“…History knocked on your door, did you answer?”
That’s a good question, for all of us.
Naomi Klein introduces “This Changes Everything” by saying that for many years she simply ignored climate change. It was too daunting, too complex, someone else’s problem – the environmentalists would deal with it. It was during a meeting with Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation in 2009. however, that something clicked for her – huge swathes of the world’s population were suffering as a result of a problem they had not contributed to. She realized that it was irresponsible to look away, and that the only way this vast global issue would be escalated in to a crisis was if ordinary people started treating it like one: “Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.”
I’ve been absolutely guilty of treating climate change with this kind of denial and, whether deliberately or not, I have been looking away. Of course I’d see the pieces in the newspaper about how much coal has been burned in my lifetime, or the UN’s latest paper on the impact of our dependence on fossil fuel – occasionally I’d even read the article, and panic, and donate some money to Greenpeace. But I’d very soon comfort myself with the idea that the campaigners were dealing with it, and the vague notion that our governments couldn’t really let us reach a point where the damage was irreversible or permanent – if we can put a man on the moon, then we must be able to find a way to deal with all the carbon in the atmosphere before it’s too late. Two pages into this book, though, and I knew I couldn’t carry on like that. Notwithstanding Klein’s highly accessible style, I suspect the force of my reaction was in large part due to the fact that this is the first book I have ever read on the subject. Newspaper headlines, with their justifiably terrifying statistics and screaming warnings, are sometimes too overwhelming to focus on for sustained periods of time. “This Changes Everything,” though is calm and steady – it drip-feeds facts with Klein’s intensely personal and intelligent voice, so that the effect is cumulative rather than simply being paralysing. And something about that snapped me out of my apathy – I think it would literally be impossible to read this book and fail to be hit between the eyes by its message.
So, the facts. I cannot even begin to do justice to the force and detail of Klein’s argument here, but in essence what I took away was this. At the UN Climate Summit in 2009, a controversial decision was made to set a global warming safe-limit of 2-degrees Celsius. We will without doubt reach that limit in the coming years, and the consequences will be dramatic. However, as Klein says, even the 2-degrees limit currently looks like a utopian dream. Governments all across the world are failing to legislate for this, or to take the kind of dramatic action which might make the 2-degrees level attainable. Instead, because of our insatiably consumerist way of life and the West’s comprehensive failure to tackle this issue head-on, it looks as though we are heading towards a four or even six-degree rise by the end of the century. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has said that a four-degrees rise “is incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilised global community.” In other words, the world our grandchildren will inherit will look dramatically different to the one we are living in now.
The added complexity is that this has all become apparent at a time when our capitalist economy is at its zenith. Through the free-trade impetus of the 1980s, Western politicians have created a web of trade treaties which prioritise international commerce above everything else. In one stunning example of the impact this is having on the green movement, Klein explains that in 2010, Ontario tried to kick start its own green program (described by Al Gore as the “single best energy program on the North American continent”) by legislating in such a way as to give local co-ops and indigenous communities a chance to benefit from the manufacture of items like solar panels. Essentially, Ontario tried to combine its green revolution with a bid to rejuvenate its faltering manufacturing sector, and the program was going brilliantly until the EU and Japan challenged Ontario’s new legislation, saying that they considered the local content requirement of the initiative to be in violation of World Trade Organization Rules. Ultimately this meant that a promising new green energy initiative was scuppered, because Europe and Japan thought it was more important to make some money from the program than to allow the province to galvanise the initiative by empowering local manufacturers. It is the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.
Free trade aside, the fossil fuel industry is also now so obscenely wealthy that it has immense political clout – in 2013 in the US alone, “the oil and gas industry spent just under $400,000 a day lobbying government and congress officials, and the industry doled out a record $73 million in federal campaign and political donations during the 2012 election cycle…” How are local (and very often poor) communities at the raw end of the new mania for fracking supposed to tackle that? (Indeed, one of the things Klein does so well is to demonstrate how this is absolutely transcends politics, and not just because of the scale of the problem. Of course, many of the environmentalists’ solutions (like those set out by the UK’s Green Party) are traditionally “left wing.” However to my mind this is also the essence of the traditional conservative ideal of self-determination – why on earth should an oil company be able to frack in the village you love if the entire community is opposed to it?)
So – now that I am finally looking, it is obvious how far-reaching and omnipresent this issue is. Since I started reading this book a couple of weeks ago: I have discovered that students, alumni and academics at both Oxford and Cambridge are currently campaigning for the universities’ endowment funds to divest from fossil fuel; UK Oil and Gas has found what it thinks amounts to 158 million barrels of oil per square mile in Surrey; Shell has won a temporary restraining order which bars Greenpeace and its activists from boarding, barricading or interfering with the movement of the drillship Noble Discoverer, the drilling rig Polar Pioneer or the heavy-lift vessel Blue Marlin; and I have found out that a hugely inspirational lawyer called Polly Higgins has proposed an Ecocide Law into the United Nations. There is even an article on the BBC website this evening saying that in 50 years time, “The classic fish and chips enjoyed by previous generations could be replaced by the likes of sardines and squid, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.” The effects of climate change are everywhere, yet as the major political parties slug it out in anticipation of the election in a few weeks’ time, the lack of engagement with the problem is palpable.
Naomi Klein’s message is that it is down to communities to tackle this now. Governments have failed us, eccentric billionaire philanthropists have not delivered their promised solutions, and the fossil fuel industry shows no signs of slowing down. Cultural shifts throughout the ages have been driven by the determination of grass-roots movements – as Klein says, abolitionists, feminists, and civil rights activists kick-started the revolutions which have changed the shape of our societies. That is what is needed now, and I intend to participate in any way I can. Not just because the statistics are frightening, but because, as Klein says so beautifully, the possible upside of the climate change nightmare is that it may just prompt society to adjust some of the enormous inequalities which have fuelled the problem for the past three hundred years.
I started reading “Walking the Woods and the Water” earlier today – Nick Hunt’s modern day recreation of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s extraordinary journey across Europe. On p.13, Hunt writes, “The glimpse I had of Rotterdam was almost as brief as Paddy’s own – he walked on at once, pausing only for eggs and schnapps – but the continuity between our two cities was absolutely severed. The Rotterdam of the Middle Ages has been blasted into the realms of fairytales, and the new reality of McDonald’s and Lush, Starbucks and Vodafone had rushed to fill the vacuum. The destruction seemed less an act of war than apocalyptic town planning, a Europe-wide sweep of medieval clutter to clear the way for the consumer age.” Whether or not you feel an instinctive political interest in climate change and the culture which is apparently feeding it, that kind of language must cut to the quick of anyone who has luxuriated in the descriptions of PLF; Laurie Lee; Stella Gibbons; Gerald Durrell….So much of our literary history is bound up in the charms of the natural world. How can we fail to protect that inheritance now?