It’s capitalism or the climate – a review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

By Paul Lewis

The central thesis of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ is that unless we ditch neo-liberal capitalism it won’t be possible to preserve a climate that can sustain human civilisation:

“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. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”

To support this thesis, Klein provides a feast of evidence to illustrate how capitalism’s focus on short-term self-interest as the motor of societal change is incompatible with taking the right decisions about the long-term future of humanity. This includes a very useful dissection of the way that neo-liberal trade rules incentivise wasteful resource consumption, rather than sustainable development. Lengthy passages of ‘This Changes Everything’ argue that even those individual capitalists who are genuinely committed to tackling climate change (Richard Branson and Al Gore are her two principal targets) always want to force emission reduction action that is consistent with preserving capitalism, and that ultimately it is the latter objective that takes primacy.

Yet Klein appears optimistic that it is possible to avert catastrophic climate change, based on her assessment of the growing strength of socially progressive sustainable development activism – to which she ascribes the moniker ‘Blockadia’.

Unsurprisingly, by posing the challenge of averting catastrophic climate change in such clearly ideological terms, Klein has polarised opinion even among people well-known as environmentalists. Mark Lynas, writing in the Guardian (11 March 2015) in response to its extensive reproduction of Klein’s thesis, puts the case against most succinctly:

“Solving climate change does not mean rolling back capitalism, suspending the free market or stopping economic growth.. In insisting that tackling carbon emissions must be subordinated into a wider agenda of social revolution and the dismantling of corporate capitalism, Klein isn’t making climate mitigation easier: she is making it politically toxic.”

I have melded together two parts of Lynas’ argument here and it is necessary to take them apart again to examine its veracity properly.

First, the contention that capitalism is compatible with tackling climate change. Well, I hope Lynas is right. Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have risen 60% in the last twenty years. To prevent levels of GHG in the atmosphere exceeding a threshold that would precipitate irreversible and catastrophic climate change (for humans at least), global emissions need to peak in the next five years and then start falling at a rate of at least 2.5% per year thereafter. If we have to overthrow capitalism first, then I fear we are doomed.

It is in the interests of all parts of humanity to tackle climate change

Fortunately, while a massive political struggle is required to put humanity on a climate-safe path, it does not require an immediate global socialist revolution.

Destroying the eco-system that sustains human life will affect everyone. Indeed, the scale of environmental disaster that failing to tackle climate change will unleash will not just be a problem for the poorest and most vulnerable, although they are being hit earliest and hardest, it will destroy human civilisation as we know it. Every part of the globe will be affected and there will be no hiding, even for the world’s richest individuals. Climate change is unequivocally bad for business and, as such, it is in the interests of capital as a whole to prevent runaway global warming from occurring.

That does not mean, of course, that it is in any way inevitable that humanity will act as one to prevent climate disaster occurring. As Jared Diamond set out in his brilliant anthropological history, ‘Collapse’, there are plenty of historical examples of human civilizations dissolving as a result of their destruction of the natural resources upon which their survival depended.

In many cases ancient societal leaders simply didn’t have the data to understand how apparently rational short-term decisions could deliver disastrous long-term outcomes. But in the twenty-first century this is not true and the work of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change is the most rigorous globally collaborative scientific study in human history.

As a result, there are plenty of capitalists who do get the need to tackle climate change, including the President of the USA, most of the leadership of the European Union countries, and the Chief Executives of a few major multi-national firms, most notably Paul Polman of Unilever. Tackling climate change is an important focus of a myriad of capitalist conferences and publications, from the World Economic Forum to the Economist.

Capitalism can’t lead the struggle against climate change

Counteracting this rational response, however, as Klein brilliantly catalogues, of course, is the inexorable logic of the profit motive and enslavement to the notion that greed is good. As she puts it after attempting to engage with the leaders of the fossil fuel industry:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.”

Thus, while there are sections of the bourgeoisie that can be won over to progressive demands to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, there is no chance of capitalism leading the struggle to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The greater part of action to cut emissions, hold back deforestation and prevent new fossil fuel exploitation has been driven by activism, not the enlightened action of capitalists. Some of the strongest sections of ‘This Changes Everything’ are when Klein details the successes of these campaigns, under the banner of a movement she calls ‘Blockadia’

For example, she cites the success of Greenpeace’s campaign to prevent Shell drilling for oil in the ecologically fragile Arctic; the heroic efforts of native American communities to use tribal land rights to prevent tar-sand oil pipelines from Canada to the USA; the Syriza-led anti-mining movement in Greece; and the rise of the ‘Not here or anywhere else’ movement against fracking that is now spreading from North America to Europe.

Similarly, while ultimately the interests of capital and the interests of humanity as a whole coincide insofar as preventing a scale of climate change that would destroy human civilisation is concerned, capital takes a very different view of the acceptable collateral damage along the way. Serious sections of capital, for example, posit the idea that we have to plan for a ‘3 degree world’ (ie average surface temperature rises 3 degrees above the pre-industrial average). That is, taking mainstream scientific opinion as a guide, to write off hundreds of millions of lives in Africa and south Asia, while engaging in a very serious battle to cut fossil fuel usage and protect capitalist civlisation in north America and Europe.

