This week in the Phoenix, Wen Stephenson profiles Naomi Klein -- "black-clad and sharp-tongued mistress of the global anti-corporate left, friend to Occupiers and scourge of oil barons" -- as she turns her attention to the cause of climate justice. Below is a longer excerpt from their conversation -- about Klein's alliance with 350.org's Bill McKibben, her views on the environmental movement, and the ways in which her struggles to become a parent informed her views on climate (and vice versa). This
interview took place on November 8, 2012. It has been edited for length and
How did your collaboration with Bill McKibben and 350.org come about? What led
you personally into this?
Naomi Klein: My first engagement with the
climate issue was around the issue of climate debt. I was actually doing
research about reparations for slavery, writing a long piece for Harper's, in 2008. I've always been very
interested in the Durban anti-racism conference
[in Durban, South Africa]. In the lead-up to
that UN conference in September 2001, the reparations movement in the United States and in Africa
really took off. It was becoming incredibly mainstream. Manning Marable was
having pieces published in Time
magazine, it was on the op-ed pages of The
Wall Street Journal and The
But a lot of things got blown off the agenda on
[Sept. 11, 2001]. One of them was the fact that we were actually having a
discussion about reparations in that moment. And so "Durban II," in
2008, was in Geneva,
and I wanted to write a piece looking at what had happened to the reparations
debate. So I went to Geneva
for that conference, and it was very interesting. Somebody said to me, this
movement has changed, now it's about climate debt -- and we believe we can make
the argument for a North-South transfer of wealth much better now on the issue
of climate, with concrete scientific targets, because the numbers are so clear.
We know who emitted the carbon, we know who's dealing with the effects, it's a
much clearer case. And it has the same results -- you actually get some
payback. I had my first meeting with a group of activists in Geneva about climate debt. That's how I
entered the issue.
And then I went to Copenhagen,
in 2009, and I was mostly covering the demands for climate debt and
reparations, since that was really the strong demand coming from the global
south in Copenhagen.
That's where I met Bill for the first time. And I was so impressed with 350, at
what strong advocates they were for the island nations and for science. All the
big NGOs just seemed to be playing politics -- you know, what can we get here?
-- and I loved the way 350 didn't do any of that. They just focused on what
science demands. So everybody's talking about 2 degrees [C], and they're talking
about 1.5, for the island nations to survive.
Copenhagen was so transformative for me, on many
levels, both because it was a disappointment and also because, when you spend
time with people representing the island nations and sub-Saharan Africa, you
know, they're using words like "genocide" to describe climate change.
And it makes the American delegates very, very uncomfortable.
We don't have language to describe what it means
to knowingly allow a nation to disappear because it's not convenient for us to
stop it. So we can say it's not genocide, because genocide is the willful
destruction of culture. We don't want your culture to disappear, we just don't
care enough to stop it. Our goal is not for you to lose your country, our goal
is just for us to be able to continue doing what we're doing. But we know that
in doing what we're doing, it will have this effect, and we're going to do it
anyway. What is that? We can't plead ignorance. We're making a decision. What
do you call that? It certainly feels like genocide to the people who are experiencing
So that was where 350 really first came on my
radar. I was so impressed with the way they were loyal to the science, and the
way they were standing so firmly in solidarity, particularly with the island
how did "Do
the Math" come about?
NK: "Do the Math" is a movement that
grew out of numbers. I was reading the original "Carbon Bubble" report, which was
produced by this group, the Carbon Tracker Initiative, in the UK. It's called
Are the world's financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?" It's really kind of a weird
report, because it's geared toward regulators in the UK, and it's making the case to
regulators that there is a bubble in the market, much like the subprime
mortgage bubble -- and after the subprime bubble, market regulators are
supposed to be taking bubbles seriously, and doing something to prevent another
shock. So they make this case they've found a bubble. The world's governments
came together in Copenhagen and agreed to keep the global temperature from
rising more than 2 degrees [C], and we know that X amount of carbon can go into
the atmosphere to give us a chance of meeting that goal, we all agree on this,
and yet, if you look at what these companies are doing, if you look at the
reserves these companies have, the carbon they already have in reserve, then
we're five times over that amount. So
you have a problem, regulator. This can't happen, obviously. This bubble's
going to burst.
