This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (book review)

This changes everything - the book review

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein, is a powerful, important book, meticulously researched and beautifully written. I also found it a very disturbing book, and in a way I wish I hadn’t read it.

The thesis is that the kind of action required to avert climate catastrophe is incompatible with the world’s present economic system of more-or-less unrestrained capitalism. If civilization is to save itself, a complete reordering of society, to a more inclusive, distributed, equitable world, will be necessary. Hence the book’s title.

This is an excellent work of journalism. Ms Klein, who has published 4 previous books, as well as articles in The Nation, Harpers and others, has tirelessly followed up every strand of the complex web of issues around climate change. She has attended conferences of tree-huggers, climate-change deniers and geo-engineering mad scientists. She has visited the tar sands of Alberta and other poisoned places where the fossil-fuel industries extract their gold.

The book begins by explaining something that many of us already know: the majority of climate scientists believe that there is a “tipping point” for the climate, beyond which there will be no action we can take to avoid catastrophic climate change (flooded cities, massive droughts and famines, etc), and that that tipping point is only a few years away.

Next, methodically making her case with a relentless procession of facts and figures (backed up by masses of footnotes, as any good non-fiction book must be), Klein proceeds to shatter our illusions one by one:

  • Fossil fuel companies have absolutely no intention of leaving substantial amounts of oil, gas and coal in the ground, as the scientists tell us they must. They have already committed themselves to extracting enough of the black stuff to parboil the planet many times over.
  • The grudging and uncoordinated actions currently being taken by governments to address climate change are far, far short of what is needed. Some, like the EU’s cap-and-trade regime, have accomplished almost nothing at all.
  • There’s no hope of bringing conservatives around to cooperate on addressing climate change. They know it’s real, and they also know that tackling it would involve precisely the type of big-government regulations they hate, and indeed would bankrupt their revered libertarian philosophy.
  • Few if any of the “Big Green” environmental organizations are doing anything on the scale needed to avert disaster. Many are cooperating with big polluters, allowing them to apply a shiny coat of greenwash to half-measures and transitional strategies (fracking for natural gas, carbon capture) that may well do more harm than good. Did you know that the Nature Conservancy operates its own oil well in the middle of a nature reserve in Texas?
  • Liberal billionaires aren’t likely to save us, either. Most of them talk big about saving the planet, while investing ever more money in profitably destroying it. Klein delivers a particularly scathing exposé of megalohypocrite Richard Branson (but does not mention Elon Musk).
  • If geo-engineering sounds like a spectacularly bad idea, that’s because it is. Most of its proponents are businesspeople hoping to sell carbon-cleaning gadgetry, or representatives of polluters looking for any excuse to keep on spewing. Worse, the concept creates a moral hazard: the idea that, if we can’t stop emitting carbon, we can always alter the Earth’s climate to solve the problem.

So, is there any hope at all, or should we simply head for higher ground and party like it’s 1999? To her credit, Ms Klein remains an optimist, even if many of her readers may not. She sees the stirrings of a new kind of ecological movement, one that unites elite environmentalists with the indigenous-rights and environmental-justice communities, and uses the climate issue as a unifying theme to fight for a number of related progressive causes.

Many environmental issues are also social justice issues: polluting industries have always built their facilities in the homes of the world’s poor and powerless, and poverty and hunger are often bound up with resource depletion and environmental destruction. However, as the effects of climate change mount, the problem will become harder for the rich world to ignore. More frequent natural disasters and waves of climate refugees will demand a response, for better or for worse.

While this book envisions a new energy economy based on renewable sources, it has little to say about the technical details (there’s nary a mention of EVs), but rather focuses on the social and political aspects of the climate issue. Despite the claims of her detractors, Ms Klein is no Communist, but she does favor the devolution of power from big multinational corporations to local communities and individuals. I suspect she would be suspicious of many of the high-tech corporate-backed solutions that I typically write about.

Whether we’re headed for Apocalypse, Utopia or something in between, one thing seems certain: climate change will become the defining issue in world politics over the coming decades, much as the Cold War was in the last century. On one side, technological advances and the fear of climate catastrophe will drive attempts to make radical changes to our energy economy, while on the other, giant corporations and their enforcers in government will fight hard to preserve the oil-fueled status quo ante. This truly does Change Everything.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is 577 pages long, is published by Simon & Schuster, and is available in hardcover ($22.68), paperback ($13.42) and e-book ($12.99) editions.