Naomi Klein or Al Gore? Making sense of contrasting views on climate change | RenewEconomy

Naomi Klein or Al Gore? Making sense of contrasting views on climate change

Given the complexity of climate change as a social problem it is possible for competing narratives about its social implications and solutions to exist.


The Conversation

For Klein, it’s all about mobilising the grassroots. Stephen Melkisethian, CC BY-NC-ND

Earth is “fucked” and our insatiable growth economy is to blame. So argues Naomi Klein in her intentionally provocative best-seller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

Klein is the latest among an influential network of like-minded authors who have declared that modern society is at war with nature in a battle that threatens the survivial of the human species. Examples include US writer/activist Bill McKibben, Canadian broadcaster David Suzuki, and Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton.

Klein: To fight climate change, we have to end capitalism. Mariusz Kubik, CC BY

Deeply skeptical of technological and market-based approaches to climate change, they urge the need for a new consciousness spread through grassroots organizing and protest. “Only mass movements can save us now,” Klein writes. She argues that “profound and radical economic transformation” is needed to avoid certain catastrophe.

The more than 300,000 people who turned out for last month’s People’s Climate March in New York are just the start.

For Klein, human survival demands that we engage in a furious battle against the status quo, one equal in intensity to the efforts that ended slavery and European colonialism. “Both these transformative movements forced ruling elites to relinquish practices that were still extraordinarily profitable, much as fossil fuel extraction is today,” she writes.

An abolitionist-style climate movement would allow a global alliance of left-wing activists to achieve a diverse range of social justice goals, argues Klein. These include repealing free trade agreements, easing immigration rules, establishing indigenous rights, and guaranteeing a minimum income level.

Ultimately, for Klein, climate change is our best chance to right the “festering wrongs” of colonialism and slavery, “the unfinished business of liberation.”

As a public intellectual and aspiring movement leader, Klein sees her mission as winning a “battle of cultural worldviews,” opening up the space for a “full throated debate about values,” telling new stories to “replace the ones that have failed us.”

Bill McKibben’s views align with Klein’s. Hotshot977, CC BY-SA

In these new stories, Klein and her intellectual confederates value solutions that they see as coming from the natural world. They eschew technologies such as nuclear power or genetic engineering, arguing on behalf of a transition to smaller scale, locally controlled solar, wind, and geothermal energy technologies and organic farming.

In this egalitarian future where people grow their own food, produce their own energy, share jobs working 3-4 days/week, and deliberate in small groups, traditional definitions of economic growth would cease, with progress defined instead in terms of health, happiness, and community.

Ultimately, the hoped-for grand bargain on climate change will be that as rich nations “de-grow” their economies, they will share their surplus wealth and renewable technologies with China, India and other developing countries. In return these countries will choose a different, less consumer-driven path.

Public intellectuals, disruptive ideas

In a paper just published at Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews Climate Change, I analyze how public intellectuals such as Klein and McKibben shape debate over climate change. I compare their arguments to other prominent public intellectuals such as UK economist Nicholas Stern, former US Vice President Al Gore, The New York Times’ writer Andrew Revkin, and Oxford University anthropologist Steve Rayner.

Gore and Stern differ from Klein in arguing that climate change can be tackled primarily through market-based policies like carbon pricing, rejecting the idea that we must choose between growing the economy and fighting climate change.

In contrast, Rayner was among the first public intellectuals to argue that climate change is more accurately framed as an energy innovation and societal resilience problem. He has also strongly questioned the pursuit of a binding international agreement to limit emissions.

Similarly, as Revkin recently noted, contrary to the arguments of Klein, renewable energy sources alone are not likely to meet the “intertwined challenges of expanding energy access [among the world’s poor] while limiting global warming.” Like Rayner, he argues that we need to rethink our assumptions, and broaden the menu of policy options and technologies considered.

On the need to diversify approaches, Stern along with Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs have offered similar arguments, but place much stronger faith than either Rayner or Revkin in the ability of a global international agreement to decarbonize the world economy, guided by timetables, temperature targets, carbon budgets, research and development investments and carbon pricing signals.

In defining what climate change means, these public intellectuals and others help create a common outlook, informally guiding the work of like-minded advocates, funders, journalists, and governmental officials.

Public intellectuals and their views on climate change. Zoom for more detail. Matthew Nisbet, Author provided

Given the complexity of climate change as a social problem it is possible for competing narratives and explanations about its social implications and solutions to exist.

So it is not surprising that among public intellectuals there is disagreement over what the issue means for society, leading to intense clashes among those who look to one discourse over another to guide their work.

Revkin, for example, has criticized the grassroots campaign against the Keystone XL oil pipeline as distracting from the “core issues involving our energy future and is largely insignificant if your concern is averting a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

He has also argued the need to chart a path to a “Good Anthropocene”. In this new “Age of Us”, humans have generated considerable ecological and social risks, but at the same time, in the face of this uncertainty, possess the ability to create a better future through technological innovation and resilience strategies.

Not surprisingly, Bill McKibben dismisses Revkin’s outlook on climate change as “relentlessly middle seeking.” Incredible Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo, who opposes the pipeline, has called Revkin a “climate coward.”

For his part, Clive Hamilton argues that Revkin and other public intellectuals promoting the possibility of the “good Anthropocene” are “unscientific and live in a fantasy world of their own construction.”

Gore: We can fight climate change and grow the economy. Breuwi, CC BY

These disagreements over the social implications of climate change reflect differing values, intellectual traditions, and visions of the “good society.” They are embedded in contrasting beliefs about nature, risk, progress, authority, and technology.

