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Rights + Justice

Naomi Klein Hopes This Is the Stage Before the Breakthrough

The author activist on overcoming defeats, her new role at UBC, the future of climate justice and more.

Olamide Olaniyan 22 Oct

Olamide Olaniyan is associate editor at The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter @olapalooza.

The way we currently talk about the climate emergency and how to get out of it has been very much determined by Naomi Klein.

The author of This Changes Everything and other bestsellers, Klein is a major critic of global capitalism, has helped articulate its effects on the environment and climate change and supports transforming society in ways that improve the lives of people and protect them from its worst and unequal effects.

The Canadian journalist, author and activist was involved in drafting the 2015 Leap Manifesto — a plan for transitioning to a clean energy economy — which was the centre of much debate within the federal New Democratic Party and amongst its supporters, including in these pages.

In recent years she’s been involved with climate justice movements in the U.S. and Canada pushing for a Green New Deal and was even a surrogate for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 election campaign for the U.S. presidency.

Now Penguin has decided to package excerpts from her previous writing for a volume in its Green Ideas series.

Surely that counts as success, right? Well, as she pointed out to The Tyee in an interview last week, after a near decade of advocating for a range of climate goals, “We haven’t gotten any of those things.”

A 2016 NDP resolution based on the Leap Manifesto passed, but party leadership has since distanced itself from it. Klein’s spouse, filmmaker and climate activist Avi Lewis, ran in the 2021 federal election but ultimately lost his bid to become the NDP MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country.

Below the 49th parallel, Bernie Sanders didn’t win the Democratic nomination to run as president. None of the various Green New Deal bills in the U.S. have passed.

And when we talked to Klein last week, citizens of the country where she’d spent the last couple of years living and organizing had been agonizing over whether significant legislation to address climate change would make it through the Senate, thanks to two centrist democrats.

And on a grander scale, not much has changed. Many countries, including Canada and the U.S. — two of the largest per capita emitters — continue to drag their feet and have yet to hit their commitments to cut emissions.

All this Klein would readily admit. But she’s far from ready to declare defeat. As in chess, even among the losses, there is the fight for a fighting chance. And in the long run, every move matters.

The author, who’s studied and long been involved in climate justice movements, says she won’t “indulge” in climate doom-ism. She still believes this moment has quite a bit of potential.

“We have locked in a very, very rocky future, but it is not too late for us to avert truly, unlivably catastrophic warming,” she said.

In September, Klein joined UBC’s geography department as a professor for climate justice, along with her spouse Lewis.

She’s also involved in building the university’s new Centre for Climate Justice. The goal, she says, “is to be useful on the timeline of the climate emergency, and very much to take leadership from the most impacted constituencies.”

Klein talked to us about her new role, the recent Canadian election, and the “infrastructure of care.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: How are you settling into your new role as professor of climate justice at UBC?

Naomi Klein: It’s been a whirlwind month and a half since I started at UBC, and there’s a group of us who are figuring out what this Centre for Climate Justice is going to be and what its scope is going to be. So it’s very much not launched yet; we’re in a broad process of figuring out how we can be both useful and how we’re going to be different from work that’s already taking place, because there’s so much great climate research happening at UBC.

Which is a big reason why I wanted to join the faculty there, because there’s just fantastic climate leadership, and the institution passed this landmark climate emergency declaration a couple of years ago. And what makes it really significant is that it includes language that centres social justice and calls on the university to take action in the face of not only climate breakdown, but also social and economic inequality.

It’s an exciting time to figure out what that actually means, because, of course, everybody has passed these emergency declarations. The City of Vancouver, the Trudeau government and various institutions. And I think at UBC, it was kind of interrupted by the pandemic. It passed in 2019, and like everything else has been a bit behind schedule.

So a lot of what I’ve been doing in the past month and a half is talking to the people who made the resolution happen and finding out what work has already happened and what people really hope to accomplish. And then we’ve put together this great steering committee group of scholars who are doing climate justice research, engage with scholarship already.

