We’ve known for decades that burning fossil fuels increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and warnings from climate scientists are growing ever more urgent and alarming. Yet we lack the political, or all too often personal will to take action. ‘What is wrong with us?’ asks Klein.
To answer that question, she starts out by examining the Heartland Institute, a conservative and libertarian American think tank who sponsor meetings of climate sceptics. The meeting she attends is light on science – and what little is presented is contradictory – but the delegates are strongly united in the view that climate change is not about the environment, but is a Trojan horse for increased regulation and global wealth redistribution. Klein does not deny that the societal change required to avoid a climate disaster cannot be moderate: ‘the deniers get plenty of the details wrong… but when it comes to the scope and depth of change required to avert catastrophe, they are right on the money.’ Our society has become too closely bound to a system of global free trade and extractivism that is at odds with solving the climate crisis.
Klein explores how international climate change politics grew up alongside global trade agreements that have increased the carbon footprint of everyday goods. How there are such powerful legal protections in place, the US government can challenge a solar power development in India because it enshrines local protectionism. She also examines the reasons why some large environmentalist groups were complicit in missed opportunities when the North American Free Trade Agreement was drafted, and some hard truths about their relationships with fossil fuels are revealed. Free market capitalism has, to Klein, systematically sabotaged our chances of averting climate disaster.
The book also explores some of the technological fixes that are touted (‘magical thinking’ as Klein sees them), looking at the ‘green billionaires’ that advocate them. Richard Branson’s pledge to spend $3 billion over a decade to develop a zero carbon fuel is examined in some detail and found severely wanting when his other spending is examined.
The fixes themselves are also found to be lacking. The Royal Society urges the British government to consider geoengineering as a response to climate change, and hosts a meeting dedicated to exploring Solar Radiation Management – a suite of approaches that would seed the atmosphere with particles to regulate incoming solar radiation. What many of the proponents overlook is that the planet is, in the words of one biologist ‘a player not a responder in whatever we do’ and we simply do not know enough about planetary systems to accurately predict the outcome of these schemes.
Klein, who has previously written about globalisation in No Logo and austerity in The Shock Doctrine, sees taking action over climate change as an opportunity not only to save the planet but to reconfigure human societies into something much more equitable.
She reminds us that governments do not have the monopoly on setting the political agenda: civil rights, sexual discrimination, apartheid and slavery were not problems to governments until movements of people came together and overturned the prevailing ideology. Examples abound of successful community-led initiatives that have taken the power back (literally in some cases) from multinationals and governments.
This book is a powerful polemic, and the extent to which Klein has researched her case is exemplary, scouring scientific literature and drawing together her own interviews. The successes she highlights are inspirational, but one might ask if a network of community groups serving local interests can really suffice against a global problem, especially as resource and environmental pressures are only likely to increase worldwide.
Nonetheless this is an important and engaging work, which ably explores why markets cannot be relied upon to stop climate catastrophe.
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein, Allen Lane, £20
This review was published in the December 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine