The flesh of some moose near the tarsands of northern Alberta had turned green. One report told of 100,000 bats falling from Queensland, Australia, skies during record-breaking heat. Such heat waves now kill tens of thousands of people during summer, and reduce yields of staple crops.
While pastoralists in Kenya would once experience 10-year climatic cycles that were always followed by drought, they now see droughts coming almost every year. Desertification is spreading, forcing them to compete for grazing and water, with some fighting for control of wells and pasture. One-third of herders, or half a million people, in northeast Kenya have been forced to leave their long-practised pastoral lifestyle. Droughts have killed cattle, camels, and goats, leaving about 60 percent of families who have continued their lives as pastoralists to rely on outside assis-tance. When the rains do come, they fall in sudden bursts, flooding the land, stripping away topsoil.
In Afghanistan, drought is expected to become widespread by 2030. The disrupted weather patterns are affecting the northeast region of Brazil. Increasingly frequent droughts are balanced by flash floods, one of which killed 50 people in 2010, and made 120,000 homeless. Farmers from the region are moving to the megacities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, trapping them in the crowded favelas.
Climate change in Mexico is undermining agriculture and fishing, leading to unemployment and migration northward to the United States, where the immigrants face repression, deportation, or exploitation as undocumented workers.
“Emissions have gone up and have accumulated in the atmosphere,” Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein explains from Toronto, in an interview with the Georgia Straight, “and now we need to change so radically.”
But we can only successfully navigate the acidified waters of climate change if we first dismantle the system that has both caused it and prevented the very radical changes we need: capitalism. Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, argues that the climate crisis is a symptom of social, economic, and political failures.
People and communities who don’t hold the levers of economic and political power repeatedly find themselves swept aside as unfortunate byproducts of a system driven by the promise of “progress”.
“Fossil-fuel companies have a vested interest in the status quo,” Klein says, blaming the profit motive. The logic of profit over people has even overtaken those who were meant to advance the environmental movement. “The people who we have looked to to lead this movement have tended to be quite entrenched in power structures themselves,” she notes, “and so it makes sense that the kinds of solutions they have been most inclined to advocate have been ones that would do least to upset the social and economic order.”
As a result, the ecological crisis deepens. Some reports say climate change kills about 300,000 people per year globally. With floods, droughts, forest fires, water scarcity, and disease, that number could grow to 500,000 by 2030. According to Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network, there could be around 700 million climate refugees by 2050.
Current agricultural estimates show that climate change will dramatically reduce production of grains like maize, soybeans, wheat, and rice (staples in the globe’s southern regions) by as much as 43 percent by the end of this century. Accounting for the coming decline of fresh water (also connected to climate change), the reduction of food production would be even greater, potentially wiping out an amount equivalent to the total present-day food supply.
And all this could have been avoided, since we’ve been aware of climate change’s potential effects for decades, according to Klein. “If we had acted when we first found out, then it wouldn’t have required such radical change,” she says. “But there’s this weird time-warp quality. The way we talk about it hasn’t really changed in two decades.”
In that time there’s been an eruption of conflicts around the globe. Food insecurity, a direct consequence of a warming planet, will lead to conflicts over land ownership, and there’ll be an increase in conflicts due to a reduction of arable land and water shortages. Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the International Crisis Group discovered that “when rainfall is significantly below normal, the risk of a low-level conflict escalating to a full-scale civil war approximately doubles the following year.”
Civil conflict, forced migration, loss of livelihood, poverty—these are the socioeconomic impacts of what is largely seen as an ecological crisis. The impacts are felt first and strongest in the Global South, where deepening inequality is fast exposing the failure of our current global economic system.
Our dogged commitment to the status quo has meant that we’ve fallen into patterns created long ago. Rather than improvement in the conditions of those made more vulnerable by climate change, there has been militarism and exclusion, or what’s called the politics of the armed lifeboat. As climate change creates conflicts in various parts of the Global South, the Global North has responded—and may continue to respond—with increased authoritarianism and repression.
“Our system adapts and feeds off of crisis,” adds Klein. “Left unchecked, what our system is built to do is find opportunities however they present themselves. In an era of constant instability, those opportunities present themselves in the midst of war, natural disasters, and famines. Anything can create an opportunity for more privatization of the commons and more stratification of wealth. There are private military companies responding to the need for more private security in the context of resource security, agro-businesses grabbing land in the context of food and water scarcity.”
Much in how we live and organize our societies must change. “I think the changes we need to make to our economy are so fundamental,” says Klein, “that an argument can be made that the economy we need to reduce our emissions in line with science would be so radically different from what we have that it would need another name to describe it.” Whatever its name, Klein calls for a society that redistributes wealth so that people no longer feel compelled to work exploitative jobs in industries like oil and gas, and invests in environmentally friendly institutions, like health and child care, and education. Doing so will not only help tackle the ecological crisis—it will also help build a society she admits to being biased in favour of.
And yet, despite the fact that capitalism is so decisively implicated, and despite its being situated in the title of the book as an adversary to our very exis-tence, Klein does not call for a complete dismantling of the economic system.
“One of the things people have said about the book is it’s unclear whether my problem is with a particular, unfettered brand of capitalism or with capitalism per se,” Klein says. “I’m really clear in the book that there are two issues: one is the fact that neoliberalism, unfettered capitalism, market fundamentalism, whatever you want to call it, has presented a set of barriers to responding to climate change.
“Some people would say: am I saying you have to abolish private property? No. Am I saying there’s no role for markets? No. This is definitely an economy in which markets have a much smaller role. And the profit and growth imperative are highly regulated. It depends on how you define capitalism. It’s not the thing which interests me most. I use the word capitalism because it’s a substitute for our economy.”
Challenging this system, according to Klein, means relying on governments to fashion bold and far-reaching policies. “The idea that we can opt out of state power in response to a crisis of this scale, I just don’t think is realistic,” she says. And yet, what is perhaps most inspiring about Klein’s book is the central part played by grassroots, indigenous-led mass movements organized by people who will most immediately feel the effects of climate change.
There are ordinary citizens blocking pipelines and stopping other extractive industries from operating on their lands. University students are leading a fossil-fuel-divestment movement, and indigenous communities are launching court challenges.
“This can’t just be a climate movement. It has to be a climate-justice movement,” says Klein, “one that mobilizes all of the sectors that are getting the worst deal under this economic system. They will fight since they have so much to gain. Responding to climate change is not all sacrifice for people. More and more people are making up the climate movement who have a lot on the line. They’re fighting for their kids’ health, their communities, their culture, and for the possibility of a future that is much better than the present.”