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  • Published in Book Reviews

System change not climate change: ultimately revolutionary change is needed. This is the message of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

This Changes Everything

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Allen Lane 2014), x, 566pp.

Naomi Klein ‘denied climate change for longer than I care to admit’ (p.3) but her awakening to the issue comes at the time when the climate crisis is at its most urgent. Despite decades of climate summits and green posturing from politicians and multinational companies alike, carbon emissions worldwide have risen by an astonishing 61% since the 1990 threshold set in the Kyoto protocols. This means that it is already too late to avoid 2oC of warming; the struggle is to keep the warming at that 2oC increase and avoid the catastrophic effects that 4oC of warming, or even more, would bring. For the West, this means cuts in carbon emissions of 8% - 10% a year, every year, beginning not in 2030, or by the end of the next parliament, or after the next election, but right now.

Klein is not the only writer on climate change to sound the alarm about the imminence of the crisis, but she brings a degree of star power to the issue which makes her book a particularly high-profile statement of what we already know. It is also extremely well-timed, part of what feels like a resurgence of climate campaigning in a short space of time. It was only in February 2013 that pollsters were suggesting that public concern in the UK about climate change was at its lowest for twenty years, yet eighteen months later, we have seen 30,000 people on the streets of London in the People’s Climate March on 21st September and more than one thousand at Klein’s London talk about her book, run by The Guardian

All these people are right to be enraged at the lack of progress on reducing worldwide emissions, since as Klein makes clear, it is not for the lack of the right technology. We know how to make clean energy, and for all that climate-change deniers and anti-wind farm campaigners may mutter about the unreliability of renewable electricity sources, it could supply all of our energy needs. There have been a number of studies indicating this: Klein cites a particularly important Californian one from 2009 which shows how renewables could meet 100% of the world’s energy requirements, including for transport, by 2030 (p.101). The issue is not a lack of solutions to greenhouse-gas emissions; it is the will to implement those solutions. This has meant that, while world leaders have met in summit after summit to discuss reducing emissions, the fossil-fuel companies are going about their business on the assumption that they will be able to extract all the fuels currently in the ground, including by such dirty and dangerous methods as fracking.

The difficulty of converting awareness about climate change into action to deal with it, has been laid in the past at the door of the green movement itself, especially after the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. Greens, apparently, have been too consciously radical, not willing enough to find market-based solutions and to work with companies to protect their profit margins. Klein’s book, in fact, has come in for criticism on these grounds, with Paul Kingsnorth complainingin the London Review of Books that it ‘threatens to entrench the cultural polarisation which Marshall [George Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It. Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, Bloomsbury 2014] identifies as a main obstacle to action.’ Underlying these sorts of complaints about the green movement is an assumption that climate change is essentially a technical rather than a political issue. If all we have to do is plug in a different method of electricity generation, then surely the only reason why corporations are so resistant must be that those nasty greens are convincing them that doing so would be an inherently left-wing, profit-damaging act. The generally progressive nature of green groups and Green Parties is, in this view, actually counterproductive, since those with the power to act are likely to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything proposed from that political direction.

The identification of climate change as a purely left issue is perhaps clearer in the US and Canada than in the UK. While the Tory Party and UKIP may be the natural homes of climate change deniers, there is also a right-wing body of opinion which does see climate change as important and to which it was worth David Cameron appealing with his thoroughly mendacious ‘greenest government ever’ claims in the run up to the 2010 general election. The point, however, is as valid here as on the other side of the Atlantic. The assumption that the solutions to climate change are compatible with the market is wrong, as the attempts to lever free-market methods to promote emissions reductions have failed. Tradable emissions quotas, it turns out, can bring financial benefits for the people trading in them, but they have done very little to bring down the emissions. In fact, the neo-liberal era has been a period of accelerating emissions, even as more of the West’s carbon emissions are outsourced to the Far East.

Klein is very clear that anyone who still believes that compromising with the market is the way forward to reduce emissions has not been paying attention. The problem is that while it is possible to make money from generating electricity from renewable sources, they are never going to generate the huge profits which fossil-fuel companies currently enjoy from oil, nor can they provide the capital-intensive investment opportunities offered by nuclear-power stations. A number of the oil companies have flirted in the past with green branding, suggesting that they could be potential allies – BP, for example, called itself Beyond Petroleum – but now that the greenwashing has done its job for their image, they are largely withdrawing even their minimal investments in renewable technologies. Ultimately, working within the status quo means putting the struggle to respond to climate change at the mercy of powerful companies whose bottom lines depend on us not succeeding. It is easy to see how Klein concludes that there is no responding to climate change in a system where renewables have to compete on profitability grounds with fossil fuels. The alternatives we are facing, as the placards at Copenhagen put it, are System Change or Climate Change.

If this is an obvious conclusion to reach, it’s easier to say than to apply. Given the short timescale if catastrophic climate change is to be averted, how on earth can we even contemplate achieving the scale of the system change required? Klein is always enthusiastic about the power of the movement to effect change and is inspiring here in accounts of the struggles against fracking and the exploitation of tar sands from Canada to Greece; of the people on the ground fighting in what she dubs ‘Blockadia’. Much of the importance of this book lies in the strong push it gives to its readers to take up these and similar struggles. Klein’s reputation means that it will reach well beyond the confines of existing activists and will impel people who have never demonstrated before to pick up a placard.

