'A goddamn terrifying time to be alive': Naomi Klein explains what 'increasingly barbaric political figures' like Trump have figured out about the future
The new book warns that "by far the biggest obstacle we are up against is hopelessness," but its author—journalist and activist Naomi Klein—says that when it comes to the planetary climate emergency, hope is something humanity will have to earn.
Available in the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada on Tuesday, Klein's book—titled "On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal"— is not just a collection of reporting and columns she's written over the last decade, but a plea to readers across the globe to recognize the "all hands on deck moment" we are now living in.
In a conversation with Common Dreams ahead of the book's release, Klein explained that only bold, collective action worldwide—led by an international movement dedicated to social justice and antagonistic toward supremacist ideologies—will be enough to stave off the worst of the geophysical threats of a hotter planet and battle the related politics of cruelty espoused by fascist leaders like Donald Trump in the U.S., Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, and Matteo Salvini in Italy.
"What is terrifying is the intersection of these two different kinds of fires," said Klein. "That the literal fires of the climate crisis and the political fires of this barbaric worldview that is not so gradually preparing people for a world in which millions are left to die."
The word "gradually," Klein noted, is key "because we are already at a point where people are going about their daily business in European capitals as thousands and thousands of mostly African migrants die in the Mediterranean. This has been going on for years now."
The same could be said of migrant families and refugees victimized by Trump's policies along the U.S.-Mexico border and his broader mistreatment of vulnerable people inside the country and across the world.
"I don't think it is a coincidence," she continued, "that increasingly barbaric political figures like Trump and Salvini, Bolsonaro, Modi are emerging in this moment where people—whether they deny it or not—do understand on some level that we have entered a period where there is going to be less land that it's fit for humans to live on."
For Klein, there isn't a choice between whether the increase of extreme storms like the recent Hurricane Dorian which slammed the Bahamas or the fires ravaging the Amazon in Brazil are scarier than the kind of dehumanizing border policies and racism exemplified by Trump, Salvini, and others.
"It is the combination that is terrifying," she said. "For me, the climate crisis has never just been about things getting hotter and wetter. It's about the intersection of that extreme weather with the barbarism of white supremacy and supremacist ideologies of all kinds, including Hindu supremacy in India, and what it looks like when those forces intersect."
Remember: The Global Green New Deal Must Be... Global
While she first came to recognize the idea "eco-apartheid" when she reported on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans—where poor, predominantly black residents suffered the most and received the least relief from the storm's devastation—"now we are seeing it on a global scale."
In fact, she added, "we have been seeing it on a global scale for a very, very long time. But now what we're seeing is an intensification of it."
Trump's decision last week to block victims of Dorian in the Bahamas from receiving Temporary Protection Status (TPS), Klein warned, is a telling signal that Trump—whether he states it publicly or not—knows full well what the implications are if the designation of protection was available to the world's growing population of climate refugees. Currently, TPS designation is reserved for those fleeing "natural" disasters and war zones, but does not have a classification for people fleeing homelands or regions forever lost to climate destruction.
"I think that the Trump administration understood very early on that this was dangerous to their very anti-immigrant agenda," Klein explained, "which is why they attacked TPS for Haitians, Salvadorans, and on and on."
While making such a move in the middle of the evacuation of the Bahamas seemed particularly horrific, Klein pointed out that this is nothing new to the administration, but "absolutely consistent" with what Trump has been doing since taking office.
And it's all the more reason, she explained, why people interested in the book and the demand for the Green New Deal must understand that justice stands as its key component and that it must be a truly global Green New Deal for all people, not one based on nationalism, jingoism, or the siloed concerns of elites.
"I believe we aren't talking about the global nature of our lens enough," Klein said.
In the United States, she continued, "I think Bernie [Sanders'] campaign has done a very good job of articulating what the U.S. piece of a global Green New Deal would look like, because he's talking about huge levels of international financing, of economic transfers to help the Global South leapfrog over fossil fuels and also prepare themselves for the climate shocks that are inevitable."
By upholding those kinds of principles, Klein said, what Sanders is offering "is the precise opposite of the kind of barbarism we're seeing from Trump."
Setting that example aside—and the book repeatedly takes an international perspective—Klein said she has serious concerns that many of the Democratic candidates running to oust Trump in 2020 are not talking about the Green New Deal in terms of international obligations or solidarity with others around the globe.
"We need to be talking more about immigration and what the future of the border looks like in the context of a crisis that was created in wealthy countries," she explained, "but is impacting the poorest people in the world first and worst. And those connections, I think, are still not being made nearly enough."
In addition to candidates pushing half-measures that are not actually up to the task of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, Klein also highlighted why many "highly nationalist" proposals are deeply problematic as well.
"We're going to help the Global South by making them buy our solar panels?" she said. "That is just more economic imperialism." To Klein, that kind of thinking fails to embrace the "sweeping spirit" at the heart of the climate justice movement.
Klein explained that in the book she quotes Angélica Navarro, Bolivia's then ambassador to the World Trade Organization, but who was also part of Bolivia's climate negotiation team at the 2009 U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen. "Exactly 10 years ago," she said, "Navarro called for a Marshall Plan for planet earth. She was building on a concept of ecological debt that comes from social movements in Ecuador, in Nigeria, in frontline African-American and Latino communities in the United States. So that's the origin of this idea. It was never a nationalist plank."