So I read this report and thought, we are
screwed. I didn't think, Oh, there's a bubble, it's going to pop. I thought, we're the bubble -- we're going to pop. Because, with all respect to the wonderful
people who did this report, on which the whole "Do the
is based, I think it's very naïve to treat this as a market bubble. What's
actually happening is these fossil fuel companies have looked at that 2-degree
target, with their lawyers, and decided it's bullshit. They looked at the fact
that the deal in Copenhagen
wasn't binding -- that these governments have no intention of keeping carbon
levels below what it would take to stay below 2 degrees -- and they've come to
the conclusion that they can get away with this. They've decided to go ahead
and destroy the planet. And their shareholders agree.
So I called Bill and said, these are crazy
numbers, we need to do something about this. And he was already on it, he'd
been looking at the same numbers, and was thinking about what we could do. And
we decided that divestment was the way to go -- that
was the way we're going to get their attention. Because this is not a crisis
for the fossil fuel industry unless we turn it into one. And that's our job.
That's the job of the movement.
And the fact that it's youth-led is so powerful.
It starts with young people saying to those who've been entrusted with their
education and preparing them for the future, saying, why are you gambling
against my future? Do you believe in my future, or not?
I think this is part of a broader moment for
young people, realizing that this whole culture, this whole economy, is betting
against their future. The focus on rising tuitions, and student debt, and
joblessness -- young people are already feeling that their elders, the people
who should be making sure they have possibilities in their future, are
conspiring against that future in all of these ways, by weighing them down with
debt, creating an economy where their hope for a job with dignity is so
diminished. Young people are already fighting for their future on those fronts.
And this is the ultimate fight for their future.
I don't think young people should be abandoning
those other fights for the climate fight. I think we need to see this as all of
a piece. And we need to be fighting for their future on all these fronts.
this is a generational thing, but I know there are traditional green types who
take real offense at this idea that the fossil fuel industry is the enemy -- in
other words, that we ourselves are not the enemy, but Exxon is -- as though you
and Bill, and all the rest of us, are letting ourselves off the hook.
NK: There are two things I'd say. One is, yeah, it's
gonna be really hard work to get off fossil fuels. If you're trying to get off
any kind of drug, the work is yours, the hard work of detox, nobody can do it
for you. Nobody's going to make it easy to get off fossil fuels. But the first
rule is, get the pushers out of your face. And that's the role the fossil fuel
companies play. They are making it intolerably, impossibly hard for us to do
that hard work of getting off the stuff.
keeping the price of it artificially low?
NK: Yes, and bombarding us with advertising, and
buying our politicians, and the rest of it. So we need to go after them, so
that we can do that hard work. It isn't an either/or.
But that said, I think there's a real
misanthropic streak in the green movement. There's this masochistic tendency to
totally blame ourselves for all of these failures. We just don't want to change,
we're just too selfish, we're suicidal, and that's who we are. All these human
nature arguments that get made to explain why we've failed to act on climate.
And what I see is, actually, this movement has
risen up, again and again, and we've made these resolutions -- we're gonna recycle,
we're gonna bicycle, we've gotten geared up for Rio and geared up for
Copenhagen -- and the movement rises up, and then it disappears. You have the Inconvenient Truth moment, and then it
disappears. So the question is, why? Why are we so unable to sustain momentum,
and who is sabotaging this movement? And part of it is the fossil fuel
companies, directly sabotaging it, with denialism and misinformation.
But part of it is people are paying attention.
I'd say we've got a pretty strong environmental movement. I live in a city, Toronto, where every Wednesday
everybody puts their green composting box outside their house. It's bigger than
a garbage can. And it's amazing, the success of the composting. People don't
think of it as a movement, but you know, you make it easy enough for people,
and people do it. You rarely see a plastic bag in my neighborhood. In fact, my
neighborhood was just totally redesigned to be less car friendly -- and people
lived with two years of construction for that to happen.
