It’s Not Easy Being Green

On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal BY Naomi Klein. New York: Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $27.

The cover of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2014) is animated by a counterintuitive insight: It has long been conservatives, rather than the Left or the environmental movement, who have best understood the political implications of global warming. In a chapter titled “The Right Is Right,” she describes attending a Koch-funded conference on climate change in 2011 and hearing a conservative politician warn the crowd that the climate movement was really “a green trojan horse, whose belly is full with red Marxist socioeconomic doctrine.” If only, if only, Klein sighed. If the greens joined forces with the Left, then things could really get moving, because only the radical transformation of society could obviate the worst of the climate catastrophe. “The right, as usual,” she observed, “understands this better than the left, which is why the climate change denial crowd consistently claims that global warming is a socialist conspiracy to redistribute wealth.” If it wanted to win, the climate movement needed to become the broad red-green revolutionary bloc that the conservatives dreaded.

On Fire, a collection of new and old essays from the past decade, is a sequel of sorts to This Changes Everything, reprising many of the earlier book’s arguments and placing them in service of the Green New Deal proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey last year. Paradoxically, now that the left-wing climate movement she called for in This Changes Everything has become increasingly manifest, Klein seems intent on downplaying its radicalism. In an essay originally published by The Intercept in February 2019, she quotes Trump’s bellowing rejoinder to the Ocasio-Cortez/Markey proposal: “I really don’t like their policies of taking away your car, taking away your airplane flights, of ‘let’s hop [on] a train to California,’ or ‘you’re not allowed to own cows anymore!’” For Klein, “Trump’s lies and scare tactics” are a “smear” to tarnish the Green New Deal.

Yet if one reads the latest IPCC reports, it is clear that Trump and other conservative “hamberder”-defenders have a better understanding of the measures a successful eco-socialist program would require than Klein would like to admit. The IPCC has recently called for governments to go “beyond carbon pricing” and embrace “direct regulation and public investment” to reduce the carbon impact of transportation. Earlier this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems endorsed a nearly vegan diet. More and more scientists are coming to the conclusion that driving, flying, and carnivory all must be constrained by state power if emissions are to be reduced. Although she concedes that the Left cannot “deny that there will be changes to the way the wealthiest 10–20 percent of humanity has come to live,” she leaves such changes nebulous. If global warming changes everything, then in On Fire Klein hesitates to elucidate exactly what “everything” means.

On Fire contains some new material, including Klein’s thoughts on the recent students’ strikes, but much of it is given over to her writings on global warming over the past ten years. In her telling, the actual program for the Green New Deal remains abstract. Klein makes her opposition to geo-engineering clear, as well as her support for renewable energy. She is in favor of some form of degrowth but realizes that sustained contraction of greenhouse gas emissions has only occurred during the Great Depression, and leaves matters there. The new economy will have plenty of green jobs (e.g., wind-turbine technician), but Klein argues that care professions in health and education are also green and should play an expanded role. The political frame for the Green New Deal seems to be some form of social democracy, with Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Uruguay serving as sources of inspiration. In her vision, corporations are restrained by the state, but they still seem to exist alongside worker-owned cooperatives. To pay for it all she suggests cutting military spending by a quarter, instituting a “1 percent billionaires tax,” closing tax havens, and imposing a Tobin tax on financial transactions. The main culprits in the climate crisis, per Klein’s telling, are just a hundred large fossil-fuel firms, responsible for emitting 71 percent of GHG emissions since 1988.

Forest fire at Yosemite National Park, California, August 24, 2013. Laurentia Romaniuk/Flickr
Forest fire at Yosemite National Park, California, August 24, 2013. Laurentia Romaniuk/Flickr

By casting the enemies of the Green New Deal as a tiny sliver of society, Klein seems to be trying to build a broad if diffuse climate-justice coalition. She muses about the lessons from the gilets jaunes, the French protest movement initially sparked by putatively green taxes on diesel. Residents in suburbs and rural areas, especially the less affluent who owned cheap and dirty diesel-powered cars, were incensed by the tax hike. For Klein, the root of the discord was expressed in the chant “The government cares about the end of the world—we care about the end of the month.” Her solution is to provide people with decent jobs, health care, and education to ensure that the Green New Deal “will not generate this kind of backlash.” For inspiration, she cites the precedent of the Roosevelt administration dispatching units of the Civilian Conservation Corps to regions that had voted Republican, so they could experience “the benefits of the New Deal up close” and become “less vulnerable to Republican fearmongering.”

