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Naomi Klein on New York Protests: 'What We're Seeing Is the Birth of a New Climate Movement'

The social activist and author spoke to VICE News about civil disobedience, benevolent billionaires, and the importance of the People’s Climate March, where thousands of protestors assembled ahead of the UN climate summit.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Naomi Klein is a Canadian author and social activist known for her criticism of corporate globalization. Her new book, "This Changes Everything," makes the case that the capitalist economic model is waging war against life on Earth, a conflict Klein calls the most profound threat humanity has ever faced.

Following the People's Climate March in New York, where an estimated 310,000 protestors assembled Sunday in Midtown Manhattan ahead of the UN climate summit, VICE News' Alice Speri caught up with the social activist during Monday's Flood Wall Street demonstrations to talk benevolent billionaires, civil disobedience, and the birth of a new climate movement.


VICE News: Yesterday was huge. What do you think is going to be different today, what's the plan?

Naomi Klein: Well I think yesterday was the march for everybody and it was such an extraordinary — I've never seen a moment like this in the climate movement. It was so different to any of the actions that I've been a part of before because it was just so diverse, and there were so many people who were marching who are so clearly directly impacted by these issues.

It's not just looking down at the Earth form space, it's actually like the refinery is in our backyard, the pipeline is going through our front yard. I think that there is a clearly a desire in the movement to do more than just ask leaders to do something. There's this specific vision for what climate justice would look like and I think that involves confronting the people who have really been the major barrier to action up till now. The science is in, the technologies are here, they work, we've got all kinds of living examples that we can point to, large scale, not little cute pockets but countries like Germany that are actually switching their electricity grid over to renewables and it's not happening in this country, and it's not happening because the old model is just too profitable.

Thousands rally in New York for the People's Climate March. Read more here.

So I think that this day is about calling that out and saying we know the reason why we haven't progressed and it isn't just a bland thing like lack of political will or whatever. There are vested interests that are winning so much from inaction and even have plans to profit from the climate crisis and are already enacting them and that's what we can't afford.


That makes the fight that much harder. You're trying to change the entire system, not just specific issues. In your book you talked about really changing ideology — it seems like a huge task, where do we start with that?

Well, I think it helps to actually name what you're up against, and I think what gives me hope is this is almost three years to the day since Occupy Wall Street. A lot of the people here today were involved in that action, that moment, that process, and, at the time, climate change wasn't on the agenda for the movement.

In fact, you know Occupy Wall Street came up with a document that listed everything that was wrong with Wall Street, and wrong with capitalism, and climate change wasn't on the list. Three years later, post-Hurricane Sandy, it's almost like the movement is going, 'We were righter than we knew because it's not this is a system that isn't just foreclosing on people's individual homes, it's foreclosing on our collective home.' The idea that this is some far away, abstract issue — it was decisively put to rest by Superstorm Sandy.

'This whole week is really just a bit of a first step. Really what we're seeing is the birth of a new climate movement.'

I think that what climate change does is really infuse these pre-existing movements that were already demanding economic justice with this collective existential urgency. It raises the stakes. It puts us on a firm science-based deadline. So yeah, it's big. But it's a lot more concrete in a way. It's concrete in terms of what the barrier is, and also in what we need to do to transform the economy, because we already knew what we had to do. We already had to challenge this corruption of the political system, the complete takeover of politics by vested financial interests, so it's not like a movement is starting from scratch. If that was the case, I would feel entirely hopeless if we were starting at the beginning.


In photos: The People's Climate March.

What I think is exciting about this moment is that you have all these sort of rivers of activism coming together, and you know it's amazingly symbolic to be having this gathering by the water, and to have the imagery of water reminding people that, in fact, Wall Street was actually flooded, and that didn't seem to wake them up so they clearly need a little more.

What is going to change with the march? We had big actions before, maybe a little less specific in target, but what is going to be different after today?

I don't think it's about waking up the elite, and a moment of realization of 'Wow, this is really a big problem, we are going to fix it.' In fact, I think that's the model that is failing inside the UN: 'Oh we have the CEOs from Bank of America and [GDF] Suez and all these oil companies inside, and we're going to all voluntarily fix this together.' I think that on an individual level there are a lot of people in the financial world who understand what a big problem this is, but they're locked within a system that actually won't allow them to act on that knowledge.

For me, the best example of this is Michael Bloomberg. This is somebody who talks about climate change all the time and talks specifically about the financial risks associated with it. The problem with it is that they are medium-term financial risks, and they are distributed throughout the economy, and largely the burden is passed on to the public to pay for those risks. It doesn't deal with the fact that in the short-term it's still profitable to continue to dig up fossil fuels. The reason why Bloomberg is such a good example of this is that, while he talks publicly about the carbon bubble, and risky business, and climate change, his personal fortune of more than $30 billion is invested in oil and gas. Specifically, the fund that manages his wealth specializes in oil and gas assets.