In this battle among competing ideas, climate change becomes “a synecdoche – a figurative turn of phrase in which something stands in for something else — for something much more important than simply the way humans are changing the weather,” notes Kings College London’s Mike Hulme (a public intellectual himself).

Reading Klein, it is clear that she is not confident that the mass movement she calls for and the deep structural reforms that “change everything” are achievable. Instead, like radical intellectuals of movements past, her utopian vision serves an important political function, creating space for more pragmatic, less revolutionary social innovations.

Many who are inspired by Klein’s arguments will take to the streets, to social media, and to campuses to wage battle for their worldviews. For the rest of us, we should carefully engage with Klein’s ideas, seeking out with equal enthusiasm and critical reflection the arguments of other public intellectuals in the climate debate.

The goal is not to choose among competing perspectives, but to grapple with their tensions and uncertainties. Through this process, as we call on our political leaders to act and work with others on solutions, we can hold our own convictions and opinions more lightly; identifying what is of value among the ideas offered by those on the left, right, and in the center.

The Conversation

Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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  1. Rob G 6 years ago

    For the most part I agree with Klein. We need to make some big changes in the way we live, consumerism has gotten out of hand to the point where greed has ‘handicapped’ our action. We have slept our way through the last 3 decades, living in a time of plenty and becoming so entrenched in virtual land (reality TV, online shopping, Facebook etc) that we seem incapable of mustering the kind of public anger needed to bring about large scale action. I just think what those in the French revolution what would have done (true that many were starving). At what point do ‘we’ get so angry that politicians become genuinely scared? What is our anger tipping point?

    Now don’t get me wrong, I think 2014 is the year the world really woke up and we have had some pretty good showings worldwide, but we are not at riot levels yet. Action will happen and it is in part already happening. And there will be a time for justice to be brought about by future generations who will seek to punish those who turned their back on climate action (e.g. Abbott).

    One thing I felt Klein underestimated is the explosive growth of renewables. She argues that a lot of fossil fuels would be needed to set them up and that the transformation isn’t quick enough. I disagree and subscribe to Tony Seba’s view that by 2030 fossil fuels will be long gone.

    What I do believe and what Klein explains is that we need to deal with this problem on many levels. Renewables are part of the answer, but governments need to step-in an make reforms to trade. Luxury and large carbon footprint products need to have taxes attached (a carbon tax of sorts), carbon needs a price. Aforrestation should also be in the mix. Israel have been successful with this, China have done it (with mixed success).

    There are quick transformational changes that can happen quickly and be effective, but that takes politicians with courage. For example, if power globally was increased in price by 10% that would quickly bring about more thoughtful consumption. As would increases in road taxes to drive more to public transport.

    While, organisations such as Greenpeace are now intensifying their name and shame approach at organisations investing in fossil fuels. Remember Sydney University? Its happening all across America at this very moment. In the end every idea that can leverage positive action should be done.

  2. sbean 6 years ago

    Here’s another option: end the use of money and exchange–

    No need to demand anything, ask permission, or wait around for those who profit from risky and damaging practices.

  3. Christopher Nagle 6 years ago

    Klein and co are wildly optimistic about the power of mass movements and Gore and co under-estimate just how much trouble we are really in already. The collective result of these differing narratives is likely to be a messy, inadequate and civilization destroying post-modern maelstrom that religious fundamentalist will inherit, because no one else will be left standing. It is likely to be a classic opportunity for ideological fruitcakes to come out from the shadows; an awful denouement of neo-con thinktankery, off-with-the-fairies liberal progressivism, and Muslim Teapartyists. It is happening already…

    • Gordon 6 years ago

      >>It is likely to be a classic opportunity for ideological fruitcakes to come out from the shadows;
      Didn’t that already happen in Australia, at the last election?
      The idea of “Sustainable growth” has got to be one of the most dangerous oxymorons.

      • Christopher Nagle 6 years ago

        I’m afraid you are right Gordon. It is called cognitive dissonance; otherwise intelligent and well regarded people start thinking and saying things that in better times would have been commonly regarded as fruitcakery. Who would have thought that anyone would ever accuse CSIRO scientists of being the victims of intellectual politics? What? This is the stuff of creationist flat earthism! It can’t be true, but there it is..

        But the Dick Warburtons aren’t the only ones. What remains of the post-Marxist left is what Lenin would have called a petty bourgeois infantile disorder. And while it is right on the money as far as the environment goes, when it comes to social and economic policy, they are no better than Warbarton when he gets onto climate change.

        The environment is signaling to us that we are rapidly running out of our biological welcome, just as in the human community, faith and reason part company, paralyzing the emergency response we should be rushing to get on board with.

        We are looking down the barrel of the same conundrums that people and polities faced as the modern world unpackaged itself into history. The only people to make a good fist of it in the first instant were the Japanese. And they did so because significant parts of the ruling class decided to swallow their doubts, take control of the process of rapid modernization and run with it for all they were worth. Traditional ways were repackaged into modern infrastructure and samurai dominated corporations, and 40 years later, voila.

        Climate change and general environmental degradation challenge us just as deeply as modernization once did. And right now, the only people who have the skills, capital and clout to make a transition into living within our biological means are the very same people who are denying that there is a problem, which is what the Chinese did when confronted by Modernism, and it took them 150 years to get of the shit.

        The only glimmer of hope is that the finance and insurance sectors of the economy are starting to not only panic, but hydrocarbon divest. And the renewables sector is globally going gangbusters. It is better than nothing….

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