PEN III #1 This Changes Everything


George Hewison              VOLUME III, NUMBER 1                January 2015                      





“Naomi Klein’s book may be the manifesto that the climate movement-and the planet-needs right now”.  So says Oakland writer and reviewer, Mason Inman, in San Francisco’s SFGate, and I agree!!!

Her manifesto is a clarion call to the people of the world and an important guidepost to action on the central issue of our time.

There are two basic camps in the world: those who acknowledge climate change backed by the world science community; and climate change deniers and those who cloud the dangers, backed by the fossil fuel industry, their lobbyists and political/ ideological minions. The first camp is growing, but still largely unfocussed and defensive, while the other is small, determined, well-heeled, well-connected and powerful.  The second group has been winning up to now. Klein’s book establishes the writer as a preeminent ideological leader of the group who hold the destiny of the human race in its hands.

Scientists have been sounding the alarm on climate change for decades. Last week (January 9, 2015), researchers at NASA and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) yet again rang their bell, this time more desperately than ever. Their studies indicated 2014 was the warmest year on record with the result that 14 of the last 15 were “the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades”[1].

Is it as urgent as Klein calls it? You bet! Now consider this. One prominent environmental group accuses Klein of “promoting her new book with the time-honored tactic of saying something so outrageous that media can’t help but report it….”[2] So, to anyone who has not read the book, this particular group has reduced Klein’s well-reasoned work to sensationalism. To what end? Book sales? Read the book and be convinced as I am that some environmental groups, having ridden on the coattails of expanding environmental consciousness, are actually running interference for the fossil fuel industry, if not directly profiting from it (as she points out).

But as Klein describes, that is not the main problem. The main problem is that the fossil fuel industry (likely the greatest threat to the human species) is backstopped by the main ideology of the day, i.e. economic development must always trump the environment and the climate! If that ideology wins, we, the human race, lose. That is, or should be, the political cut line of our epoch from which every strategy and tactic should flow. That is what “changes everything”. But, as Klein points out, the ideological underpinnings for climate change run centuries deep.

Today’s ideological current that forces society to choose between economic expansion and the environment is postponing a most painful day of decision about human survival. There is an escalating price that will be paid for the human species to carry on.

By linking political economy to climate change, Klein begins to offer a compelling alternative ideology. Anticipating the argument that an alternative can’t succeed because it demands sacrifice, she responds that the people of the world are already sacrificing mightily on the altar of neoliberalism: austerity, deregulation and growing impoverishment as the wealth gap grows. She contrasts so-called international “trade deals” (with their iron clad clauses to prevent local governments from legally doing the very things needed to be done to forestall climate change) to the “voluntary” quotas on greenhouse gas emissions that have been largely ignored. In pointing this out, she destroys seemingly attractive arguments for postponing action on climate change in the developed world until big players in the developing world are also on board.

“This Changes Everything” should be required reading for every would-be local, provincial, national and international politician. Will they read it? Will they act on it? The nature of today’s Canadian politics suggests that real leadership on the environment must come from below, because “leaders” seem to only follow when it is “safe” to do so.

The last nine years under Stephen Harper’s Conservative stewardship has been a disaster for the climate. The economic strategy has been the exact opposite of what Klein suggests the times demand. Austerity and deregulation, combined with more global corporate power and a fossil fuel extraction/export economic strategy has earned Canada the international environmental pariah award. For the planet to be secure for future generations, this entire strategy must be reversed. Climate change and the environment are not only NOT on the Harper radar, the Prime Minister has gone out of his way to muzzle scientists who utter “inconvenient truths”. There is little hope that the 25 percent core Conservative voters can or will force a change in Conservative direction.

What about the Opposition? Is it up to the challenge? Surveying the field as it is currently constituted, there is little to suggest they get the urgency of the situation or Klein’s central thesis. At a year-end press conference, Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, says climate change is the issue of our times and yet, almost in the same sentence, dismisses any cooperation with the New Democrats to dump the worst environmental government in Canada’s history.[3] The Liberal position on the Tar Sands (or the largest Canadian contribution to climate change) and pipelines and fossil fuel-enabling trade deals is not dissimilar to the Conservatives.

The NDP’s Thomas Mulcair’s preoccupation with the “Dutch disease”[4], and support for one pipeline over another, or disapproval over a review process reveals an incoherent linkage between economics and the perils facing humanity.  We begin to see the enormous mountain that environmentally concerned Canadians have to climb. The NDP leadership, like the Liberals, see themselves as government-in-waiting. Their line is that the Conservatives and the Liberals are virtually the same. Stacked against the most pressing issue of our time, such a view is delusional. Many could point out that so far there is very little to choose between the Liberals and the New Democrats on the central issue of climate change. In any event, because of Canada’s first-past-the-post voting system, electoral competition between the two (maybe three or four if one includes the Greens and the Bloc) main opposition parties is a very dangerous strategy for Canadians and the world, especially so as both the Liberals and NDP are still largely trapped by polls, and at the moment at least seduced by a tempting ideology that economics trumps the environment, and this path continues to hold the keys to power.