Welcome to the (Very Mature) Climate Justice Movement
As both a member of the global climate justice movement and one of its most popular and widely-read chroniclers, Klein says there have been many prophetic voices over the thirty years since the crisis of global warming and climate change became known—many of them from frontline communities in the Global South.
These are people like Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands, Klein recounted to Common Dreams, "Who stood at the podium in New York at the U.N. [in 2014] holding her nine-month-old baby and read a poem to her, saying we're not drowning."
Or, she said, "think about, Yeb Saño from the Philippines who was on the Philippines climate negotiating team at the U.N. Climate Summit when Typhoon Haiyan hit his family's home and he broke down and wept."
The clamor for climate justice and for action, Klein remarked, is nothing new. And while the book's release comes just days before global Climate Strikes are set to kickoff in countries around the world on Friday—promoted as the largest series of climate protests ever—the demand for something like a Green New Deal is not new either.
The question now—and the central question explored in the book—is whether or not the urgent demands can be realized in the amount of time that scientists say is necessary. Can humanity wrap its head around a problem that we as a species have been intensely programmed away from confronting, let alone solving?
As another more recent voice in the climate justice movement, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, has said, "We've had thirty years of pep-talking and selling positive ideas. And I'm sorry, but it doesn't work. Because if it would have, the emissions would have gone down by now—they haven't."
Like Jetnil-Kijiner and Saño, Klein says that Thunberg has also emerged as a prophetic voice for the global movement, bringing unique perspective as both a young person and someone who identifies as being on the Autism spectrum.
"I think the message for me," said Klein, "is just our movements are strongest when we embrace diversity and difference of perspective. And Greta has that, as somebody on the Autism spectrum who has shared her story with so much courage and candor and has become a role model for young people around the world. But particularly for neuro-atypical people."
One of the other things Thunberg has said is, "We do need hope. Of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere."
"I think that hope is something that we earn," she said. "It isn't something static. It isn't something that you have. It's something that is earned with action and the space for hope is enlarged the more active we become."
Forces Coming Together
Ultimately, the global movement clamoring for bold climate action cannot be—and should not be—whittled down. It is not just a series of demands or policy proposals, but neither is it a fixed call for hope or change.
"It is a spiritual project. It is a narrative project. It is a movement project. It is a political project," Klein explained. "And it is all of those forces coming together. We have a long way to go to build the political power required to turn the vision of the boldest, most justice-based Green New Deal into policy. But it is absolutely extraordinary to think how fast we have moved already."
She credited people like Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, and the broader youth climate justice movement for all their work.
"They have done so damn much to move the political needle and create this extraordinary context where CNN felt the need to devote seven hours to the climate emergency. And the vast majority of candidates on that stage had to profess their fealty to the Green New Deal, whether they meant it or not," Klein said.
But still, she continued, "we have a long way to go to build the kind of multi-racial, working-class movement that sees itself in the future articulated in the Green New Deal. That sees hope and a better world, not just better than a future of climate breakdown, but better than the present."
It is for this reason, Klein explained, that earlier this year—in partnership with artist and activist Molly Crabapple and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—that she helped produce a short animated video trying to offer a vision of the kind of "beautiful world" the Green New Deal could create.
The response to the video was amazing. "We had something like 10 million views in a week," Klein said.
But it is that very excitement that helps show why half-measures or partial political gestures from lawmakers don't qualify as the Green New Deal.
"We obviously need a candidate who embraces this vision, puts it the center of their platform, not one item to tick on the laundry list," Klein said. "Because that's the exact opposite of the whole idea of a Green New Deal, is that it's not an item on a laundry list. It is a vision for the next economy that is holistic."
And what's exciting, she continued, is that with a candidate like Sanders in the race—and other Democratic candidates now forced to at least pretend they have serious plans to address the crisis—there's at least a pathway.
"We need that person to kick Donald Trump's ass," Klein said. "And we need a movement outside pushing and pushing for that vision, pushing every step of the way. Because, my God, the backlash from the fossil fuel industry, from the banks, from every elite sector is going to be so fierce."
The change in the political landscape, "is not in the fact that there are people talking about this vision," argued Klein. "The change is that there is now a political pathway to power, where we could imagine it actually being implemented."
But the pathway is a narrow one, she added, "So the question is how do we enlarge that pathway? How do we improve our chances? How do we earn the hope that we could actually do this? That's the only discussion that matters."
In the book, Klein writes:
For decades, the biggest barrier to winning climate legislation has been a vast power mismatch. Opposition to action from fossil fuel companies was ferocious, creative, and tenacious. But when it came to the kinds of weak (and very often unjust) market-based climate policies that made it into the political agenda, support was tepid at best.
The Green New Deal, however, is already showing that it has the power to mobilize a truly intersectional mass movement behind it—not despite its sweeping ambition, but precisely because of it.
So with a beautiful vision and a political pathway—albeit a narrow one—to attaining power, is there a flip side to this climate emergency? Is it possible that this is a good moment to be alive in order to wage these crucial fights and create this better future?
"It's a goddamn terrifying time to be alive," responded Klein. "My friend, Elizabeth Paredo in Bolivia, was one of that country's prominent feminists and environmental voices, said to me 10 years ago, 'We have never negotiated so close to death before.' And she was talking about Bolivia's melting glaciers and the fact that Bolivia was negotiating for its life."
And now, Klein said, "that's where we all are. As a species, we've never been so close to death and we have this narrow pathway that is the path to life, right? And it's like, which side are we on? It is all hands on deck."
The final question is this, she said: "What are we going to do to fight for life right now?"