Award-winning Canadian author, filmmaker and eco-socialism activist Naomi Klein answered questions from the Imperial community at an event co-hosted by the university and CNBC on 9 February
Naomi Klein has dedicated her career to raising awareness of the links between social inequality and climate change and has been hailed by climate campaigner Greta Thunberg as an “inspirer of generations”.
On 9 February, she answered questions submitted by members of the Imperial community on the climate crisis and what we can do to tackle it.
This is an edited version of the Q&A. To see the full interview, click on the video at the top of the page.
In your 2015 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, you appear to address two entirely different issues, but you see intersectionality between them. Can we hear a little bit more about your theory?
The book looks at the clash between our economic system, which requires perpetual growth and defines any kind of contraction as a crisis, and what our planet needs, which is for us to reduce our impact.
The need for a holistic, intersectional response goes beyond that. I think COVID has highlighted inequalities: whatever was unequal before the pandemic got worse during it. So, people who were already being treated as disposable within our current system were dying first and were the most vulnerable. Climate change works in much the same way; it’s an intensifier of whatever is going wrong in your society.
The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities you mentioned, but has it also pushed climate change down the priority list?
I think it’s a double-edged sword. It’s true that COVID blasted every other issue off the table but at the same time, we saw that governments are capable of taking very bold action in the face of a crisis. I’m not a huge Justin Trudeau fan but I would say that we saw clear communication and we saw health experts educate the public on a daily basis.
My hope is that our experience of COVID has shown us that, if we put our mind to it, we can do extraordinary things, and if we take our eyes off the ball, then we fail.
How can developing countries in Africa achieve their developmental goals and build green economies without reliance on cheap energy from oil and gas, as well as the revenues that many of them have started accruing from the production of oil and gas?
This gets at the tension that going green costs money, and countries that are struggling to meet the basic needs of their people are tempted to go with whatever investment is on offer. At the moment, some of the only opportunities for investment for different countries in Africa, means digging up their fossil fuels.
There is a cruel irony here because of course Africa is on the front line of the impacts of climate change. This is the core injustice at the heart of the climate crisis and why we don’t just need climate action, we need climate justice. As a continent, Africa accounts for around four per cent of global emissions, which is a minuscule number compared to its population.
The only possible response is that wealthy countries, that have grown wealthy in part through the extraction of fossil fuels, pay their debts to allow African nations to leapfrog over fossil fuels and go directly to green energy.
What more can civil society groups do to increase action to mitigate climate change?
I think in general we need as large a climate movement as we can build, and this is the core reason we need a climate justice movement. It’s not only fair to think about justice and how we reimagine our infrastructure and use it as an opportunity to redress these structural inequalities, but it’s also practical in terms of building power, because we are up against very wealthy interests.
One of the reasons we need an intersectional climate movement is if our response to climate change isn’t just about stopping an apocalyptic climate future, but also about improving an incredibly unjust and untenable present, that’s going to build a constituency that’s broad.
How can we get Imperial College to divest from fossil fuels and reflect on its problematic ties with the fossil fuel industry?
I was on the board of 350.org when we kickstarted the fossil fuel divestment movement and it’s been incredible that that movement, which kicked off in 2013, has just exploded to the point where, if you add together the funds that have committed to divest from fossil fuels – the endowments and pension funds – it comes to almost $40 trillion dollars.
This has been very quick, and I would say if Harvard can do it and the Vatican can do it, then Imperial College can do it.
What is the one governmental policy we should be pushing for?
I think a holistic framework like a Green New Deal is what we need to be pushing for. Over the past decade we have had a single policy response to the climate crisis, like the carbon tax or cap and trade.
The problem with having just one of those singular policies within an economic system that has as much inequality as ours, is that they often exacerbate pre-existing inequalities, for example causing energy costs to go up, and then that will lead to a backlash. We saw this with the yellow vest movement when Emmanuel Macron had a narrow carbon pricing approach to climate, and he had to back off.