For anyone with even a passing knowledge of climate change, Naomi Klein needs no introduction. Her 2014 bestseller This Changes Everything was described as "the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring" by the New York Times. And its central message that climate change is a symptom of our broken economic system has become impossible to ignore. Last year, it got her an invite from Pope Francis himself to lead a climate forum with his senior advisor. So when SFU Public Square announced that Klein would be speaking March 11 at Vancouver's Vogue Theatre, the event promptly sold out.
Earlier this week The Tyee chatted at length with Klein about the pivotal moment in history we are now living in. There are only a few short decades left to achieve the goal agreed to at the Paris climate talks of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. (Which is considered safer than the less ambitious two degrees goal accepted at Copenhagen). To do so would mean a full transition off fossil fuels by 2050. But if we fail, a multi-metre sea level rise could wreak enough social and economic havoc to "make the planet ungovernable," according to former NASA climatologist James Hansen.
Which is why Klein is convinced that the only options we have left are radical. Read on in this exclusive Tyee interview to find out why hope is one of them. Her remarks are edited for length and clarity.
On what the Paris climate talks really achieved:
"What we got in Paris was a pretty good definition of safe goals coupled with a concrete plan for disaster. The strange thing about the Paris accord is that it sets a long-term temperature target of 1.5 degrees, but then the national plans submitted by each country add up to three to four degrees of warming. Still, having 1.5 degrees in writing is a very powerful tool in the hands of a mobilized and growing climate justice movement, and we've got to hold world leaders to it.
"I think we've seen the power of these commitments with the fossil fuel divestment movement, because that movement is based on the two degrees target that was set in Copenhagen. That was a non-binding target, it was an inadequate target [at two degrees, for instance, many island nations would still disappear underwater], but there is still a huge movement that was built around comparing what the carbon budget is for a two degree target with what fossil fuel companies have in their proven reserves. It shows how even a non-binding target can galvanize a movement."
On the gap between Canada's words and actions:
"There's a special responsibility that we have now in Canada because it was the Canadian government that really championed the 1.5 degree temperature target. Obviously the push for that was coming from island nations and African states, but having a highly industrialized wealthy country like Canada support the target as the Canadian government did in Paris was very important and arguably made the difference in terms of getting it in the text.
"The plans that came out of the recent Vancouver meeting of premiers on climate change are not in line with that 1.5 degree target. We've got a lot of work to do. But the conditions for that work are better than they were under Harper, because we very brashly went to Paris and talked about how 'Canada's back' and championed an extremely ambitious 1.5 temperature target. It's a target that many, many millions of lives hang in the balance on, and it's a moral abomination to raise that hope and not take it seriously. But the story's not over, it's still being written."
On how to leverage the oil price crash:
"We understand the 'no' of climate change. The science of the 'no' is very clear, but a 'no' only gets you so far, especially at a time when there's a lot of economic pain in this country. The tar sands are contracting with or without the climate movement because of the price of oil, so this is a really important time to put forward a positive plan and positive vision that is going to create many more good jobs than the fossil fuel boom was able to. That's really what the Leap Manifesto is about.
"The first step is we need to have a coherent conversation, because we live in a very siloed culture. There is an indigenous rights conversation happening in this country and that this government is participating in, but it's kept completely separate from the conversation about climate change, which makes absolutely no sense, because the vast majority of carbon is located underneath Indigenous lands. So respecting Indigenous rights has everything to do with keeping that carbon in the ground.
"Another example is we're having a conversation about bailing out Bombardier, and climate change is almost never mentioned. If Canadian tax dollars are going towards bailing out a company like that, why wouldn't we use the leverage that comes with a bailout to say, 'OK but instead of producing more airplanes we want more light rail,' which is one of the things Bombardier produces but just not in Canada."
On a new fossil fuel protest campaign called Break Free:
"The idea behind the Break Free events globally is simply that our politicians made it very clear in Paris that they're not willing to stand up to the power of fossil fuel companies and keep unburnable carbon in the ground. We already knew that even with a two degrees target we had to keep about 80 per cent of the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, and now we're talking about 1.5 degrees.
"What's going to happen in May is that globally there will be protests targeting the largest pools of carbon, and the infrastructure that's planned to dig it up, whether in Canada, Australia, Indonesia. The significance of it being global and coordinated in that way is that people understand they're part of a global movement. Sometimes the story doesn't get told that way, and in some ways that feeds a sense of, 'Why does this matter, if we fight this project someone's going to dig up carbon somewhere else.' But in fact there is a global movement and there is a global strategy.
"Whether it's a new tar sands pipeline, or whether it's huge coal export terminal in Australia, these projects lock us into an untenable economic model for decades. It's why blocking them is so important. Because when you're building that pipeline you're building it to last well past the point that we need to be off fossil fuels."
On why Klein is supporting Bernie Sanders:
"You can unpack his climate policies and compare them to Hillary Clinton's and I think they are better than Hillary's. He has a very clear position on fracking. He's got a clear position on not handing out any more fossil fuel leases on public lands. But Hillary has some very good climate policies as well. So it's less about comparing the two sets of policies. It's more about who has the credibility to actually enact them.
"Sanders has made standing up to corporate money in politics the centrepiece of his campaign, which Hillary Clinton dismisses as being a single issue. That is precisely what gives him credibility to do the other things that he's proposing. And it's not just that he has made this the centre of his campaign, it's that he's made it the centre of his career in public office as very few politicians have. I don't see Bernie Sanders as perfect, but his track record on standing up to corporate power is the reason I've decided to support him, even though I don't usually support election candidates."
On why young people see radical action as 'practical':
"The young people I meet understand that we're on a deadline and there is definitely a sense, particularly in the U.S., of the system being so deeply broken that radical solutions are indeed practical, and that this idea that we're going to tinker around the edges and go slowly is ridiculous. We are at a moment in time when we face a series of radical options. Steady as she goes is not one of them. We either face a radical physical future or else we embrace some radical political and economic change. That's hard for an older generation that has invested its identity in cautious centrism to accept, whereas for a lot young people it's sort of in their blood.
"The new generation is one that has come of age in a time of multiple system failures that are impossible to ignore, whether it's financial markets or the climate. And young people are the ones dealing with all the blowback from that. Given these overlapping system failures, I think it makes sense why they have more of an appetite for systemic change. But our challenge is connecting the dots between these multiple system failures. I don't think we've done a good enough job of that yet and when we do I think we'll start to see a broader movement."
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