But then you pick up the paper, and you read
that your country has increased its emissions by 30 percent because of the tar
sands. In other words, what the fossil fuel industry is doing is undoing everything we are doing. And
then you just feel like a chump.
I think that the green movement has a lot to
answer for -- for personalizing this issue, and making it about changing your
light bulbs and recycling. But this has been changing, and I think the Keystone
fight was key. In Canada,
the environmental movement and the economic justice movement have been so
galvanized by the anti-Keystone fight. We are fighting like hell to prevent
pipelines through to the west coast, and we're winning. It's amazing what has
happened on the west coast. It's the most beautiful movement I've ever been a
So we are already making that leap from just
individual action to fighting the pipelines, fighting the oil companies, but we
can't fight it one pipeline at a time -- we know it's not a sustainable model,
we know we can't fight them one megaproject at a time. And that's where
"Do the Math" comes in. We have to go after their business model, and
that's what we're doing.
known for the phrase "move the center." Is that what you're trying to
do with "Do the Math"?
NK: Oh, yeah. Look, when I said "move the
center," you know what I was always saying is, you know, let's nationalize
the oil companies. [laughter]
-- and you're also quoted saying we need to go out and say some "crazy stuff."
[laughter] So is DTM saying crazy stuff?
NK: I don't think it is. I mean, it's definitely
moving the center. But I don't think it's crazy.
I think we will get to a point where saying we
should nationalize the oil companies won't sound crazy either. Because the
bills are just going to add up. Cleaning up the mess that they have made is
just going to get so expensive that we are going to have to ask why we are
paying for it, and not them. And if they are so phenomenally profitable, how
about using the profits from these rogue companies to both clean up the mess
they've made and to get off of the stuff? Oil companies have told us in the
past that they're going to do this voluntarily, that was the whole BP
"Beyond Petroleum" swindle. But they are not in any way, shape or
form doing this on their own, and every time I hear another quarterly report,
and just astronomical profits going out the door into the hands of
shareholders, that is money we don't have to meet this crisis.
not just into the hands of shareholders, but into new exploration, into tar
NK: Exactly. So I don't think it's crazy at all.
When I say go out there and say some crazy shit, I mean say stuff that sounds
crazy to other people, but it doesn't sound crazy to me.
we step back and think about this from a mainstream media standpoint...
NK: You know what's crazy is letting the
corporations who've left us with the most expensive mess in history to clean
up, just keep all the money they've made for themselves. No. That's insane.
do you think it signifies to see Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein on stage
together? What does that represent?
NK: Climate change is the human rights struggle
of our time. And it's too important to be left to the environmentalists alone.
[laughter] I mean, we need the
environmental movement, but not if they're going to be afraid of the left. And
not if they're going to be driven by their fears of losing funding. Got no time
Frankly, I was surprised when Bill first invited
me on the 350 board, because I'm sort of used to the environmental movement seeing
me as a pain in the ass. You know, when I talk about reparations and climate
debt -- I took a lot of flack for that, in Copenhagen, and afterwards, because it's seen
as being off-message. And inconvenient. An inconvenient truth that can't be sold
to the American public. You're just supposed to shut up about things like that.
So I was surprised when Bill invited me to be on the board, because I sort of
thought that I was toxic. And I think it just speaks to 350's deep
understanding that these movements have to come together. It's been so exciting
to be part of that. I am just so proud of 350. When I'm feeling bad, I just go
to the website and read what's going on. The organization keeps getting more
sophisticated with every campaign. Watching that kind of lightning-fast
progression, in a two-year period, is staggering.
recently interviewed Gus Speth about his
new book, America the Possible, and there are a lot of
similarities to your argument in The
Nation and the new book. Great
minds think alike...
NK: But some people write faster than others.
