As delegates gather in Lima, Peru, this month for another round of climate talks, what was once a vague and distant worry has become a clear and present peril. Global warming is “here and now,” Rajendra K. Pachauri, chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told reporters in November after releasing the panel’s frankest report to date. “It’s not something in the future.”
Five years ago, I attended the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, hopeful that this event would finally kick into high gear a global response to the climate crisis. Instead, there was almost no agreement, except for the seemingly innocuous conclusion that the average global temperature should not be allowed to rise more than 2 C above the pre-industrial average. Since then, climate negotiations have continued to sputter while greenhouse gas emissions keep soaring. As Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein writes in her new book, “Unless something radical changes within our economic structure, 2 degrees now looks like a utopian dream.”
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is Klein’s assertion of humanity’s crisis and challenge in the face of climate change. For decades, progressive thinkers have attempted to green our economy by harnessing capitalism to meet our environmental goals. But as Klein argues in This Changes Everything, our global economic system is fundamentally at odds with life on this planet. We have an environmental challenge based on our addiction to fossil fuels and an economy that is incapable of valuing anything other than perpetual growth. “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion,” she writes. “Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”
Klein has been a fierce critic of deregulated capitalism in her previous works, including the landmark No Logo (1999) and The Shock Doctrine (2007).
This Changes Everything, which recently won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for nonfiction, is Klein’s strongest work yet, in my opinion. Thorough and far-reaching, the book reveals how the threat of runaway climate change goes hand in hand with escalating social inequality. The same economic system that can’t put the brakes on fossil fuel use is also responsible for creating obscene concentrations of wealth among a global elite. And these elites have a “stranglehold” over our economy, our politics and most of our media.
Klein’s book is much more than a devastating critique of the present crisis, however. She finds countless situations of hope and courage, particularly the significant leadership that has come from Indigenous peoples in many parts of the world, including Canada. She quotes Gary Simon of the Elsipogtog First Nation, for example, who describes treaties as “[our] last line of defense to save the clean water for future generations.”
For Klein, the sheer scale of the climate challenge makes it a potent catalyst, bringing together a host of movements pushing for social transformation. “Climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes,” she writes. “It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message — spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions — telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet.”
Klein is not alone in calling for a new economic order. French economist Thomas Piketty set the stage earlier this year with his surprise bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century. His extensively researched treatise alerted us to the deep inequality endemic to contemporary capitalism, and this is even before examining the system’s environmental implications.
Klein’s work also aligns with the fossil fuel divestment movement spearheaded by American author and environmentalist Bill McKibben. In his widely shared article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” published in Rolling Stone in August 2012, McKibben shows how “business as usual” will quickly plunge us into climate chaos. If global warming is to stay below two degrees, he argues, then we can only emit another 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide. However, energy companies already have enough fossil fuel reserves to emit 2,795 gigatons — five times the amount it’s safe to burn. “Barring some massive intervention,” he writes, our fate “seems certain.”
McKibben’s latest book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, explores what that intervention might look like, zeroing in on two concerns: the anti-Keystone XL pipeline campaign in the United States and his beekeeping activities with a neighbour in Vermont. The somewhat incongruous subjects underscore his message that we must take action both globally and locally. One without the other will not work. McKibben ponders, “I don’t know whether we’d waited too long for divestment movements and road shows. I didn’t know if the fields of grass in the lovely Vermont summer we were enjoying would soon look more like Iowa’s parched deserts. I just knew — buoyed by all the people who wrote to say they were up for it — that we were going to fight.”
This Changes Everything is also about the fight. More than a book, it is the deliberate attempt to spark and strengthen an unprecedented global resistance movement. “The thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything,” Klein writes. “It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders. It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand.”
Klein knows that time is not her friend, that the shifts required are daunting, and that resistance will be steep. Yet the alternative — putting our heads down while the planet burns — is no option at all. “Only mass social movements can save us now,” Klein concludes. We have courageously important work to do.
Rev. David MacDonald is a former federal cabinet minister. He lives in Toronto.