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Naomi Klein on Reckoning With the Radical Realities of Climate Change

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18.09.2019

Interrogating the planet's most important climate thinkers.

On September 23, the United Nations will open its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, will sweep through thousands of cities across the globe. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer will be publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates and Naomi Klein to Rhiana Gunn-Wright and William Nordhaus, interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful themselves.)

This week, the iconic leftist intellectual Naomi Klein released her latest collection of essays, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. Klein was not always so focused on climate change, but three of her past four books have addressed it, beginning with 2014’s This Changes Everything, about as succinct a description of the totality of the threat and challenge posed by climate change as you can imagine. I spoke with Klein in August about the suddenly imminent right-wing responses to the crisis of warming, the new political momentum on climate and the inadequacy of left-wing organizing infrastructure to channel it, and whether we have to give up on consumption and growth to give ourselves a meaningful chance of averting disaster.

In the introduction to your new book, you talk a bit about the prospect of ecofascism, which has been discussed a lot in recent weeks. But you also write about “climate barbarism,” something short of true fascism that is nevertheless defined by real brutality in response to climate change. Is that here already?
I think climate is bringing out barbarism. I don’t think it’s creating it, and I don’t think it’s the only factor. But I think there’s a subconscious understanding, even among climate-change deniers, that we are entering an era of scarcity.

How does that play out?
Barbaric ideas have always served a purpose, and they never went away, because we’ve never truly confronted them or had any true historical record. And so they ebb and flow depending on how much they are needed to justify barbarism. They were needed in the ’80s, to a lesser degree, to justify a tax on the social safety net — you had to have a way of vilifying black people and welfare communities in order to justify the savage tax. White supremacy was born of a need to justify slavery, not the other way around. So I find myself more and more impatient with these ideas that the climate solutions we should be proposing are the ones that pacify the right and that reassure a world based on a hierarchy of human lives and domination.

What solutions do you mean?
We know people who have a hierarchical worldview are more prone than any other group to deny climate change. All the social science shows this. And then you have all of these so-called climate-policy experts who say therefore we should be talking about a revenue-neutral carbon tax, nuclear power, and geoengineering because that is not threatening to the people who hold that worldview.

The problem is that people who hold that worldview are also okay with kids dying in the desert and drowning in the Mediterranean, and unless we actually confront just how toxic that worldview is, all of this is going to get worse. That’s where I think we’re at, and I think at the moment we are seeing an intensification of the climate crisis, an acceleration, everything happening faster than most of the models predicted, as you well know. And we’re seeing a surge in unmasked white supremacy, and we’re also seeing a powerful counterresponse in the form of the Sunrise Movement and the new climate strikers, Extinction Rebellion.

When I look at the very present tense, that’s the most new thing to me. When I think about all the other forces that are conspiring against action, they’re villainous, but they’re also familiar. They’ve been villainous for a while, but a year or two ago, I’m not sure I would’ve thought the mass public protests we’re seeing on climate were even possible
But I also wouldn’t have necessarily predicted Jair Bolsonaro. I think the extent to which, in country after country, we’re seeing the worst people in the world being elevated to the most powerful positions is pretty startling. Boris Johnson — these are people that are ready to just burn it down, and I think [we need to] understand what is behind that, and I don’t think we really have understood what the commonalities are between the Trumps and the Bolsanaros and the Dutertes and the Modis. Another factor is just what’s happening to our mental focus and our ability to have institutions, progressive institutions, that are capable of meeting this moment. That’s what preoccupies me the most, to tell you the truth.

How do you see that landscape?
I’m really concerned about the social-movement infrastructure on the left side of the spectrum. I think it is actually in worse shape than it has been in a long time. You’ve got some powerful presidential campaigns, but that’s not the same as actually having powerful institutions. We’re spending way too much time trading on fear as opposed to organizing strategically and organizing a majority of people who feel that way into a force that can actually defeat the really truly evil forces we’re up against and come up with a plan for how to get out of this.

What about the Green New Deal?
I think the Green New Deal is an incredibly hopeful development, but what we don’t have is the institutional capacity to flush out what that means. The original idea was for there to be a subcommittee that would be a resource, that we would be spending this year consulting, bringing together the movement and scientists and local leaders, pooling this huge band of expertise out there of people who have been trying this at the local level — all kinds of lessons learned and figuring out how to do........

© Daily Intelligencer