And like him, you stress the interconnectedness of our economic system and the
climate crisis, and the need for system change -- at the economic, political,
and cultural levels. Of course, as we all know, that's a huge, huge order to
fill -- and a lot of people, including allies of the climate movement, as soon
as they hear talk of "system change," or anything so seemingly radical,
just tune out. Like, "Are you kidding? We can't even get a carbon
tax." Which gets to one of the points I was making in my Phoenix piece, that we're not having the kind of national conversation we
need to have about climate -- not only in terms of what the science tells us
about the severity and urgency of the crisis, but in terms of what we need to do about it. And it's not just
on the right where there's denial. The center, the center-left, even the left, aren't
facing up to it. It's as though climate change challenges too many underlying
assumptions. Even progressives still tie their ideas of economic justice to the
GDP growth imperative. But can there be economic justice without climate
justice? Can we separate these two things?
NK: Well, there certainly can't be climate
action, real climate solutions, without economic justice. Because if we look at
it on the international level, what has bogged down every round of UN
negotiations on climate, it's the issue of "common but differentiated
responsibility," the basic principle of equity -- that the people who are
most responsible for creating this crisis should take the lead and bear a
heavier burden, and there should be a right to develop a certain amount, to
pull oneself out of poverty. Not the right to live a life of excess, but the
right to have clean water and food and shelter, and meet somewhere in the
middle. And that has been the issue over and over and over again, which has
created the impasse and led the US
to walk away in the first place, in that unprecedented vote in Congress against
the Kyoto Protocol, where there was an absolutely unanimous rejection.
So the refusal to accept the importance of
economic justice is the reason we have had no climate action. It's just that
simple. And it happens every time countries get together and negotiate, because
the developing world is not going to move on this issue, on the right to pull
themselves out of poverty. It gets cast in the US media as the right to have as
dirty a model of development as they want, but that's not the case, that's not
what's being demanded at the negotiating table. So you can't have a solution to
climate change without really reckoning with economic justice issues in the
But in terms of whether you can have economic
justice without climate justice, I don't think we can have anything without
climate action. And that's the
point. This is our meta-issue. We've all
gotta get inside it, because this is our home. We are already inside it, like
it or not. And it's inside us. So the idea that we can somehow divorce from it
is a fantasy. And it's one of the fantasies that we have to let go of, in order
to have the kind of transformation we need.
in the places you'd expect climate to get a lot more attention, in left and
center-left magazines and journals, climate is barely mentioned. Though The Nation has done fairly well -- they
publish your stuff and Mark Hertsgaard's...
NK: But it still isn't integrated.
When they write their election endorsement editorial, climate gets a passing
NK: Yeah, climate gets a passing mention. And
it's still firmly in the growth paradigm, in terms of measuring progress.
I mean, this is what's got to change. And I
think it will change, because it's already changing in Europe.
I think the mainstream left, center-left discussion in Germany, France,
includes a sophisticated discussion about growth -- the so-called
"de-growth" movement is very strong there. It hasn't come to North America yet, but it will. It has to. Because the
way we talk about this makes no sense.
Everybody on the left realizes that this
economic model is failing us spectacularly, on multiple levels, but we're still
acting as if our goal is to save it, and resuscitate it, and get back to
growth, still measuring progress along those lines.
But the levels of denial are so complicated. We've
spent a lot of time focusing on right-wing denial, the sort of hard denial. And
it's entertaining and it's outrageous, and it makes for good articles, but it's
actually a lot less important and a lot less interesting than looking at the
way we are all in denial.
We are all in denial. All of us. And what I find,
in exploring this with people, is that people are holding back a tremendous
amount of anxiety. They're holding it at bay. And it takes a tremendous amount
of work and effort to hold back what they know. Anybody who knows about climate
change is terrified. I mean, anybody who tells me they're apathetic about
climate, they don't care, what I believe is that they care too much, and they
don't see a way out, and so it's a form of self-protection, you don't let
yourself care about something that you have no idea how to fix -- because it's
just too terrifying, and it would derail your whole life.
So that's why I think there has to be a
narrative, there has to be a plan for how we integrate so much of what we're
already doing into a common project, because so long as people feel like
nothing that they know now applies, then they will work really hard to keep
this information at bay.
