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Climate change and no change

28 November 2014

David Atkinson reads a challenge to face up to the science now


This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the climate
Naomi Klein
Allen Lane £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT292 )

THE Canadian author Naomi Klein pulls no punches in her wake-up call about climate change. We are in a war between the attempt to avert environmental catastrophe and the future of neo-liberal capitalism. Do we sustain the illusion of limitless economic growth, or do we sustain future life on earth? Too many - even environmentalists - have wanted both for too long. But the door on a two-degree rise is closing fast: 2017 marks a cut-off point for a serious reduction in carbon emissions.

Klein's targets include unscrupulous industrial expansion, which places profit above sustainability, and fails to understand the deep love that people have for their homes and natural environment, or the dependence that we all have on a sustainable earth; unjust trade-laws that encourage both polluters and the weak governments that hide behind them; and coal and oil companies that assume that governments will not curb carbon emissions, and so just keep drilling.

She attacks the "reigning ideology" of "extractivism" (a "dominance-based" relationship to the earth which goes back to Francis Bacon), and the capitalist fundamentalism built on it. Our economic system fetishises GDP growth, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, failing to value things that we cherish - a decent standard of living, security, and relationships. We need a visionary shift to an alternative world-view embedded in interdependence, reciprocity, and co-operation.

Klein is angry about the violation of land rights of comparatively powerless Indigenous people. She is scathing about the $100,000-a-day oil-company CEO who protests against fracking activities near his $5-million Texas house, claiming that it would lower property values, and about Richard Branson's flamboyant £3-billion pledge in 2006 to help us get off oil-dependency, of which scarcely anything has so far been seen. She is shocked to find the world's largest green group itself drilling for oil.

Klein visits the US Heartland Institute, a group part-funded by oil companies, whose purpose is to spread doubt about climate science. In fact, many "Heartlanders" understand the science all too well - but realise that, if climate change is real, the implications for our economic and social systems are profound. Climate change "detonates the ideological scaffolding" on which contemporary economics, politics, and much of the media rest.

She underlines the heavy responsibility on the rich North to enable the global South to produce efficient low carbon energy - not just because it is right, but because our collective survival depends on it.

But all is not lost. This is a positive and hopeful book. Climate change represents huge opportunities to spur political and economic transformation, improve lives, reduce inequality, create jobs, block harmful trade, reinvigorate local democracy, and invest in public services. There is still time to avoid catastrophe, but not within the rules of capitalism as currently constructed.

It will be costly, because of the carbon left in the ground, and because of the regulations, taxes, and social programmes needed for the required transformation; but not as costly as doing nothing.

Klein sees hope in "Blockadia" - a growing, broadly based mass movement of resistance to high-risk carbon extraction. The failure of politicians means that action will have to come "from the ground up". Klein celebrates local renewable-energy initiatives, as at Balcombe, and the rapidly growing campaign among Churches, universities, and financial foundations to disinvest from fossil-fuel extraction, and invest instead in clean energy and life-giving projects.

The book, with a primarily North American focus, is extensively researched and challengingly written. A kindly editor should have said that it was too long (466 pages, with another 100 for notes), and pointed out some sweeping generalisations. But its power is in its central point: what the climate needs to avoid collapse is to stop burning fossil fuels; however, what our present economic model demands is unlimited growth in extraction and consumption. We do have a choice, but there is not much time to get this right.

Dr David Atkinson is Honorary Assistant Bishop in the diocese of Southwark.

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