“They’re driven by love. And they’re fierce.” Naomi Klein on the Climate Heroes Who Inspire Her

From Native activists to urban youth, new leadership finds ways to deal with climate chaos.
Naomi Klein photo by Aaron Stern

Naomi Klein. Photo by Aaron Stern.

Note: Sections of this interview appeared at the YES! website on October 3, 2014.

The climate crisis is no longer a future danger: Extreme weather, water shortages, heat waves, and flooding are here now. And the impacts of burning fossil fuels continue to worsen.

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Why has it taken so long to respond? Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, explores that question. Klein points to the “terrible timing” of the climate crisis coming into public awareness—with NASA scientist James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to Congress—right at the time free-market “neoliberal” ideology was on the rise. This ideology led to:

1) Anti-government sentiment, austerity budgets, tax cuts, and deregulation, which undercut government’s ability to lead a transition to a clean economy and to protect residents from climate impacts.

2) Global trade deals that override environmental regulations and local green-jobs initiatives.

3) Privatization of sectors needed to transition to renewables.

But Germany has gone the other direction, Klein reports. Taking back their electric utilities helped Germany generate a record 27 percent of electricity from renewables this year. Unlike many who write about climate change, Klein goes beyond analysis of the crisis. She reports on the grassroots activists who are standing up to the coal, tar sands, and gas industries and building alternatives that are green and just. These are the powerful people’s movements that together, she says, could “change everything.”


Sarah van Gelder: One of things I love about your book is that you show we can still rise to the challenge of the climate crisis. Let’s start by talking about “Blockadia”—the places where people are shutting down oil, coal, and gas extraction and transportation. Why is that so important?

We need investments in the next economy and the next paradigm.

Naomi Klein: The term Blockadia, as you know, comes from the tar sands fight in Texas around the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline. But the movement to keep the carbon in the ground didn’t begin there. We’ve always had local resistance in places like Appalachia and the Alberta tar sands. And, in the book, I start with the Ogoni struggle against oil extraction in the Niger Delta in the 1990s.

But in the past five years, we’ve seen Blockadia emerge very forcefully in North America as the flip side of the fossil fuel frenzy. In the past, the people who enjoyed more socio-economic privilege were protected from having to see the sacrifice zones and face the risks. But now the hunger to get at the hardest-to-reach fossil fuels is voracious and requires so much new infrastructure. If you’re going to dig up the Alberta tar sands, for example, you have to build a whole network of new pipelines. If you’re going to open up Montana to Wyoming-style coal mining, you’ve got to build new railways and new export terminals to get the coal out, because the market for it is collapsing in the U.S.

So this network of fossil fuel infrastructure—and I would include fracking—has built a movement that includes unlikely coalitions, like the Cowboy and Indian Alliance.

What I heard again and again is that their biggest problem is entrenched poverty and decrepit services.

I think it goes deeper than alliances of convenience, though. The fight against the Northern Gateway Pipeline through British Columbia to carry tar sands bitumen has provided a real education for non-Native Canadians. They’re seeing on a deeper level the extent to which First Nations’ land rights are the single most powerful barrier to putting our whole ecology at risk.

van Gelder: I was in Bella Bella, British Columbia, at a First Nations rally to protest the pipeline. I remember a Haida leader saying, “The non-Natives are finally coming out on the front lines with us.”

Klein: When [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper approved the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the immediate response was, “We’ll see about that!” Even mainstream editorials were saying, “Wait a minute. How can he do this when our Supreme Court has ruled that First Nations’ rights are real and can’t just be rolled over?”

In the book, I write that there is also a history in the environmental movement of an extractive relationship to indigenous rights, where it’s: “OK, I just want to use your special rights to win our lawsuit.” It isn’t a reciprocal relationship—it isn’t based on fighting for decolonization and for real sovereignty.

van Gelder: What does it look like when the relationship is done right?

Klein: Part of the way it’s done right is by listening to people in frontline communities, where the extractive industries are offering jobs that potentially destroy a way of life. What I heard again and again in my research is that their biggest problem is entrenched poverty and decrepit services.

Phillip Whiteman Jr., a spiritual leader in a Northern Cheyenne community, has been fighting coal on Northern Cheyenne land for a very long time. When I first met him, he said, “I can’t keep asking my people to suffer with me.” When you have unemployment levels around 80 percent and all you’re saying is “just say no to coal,” but you’re not offering other economic opportunities, it wears people down. We need to be able to offer something else.

This one felt like a people’s march … because of a remarkable, often painful, coalition that was built.

One of the best examples of people trying to do that is the Black Mesa Water Coalition and their proposal to convert land that has been depleted by coal mining into a utility-scale solar generation farm owned and operated by the Navajo. They say they’ve taken the coal fight as far as they can take it. They’ve won some big victories, but when coal is the major employer, it can’t just be “no.” There has to be a “yes.”

van Gelder: As part of Climate Week this fall, there was a big announcement of a $50 billion divestment from fossil fuels. How can the divest/invest movement help build the sort of local economy that can alleviate poverty?