As Klein’s book helps to spell out, the likelihood of avoiding runaway climate change and the character of the world that emerges from that struggle will depend on the strength of the fight to divert neo-liberalism from its disastrous course and to raise human living standards in an environmentally sustainable way.

The demands of the climate change movement are consistent with demands to socialism

Equally, Klein is entirely right many of the demands of the climate change movement are indeed, as Lynas fears, entirely consistent with transitional demands to socialism. Campaigns such as socialist Ecuador’s fight to win reparations from Chevron for its wanton destruction of rain-forest provide a perfect example of what is possible, as Klein notes.

Which takes us to the second part of Lynas’ critique, that by making an explicit connection between defeating neo-liberalism and environmental action Klein makes it harder to achieve her stated aim of preventing catastrophic climate change. This argument is a deceit and what really scares Lynas is that Klein is right and that tackling climate change is the highly likely to undermine capitalism in the long-term. This, as Klein herself points out, is a conclusion that many neo-liberals arrived at a long time ago, indeed much in advance of most of the left:

“[T]hey have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time— whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.”

Thus the cat is out of the bag as far as the neo-liberal vanguard is concerned, and Lynas’ true concern is that that by calling out that the Emperor is naked, not just wearing new clothes, sections of the masses will start to see it too.

“One, two many Vietnams” in the fight against fossil fuels

Klein’s thesis, essentially a restatement of Che Guevara’s “One, two, three, many Vietnams”, is that the fossil fuel industry is immensely powerful but if we fight them on enough fronts then they will not have the resources to win every battle and can be gradually ground down. Quoting the Montana-based environmentalist and writer, Nick Engerfield, Klein sees anti-fracking protest as central to this strategy:

“Every fracking well placed near a city’s water supply and every coal train rolling through a small town gives some community a reason to hate fossil industries. And by failing to notice this, oil, gas and coal companies may be digging their political graves.”

Klein somewhat overstates the cause for optimism by implying that the socialist/environmental movement is now in the ascendancy, when we are actually clearly still in a very defensive position. But the basic premise is right and the expression of mass activism on climate change, including the large rallies organized by new on-line campaigns like Avaaz and, is undoubtedly starting to have some impact. In an age of limited inspiration, vanguard forces need to be motivated and Naomi Klein has done activists a favour by skilfully articulating their purpose.

Political struggle, not technology will tackle climate change

‘This Changes Everything’ also rightly focuses on the primacy of politics and disabuses readers of the hope that technological advances can fix climate change, without the need for difficult societal change. Klein quotes Ed Ayres, correctly arguing that:

“[I]f we can put a man on the moon boosterism glosses over the reality that building rockets and building livable communities are two fundamentally different endeavors: the former required uncanny narrow focus; the latter must engage a holistic view. Building a livable world isn’t rocket science; its far more complex than that.”

There are, however, plenty of concrete examples to show that another world is possible. From the city leaders who have achieved a shift from cars to public transport as the dominant means of urban transport, to the local communities that now own their own, renewable energy supply, to the steady growth of organic farming and vegetarianism, there is no shortage of evidence that it is possible to both achieve humanitarian progress and live in an environmentally sustainable way.

Overall ‘This Changes Everything’ provides an excellent first cut of a class-based analysis of the politics of tackling climate change. There are one or two major omissions, however, chief of which is a lack of attention to the extraordinarily important role that China has to play.

China’s five year plan for sustainable development

China is now in the unenviable position of having done almost nothing to cause climate change, but faces both a reversal of the extraordinary development of human standards of living it has achieved in the last quarter century if climate change is not averted in the next twenty five years, along with the responsibility that the actions of its government towards this end are now more important than that of any other country on Earth. Even if it is western consumption that continues to drive emission growth, a third of GHG emissions are actually produced in China and the sheer scale of its economic growth will overwhelm all other efforts to cut emissions, unless China’s own development path rapidly assumes an environmentally sustainable trajectory.

Klein rightly notes that failure to prevent life-threatening levels of air pollution in Chinese cities has elevated environmental issues to the top of the political agenda in the People’s Republic. But she devotes insufficient attention to the very significant change in emphasis in the last 5-Year Plan towards sustainable development, and the fact that China increasingly leads the world in such climate-critical sectors as developing renewable energy and vehicle electrification. Analysis of why China’s investment-led growth model meant part of its response to the global financial crisis was to create the world’s biggest green fund would also have been helpful.

But, most importantly, Klein avoids the conclusion that, for all its imperfections, it is the Chinese Communist leadership, with its highly successful investment-led economic model and proven ability to plan for the long-term (in a way that eludes societies based on neo-liberalism), that offers the greatest hope that humanity can avert climate catastrophe.

This Changes Everything should be required reading for everyone on the left.