Klein paints a rosy picture of how the ninety-nine percent will reach a consensus to support the Green New Deal. She is aware that there must be a massive shift of wealth—and not just from the one percent, but also millions who consider themselves “middle class.” “There will be areas where we in this category [the richest quintile of humanity] must contract—including air travel, meat consumption, and profligate energy use—but there will also be new pleasures and new spaces where we can build abundance.” Yet many people like these perks, and they would likely resist any efforts to take them away. To avoid the inevitability of geo-engineering, more than the one percent must change their ways: There must also be profound social changes of a magnitude that is only hinted at in On Fire. Undermining the current fossil-fueled hegemony and building a coalition for an austere, highly regulated economy will be much harder than she seems willing to consider.

Klein champions the Green New Deal’s target of net-zero emissions by 2030, but she refuses to wade into baroque scientific debates on decarbonization. This is an important omission, as many of the proposals floating around rely heavily on the unproven technology of carbon capture and storage. Large-scale afforestation—planting huge numbers of trees—is almost certainly a more effective, cheaper, and safer means of carbon sequestration. But afforestation requires billions of hectares, land that can only come from the livestock industry’s global pasturage. New forests, food production, and biofuels would then all be competing for land, which means fewer cars, better-planned cities, and more state planning to get all of this done. Yet Klein refrains from spelling out these implications, reluctant as she is to switch from broad-brush arguments to policy pointillism.

Part of On Fire’s vagueness may have to do with its framing. Klein acknowledges the limitations of the original New Deal, which was explicitly aimed at stimulating economic growth, as a historical analogue for the kind of change she is calling for. She does find the New Deal and the Marshall Plan inspiring as examples of how to “enlist entire societies” in the process of social transformation. But when it comes to the Green New Deal, what this enlistment would look like isn’t entirely clear.

Klein criticizes the Marshall Plan as a “highly centralized, top-down transformation,” which she thinks leads to corruption by concentrating power in the hands of fewer people. She thinks the New Deal, whose programs were designed “in a push and pull with social movements,” is a better, more democratic analogy. And yet she acknowledges that the New Deal itself was a conservative reaction to the possibility of communism. Which raises the question: Why call for something you’ve conceded is a half measure? What is the point of having another New Deal in the twenty-first century to save capitalism from communism, when communism may be what is needed? The Soviet Union’s environmental programs, such as ensuring low car density and making extensive use of cogeneration for efficient residential heating, may provide a better model for what needs to be done to overcome the climate crisis.

Klein is well-aware of how the Left and Right are being remade in the crucible of climate change. In the book’s introduction she details how the massacre at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, happened just a stone’s throw away from the School Strike for Climate march. Even in 2011, Klein presciently worried, “How will we treat the climate refugees who arrive on our shores in leaky boats? Will we open our borders [or] adopt ever more draconian anti-immigration laws?” The Right, of course, knows how it will act. Right-wing governments will violently stop refugees from reaching their borders, and right-wing demagogues will remind their supporters that real action on climate change would augur the coup de grâce to hamburgers, flights, McMansions, private cars, and other quotidian pleasures. Because conservatives understand what a truly eco-socialist program would require, their squadristi are on the march in defense of ranchers in the Amazon or coal strip mines in eastern Germany.

The Left, meanwhile, is only getting its bearings. It is admirable that Klein is supporting a cause as worthy as the Green New Deal. Yet fighting climate change requires an accurate reckoning of the balance of forces and the necessary measures in an age of environmental collapse. As Klein herself writes, “the climate movement needs to have one hell of a comeback,” and its only chance is “to learn from the right . . . by making climate change about economics.” The Right is energized because it can see clearly what the stakes are, yet the leaders of the Left persistently try to obfuscate what needs to be done, thus engendering a large but weak coalition. How much worse do things need to be before we are able to have hard conversations about what is needed to reverse climate change? Klein seems unwilling to engage in this debate, but how close to the point of no return do we have to get? When the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, when thousands more species go extinct, when hurricanes make the Caribbean uninhabitable, when the skies have been geo-engineered? If not now, then when?

Troy Vettese is an environmental historian and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University.