We would expect the Greens to behave better. However, it wasn’t until I absorbed Klein’s spanking of various large and important players in the environmental movement that I made sense of the fact that the ideological position of the Greens is all over the map. The Greens mixed bag of policies following a few electoral victories comes with a pronounced and nuanced back-tracking on the central Canadian contribution to global climate change, the fossil fuel industry. On the Tar Sands, the Greens spout generalities, but support policies that expand the Tar Sands and other aspects of fossil fuel production. They too acknowledge the real politik, i.e. where the electorates’ head is at. Leadership, I think not! Little wonder that in governments around the world, Greens have turned out not much different than all of the others, and in some cases, worse.

Where does that leave us? Our politics are not a pretty picture at the moment, but it is not hopeless, and electoral politics do matter. If the problem is the real politik of where Canadians heads are at, then that must be where the starting point of action must be. And there is a lot of extra electoral action going on. History shows linking action to politics and vice versa brings results, and Naomi Klein’s work can assist.

In less than nine months (possibly much sooner), Canadians will be entering yet another fateful federal election, most assuredly, the most decisive yet. There are a lot of issues of fundamental justice and democracy on the Canadian plate. But all of these are interwoven with the greatest issue of our time…our carbon footprint and climate change. Placed another way, none of all the other important issues will matter if climate change and human survival is not viewed as primary. Like the issue of nuclear annihilation a generation ago, the current creeping (and not so creeping) danger should frame any strategic or tactical goal.

Within that, it must be acknowledged that the fossil fuel industry has created enough obfuscation that, “with a little help” from their mass media friends, their strategy has reached deep into the psyche of the population, including the ranks of progressives to paralyze them/us (including as Klein points out the paralysis of fear leading to reactionary conclusions), create doubt, or suggest the crisis is not so deep and/or that we have the luxury of time; and/or that we can accommodate parts of the fossil fuel industry. Meanwhile the fossil fuel corporations merrily make plans fifty years into the future to tap every source of carbon on the planet (a lot of it in Canada) and ready to be mined, and transported out of the country to add to our collective carbon footprint.

Containing temperatures to under 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial society (that the Copenhagen Summit suggested was absolutely required to prevent catastrophic effects on our climate) is now going to be increasingly difficult to achieve. The Lima Summit, as last year was closing, was considered a failure in the eyes of  those hoping world leaders would rise to the challenge of the epoch. Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, announced at an ALBA Summit in Havana in December that, given the desperate situation facing “Mother Earth”, he was prepared to host a gathering of world social movements early this year to light a fire under world leaders in anticipation of the Paris Summit to be held at the end of  the year. Paris must not be a failure.

That brings us back to Canada. Any short term tactic, including an electoral tactic, must take this into account. There is insufficient time to knock down the sceptics (or pessimism, or political opportunism) in all political parties and social movements. But a start can be made and can have a profound influence on the election, or future government(s) and lay the basis for a more fully fleshed out and coherent environmental tactic in the post-election period. Popularizing Klein’s book in the coming weeks and months will help this process immensely. I know that Naomi Klein has helped me with my focus.

The Political Economy Newsletter was established because, as a lifetime labour and social activist, I firmly believed that thirty years of Keynesianism, followed by forty years of Milton Friedman, had scrubbed our collective memories of the big thinking needed for a real social and economic alternative. Three generations have been born and grown up to accept that nothing else is possible. The PEN will continue to critique the existing economic model and promote and debate the search for alternatives. We know that as movements grow, debate and clarity follow. Naomi Klein has given a powerful and popular push to re-think how all of that fits into all of our strategies for the defence of humankind.

I totally get the struggles of the Occupy Movement or the endeavours of the Broadbent Institute that address fundamental questions of equity. I also understand some in the Left Wing, who in praising Klein, are also critical (perhaps too strong a word) of her contribution because she is “imprecise” in using various descriptors for capitalism. Klein has initiated an important debate on the most important question of the day, not ended it. Ending capitalism is not on the immediate horizon, electorally or otherwise, thus the debate over differences must be framed within the bigger context of taking steps to build a movement so powerful as to force action. Ms. Klein has helped to recalibrate our thinking on all of these important matters and their interconnections, and without needing to place a check on our critical thinking, we must acknowledge that it is her definition of a big “re-think” that is so needed at the present time.

Please read “THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING” dear friends, and get your public library to stock it. Get your friends to read it and debate it.

[1] Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He went on to say “The new temperature record announced today completely exposes the myth that global warming has stopped. Here is mounting evidence all around the world that the Earth is warming and the climate is changing in response to rising levels of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere…Climate change is happening, and as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, national scientific academies and scientific organizations have all concluded (that) human activities, particularly burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, are primarily responsible.  BBC NEWS Science and Environment January 16, 2015.

[2] Eric Pooley in the September 12 issue of CLIMATE. Tellingly Klein destroys Pooley’s support for fracking as the bridging fuel to renewable energy sources.

[3] “Stephen Harper continues to make Canada into an international environmental pariah”. Vancouver Observer.

[4] Concentrating on the distorting effect of oil pricing on other aspects of the economy (“Dutch disease”) suggests an understanding of global economic theory and the folly of Harper’s economic strategy, but misses the main thesis that economics cannot trump the laws of nature.