Klein: Divestment isn’t about trying to bankrupt ExxonMobil. It’s about delegitimizing this industry so that taking fossil fuel money is like taking tobacco money—there is a moral taint to it. Also, if those profits are illegitimate, then that means the public has a right to them to help get us off fossil fuels.

The unexpected piece of news was that the Rockefeller family is divesting parts of the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Valerie Rockefeller Wayne [chair of the foundation] said, “I have a moral responsibility—because my family fortune comes from oil—to fund this transition.” I think we should call that the Rockefeller Principle.

But it’s not just about flipping from big coal to big green. We need to invest in the tools that frontline communities need to win, like real economic options that are owned and controlled locally. We need investments in the next economy and the next paradigm so that people in Richmond, Calif., for example, have the opportunity to work in a solar co-op instead of in the Chevron refinery.

van Gelder: What was it like for you to be part of the People’s Climate March in New York City? Did you experience the coming together of social movements that you were hoping to see when you wrote This Changes Everything?

The hope is that climate is the biggest tent—it’s our atmosphere.

Klein: Oh, yeah. The march was a glimpse of the movement we need. It wasn’t just that it was so diverse. It was that the most energetic parts of the march were the nurses’ unions—they were just incredible—and the transit workers, and the South Bronx contingent, which was made up of young people making the connections between climate justice and things like health and jobs.

The sense of threat from climate change and the hope were so powerful. It was in every way different from the last big climate march at a U.N. gathering I attended, which was in Copenhagen in 2009.

van Gelder: How was the New York march different?

Klein: In Copenhagen, it felt like only professional activists were there. This one felt like a people’s march, and that was because of a remarkable, often painful, coalition that was built.

One of the things that happened is that the big NGOs checked their branding at the door and actually made real space for communities to lead and speak.

I think that the whole funder model has been part of the problem, where it’s all about getting your photo op and showing “Our brand’s here!” and then going to a foundation and going, “Look! We did this. Look at our logo. It’s everywhere.”

People get so pissed off when organizing is done that way. This was the first time that I’ve seen real progress in this regard. Because everybody is so happy with how the march turned out, I think that, with any luck, this will lead to lasting change in how we build a movement.

van Gelder: You talk in your book about the “unfinished liberation struggles.” Many of the people’s movements we celebrate—civil rights, anti-apartheid, women’s rights—succeeded in some ways, but failed to win economic power. Did you see in the People’s Climate March renewed attention to these “unfinished liberation struggles”?

Klein: The kind of hope that climate action represents—to people in the South Bronx and other low-income communities of color in the U.S., but also in countries like Bolivia—is because it directly addresses foundational issues around why our societies are so unequal. Colonialism predates coal, but coal supercharged the colonial project, allowing the pillaging of the Global South, and locked us into these incredibly unequal extractive relationships.

Watching this new generation of women leaders come up with great confidence and humility and eloquence and just love.

We in the Global North have built up an ecological debt. Fossil fuels built the modern world. And the countries that have a 200-year head start on emitting carbon have a special responsibility to both cut emissions first and fastest, and also to help countries that have not been contributing to this problem for nearly as long to leapfrog over fossil fuels and not be forced to choose between poverty and pollution. This is a process by which we begin to heal these colonial wounds.

And so, yeah, I talk about this as the unfinished business of liberation because so many of the past great social movements won on the legal and cultural sides but not on the economic side. There never were reparations for slavery. There never were the investments in the public sphere that the Civil Rights movement demanded.

So the dream is that in responding to climate change through a justice lens—through a lens that is not afraid to look at history and the real roots of inequality—we build a movement of movements that brings together all of these struggles. The hope is that climate is the biggest tent—it’s our atmosphere. We just have to know we’re all in the tent.

van Gelder: Among the people who you’ve met in your travels, who has moved you most personally? Who has deepened your connection to this work?

Klein: A few of the women in the book are my heroes. Crystal Lameman is from the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation in northern Alberta, which is suing the Canadian government over the tar sands expansion. Meeting Crystal and seeing what she’s up against and how accountable she is to her community and to her elders—and just the huge burden being placed on some of the poorest people in the world to fight some of the biggest battles—is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

The countries that have a 200-year head start on emitting carbon have a special responsibility to both cut emissions first and fastest.

Also Melina Laboucan-Massimo. It was exciting for me to see Melina and Crystal at the front of the climate march on either side of Leonardo DiCaprio.

And Alexis Bonogofsky, a goat rancher in Billings, who says, “Love will save this place.” I think that’s the best quote in the book. She says, “That’s what Arch Coal will never understand—that it isn’t about hate.”

And Jess Housty who’s from Bella Bella, who taught me early on how much these movements are based on the deep love of place.

All are deeply connected to where they live. And they are all relatively young women. There are particular challenges about being a woman in that kind of leadership role, but the joy that all of them bring to the struggle … I mean, it’s not simple. It’s painful. But it is so much about love of community and love of place.

Jess in particular, when she talks about the fight against the Northern Gateway Pipeline, she’s so eloquent in describing this as being a transformative process of people becoming more deeply connected to one another and to the land and water.

That’s been the most inspiring thing for me—watching this new generation of women leaders come up with great confidence and humility and eloquence and just love. They’re driven by love. And they’re fierce.