A garbage dumpsite in Paranaque city, Manila (Reuters/Romeo Ranoco)
What if, instead of accepting a future of climate catastrophe and private profits, we decide to change everything?
About a year ago, I was having dinner with some newfound friends in Athens. I had an interview scheduled for the next morning with Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s official opposition party and one of the few sources of hope in a Europe ravaged by austerity. I asked the group for ideas about what questions I should put to the young politician. Someone suggested: “History knocked on your door—did you answer?”
At the time, Tsipras’s party, Syriza, was putting up a fine fight against austerity. Yet it was struggling to articulate a positive economic vision of its own. I was particularly struck that the party did not oppose the governing coalition’s embrace of new oil and gas exploration, a threat to Greece’s beautiful seas as well as to the climate as a whole.
Instead, it argued that any funds raised by the effort should be spent on pensions, not used to pay back creditors. In other words, the party was not providing an alternative to extractivism; it simply had more equitable plans for distributing the spoils—something that can be said of most left-governed countries in Latin America.
When we met the next day, Tsipras was frank that concerns about the environmental crisis had been entirely upstaged by more immediate ones. “We were a party that had the environment and climate change in the center of our interest,” he told me. “But after these years of depression in Greece, we forgot climate change.”
This is, of course, entirely understandable. It is also a terrible missed opportunity—and not just for one party in one country in the world. The research I’ve done over the past five years has convinced me that climate change represents a historic opening for progressive transformation.
As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the levels so many climate scientists recommend, we have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up.
Rather than the ultimate expression of the shock doctrine I wrote about in my last book—a frenzy of new resource grabs and repression by the 1 percent—climate change can be a “People’s Shock,” a blow from below. It can disperse power into the hands of the many, rather than consolidating it in the hands of a few, and it can radically expand the commons, rather than auctioning it off in pieces.
Getting to the root of why we are facing serial crises in the first place would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have now.
But none of this will happen if we let history’s knock go unanswered—because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know how that system will deal with serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on.
When I despair at the prospects for change, I think back on some of what I witnessed in the process of writing my book about climate change. Admittedly, much of it is painful: from the young climate activist breaking down and weeping on my shoulder at the Copenhagen summit, to the climate-change deniers at the Heartland Institute literally laughing at the prospect of extinction; from the country manor in England where mad scientists plotted to blot out the sun, to the stillness of the blackened marshes during the BP oil disaster; from the roar of the earth being ripped up to scrape out the Alberta tar sands, to the shock of discovering that the largest green group in the world was itself drilling for oil.
But that’s not all I think about. When I started this journey, most of the movements standing in the way of the fossil-fuel frenzy either did not exist or were a fraction of their current size. All were significantly more isolated from one another than they are today. North Americans, overwhelmingly, did not know what the tar sands are. Most of us had never heard of fracking.
There had never been a truly mass march against climate change in North America, let alone thousands willing to engage together in civil disobedience. There was no mass movement to divest from fossil fuels. Hundreds of cities and towns in Germany had not yet voted to take back control over their electricity grids to be part of a renewable energy revolution.
My own province did not have a green-energy program that was bold enough to land us in trade court. China was not in the midst of a boisterous debate about the wrenching health costs of frenetic, coal-based economic growth. There was far less top-level research proving that economies powered by 100 percent renewable energy were within our grasp. And few climate scientists were willing to speak bluntly about the political implications of their work for our frenzied consumer culture. All of this has changed so rapidly as I have been writing that I have had to race to keep up.
Yes, ice sheets are melting faster than the models projected, but resistance is beginning to boil. In these existing and nascent movements, we now have clear glimpses of the kind of dedication and imagination demanded of everyone who is alive and breathing during climate change’s “decade zero.”
This is because the carbon record doesn’t lie. And what that record tells us is that emissions are still rising: every year we release more greenhouse gases than the year before, the growth rate increasing from one decade to the next—gases that will trap heat for generations to come, creating a world that is hotter, colder, wetter, thirstier, hungrier, angrier. So if there is any hope of reversing these trends, glimpses won’t cut it; we will need the climate revolution playing on repeat, all day every day, everywhere.
Mass resistance movements have grabbed the wheel before and could very well do so again. At the same time, we must reckon with the fact that lowering global emissions in line with the urgent warnings of climate scientists will demand change of a truly daunting speed and scale.
Meeting science-based targets 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 let’s take for granted that we want to do these radical things democratically and without a bloodbath, so violent vanguardist revolutions don’t have much to offer in the way of road maps.
The crucial question we are left with, then, is this: Has an economic shift of this kind ever happened before in history? We know it can happen during wartime, when presidents and prime ministers are the ones commanding the transformation from above. But has it ever been demanded from below, by regular people, when their leaders have wholly abdicated their responsibilities? The answer to that question is predictably complex, filled with “sort ofs” and “almosts”—but also at least one “yes.”
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein (Simon & Schuster). Click here for information about the book and Naomi’s September/October 2014 tour dates. The Nation will be livestreaming her sold-out US book launch on September 18 at 6 pm EST; you can watch that here.
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