Another climate moment is upon us and Naomi Klein appears to have captured the zeitgeist again with her new book.
Klein participated in the recent New York climate demonstration, which drew over 300,000 people, alongside over two thousand solidarity events in 162 countries. She spoke to 2,000 people in London recently and her book has been sympathetically reviewed by the bourgeois press.
Klein’s intervention into climate politics is eloquent and impassioned. She squarely names the enemy as capitalism and especially the pernicious influence of fossil fuel capital. Picking up the theme of her first book No Logo, she argues globalisation trends within the latest, neoliberal period of capitalist development have made it much harder to tackle the climate crisis and mean an evolutionary, gradualist approach is now almost impossible. She points out that both the 1992 Rio declaration and the 1997 Kyoto agreement include the caveat that climate action will not interfere with the workings of global free trade. If trade trumps climate, then capitalism will not provide the solution.
Klein pulls apart the modest neoliberal efforts to contain climate change, through small adjustments to the price mechanism such as the European Union’s emissions trading scheme. She quotes the Carbon Tracker research that fossil fuel firms have five times the carbon reserves on their asset sheets to bring about climate catastrophe. Either we tackle these giants or they will burn this carbon in pursuit of profit and make large parts of the planet uninhabitable.
Klein eviscerates Richard Branson’s promise to fund climate action with $3 billion. In fact he has paid out only a fraction of that sum, and largely to greenwash his own businesses. At the same time he has promoted his vanity project Virgin Galactic and expanded his airline. Cynicallyhe wants someone to develop a lower-carbon fuel to keep his aviation business in profits. Klein argues for “reversing privatisation” and promoting public ownership as the way to wrestle power from business and tackling climate change.
The book is littered with powerful arguments against shale gas fracking and other forms of extreme energy.
Fracking has numerous ecological problems, from water pollution, toxic chemicals and earthquakes. Principally it involves fugitive methane emissions that are hugely damaging to the climate in the short term. Most of all, unconventional sources will give a new lease of life to precisely the fossil fuel giants that have contributed most to greenhouse emissions. Klein is right to opposed fracking and right to give short shrift to the geoengineering fantasies of some scientists and policymakers. She syas such “solutions” will almost certainly make the climate more unstable and in some regions, more damaging.
Klein is an advocate and participant in many social movements across the globe and this cosmopolitan outlook has been a feature of all her work. The book catalogues a wide range of climate struggles, from oil wars in Argentina to the indigenous struggles in North America, illustrating the intricate interdependencies of climate struggles in different places and there connections of other immediate struggles over land rights, food prices and environmental damage.
The book makes a welcome critique of actors within the social movements. She rightly takes apart the way many large environmental organisations — what she calls “Big Green” — have sold out to business, by way of sponsorship, policy and even drilling for fossil fuels on protected land. Many Greens point to the total numbers of people supporting conservation organisations in various countries, but it is clear that these groups are far too diverse and often in hock to business and states to form a coherent counter-power to capital.
Similarly, Klein criticises supposedly left-wing governments including Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, that espouse ecological discourse but promote fossil fuel capitalism with an “anti-imperialist” face. If only much of the revolutionary left were as honest about these limitations. Klein also rightly criticises Stalinists past and present, from the USSR and Eastern Europe to China for their appalling environmental record and their bureaucratic, anti-democratic forms of state ownership.
Klein does a decent job in defining the present as a decisive moment in climate political history. She quotes the International Energy Agency that by 2017, a new generation of high-carbon energy generation infrastructure will be locked in for decades, effectively consigning other climate measures to oblivion. There is much fluff around the book “starting a conversation”, although Klein acknowledges her own intervention is relatively late. However there is undoubtedly an opening over the next year to revive climate campaigning. The book contributes to that mood.
The book is however limited both on structure and agency. Klein does not have a Marxist conception of capitalism. defined as the exploitation of wage labour by capital. She does not expose the deep structures within capitalism that simultaneously lead to the exploitation of waged workers (and the market coercion of other exploited groups such as peasants and the self-employed) alongside environmental degradation. As a result she does not articulate a socialist alternative to capitalism. Her conception remains the New Deal or World War Two Keynesian, a mixed economy model of reformed capitalism. Klein never nails the systematic alternative to capitalism that socialist planning and workers’ democracy would entail.
Klein does not identify the agent with both the power and the interest to supersede the waged labour-capital relation — the working class. Far from being outside the logic of the process, it is precisely the location of workers within capitalist relations of production that provides the unique capability to modify and stop capitalist production, the interest due to exploitation to oppose it (and ultimately to overthrow it), along with the political and organisational structures to replace capitalism with socialism.
Klein does see the organised labour as an agent in this climate movement, but only as one actor among many. Indigenous struggles are far the most prominent in the book, yet her writing is testimony to the weaknesses of most indigenous communities opposing capital. Of course indigenous fighters are valuable allies in the climate struggle, but they are neither sufficiently universal nor sufficiently powerful to constitute the fulcrum of a revived climate campaign.
This is the role of the global workers’ movement. It is organised labour, shorn of its own business unionism and bureaucratic structures, which can coalesce a new climate movement. And this defines the role of socialists intervening in the latest debate — to put socialist climate answers at the heart of the reviving movement.