And then I’m giving a talk later this week on some of the areas of research that we see as very urgent, and one of the things that I’m looking at personally is the intersection of housing injustice and climate. And I think particularly after what happened during the heat dome, it’s really clear this is not an abstraction. If you were a renter in Vancouver and didn’t have control over whether or not you could have a fan in your apartment… even these really extreme cases where one landlord was blasting heat during the heat dome. And there was just such an unequal impact of this extreme disaster.

What is the deadliest weather event in Canadian history happened in June in this province, and I think the full implications of that have yet to be metabolized. I think this is an area where the academy with its research skills and capacity really can step up. There’s a group of us who are looking at doing research that might be useful in shaping emergency responses going forward and building codes and so on.

Trying to broaden the work that already currently exists, and just add to it and supplement it.

Yeah. Just from the discussions we’ve had so far, there’s a few things that I think we can expect. One is that this is really community-engaged research. Yes, research will be published in journals, but the goal of it is to be useful on a tight timeline, to be useful on the timeline of the climate emergency, and very much to take leadership from the most impacted constituencies.

And that means actually asking people, “What sort of research would be useful to you?” Some of that is data gathering and some of that may be more like planning. There’s a great planning school at UBC. There are architecture students, film students.

What interests me, and some of the work that I was doing in the States, was really at the intersection of the academy, movements and policy. Thinking about the kinds of work that was coming out of [the University of Pennsylvania] with Daniel Aldana Cohen’s work on housing. He was part of a team that helped draft the Green New Deal for public housing. And then the Green New Deal for public schools, legislation that was just brought forward by Jamaal Bowman. And Ilhan Omar brought forward the Green New Deal for public housing. But this is very much engaged in practical research that is feeding into policy and is engaging with communities and saying, “What does the just transition mean for you? What does it mean to rapidly decarbonize in a way that significantly improves daily life for people?”

That’s the essence of climate justice — the recognition of the unequal impacts of climate breakdown, but also the extractive industries, and it seeks to redress that in our climate policies. You can’t be engaged in climate justice in an ivory tower. It has to be a more humble stance from the academy and one that is more following rather than leading.

What other urgent areas are emerging as important to focus on?

Looking at what post-fire reconstruction should look like and also fire response is another that’s on the minds of people who are involved in this. Another area where I could see some important engaged research happening is an intervention in these discussions around tree planting as a climate solution.

One of the areas where UBC leads is in critical Indigenous studies, and UBC has just a huge number of excellent Indigenous scholars, and an Indigenous strategic plan as an institution, as well as the climate emergency declaration. And the climate emergency declaration calls for a focus on climate policies that are in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

What does it mean to have governments now calling for these huge tree-planting programs, without talking about Land Back, without foregrounding Indigenous land rights and Indigenous knowledge, and so thinking about what that would mean, what it would mean to look at an entirely new lens for conservation that is not about creating tree museums for carbon sequestration, but really, about returning land.

How do you kind of take stock of all your work advocating for the Leap Manifesto, the Green New Deal and electoral politics in general in the last few years?

I think that the climate justice movement has shifted the conversation, and I think that you see that in the way politicians have changed the way they talk, and that’s true of Biden and it’s true of Trudeau. But changing the way politicians talk is not the goal. I think changing the discourse makes the goal of actually enacting the change more possible, but obviously it isn’t enough. And I think it also can be confusing when politicians are saying the right things but not doing enough.

When you’re up against a climate denier like Donald Trump or Stephen Harper, you understand that you’re dealing with leaders who are sort of gleefully letting the world burn. It’s more confusing when you have leaders who are positioning themselves as climate leaders, whether at the federal or provincial level, and showering subsidies on fossil fuel companies, and allowing old-growth logging.

So, it’s a confusing moment for people, where we’ve been through a federal election where the Liberals, the NDP, the Greens and even the Bloc were competing over who was more of a climate leader and, the day after, it’s really unclear whether that’s going to translate into the kinds of bold policies that they were promising.

I guess I’m a little old-fashioned in that I really don’t think things change without a very mobilized population, that doesn’t only mobilize around elections but is co-ordinated, strategic and quite bold on an ongoing basis.

And I think minority governments in a first-past-the-post system are much preferable to majority governments, because minority governments can’t just slam the door on public opinion and just govern however they please. They have to worry about their government falling. Certainly, I think the Trudeau government has heard loud and clear that Canadians don’t want another snap election anytime soon and that’s quite a fertile political environment for organizing and calling on parties to co-operate based on a clear set of goals.

We should have a climate emergency government right now. But unfortunately, we have a habit of demobilizing after elections. Obviously, people have a lot on their plates right now, but I think where we’re at in Canada actually holds a fair bit of potential, because it is a minority government and because of those grand promises that were made during the election.

582px version of NaomiKleinOcean.jpg
Naomi Klein: ‘I hope that this is the stage before the breakthrough.’ Photo by Andrew Querner.

People often talk about Trudeau squandering a once-in-a-generation chance and so much political will on climate change when he first came to government in 2015. What do you think of that chance now?

I mean, I think Trudeau has shown us who he is, which is somebody who likes campaigning more than governing and is better at giving the speech than enacting the policies. So I don’t hold out hope for Trudeau as a transformative leader. But I do believe in a kind of balance of power where his government is fragile. He has a minority government; he can’t just govern however he pleases, the government can collapse if the opposition parties decide to collapse it, and I think that Trudeau really likes power. That’s why he held a completely unnecessary election, to try to get a majority. And he can’t do that again; he just used his last trick.

So I think this is a moment where the electorate has a pretty high level of power. Because you have a government that doesn’t want to have an election, that wants to hold it together, and so it can’t really afford to ignore pressure. I think in a moment like that there’s a huge responsibility for people to pressure this government to be the kind of government that it needs to be. So I would just depersonalize it from Trudeau and just look at politics as a bit of a chess game.

The NDP provincially, as well. And the Vancouver city council just now with their vote on parking. I mean, this is not just about Trudeau.

Are there monumental, hopeful policies that you can point to and say, “Hey, this is the good thing. Do more of this.”

What I would like to see is some kind of governing agreement of the kinds that we did see in B.C. between the Greens and the NDP agreeing on a few points and taking the strongest elements of the various climate plans and out of that, emerging a climate emergency platform for all the parties.

I don’t think that a carbon tax is enough on its own. It would have to be much higher, and nobody is talking about introducing a carbon tax that would be high enough to really be a game changer. And we also have to be very aware that climate policies that put the economic burden unto already overburdened, working people can very easily lead to backlash and losing ground, which is what we’ve seen in different [jurisdictions]. Carbon taxes have to be progressive, which means the wealthy have to pay a much larger share. And it means that the people on the lower end of the income level actually get more in rebates.

The NDP carbon plan got beat up for lack of specificity, and I agree with that criticism. But one thing it did have — which I think Canada’s climate policies lacked for far too long — is carbon budgeting, and not just setting these lofty goals decades into the future. We need to be inside a tight carbon budget right now, and we need to audit ourselves so we know how we’re doing, and we need outside experts playing that kind of auditing role. So I think that that would be very, very important.

But thinking more locally and more specifically, I think that after the fatalities from the heat dome and understanding that Vancouver, and B.C. more broadly, is in a climate emergency and a housing emergency and these things intersect in ways that are absolutely fatal, I would really like to see a focus on green, affordable housing of many different kinds, social housing, co-op housing, different ways that people can live, but non-market housing.

Because the other thing, and this is an area that I’ve been following more in the States, is what happens when you have disasters like wildfires — and we saw some of that with Lytton — just wiping whole communities off the map. And then people are moving internally and looking for housing in an already very overheated housing environment. And we have spikes in people who are unhoused, and then criminalization, and these really, really negative spirals. So I think we’re in a moment, which really, really calls for a very ambitious, green affordable housing plan. And that has to involve all levels of government.

The mantra is that every beat is becoming a climate beat. Climate is pervading through every single aspect of our lives. The switch to this understanding in the last few years has felt kind of sudden. How have you seen the development of this understanding in the last few years, particularly in journalism?

Well, I think, honestly, I think it was a huge breakthrough. It was after the IPCC report in 2018. The Sunrise movement occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined them. So this was right after the 2018 midterms. And I think the laying out of the Green New Deal, which was really a collaboration between social movements from below, the climate justice movements that have spent many years developing this framework. And then there’s this sort of shot of energy from a youth movement like Sunrise.

And at the same time, the climate strikes around the world. And then this new infusion of insurgent politicians picking it up and bringing it into the halls of power and laying out this vision for climate action that sounded very unlike anything that most people had heard before.

Mostly what they’d heard [was] about carbon taxes and cap and trade, sort of eyes rolling back in your head. And here was a plan that was about infrastructure, that was about schools, that was about health care, that was about job guarantees. And I think that was the moment where a whole lot of people got the signal, that this wasn’t somebody else’s issue, that it wasn’t too complicated for them to get involved, that it had the potential to touch whatever sector they were involved in and passionate about. And so I think that was just a welcoming moment. That really changed the discourse, and it changed the policy debates as well.

You asked me to point to examples of places and things that I’m excited about, and I guess the answer is there’s not enough. I mean, there’s good talk. But I do think that at the subnational level, there are some examples in the States like, there’s a coalition called New York Renews that has managed to get some really important climate justice legislation through the New York legislature.

And I think that there is now a series of laws that have been drafted, there’s a series of pieces of legislation that I mentioned, the Green New Deal for public housing, the Green New Deal for schools, the Green New Deal for cities and towns that Cori Bush introduced, that are starting to flesh out what this would actually look like, how it would bring resources to towns and cities and tribes, for them to design their own Green New Deal plans. A real emphasis on affordable housing on frontline communities.

I hope that this is the stage before the breakthrough. Because a lot of this was an expanding and redefining of infrastructure and climate readiness as including the care sector, which was totally absent just a few years ago in the discussion and really understanding that we have to invest in mental health care, in home care and think about these disasters that we’ve been talking about.

We don’t have, by the way, nearly enough data about what happened during the heat dome, but we do know that the most impacted were elderly people who were living alone without social networks.

So it was not just about heat, it was about a failure of social care. And we see this again and again after disasters. So we need to see nurses and home-care workers as frontline climate workers. And think about how we reimagine these sectors to be green jobs, low-carbon jobs. And of course, this is also a feminist issue, it’s also a racial justice issue because whose work is discounted? It’s overwhelmingly women and overwhelmingly women of colour.

I think it’s very, very exciting work, and pieces of it did make it into this infrastructure bill that they’re fighting about endlessly in the Senate but haven’t given up on yet, this expanded definition of infrastructure and pieces of the Green New Deal for schools proposal. So these pieces of legislation, though they haven’t been passed in full, are impacting the Biden agenda. It’s just hard to feel optimistic when we’re all being held hostage by Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, names I wish I never had to speak again.

How are you feeling going into COP26 in Glasgow next month?

If I’m honest, I’m not holding out too much hope for the COP. I don’t have a very good answer for that.

I just don’t think that there are any signs that this is going to be any kind of a breakthrough agreement. I think honestly, it’s probably more significant from a public discourse perspective in terms of the fact that climate is going to stay in the news, even though it’s a little bit cooler in our world. And we tend to think about climate change when it’s impacting us directly.

There’ll be more coverage. These are moments when the core injustice of the climate crisis maybe gets a little bit more attention, in the sense that this is a crisis that was overwhelmingly created in the Global North, and the worst impacts are still overwhelmingly being felt in the Global South. And so questions around climate financing are going to come up very strongly.

But I guess the reason why I don’t hold out too much hope is just that I’ve seen too many of these. And I think right now with where we’re at, in American politics, the biggest problem with these agreements is that they’re non-binding. And the reason why they’re non-binding is because to make them binding, it would have to be passed by the U.S. Senate.

In past years, this has been a key point where things really come to a head in these agreements, it’s whether or not this is just going to be a bunch of pledges that we hope people keep, or whether or not this is going to be more and more like a trade agreement, where there are consequences for going back on what you’ve pledged. And the reason why these are not treaties, is because if they were, they would have to be ratified by the U.S. Senate. The U.S. has always blocked this despite an overwhelming majority of countries wanting a binding agreement.

The reason why I’m not holding out hopes that this is going to be the COP where everything changes is that given what we’re seeing now in the U.S. Senate, with the problems getting through an infrastructure bill, it’s clear that this Senate is not going to ratify a binding climate agreement, even though the Democrats have a majority, a one-vote majority. So that limits what’s possible.

It sounds like there’s a lot of constraints. There’s a lot of interesting things that we can do, but we’re basically playing small ball with climate change. Every single action matters right now, but the most consequential actors are just dragging their feet.

Yeah, and I think it’s the same problem that I’m pointing to in Canada. This can’t be a sort of hope for the best situation. We need to make commitments and we need measures for holding ourselves to those commitments, and there needs to be consequences for breaking those commitments. And we’re not doing that on a national level, and we’re not doing it on an international level.

I would say for us in Canada, the first stage is figuring out how we do it at the national level. How we put ourselves within a carbon budget and keep ourselves to it. And I think that once we start doing that on a national level, there’s a much better chance that we will get to it at an international level because we will want other countries to do the same or else it’s not fair to us.

How are you, as a person who studies this and follows this, not just bummed out all the time?

I would be lying if I said that I feel very rah-rah and optimistic about this. I think that anyone who has been engaged with this issue for a couple of decades now is going to have had their hopes raised a few times and have gone up and down that roller coaster.

I don’t indulge in sort of climate doom-ism of just like all is lost, let’s just engage in sort of hospice care at this point because, and I’ve said this before, there are degrees of bad and we have locked in a very, very rocky future, but it is not too late for us to avert truly, unlivably catastrophic warming.

And the reason why I emphasize the importance of the investments in the social sphere — affordable housing, the infrastructure of care, valuing care workers, recognizing that care work is climate work, that affordable housing is climate policy — is that when we make these investments in our societies that build schools that value everyone, where people have the basics taken care of, “Yes, you will have a home. Yes, you will have food. Yes, there will be water.” This will serve us extremely well as these shocks hit.

It isn’t only that we can do these things in a way that bring down emissions. And we can: When we invest in the care sector as opposed to the extractive sector, we are enacting climate policy, we are changing our economy in a way that’s going to lower emissions if we do it well and we do it smartly. But from what I’ve seen from covering disasters now — since Katrina, but including Hurricane Maria, including Hurricane Sandy and the fire that burned down Paradise, California — what I know is that what makes these disasters really cataclysmic and what is responsible for the highest death toll, is very rarely the disasters themselves.

Like Maria, it was less than 50 people who died as a direct result of falling debris in the storm. But 3,000 people died because of a failed health-care system and a failed electricity system and a failure of care in the months that followed. More than 1,000 people died in New Orleans after [Hurricane] Katrina. Also, it was not because of the force of that storm. The reason people died was because of systemic racism, it was because of a government that just abandoned the city.

And so these investments in what I’m broadly calling the “infrastructure of care” are going to save lives in the millions in the rocky future that is headed our way and these shifts in values, and you could call it eco-socialism, you could call it whatever you want, are going to be what keep us from turning on each other when things get stressful, when we’re tested by shocks. So it’s not that I’m rosy and hopeful and optimistic. It’s just that I think that this is how we hold on to our humanity in the future to come. And that this is not a luxury.  [Tyee]

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