Five questions with… climate journalist Naomi Klein
After spending this past year living in United States, Canadian author Naomi Klein reflects on what the momentum for the Green New Deal there can teach Canada about climate action.
It’s been 20 years since Canadian author Naomi Klein published her first book, No Logo — a deep dive into the world of global brands. The New York Times would call it a “movement bible.” Many years and several books later, she’s still out to warn of the impacts of consumption. “It all comes back to it, even though people try to do everything possible to not talk about it,” she said in a recent phone interview. “Ultimately it is [still] unsustainable to have an economy that defines success as endless consumption.”
A former resident of Toronto, Klein has spent the past year in the United States, after being appointed the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University.
Last month, she was back in the city to launch her latest book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. She spoke to OpenCanada on September 20, the same day millions of activists flooded the streets around the world in the lead up to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York.
“When I published [No Logo] there was a sense that young people were completely depoliticized,” she said, reflecting on then versus now. “I had a hell of a time getting an American publisher. Everyone told me that they were interested but that young people didn't care and ‘just wanted to read memoirs of eating disorders,’ as one publisher told me. Here we are, 20 years later, and look what’s happening in the streets. So that certainly gives me tremendous hope.”
On Fire comes five years after the release of This Changes Everything, which marked Klein’s turn specifically toward climate activism. She has since co-founded climate justice organization The Leap and has been at the forefront of the environmental movement both in Canada and the US.
Her new book touches on personal experiences (witnessing the impact of forest fires in British Columbia, for instance) and case studies (such as Puerto Rico, where inequality and environmental crisis equaled disaster), and calls for the adoption of a ‘Green New Deal’ in every country. OpenCanada spoke with Klein about the need for such a deal, which has been proposed formally in the US, how such proposals differ from others that have before and what Canada can learn from the momentum on climate action in the US.
1. What is your reaction to the scale of the climate strikes over the past 24 hours and how is this movement different from the People’s March in 2014?
The numbers are incredible. In Germany alone they are saying that 1.4 million people came out. Last time there was a climate strike, it was 1.6 million people globally, so this is clearly going to be the largest climate mobilization in history. It is really remarkable. A lot of the coverage has focused on the fact it is dominated by young people and that is absolutely true, and young people organized it, but a lot of adults also walked off the job and that's getting a little less coverage. Thousands of tech workers with Amazon, Microsoft, Google. It's interesting.
The global nature of it is different [from 2014]. [Marches] are happening in every major city and small towns as well. In 2014, the call of the People's Climate March was climate action. It wasn't a clear set of demands. In a lot of the mobilizations [now], people are very clear not just on what they don't want, which is for us to sleepwalk to a future that is unliveable, but also on a vision for the alternative — in the US marches, the call for a Green New Deal — and so that's a big difference.
2. What defines a Green New Deal? Why not call it, for instance, a movement or an Economic New Deal?
People could just call anything a Green New Deal. And I can't stop them. But the original Green New Deal resolution that was put forward by [US Congresswoman] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and [US Senator] Ed Markey set out some benchmarks and the first one is that this has to be guided by the best climate science. They cite the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the same one that Greta Thunberg submitted to Congress in her testimony a couple days ago [September 18], that says that global emissions have to be cut in half in 11 years. So if a Green New Deal doesn't have a serious plan to cut emissions at that speed and scale then it really shouldn’t be called a Green New Deal.
What makes this strategy different is that it is really about an industrial transformation. It is about the creation of millions of good, unionized jobs. It is about protecting workers who would lose jobs in high carbon sectors. It's about front line communities who are overwhelmingly Indigenous, black and immigrant communities — whose lands and whose bodies have been poisoned by this industrial economy — needing to have a leadership role in deciding these policies and to benefit from these policies as opposed to being the sacrifice on the alter of other people's progress. Those are some core principles and any plan that doesn’t really have robust policy in all of those areas really isn’t a Green New Deal.
