Naomi Klein in conversation with Johan Rockström at Kulturhuset in Stockholm

Introducing “decade zero”

Text & photo by Iskra Pollak Dorocic

A revived environmental movement is gaining ground. Just in time for the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) in Paris, the renowned journalist and activist Naomi Klein came to Stockholm to speak about how the world found itself in the midst of climate change, and what we should do to avoid the worst.

Is it really possible to be bored by the end of the world?” asks Naomi Klein at the beginning of her documentary about climate change. Klein admits that she, like many of us, felt so overwhelmed and pessimistic about the topic that it was easier just to ignore it. It’s not that we don’t believe climate change is happening, but what can one individual really do to make an impact?

We all know the everyday things we should do: buy energy efficient light bulbs, recycle, don’t waste paper on printing, bike instead of drive, eat less meat, and on and on. But are we really going to save the planet by simply buying the latest “green” product on the market and turning off the lights?

No, argues Naomi Klein, the award-winning journalist and thinker who wrote This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. Klein recently visited Stockholm to premiere the documentary of the same name and to participate in a discussion at Kulturhuset with Johan Rockström, Professor in Environmental Science at Stockholm University and the Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “Because we’ve procrastinated for two and a half decades, and because we’ve allowed emissions to increase by 60%, if we are going to stay within that very limited carbon budget, we now need to take radical action”, starts Klein.

Her powerful book describes in detail how the world got to point of skyrocketing carbon emissions. It’s largely a political problem, rather than a scientific one. Virtually all scientists agree that climate change is occurring, at least in part, due to human actions: of the more than 4,000 academic papers published over 20 years, 97% agree that climate change is human-caused. The first scientific findings demonstrating that burning carbon could be warming the planet were published in the late 1950s. The claim was widely accepted worldwide, to the point that the first major international meeting to set specific targets for emission reductions took place in 1988, and was attended by hundreds of scientists and politicians from 46 countries. The meeting concluded that countries should cut emissions 20% by 2005.

It’s largely a political problem, rather than a scientific one. 

 

If we had started then, the world would have needed to reduce its carbon emissions by only 2% per year until 2005. This would have provided ample time to slowly start developing and introducing replacement technologies. If you’ve been paying any attention lately, you know that this is not what happened. Instead, the world has been pumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere. In 2013, global CO2 emissions were 61% higher than they were in 1990. And since this buildup is cumulative, the situation we find ourselves today is more dire.

This inevitable environmental downfall is not happening by accident. As Klein describes in her latest book, the environment movement fell prey to really bad timing. At the same time as the first global agreements to cut emissions were signed, parallel agreements were initiated to increase global trade. In 1992, the first United Nations Earth Summit took place. That same year, the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, followed by the World Trade Organization in 1994. Each time governments agreed on new carbon targets, they would simultaneously cancel it out by agreeing to increase global trade.

Trade agreements hugely increased global production and transport of goods. Now products made in China would be encouraged to travel to the other side of the world, boosting carbon emissions manifold. By 2007, China became responsible for two thirds of the annual increase in global emissions – but half of that was due to producing goods for export.

There is a major difference between the free trade agreements and the environmental agreements: only one is legally binding. Free trade is protected by the law, while the environmental agreements are basically based on the honor system. While private companies can now sue national governments over laws that impose on their profits (such as anti-pollution measures), not much happens if countries break their promises to lower emissions. One might wonder is there even a point of having environmental agreements?

That is not even the worst part, as Klein goes on, “not only do fossil fuel companies receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but they pay nothing for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as a free waste dump.”

Two possible future paths exist. Either we stay on the road we’re on, deal with the problem only when it gets really bad, and invest in new technologies then. Or we stop extracting what’s in the ground now, and develop new technologies now. “There is a danger of treating this as just a technocratic problem”, argues Klein. Yes, we might find technologies to handle some of the problems which will increasingly come up (oil spills, smog, floods, just to name a few), but simultaneously we are also finding new and more damaging ways of extracting fossil fuels (fracking, arctic drilling). Also, “what that does not confront is the role of vested interests, power and corruption, and the need for really deep political and economic change.”

Klein calls the present “decade zero”, the last decade to take decisive action against climate change.

 

Climate change is not a problem that can be solved by markets or industry, rather it will need a great restructuring of our political, economic, and social systems, argues Klein. Instead of global trade agreements, the change will come from local action, communities which are sustainable and self-sufficient, and more worker’s rights. Klein calls the present “decade zero”, the last decade to take decisive action against climate change. If we don’t, global temperature will likely increase by more than 2°C causing disastrous effects on the environment.

While Klein’s book is particularly factual and clear in presenting historical and current events, the accompanying documentary gives us a much more human reaction to environmental disasters happening worldwide. In it, Klein with director and partner Avi Lewis interview communities directly impacted by the huge industrial undertakings in their backyards – from Indigenous communities in Northern Canada taking on the tar sands, to farmers in India battling huge coal-powered plants, to city-dwellers in China living in smog-plagued streets.

One thing that becomes painfully clear is that most of the communities comprising the so-called “sacrifice zones” of environmental destruction are poor and in a difficult positions to make their voices heard. “Environmentalism of the poor has urgency, they are fighting for their survival.”

Klein emphasizes that a mobilized population is crucial to drive governments to implement policy changes. Small victories are being won, in large part due to public demands. Shell, the huge multinational oil and gas company, has abandoned its plans to drill in the Arctic; Keystone XL, a transcontinental pipeline which proposed to carry crude oil from Northern Canada to Southern US, has been called off; and some of the largest fossil fuel economies, such as the oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta, are planning to introduce a carbon tax.

Sweden, especially, has been on the forefront. A serious discussion is taking place at the governmental level, proposing Sweden to become the first fossil fuel free state in the world, and this is a result of bottom-up movements. It’s clearly worth supporting the various initiatives, from divestment campaigns to government petitions.

“…it’s easier to change the human system, than to change the laws of nature”

 

The United Nations Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP 21), which is taking place in Paris during December, aims to finally make a binding and universal agreement on climate, including all the nations of the world. Such meetings have largely been a failure in the past, but it feels different this time. “Political will for Paris climate deal is unprecedented”, writes the Guardian newspaper. Will politicians commit to real changes this time? To this, Klein makes a point hard to argue against: “it’s easier to change the human system, than to change the laws of nature”.

2°C: the widely-agreed upon limit of temperature increase by end of this century, beyond which the world would face disastrous environmental consequences

565 gigatons: scientific estimate of how much CO2 the atmosphere can still handle to stay within 2°C limit

2,795 gigatons: the amount of CO2 that will be released if we extract and burn the proven reserves of fossil fuel known today

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