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In ‘On Fire,’ Naomi Klein envisions a future without climate change

| Monday, January 20, 2020

Lina Domenella | The Observer

Journalist and activist Naomi Klein hears the clock ticking on climate change. She sees the impact of current warming on innocent communities around the world. She fears the future that awaits us all. She also knows the solution — a Green New Deal in the United States and equivalent programs around the world. In her book “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” Klein deftly makes the case for an ambitious restructuring of our fossil fuel-based economy. 

Once upon a time, fire was merely a useful rhetorical tool for conveying the urgency of global warming. Today, countries around the world are regularly ravaged by wildfires of unprecedented intensity — most recently, Australia faces a bushfire crisis. As Klein points out, hotter and drier weather due to climate change has created optimal conditions for apocalyptic fires. 

If drastic action isn’t taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then hurricanes, droughts, crop failures, loss of homes, mass extinction, oppressive air pollution and more fires await. According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we must cut global emissions in half by 2030 and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to avoid the worst of these calamities. 

How did the planet reach such a precarious position? Klein cites an economic paradigm shift toward deregulation, privatization, overconsumption and fetishization of GDP that has been building since the ‘80s. This trend originates in Neoliberalism, a barbarous ideology that aims “to vilify collective action in the name of liberating ‘free markets’ in every aspect of life.” 

Klein lays out the historical case for this diagnosis. In 1988, hundreds of policymakers and scientists met in Montreal to set emissions-reduction targets. TIME magazine named Earth “Planet of the Year” in place of its annual “Man of the Year” award, noting the dangers posed by the greenhouse effect. The odds of global consensus on climate change seemed high. 

Since then, world leaders have lifted environmental regulations and opened wide swaths of land for fossil fuel extraction. Climate change should be global enemy number one, yet governments have incentivized profit maximization for fossil fuel corporations. In the process, Klein writes, wealth and influence have been hoarded by a “screamingly homogenous group of U.S. power players.”

Klein contrasts the free-market fundamentalism of today with the attitudes embodied by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Marshall Plan. These projects were flawed in their discriminatory distribution of benefits. It’s clear, however, that the U.S. can take bold collective action to face daunting threats. 

Enter the Green New Deal, a resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey in 2018. This 14-page document broadly outlines a transition of the U.S. to a net-zero emissions economy by 2030. It calls for huge investments in renewable energy, including sustainable public transportation and housing. The resolution mandates job guarantees for displaced high-carbon workers and the inclusion of historically disadvantaged groups in the decision-making process.

Klein spends little time analyzing the resolution itself or the logistics of implementing it. Instead, she compiles a collection of essays that illustrate why a Green New Deal is necessary and what should be included. Topics range from an unforgiving analysis of the BP oil spill in 2010 to a case for funding art to inspire climate action in 2019. The essays gradually compound into a coherent argument for the Green New Deal’s vision. 

Some critics have called this vision a “laundry list” of leftist pipe dreams. Klein disagrees. Reactionary leaders have traditionally taken advantage of crises to push predatory policies on marginalized groups. This risk remains high if normal Americans are crippled by poverty and systemic racism — existential threats in themselves “if you and your community are in the crosshairs.” For this reason, the Green New Deal aims to reform health care, housing, labor unions and more. In short, the Green New Deal can’t “[force] people to choose between caring about the end of the world and the end of the month.” 

Klein views democratic, decentralized leadership as key to ensuring the inclusion of all voices during the transition to renewables. Massive public pressure and a relentless push for accountability can put an end to endless empty promises. Hope, vigilance and solidarity are the best tools for fighting the most powerful and well-connected forces in the world. As Klein puts it, “movements will make, or break, the Green New Deal.”

This is Klein at her strongest. She aims to restore faith in collective action after decades of Neoliberal dominance. “On Fire” speaks to audiences already sympathetic to climate activism, but Klein makes it clear that hope-driven action is our only option. “Learning has become a radicalizing act,” she writes. Once you learn the threat posed by climate change, it’s difficult to do anything other than pull the fire alarm.

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