We are in the last moments when we have a fighting chance of averting truly catastrophic and irreversible impacts. We live in a time when we face many crises and they intersect, they interrelate, so we really have to design policies and approaches that are holistic in nature. It’s not about telling people to wait their turn, it’s not about ranking one priority over another, it’s about really multitasking. It’s figuring out how we do several things at once. To me, it’s a no brainer. If we need to transform the building blocks of our economy in order to prevent really unliveable climate impacts, then why wouldn't we seize that opportunity to redress all of these other systemic crises? We're changing anyway, so why would we lock in the same injustices and exclusions that exist today?
3. Has your time in the US over the past year allowed you to reflect on Canadian climate policy in a different way? How do you see the theme factoring into the Canadian election campaign?
There are two parties that are running on [the new green deal] — the NDP and the Greens. A best-case scenario, as far as I'm concerned, is a coalition government that keeps out Andrew Scheer but that doesn't give absolute power to the Liberals once again, because they absolutely do not deserve it. And [one] that really prioritizes some climate champions in office.
This is definitely one thing that I’ve learned from being in the States this past year and being involved in the momentum for the Green New Deal: the game changer was not Nancy Pelosi deciding to make this a priority. It wasn't the leader of the Democratic Party deciding this. It was electing a handful of champions determined to represent their working class constituencies and not afraid to take on the leadership of their own party, to push the party where they thought it should go. The reason why the majority of the candidates vying to lead the Democratic Party are endorsing the Green New Deal, and competing with each other over who has the broadest, most intersectional approach to the climate crisis, is not because of the leadership of the Democratic Party, it's because of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and the movements outside [of government], like the Sunrise Movement, pushing.
A lesson for Canadians is we tend to be very leader focused in our elections. I really hope that people pay more attention to the individual candidates, because it can be such a game changer to have this handful of people who truly make this a priority. There are such fantastic candidates that are running [in Canada] — Paul Taylor in my old riding [Parkdale-High Park], Min Sook Lee [Danforth] Matthew Green in Hamilton, Sven Robinson [Burnaby North-Seymour]. These are folks who really champion a transformational approach to the climate crisis that connects the dots. These are just people who I personally know and trust, but Our Time has done extensive work researching candidates and they’ve endorsed a slate who they consider to be climate champions and Green New Deal champions. It's not only NDP, it's also Green candidates, there may even be a couple Liberals in there, I'm not sure, but this is something I think we really need to focus on. Who are the champions who have the best chance of pushing a potential coalition government in the right direction?
4. When it comes to more unlikely allies, you mention for instance the Catholic Church in your book. Are you seeing unlikely climate champions come out from behind the scenes?
Yes, one of the original supporters of the Leap Manifesto, Michael Czerny, has just been named a Cardinal. Also, I mentioned tech workers. It's incredibly exciting that workers at these companies with a huge carbon footprint are organizing and putting pressure on their companies to do better. They pushed [Amazon founder and CEO] Jeff Bezos to make his most ambitious de-carbonization announcement to date — it's totally insufficient, but it's a really good start. And it shows that these companies are taking note of the fact that the people who [work there] are not happy with the gap between their rhetoric and their action.
5. Do you think this will be the defining issue of the 2020 US election? How urgent does it feel to keep going with the momentum in the lead up?
The beauty of the Green New Deal approach is it isn't one issue. Some candidates have been more ambitious than others in terms of connecting it with foreign policy, with war, migration. That means that [while] we do live in some pretty shocking times, and things are going to continue to happen that are really shocking and will grab our attention, as well they should, they can’t derail us from a focus on what we're going to do instead. That’s what the Green New Deal represents. If you have a tight carbon focus to your climate policy, it increases the chances of it getting pushed off the agenda when there is an economic downturn, when there is new military escalation, precisely because it is a narrow carbon focus. It’s just going to be pushed off the agenda between now and election day.