Eric Doherty: Declare a people's climate emergency and make a better world possible?

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      This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

      By Naomi Klein. Knopf Canada, 576 pp, hardcover

      Naomi Klein’s latest bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, is a big, wide-ranging book that is already changing how the world understands the climate crisis. It made me feel more optimistic about the chances of turning things around, and better equipped to decide where to direct my energy. Anyone who is truly interested in positive change and human survival should invest the time needed to read it carefully.

      One of the most compelling themes is the societal denial preventing proportionate responses to the climate and ocean-acidification crises. Klein starts off on a personal note describing how she was until recently a climate denier herself:

      “I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure. Not like Donald Trump and the Tea Partiers going on about how the continued existence of winter proves it’s all a hoax....I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my ‘elite’ frequent flyer status.”

      Klein does not waste much time on the outright deniers of climate science who are now a marginal fringe group in most of the world. Instead, she focuses on much more widespread and dangerous forms of what is coming to be called ‘soft climate denial’, and suggests ways to build a climate-justice movement capable of overcoming this malaise.

      Like many other authors Klein documents that global warming (and the ocean acidification that is already killing oysters and other shellfish in the Salish Sea) is a very serious crisis. But unlike many mainstream environmentalists she argues that that effective action to deal with this crisis will require profound and difficult changes, rather than easy changes that will barely be noticed.

      More importantly, Klein does not pray or beg for political leaders to recognize and declare this crisis and thereby make decisive action possible. Instead she asserts that “we need not be spectators in all this: politicians aren’t the only ones with the power to declare a crisis. Mass movements of regular people can declare one too.”

      The recent actions on Burnaby Mountain against the Kinder Morgan oilsands pipeline, where over a hundred people were arrested, is local example of how this emergency is being declared from the grassroots.

      According to Klein, the grassroots climate-justice movement is already well on the way to having the climate crisis recognized in a way that revokes the social licence for fossil-fuel expansion. This has been achieved partly through local struggles, such as mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, where climate was initially not the primary issue.

      These initially local struggles against destructive projects have merged into "Blockadia"—a powerful movement with grassroots base and a strong focus on climate justice. The movement for divestment from fossil fuels, modeled on the movement against South African apartheid, is described an organic offshoot of this movement grounded in grassroots direct-action groups.

      Importantly, Klein suggests that this grassroots base gives the movement staying power that big, top-down organizations can’t match. There is no head office to decide to shelve the climate campaign when the going gets tough, or to water it down in the hopes of achieving insignificant "wins" to satisfy big funders. Also covered is the checkered history of climate work by big environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGOs) before the emergence of a strong grassroots climate-justice movement.

      The split in large U.S. ENGOs between North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) supporters and opponents is a crucial incident that Klein describes in detail. The Environmental Defense Fund, National Resources Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, and other top-down groups sabotaged the fragile global commitment to effective climate action by supporting NAFTA. On the other side Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club along with many grassroots environmental groups opposed NAFTA, but were not strong enough to stop it. The grassroots climate justice movement needs to figure out which groups are worth working with, which ones we can only hope to frighten away from selling out with grassroots power, and which ones are just corporate fronts.

      The "everything" that changes with the declaration of a climate crisis includes the power to roll back corporate rights pacts, including NAFTA, that block effective climate action. Klein argues that the climate justice movement must organize to sweep away these deeply embedded features of present-day capitalism to avoid truly catastrophic consequences, and states that this would be a good thing in many ways.

      Klein agrees with what many environmentalists have been saying for decades: that infinite growth of extraction and consumption on a finite planet is both a recipe for disaster and a defining dogma of present-day capitalism. The difference is that Klein has outlined a vision for the kind of grassroots movement that can declare a climate emergency, really challenge the dogma of growth for its own sake, and make a better world possible along the way.



      Stephen Rees

      Jan 19, 2015 at 1:57pm

      Unfortunately it had to go back to the library before I had a chance to fully digest it. I blame Christmas. But I do think that the recent split between Jonathon Porritt and Shell/BP is significant. Naomi is very informative about greens that got co-opted by big business - and this must be a development that warmed her heart.

      Blame the environmentalists

      Jan 19, 2015 at 2:08pm

      Environmentalists can wring their hands about the lack of action on the part of politicians and the so-called denial (or soft-denial) of climate change all they want, but the reality is they brought it all on themselves.

      Just imagine how different attitudes might be today would be if Al Gore, David Suzuki et al hadn't grossly exaggerated pretty much each and every aspect of climate change.

      In their unending quest to raise more donations, obtain more governmental research funding, get more media attention, and EARN MORE MONEY FOR THEMSELVES, environmentalists have been coming out with more and more prophesies of doom. And as each of those prophesies fail to materialize (no snow on Mt Kilimanjaro?) the public has had a harder and harder time swallowing the next set of doom and gloom predictions.

      Just imagine if all the scientists and environmentalists had been completely honest from day one, rather than falling over themselves to sensationalize things. If that were the case then surveys in 2015 wouldn't show that the majority of citizens don't believe it's a serious concern.