WS: I want
to ask you about your decision to have a baby. Because as a parent myself, I've
got two young children, and as a climate activist, I find it moving, and
inspiring. And I'm just curious how you explain it.
NK: Um... [long pause] Well, to be honest, for a
long time, I just couldn't see a future for a child that wasn't some, like, Mad
Max climate warrior thing. And, you know, I'd joke about it with my husband,
like, you want to have a little climate warrior? [laughter] And it seems like
that was the best thing I could imagine for a child. I couldn't see a future
that wasn't just incredibly grim -- maybe I'd seen too much sci-fi and read too
much climate science. But I just couldn't see it.
That wasn't the only reason I didn't want to
have kids. It was also that I couldn't see how I'd do the kind of work that I
do, the amount of travel, and the kind of high-risk travel that I was doing,
with a kid. Especially in the years I was writing The Shock Doctrine, going to Iraq and going to tsunami zones. I'd
done a lot of disaster hopping to write about disasters. Men with kids can do
that, and nobody thinks they're terrible people. But it is not the same for
women. So it was a combination, feeling like there really aren't a lot of women
out there doing what I do, and I didn't want to take myself out of the game, I
didn't want to put myself on the bench.
I do feel that the assumption that all women
should have children is a problem, so I don't want to say anything that makes
it sound like everybody should. I had genuine ambivalence about it. But then, I
think, it was feeling more optimistic about the political moment, to be honest,
that made me feel like I could see other possibilities. Something shifted after
2008. I could imagine a future that was not Mad Maxian. [laughter] Not that
there's any guarantee, but I could imagine it.
So, that's why I started late. And then it was
really, really hard for me to have a kid. I was 38 when I started trying, and
in the end I was told I wasn't able to have kids, for a bunch of different
reasons. So I had totally given up. Toma is a miracle child -- it was a big
surprise. It was not the triumph of modern technology, although I know that
works for some people. I feel incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed.
But while I was struggling with infertility, for
four years, I did a lot of research -- and it shaped how I saw the climate
crisis. I started to notice that this is how extinction happens. And if you
view the ecological crisis through a feminist lens, and through a woman's lens,
what you see is that a lot of creatures are having trouble with fertility. The
whole world is having a fertility crisis right now. I've found dozens and
dozens of examples of the way climate change is impacting fertility. I think
the saddest example are the leatherback turtles, who bury their eggs in the
sand, but the sand is now getting so hot that the eggs are just cooking. I
mean, this is a species that's as old as the dinosaurs, and they just can't
handle that increased degree. So I feel like my own struggle with fertility has
helped me understand some parts of the climate crisis.
But I used to feel really alienated from the
environmental movement, because of the whole language of the "Earth Mother,"
and "connecting" -- women are given validity in this movement, a lot
of times, because of the ability to create life. And so, what does that mean
for people who can't? It means you're not a real environmentalist? And there's
always this talk about doing it for your kids and for your grandkids. I know so
many people are struggling with this, and I don't want this movement to exclude
Maybe in a world of abundance, Earth Mothers
have a particular way of connecting, but in the world that we actually live in,
where so many life forms are struggling for survival, I think in some ways
women who can't conceive, or struggle with conception, or decide not to
conceive, have their own ways of connecting with this crisis that need to be
validated. So I'm really trying not to play the Earth Mother card.
WS: At the
end of a recent piece on
"Do the Math," I quoted Bob Dylan's "Masters
of War" -- "You've thrown
the worst fear/ That could ever be hurled/ Fear to bring children/ Into the
world..." He's addressing the military-industrial complex, but it could
just as well be the carbon-industrial
NK: That Dylan quote is amazing. And it does
speak to why I didn't have a kid earlier.
The only other thing I'd say is that realizing
that I did want to have a kid, and
that I wasn't having a kid because of the mess that had been made of this world
-- I guess what I want to say is, I don't want to give them that power. I'd
rather fight like hell than to give these evil motherfuckers the power to
extinguish the desire to create life.
We don't all have to do it. But if we want to do
it, if we want to be part of this amazing process that we share in common with
all living things, I'm certainly not going to give these guys the power to take
that away from me.