mess?” She immediately rejected the cynical—and useless—answer that it’s human nature to be greedy, destructive, thoughtless, etc. So, why, then, are we in this particular mess at this particular moment? Timing. Klein devotes the first 190 pages of This Changes Everything to “Really Bad Timing” (page 16) and more general “Bad Timing” (page 29), the latter being the title of that book’s Part One (pages 29-187). Bad timing—like good timing—can have a specific pivotal instant (prolonged or not) when good timing seems to change to bad timing (or bad to good).

In her lecture, Klein argued that climate change had a double pivotal moment, the year 1988, when the good very nearly triumphed over the bad. We are paying the price today for having highly promising scientific and cultural breakthroughs emerge exactly when more powerful political and economic counter-forces all but drowned them out. Klein attached specific names to this good-bad moment: James Hansen and Ronald Reagan, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (1981-2013) and the 40th President of the United States (1981-1988), respectively. As with any “epic case of bad timing” (Klein’s label), there had to be the presence and promise of another, better path, otherwise we’re just languishing, hopeless and inert, in dire times.

Klein added, “the 1980s were a terrible time for this crisis to land on us.” What crisis? The one James Hansen testified about to the United States Congress, in June 1988. There and then, he outlined a strong case for linking human activity and global warming. He was hardly the first scientist to make this link. As Klein noted, the gist of Hansen’s hypotheses and conclusions had been presented at least a decade earlier by scientists conducting cutting edge climate research at and for Exxon, including Dr. James F. Black, Exxon’s lead scientist for an internal investigation that found, in 1977, a link between fossil fuels, the CO2 greenhouse effect, and rising global temperatures. The 1980s ended, Klein said, with Exxon “pouring money into refuting their own, earlier research on climate change.”    

In 1988, James Hansen was not a solitary voice, an outlier introducing America to climate change, global warming, rising oceans, and the urgent need to change our ways. Klein confirmed this point by showing us Time magazine’s cover for 1988’s Man of the Year, which featured a painting by Gianfranco Gorgoni of our blue planet being held together by brown twine. Above the globe: “Planet of the Year.” Below the globe: “Endangered Earth.” If Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders’s famous 1968 photograph, “Earthrise,” showed our species what we had to protect, then this Time cover told us, twenty years later, that we’d better get on with the job.

Klein noted, further, that 1988 also brought us both the first free trade agreement, one between (no less) the USA and Canada, and the strong perpetuation of what she called “Reaganism.” Her critiques of free trade, trickle-down economics, cuts to the public sphere, and the like were sharp—and are more thoroughly developed in The Shock Doctrine. For her Wharton Hall lecture, she relied on President Reagan’s 1986 quip: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government and I’m here to help.”

Updating her pitch, but also anchoring it in the terrible times of the 1980s, Klein asserted that “to take climate change seriously today, we have to clash with all of Reaganism,” especially its foundational notion that “profit is the only determining element in all spheres.” This call to action moved her out of 1988 and into a spate of what she called the good news. But her talk, if not her heart, did not fully let go of that earlier year. Perhaps, like many of us, Naomi Klein sees the year in which she turned eighteen as pivotal. It certainly was for the environment.

The good news for 2016 is partly found in a return to James Hansen’s views—not that he or those views on global warming ever went entirely away—and partly in a growing questioning, Klein said, of such matters as free trade agreements, our dependence on fossil fuels, and allowing too many human beings to be categorized by the powerful as disposable. Klein used the current presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to illustrate long-held and newly-acquired, respectively, caution on free trade. She used controversies over fracking as her key example of fossil fuel critique.

And for the appalling category of the disposable, Klein used examples of Native American, First Nation, and many other indigenous and/or impoverished peoples across six continents. (In other words, the vast majority of humanity.) Overall, she said, we are “getting better at saying no” to climate exploiters—while recognizing that “Saying no has real costs” in terms of jobs lost within what she identified as the extractivist economy driven by coal mining, oil drilling, and shale fracturing, for examples. And it has been more than livelihoods lost for some activists, especially those “local people at the front lines” of environmental actions. For many of them, the price has been the loss of their lives.

Klein’s crucial point here was that a better future comes from saying yes—from, for instance, saying yes to renewable energy resources and economic democracy in general. Moreover, Klein then spun her case away from actions for the future to those for the present, arguing, “It’s not just the future that has to get better; the present has to, too.” We need to “dream about the economy we want,” and make the transition to it with a wider-ranging, more-immediate sense of justice. An economy of an unrestrained capitalism based on “limitless extraction—from the earth, from workers, from our social safety net,” etc.—cannot be sustained, she concluded. The charge is to shift, she said while reading the screen behind her, from “Taking to Caretaking.” Fossil fuel extraction has allowed us to believe in the fantasy that “we could live outside of nature.” We need “a better dream.”

As her talk neared its close, Klein offered a few examples of her own activism, of things she’s done lately as what was once called, without irony or condescension, a public intellectual. The first was an exercise in getting people to dream by getting them to talk, freely, face-to-face, and at length, with one another. Specifically, she took part in a gathering of Canadians from across a good portion of the ideological spectrum. Rather than being given answers—solutions from the experts—these folks were asked to talk and listen to each others’ hopes and fears about the Earth.

The results, Klein said, suggested that our current climate change crisis can bring people together, once they allow themselves to speak and listen for themselves, and to do so with the courage “to make a leap.” This gathering and many more like it led to Klein’s last proposal for the evening: Don’t take a step in the right direction—doing so, her projected cartoon showed, might lead you to fall into a deep, deep canyon; think Wile E. Coyote, she said. Instead, take a leap across the chasm, using the force and momentum now being generated by our needs and our dreams.

Specifically, and emphatically, Klein asked us to visit the website for The Leap Manifesto. She argued that the next environmental movement cannot look like the last ones—a forum for “upper-middle class Whites.” It also has to “make new mistakes.” Launched in the spring of 2015, features Frequently Asked Questions pages, which address the then-pressing issues of the Canadian elections (2015) as well as still-crucial plans for 2016, doubly known by this group as a Leap Year. The Leap Manifesto, as of early 2016, presents itself as “A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another.” Naomi Klein came to Wharton Center to invite a few more Americans to consider learning from our good neighbors to the north.