      But that's not how it was done. And this is the result. Most people have basically tuned out completely. Well done environmentalists! Your deception is directly responsible for today's inaction.

      Martin Dunphy

      Jan 19, 2015 at 2:38pm


      Thanks for the post. I'm glad you showed <em>Straight</em> readers who is really to blame for the planet's climate-change woes: the greedy environmentalists and scientists.

      I, for one, am glad that it doesn't have anything to do with the oil companies, the top five of which, in 2011, were earning $375 million in profits <em>every day</em>. Their CEOs earned more every day ($60,000, on average) than most people make in a year. Surely they have no incentive to maintain the status quo.


      Jan 19, 2015 at 3:58pm

      Oh so it's the profits of the oil company that are to blame huh. Well the price of oil has dropped to half and many oil companies are losing billions at the moment. So does that rectify things?

      When the majority of the population reads yet another Chicken Little article about the impending crisis, and responds with a collective yawn, that's a direct result of the Chicken Little articles. It has nothing to do with oil company profits or the salaries of the executives. Nice try though.


      Jan 19, 2015 at 6:42pm

      @Blame the environmentalists

      It's okay, you can simply admit that you don't understand how science works. The media often gets it wrong as well, turning complex studies and reports into bite-sized generalities. The vast majority of climate scientists do not engage in sensational or deceptive publication or reporting, and we can't blame them for our own failure to attempt to grasp their work.

      As for environmentalists, well, you can't blame someone for screaming when it's already too late. That's the truly sad thing about climate change. The change has already come, and there's nothing we can do about it. Our children are fucked.


      Jan 19, 2015 at 9:08pm

      - 2014 was the warmest year on record;
      - 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000;
      - The 2000s were hotter than the 1990s, which were hotter than the 1980s, which were hotter than the 1970s;
      - Sea level rise is accelerating;
      - Scientists estimate we're now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate
      - "Coral reefs, for example, have declined by 40 percent worldwide, partly as a result of climate-change-driven warming.
      Some fish are migrating to cooler waters already. Black sea bass, once most common off the coast of Virginia, have moved up to New Jersey. Less fortunate species may not be able to find new ranges. At the same time, carbon emissions are altering the chemistry of seawater, making it more acidic.

      “If you cranked up the aquarium heater and dumped some acid in the water, your fish would not be very happy,” Dr. Pinsky said. “In effect, that’s what we’re doing to the oceans.”

      Fragile ecosystems like mangroves are being replaced by fish farms, which are projected to provide most of the fish we consume within 20 years. Bottom trawlers scraping large nets across the sea floor have already affected 20 million square miles of ocean, turning parts of the continental shelf to rubble. Whales may no longer be widely hunted, the analysis noted, but they are now colliding more often as the number of container ships rises.

      Ultimately, Dr. Palumbi warned, slowing extinctions in the oceans will mean cutting back on carbon emissions, not just adapting to them.

      “If by the end of the century we’re not off the business-as-usual curve we are now, I honestly feel there’s not much hope for normal ecosystems in the ocean,” he said. “But in the meantime, we do have a chance to do what we can. We have a couple decades more than we thought we had, so let’s please not waste it.”"

      Source: 'Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction, Broad Study Says',

      Martin Dunphy

      Jan 19, 2015 at 9:29pm

      @ blame (again) No. It's stupidity.

      Mark Murphy

      Jan 20, 2015 at 7:21am

      It's not the heat, it's the stupidity.


      Jan 20, 2015 at 7:47am

      I have to agree that the early sensationalization by scientists and environmentalists may have had a deleterious effect on the movement overall by overstating what was a largely unknown phenomena at the time. Having spent two decades in science I know for sure that in order to get grants you have to frame your arguments to have a far reaching effects by using extreme future scenarios, whether good or bad. For instance, if your research involves the study of a certain biochemical pathway that involves a group of proteins that are partially implicated in the formation of tumours (amongst other processes), then you can say that 'more detailed study of this system will illuminate future cancer treatments'. While it is true, the likelihood that this study will lead to a treatment for cancer is slim and rarely the overall focus of the research subject. Exaggeration is the norm in science research because decent funding is difficult to secure.

      Also, Martin Dunphy's response to 'blame the environmentalists' makes little sense and lacks logic. It's the typical black and white, knee-jerk response that I have come to expect from him. I understand his philosophy does not allow admission that the environmental movement might make the odd mistake, but as the article shows there is great deal of grey area that's to expected from such a complex issue. He seems to just want to lay blame instead of trying to find a solution. I fully support the movement, and have from the time they found the hole in the ozone layer, but I know that science is not absolute and mistakes can be made. In fact it is set up in a way (publishing in peer-reviewed journals) to allow scientists to challenge the results of others.


      Jan 20, 2015 at 8:20am

      @anthropocene, based on your expert knowledge would you recommend planting lemon or orange trees, in the Vancouver region?