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Naomi Klein: Climate Solutions That Neglect Inequality Are Doomed to Fail

We need to lower emissions in a way that also builds a fair economy, says author and activist Naomi Klein.

Firefighters spray water on burning trees in Santa Paula, California, on November 1, 2019.

California has warmed by approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit (3°F) over the last century. Heat waves are more common and increase the risk of wildfires in the state. What does climate justice look like, therefore, and for whom? Will cities grappling with environmental disasters consider the racial and economic inequalities that intersect with climate change action? Author and activist Naomi Klein has a few thoughts.

Laura Flanders: It’s been a year since the Camp Fire. You went back there; what did you find?

Naomi Klein: I spent a little time in Paradise, which, of course, was a community that was burned to the ground, almost. There are a few structures that survived, but whole neighborhoods were leveled. And I also went to Chico, which is just a few minutes down the road. And that is the place where the vast majority of the people from Paradise relocated. It’s a pretty small community, was just under 100,000 people and suddenly had 20,000 new residents.

So, a fifth bigger suddenly.

Right … I think one of the things that’s important to remember is that people from these communities behaved with incredible solidarity, incredible generosity and a real spirit of mutual aid as so often happens — actually, invariably happens after disasters. Whether it is Katrina or the Asian tsunami or Sandy, as humans, when we see our fellow humans suffering, we want to help, and Chico showed this very, very powerfully. But when you’re on, what you also see is how difficult it is to maintain that spirit of, “I will fight for people I don’t know.” When your public infrastructure is failing, when there wasn’t enough affordable housing before and now with those 20,000 additional people, rents are skyrocketing, the cost of living is skyrocketing. People are flipping their houses to turn a buck. Real estate speculation is happening. All kinds of, what I’ve called, disaster capitalism is happening.

And that, when people are saying, Wait a minute, some people are getting rich off of this and there aren’t the mental health supports to deal with the PTSD. I mean, 85 people died. A lot of people I spoke with in Chico talked about how when they were breathing the smoke, they knew they were breathing in the remains of people. And that’s just true, it was a crematorium. And so, the trauma of that has really not been addressed … these are just some of the ways where we see that if we don’t invest in the physical infrastructure and in the infrastructure of care that allows people to be their best selves in the long haul, we aren’t going to face these crises with the humanity that we need.

But there are a lot of people who say, “Got it, we understand. We have to deal with racism and homelessness and health care, but right now we have a pollution, environmental recycling, consumer problems. Let’s just focus with that, with plastics or with the supply chain.”

Right. And frankly, I think that that has been the approach of the mainstream green movement for a long time. Sometimes said explicitly, sometimes sort of sotto voce, which is like, “Look, let’s just save the planet first and then we’ll deal with, you know, racism and inequality and gender exclusion and sort of just wait your turn.” And that doesn’t go over very well because for people who are on the front lines of all of those other crises, they’re all existential. I mean, if you can’t feed your kids, if you’re losing your house, if you are facing violence, all of it is existential.

And so, we just have to accept that we live in a time of multiple overlapping intersecting crises and we have to figure out how to multitask, which means we need to figure out how to lower emissions in line with what scientists are telling us, which is really fast. And we need to do it in a way that builds a fair economy in the process. Because if we don’t, people are so overstressed and overburdened because of 40 years of neoliberal policy, that when you introduce the kinds of carbon-centric policies that try to pry this crisis apart from all the others, what that actually looks like is you’re going to pay more for gas, you’re going to pay more for electricity. We’re just going to have a market-based response. And so, it’s perceived as just one more thing that is making life impossible.

And the big boys will get away with it because they have expensive lawyers as they always do.

Right. And that sense of injustice, I think, animated the yellow vest movement in France, and you know that slogan, “You care about the end of the world. We care about the end of the month.” But I’ve heard versions of that for years where it’s like, “Well, we can’t deal with climate change because we have to put food on the table right now, we’re in a crisis.” And so if we don’t figure out a way to deal with climate change that doesn’t ask people to choose between the need to put food on the table, the need to care about the end of the month and the need to safeguard the living systems on which all of life depends, we’re going to lose.

And give them some sense that they’re living in a just society. So, what is Chico doing?

That sense of inequality is really key and it’s an important lesson of history because if we look at other moments when societies have changed very quickly, the original New Deal is one. Another one is the mobilization during the Second World War where people accepted rationing, accepted severe restrictions on the use of private vehicles because there was a limited amount of fuel. It was so central to those campaigns in the U.S. and in Britain that there be fairness that you had to see. This isn’t just regular working people who are being asked to change. Celebrities are having to change. Big corporations are having to change.

“Fair shares for all,” was one of the slogans. “Share, and share alike,” was another one. And we’ve never put justice at the center of our response to climate change at a governmental level. Of course, the environmental justice movement has been demanding this for decades, but our policies have never centered it. And I think that’s a big part of the reason people reject it.

So Chico did put at least affordable housing in their response. What did they actually do?

They weren’t able to. And so, what’s significant now is that … on the eve of the anniversary of the Camp Fire, a couple of members of Chico City Council unveiled their plan for a Green New Deal for Chico.

Which included those.