While this is in an environmental cause, Klein’s call to arms is not restricted to those who already see themselves as environmentalists. She repeats the important insight here that climate change should not be seen as a separate, discrete issue, another area of concern to be juggled with other campaigns, but as an amplifier of all the issues. The problems we face, of lack of democracy, of inequality, of austerity, of privatisation and imperialism will all be worsened beyond recognition if catastrophic climate change were allowed to take hold. The only thing worse than decades of austerity would be decades of austerity in a warming, flooding, storm-ridden world.

Having established the size and importance of the general task, Klein is less clear about the specifics of what we need to be fighting for. If you are looking for a coherent plan of campaign, you will not find that here. It is also rather difficult to pin the book down concerning the scale on which we should be imagining the system change we need. The tendency of much of the green movement has been towards local action, focusing on renewable-energy projects, campaigns against waste and plastic bags, local food and energy co-operatives, and so on. This is at least partly because that is a level at which such goals have felt achievable. The difficulty of compelling the government to switch the entire national grid to renewable energy is apparent, but introducing solar panels for one estate seems like a doable proposition. Banning plastic bags from one town in south Devon was possible, whereas nationally, a mandatory charge of 5p per bag is only being introduced from autumn 2015, and then only for businesses employing more than 250 people.

Klein gives a number of examples of community-level moves to clean energy, of German energy co-ops in particular, and seems enthusiastic about the possibilities of this sort of action. Clean energy co-ops, like local food co-ops are of course laudable and beneficial projects, but there are difficulties with the implication that such efforts are how we will achieve the system change we need. Klein is, separately, sceptical about the ability of individual lifestyle changes to achieve the scale and pace of change required. She is convinced that cuts in individual consumption are necessary, if only because we need to start reducing emissions now, and she says that building a renewable energy infrastructure would take time, but ‘they cannot be left to the lifestyle decisions of earnest urbanites who like going to farmers’ markets on Saturday afternoons and wearing up-cycled clothing’ (p.91).

Extensive changes to transport systems, housing, town planning, and so on would be necessary to enable everyone to make the changes required. Klein is right about this, but without recognising that this is effectively a demonstration that lifestyle changes cannot take the place of changing the system, not even for a short time, since it is the system which traps people in high-emissions lifestyles and which fights against improvements like publicly-owned public transport.

It is not very different for community-level action. There is an assumption with local green projects that they would be a sufficient answer to climate change if all communities would adopt them. The communities setting up the food or energy co-ops are modelling behaviour which would be the solution if only everyone else would follow suit. The problem is that capitalism is very good at accommodating and profiting from small pockets of people who think that they have withdrawn from the system. While switching an estate to renewable energy is a great project, which shows what could be done with the technology, and a local food co-op gives people access to better food without the high-emissions price tag, they are worthwhile activities to do, as well as fighting to change the system itself. They aren’t in themselves how we will overthrow the system. Klein, it is true, does not say outright that they are, but, in the lack of an explicit programme, it is easy to take her enthusiasm for these as a direction of travel.

It is also worth noting that ‘system change’ is an imprecise term which can encompass a range of envisioned changes, from replacing capitalism to simply attempting to adjust it to remove the imperative for growth. While Klein has amassed a convincing body of evidence that we need to change the current system if we are to respond to climate change, the scale of that change is not particularly clear. Her brief comment that a switch to renewables cannot come in time to achieve the cuts in emissions we need is instructive here, as it seems to be an underestimation of what a change in the system could really mean. It is true that infrastructure projects can take decades to undertake, but that is a fact about the current system, not a truth which would be equally valid under all different forms of social organisation. Even capitalist states have moved very quickly when it was in their interest to do so (think of the US economy’s ‘turn on a dime’ on their entry into the Second World War). It seems a failure of imagination to think that the system change called for here would not be able to speed up the planning and commissioning of a green power infrastructure.

Ultimately, Klein demonstrates here that it is very difficult to make a coherent call for what is essentially revolutionary change if you don’t want to appear to be a revolutionary. Klein’s analysis of the problem makes clear that if we are going to usher in a new system which can respond to climate change, we will have to defeat the people, from the oil companies to the Heartland Institute, who benefit from the current one, and who have so far successfully prevented any meaningful action. This requires more than people being concerned about climate change, or even demonstrating to show that they care about climate change; it needs a an organised movement pressing on the aspects on which the system is most vulnerable: it needs to seize the key link in the chain.

Klein’s view of the movement always sees it as more spontaneous and less organised than this, but she does seem to view climate change as a key link. She says in her introduction that ‘the urgency of the climate crisis could form the basis of a powerful mass movement … I have written this book because I came to the conclusion that climate action could provide just such a rare catalyst’ (p.8). The size of the People’s Climate March in September suggests that there may be something in this, but the insight that climate change is an intensifier of other issues rather than a separate concern is important here.

The fight against austerity – a fight against the logic underpinning the system – has also shown the potential to mobilize mass numbers of people, and as Klein shows, it is essentially the same fight as that of climate campaigners. The Campaign against Climate Change’s ‘Time to Act’ demonstration on 7th March 2015, backed by the People’s Assembly, gives us all an opportunity to turn the general expression of concern about climate change shown by the People’s Climate March into a more focused attack on the government and the corporations they represent. The lesson of the history of revolutionary struggle is that whatever the issues which become the spark, the formation of effective mass movements is never spontaneous. If we recognise, as Klein does, that climate change requires us to change the system, we have to be prepared to organise to fight for that change.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.