So it's not about convincing these guys. It's about building a counter-power to those guys that is big enough and strong enough, and has a vision for how to transform the political process that is able to take them on. The idea that it's just about convincing benevolent billionaires that they have grandkids too — I think we're past that point.

How is this going to work?

I think that this whole week is really just a bit of a first step. Really what we're seeing is the birth of a new climate movement. It looks completely different from the old one. It's not just a collection of slick NGOs. It's impacting communities, it's extremely diverse, and it's seeking leadership from the Global South.

As we will see today, it's not just asking for leaders to do something. It has a vision for what it wants done, and what it doesn't want done, and what will make the problem worse, and what will exacerbate inequality. It has taken us a long time just to get to the starting gate. I'm not going to lie and say, 'Oh yeah, everything is fine.' We should have been here a long time ago. But at least we are here now.

You can never say it's too late, right?

No. I mean, look, it's too late to stop climate change. We are already locked into extreme weather for the next generations. It's not too late to prevent catastrophic climate change, but we do know that we have put off the problem for so long that we now have to cut emissions so deeply and so quickly that it will challenge the logic of mindless growth that is at the heart of our economic system.


And that's why I think our elites are so frantically trying to convince us that it doesn't: 'No, no, we can still respond to climate change and you know it will barely impact the economy, it'll be cheap, it'll be nothing.' OK, so then why have we not done it already? We've known for a really long time. I think we take it one step at a time, and this is a very big step in the right direction. But this movement needs to grow really quickly, and it needs to grow big, and it needs to grow deep.

What about the element of civil disobedience? You've been arrested before and a lot of people today said they are ready to get arrested if it comes to it. Why is that important? 

You know, I've been out there in the last few weeks talking about this issue because of my book, and I've been so struck that most of the conversations that I have are about whether we have any right to hope. It's not like people aren't arguing about the depth of change. What they're arguing about is whether there is any hope left.

'Not only are we not doing the things that we need to do to get ourselves out of danger, but our political leaders, our corporate leaders, are taking us in exactly the wrong direction.'

I think that the reason why we feel so much helplessness in the face of this crisis is that we live in a culture of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, we have our leading scientists raising the alarm as loudly as they possibly can, as directly as they possibly can. We even have, occasionally, a politician like John Kerry, who will describe climate change as a weapon of mass destruction. And the Secretary General of the UN will say, 'This is the greatest issue for humanity.' And yet we are in a culture that is acting like the crisis doesn't exist.


Not only are we not doing the things that we need to do to get ourselves out of danger, but our political leaders, our corporate leaders, are taking us in exactly the wrong direction. They are doubling down on fossil fuels — the dirtiest, highest-emitting kinds. I think there is no way for people to get their actions in line with the fear that they — that we — rightly face in this crisis. But I think an action like today, on the one hand it's about saying 'OK the people we're up against have names and addresses.' This isn't sort of an abstract, we aren't all doing this just because we are all within this system, but there are specific forces that are driving in and deepening it, and we need to name them.

The People's Climate March may have been huge, but it wasn't 'historic.' Read more here.

I think it's also just about trying to get our actions, even fleetingly, in line with the emotions that come with this crisis, that people feel the need to express their sense of urgency, and to raise the stakes.

I think a lot of the civil disobedience that you've seen in the past years — even if our leaders are not responding with the sense of urgency we as individuals are responding with — a sense of urgency and communicating that urgency to the world — you know this has reverberations. There was just a precedent-setting legal case in Massachusetts where some fishing boats blocked a coal barge and it was an act of civil disobedience on the water. They were in court and the district attorney ended up dropping the charges because they used the necessity defense. Because of climate change, they had this moral obligation to break the law. That argument is an argument that's been successful in Europe, but it's never been successful in the United States before.

There are these kind of effects where I find someone in the UK that has been involved in civil disobedience against fossil fuel companies, where exactly this has happened, where charges have been dropped or lowered significantly. Counter-losses have been dropped precisely because the necessity argument is so strong that when you live in a culture that is making it illegal to take the actions that are necessary to safeguard survival, then there is something wrong with the laws, and there are even people within the legal system that are starting to recognize that. So civil disobedience raises the bar on that.

You know Occupy has had a long and difficult relationship with the NYPD, and recently we've seen a lot of people coming out in Ferguson over a completely different issue, also pressing for a really urgent cause, and the response was very harsh. Do you expect that people will be able to get to the Stock Exchange today? What do you think is going to be the response from police? Are you ready to get arrested again?

I really don't know what the response is going to be. I know the people here are looking to take part in peaceful civil disobedience, and it will be a test, not just for the police but for the new administration in the city. We will see if there is a real change.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi

Photo via Wikimedia Commons