Which included affordable housing; which includes, as they put it, 21st-century clean transportation; which included food security, water security. Many of the themes that you’ve discussed over the years on this show. And I think it’s significant that this community that has been so much on the front lines of climate displacement because they know what it means to absorb such a huge new population that they said, “This is the infrastructure that we need in the future,” that we have locked in, which isn’t to say that we have locked in catastrophic levels of warming. If we decarbonize our economies very, very quickly, we can avoid those worst outcomes, or at least we hope we can. But what we know is that the future is rocky. The future has more of these types of disasters, more displacement. The future does mean that more people are going to be living on less land.

So how are we going to live together on less land without turning on each other? That is an absolutely central debate we need to have. Because what we’re actually seeing are a lot of politicians — including Donald Trump, but not just Trump — who are coming to power with their response, which is, “We’re going to fortress our borders. We’re going to create these scapegoats; we’re going to hoard what’s left. We’re going to protect our own.” I call this climate barbarism, but I think the right already has their response to the fact that we are entering this period, we’re in this period of mass displacement. What’s our response?

Are there places that you’re excited about?

I’ve been on the road for a couple of months now, talking with people who are trying to do this locally in cities like Austin [and] Seattle. Teresa Mosqueda is part of this council that passed a resolution calling for Seattle to have a Green New Deal with the boldest targets that we’ve ever seen from a city that already has a green reputation. But the significance of it is, the extent to which they’re not just centering justice, but holding themselves accountable to it. And this is what’s very interesting about the Seattle example in their Green [New] Deal resolution that passed unanimously through council; they called for a board to be created that will hold them to their commitments.

And on that board are eight members of front-line communities — activists from communities, mostly communities of color that have the dirty industries in their backyards, that are on the front lines of the impact, as well as climate scientists, as well as your more traditional green groups and trade unionists. Now that, I’ve never seen — having that many activists holding their representatives accountable. So that’s a model that I think we need to look at and say, “Okay, what would that look like in New York? What would that look like in Washington?”

So where do we stand on the movement front…? If you were to compare where we were on this question of, How we are connecting with each other in new ways, how are we?

Okay, so that’s interesting. I think what you said is absolutely true — that that was a more internationalist moment for progressive movements, than the moment that we’re in. In that, I think there was more infrastructure to support ongoing conversations across borders. And a lot of that had to do with the fact that trade unions were in that movement with both feet. I mean, the slogan, “Teamsters and turtles, together at last.” I think [that] was significant about the global justice movement that is very associated with Seattle….

We’ve seen it with Mexico and Paris, there’d been a lot before.

Yes. The big difference, I would say, was that you had some large trade unions that were financing that infrastructure that allowed these tables to be created where people had those international conversations.

And today?

I don’t think we have the anchor institutions that we need that are really investing in social movements so that we can have those … I don’t even think we’re doing it nationally, let alone internationally. So that’s a big difference. You said that it was multiracial. It wasn’t multiracial enough, to be honest. And I think that that is a place where progress has been made. So I think we’ve lost some ground and we’ve gained some ground in terms of understanding the centrality of building a truly multiracial movement.

I think, interestingly, that we saw on the platform a multiracial group of people talking, but the analysis of the role that white supremacy and slavery and incarceration were playing wasn’t integrated into the analysis.

It wasn’t strong enough. We didn’t have that as coherent analysis as informed by racial capitalism and theorists like Cedric Robinson.

But look at where we are in this moment with uprisings in Chile and Lebanon, Hong Kong…. We’re in a moment where things can tip very quickly because people have been pushed so far to the edge that almost anything can act as a spark. I mean, we saw it in Puerto Rico with leaked text messages. I’ve seen it in Haiti, in Ecuador with the loss of fuel subsidies. In Chile with a sudden increase in public transit costs. I think the level of corruption is so intense. Inequality is so outrageous that you just never know when that tip is going to happen.

And I think the lesson, and here’s where I think we’re in a better situation, and this is where the Green New Deal comes in, this moment of multiple uprisings, I think, shares a lot in common with 2009 and [20]10 after the financial crisis, when you have the movement of the squares in Europe, you had the Arab Spring and you had Occupy. And suddenly, societies are tipping, everybody’s in the streets, but there isn’t a clear demand of what the alternative to this failed model is. And I think that in the intervening years, so many people who were part of those movements have taken the responsibility of coming up with an alternative vision and an alternative plan really seriously.

And so now when we have one of those tipping moments, I don’t think we are going to make the same mistake of like opening up a vacuum that somebody else can exploit. Like the far right, which is what has happened in too many instances. And so that’s why I think it is so exciting that you have movements that are not just oppositional, but [propositional].

You started with saying natural human instincts were kind of broken by reality, by the condition of lives that we’ve made through our priority-setting at the government level. In a sense, I’m hearing we need to reclaim our gut instincts about things.

Well, I think what we need to do is figure out what are the policies that light up the best parts of ourselves, because we are complicated…. We are that person that rushes in to the disaster zone with everything we can carry and just wanting to help. And we are that person who just wants to hoard….

Don’t take too much.

… And protect. And different policies light up different parts of ourselves. And when you have a society in which economic precarity and competition are rampant, you light up the hoard and you suppress the share. And there are policies that create a baseline level of security. And this is why it is so important that we are talking about Medicare for All, we are talking about everybody’s right to education at every level. We are talking about the right to a living wage. We are talking about putting in policies that address that core insecurity that allow people to feel like they don’t just have to hoard. Because we’re going to be tested, and we are already being tested. And so, we have to figure out what kind of people are we going to be and what policies will help us be our best selves.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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