Common Dreams editor’s note: The following conversation between Naomi Klein and May Boeve took place as an online webinar hosted by 350.org last week in advance of the upcoming Global Divestment Day(s), taking place on February 13 and 14, during which individuals and institutions from around the world will take action and urge others "do what is necessary for climate action by divesting from fossil fuels."
Wide-ranging in terms of topics covered, the overall talk reveals the current thinking of two prominent voices within the global climate justice movement. Klein and Boeve take a look back at the impactful events of 2014, strategic concerns for the year(s) ahead, and explore the unique historical moment that is now presenting itself to those who believe—in the face of an increasingly warming planet—that an economic, political, and energy transition is more necessary than ever.
In one key section, Klein argues what’s most essential is the further emergence of unified global movement—one whose agenda is "simple enough to fit on a postcard"— that can articulate a positive vision while continuing to make clear what it opposes. "We’re fighting to leave it in the ground. No new fossil fuel frontiers. We’re fighting for societies powered by 100% renewable energy. We’re fighting for free public transit. We’re fighting for the principle that polluters should pay, that how we pay for the transition has to be justice based. We’re fighting for the principle of frontlines first, that the people who got the worst deal in the old economy should be the first in line to benefit in the new economy. Those are some principles that we can all agree on and rally behind."
And as Boeve states, "We have a moment, we have a movement, so let’s do it."
Joining the online talk were more than 2,000 people who were able to listen in and ask questions.
Naomi Klein: [The number of people on this call] is a powerful indication of the interest in this topic [and shows] the message that divestment is everywhere. Because there’s a sort of patchy quality to it: there are places where this is very much part of the public debate and then there are places where it’s just getting started. And by having a coordinated day of action it sends a really clear message that this is happening all over, that it’s spreading quicker than any movement I’ve ever witnessed, and that it’s just an exciting time. So thank you all for being here.
MB: So my first question, Naomi, is this: there’s a lot of talk right now in the news about falling oil prices. Can you speak to the role that falling oil prices play in energy and climate politics in particular, and what we should be thinking about in this moment?
NK: That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, because the book I wrote before was called the Shock Doctrine, and the message of that book was that these moments are often catalysts for the wrong kind of change. I think that’s really important to understand that in the case of energy and climate change, none of this is predetermined. It is not preordained that low oil prices will either hurt or help the climate movement.
"It is not preordained that low oil prices will either hurt or help the climate movement."
If we do nothing, then it’s more likely that low oil prices will work against sensible climate action, just for simple economic reasons. When oil is cheap, people feel able to buy more of it. Already we’re hearing these stories, like the comeback of the SUV. All of these incentives towards efficiency for reasons of financial strain–people were leaving their cars at home, taking public transit, carpooling and doing these things that were good for the environment, but for financial reasons—we’ve lost that. That’s the context in which we’re working. That’s not good news, it’s bad news.
But I think on the whole, if we look at this in the context of this rising movement that we’re a part of, if we look at it in the run-up to Paris and the fact that climate is going to be very much in the news and top of mind, if we also look at it in the context of the renewable energy sector, with prices falling rapidly, the fact that we can all now point to a country like Germany that has moved so rapidly toward having 20-25% of its electricity coming from renewables, this is definitely a moment.[Take a look] at last week’s Economist cover? For those of you who can’t see it, this is a figure leaping off a pyramid of oil barrels, and the headline is “Sieze the Day.” The editorial that accompanies this—and this is a quote from the Economist, not from 350.org—is saying that this is a “once in a generation opportunity” to dramatically transform our energy system, to kick the oil habit. We’ve been using this slogan internally: “Kick it while it’s down.”
There are various reasons why, if we get the right set of incentives in place—both political and economic—it can be a really, really good time to get off fossil fuels and push very aggressively toward a decentralized, renewables-based economy.
One of the things that has really struck me as I’ve been thinking about this price plummet over the past couple of weeks, is that we’ve been living with an oil price between $80-100 dollars per barrel or more—even reaching $120 dollars per barrel—for over a decade. It went up to $100 a barrel after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, that’s when things really took off.
I wrote a column about a year after that, and the headline was “Baghdad burns, Calgary booms.” It was about the fact that the turmoil in the market that was linked to the invasion of Iraq, which had sent oil prices soaring, was leading to the boom that was happening with the Alberta tar sands. Calgary is ground zero for those profits: all money flows through Calgary. We have always known, or had known for a long time, that there were vast oil deposits in northern Alberta, but those oil deposits weren’t counted toward the global fossil fuel reserves because they were considered uneconomic. It wasn’t that they discovered oil in Alberta in 2003, it was that when oil prices were $30 a barrel it didn’t make sense to count it, because it costs so much to dig it up.
"With oil at $100 per barrel, it makes people crazy. It’s irresistible. So, even as we’ve had scientists raising the alarm, we’ve been barreling down the wrong road."
What’s really been striking to me is understanding that it really kind of makes sense why, despite all of the consciousness-raising that has taken place over the past decade—An Inconvenient Truth, the IPCC winning the Nobel Prize, and all of these various moments when consciousness was raised around climate change—why this hasn’t translated into action? It’s because we have been working against the titanic power of enormous profit. The enormous profit that comes with oil at such a high price. Because that kind of pricing, with oil at $100 per barrel, it makes people crazy. It’s irresistible. So, even as we’ve had scientists raising the alarm, we’ve been barreling down the wrong road. We’ve been barreling into extreme energy, drilling in the Arctic, tar sands, fracking. And this is all linked to high prices.
Now, we find ourselves in this kind of reprieve. It’s not permanent. What goes down can go back up, and will go back up. But I think what this has given us is a little bit of breathing room, because suddenly a lot of these projects that we’ve been working so hard to stop, many of them are shutting down on their own. I mean, not completely, but a lot of investors are pulling their investments out of tar sands, or suspending their investments because it’s so expensive, there’s less of a push for Arctic drilling. That’s a context in which it’s easier to win political victories.
When you’re going head to head with the richest companies on earth, and they’re dying to get into the Arctic and you’re saying “no,” well, that’s not a fair fight. But when their own investors are going “Wow, is this really a good idea?” I think that’s a moment when we can win some really big victories to close off fossil fuel frontiers.
Of course, this is very tied to the whole logic of the divestment movement and the need to leave this carbon in the ground. But we all know we’re not going to win this one divestment fight at a time: we’re going to win this by building the arguments that will then lead to big demands, like no new fossil fuel frontiers, country-wide bans on fracking, closing off the Arctic to drilling permanently, and those types of policies.
So, I think we’re in a much better situation to win that. But we need to understand that this is a window. This is the last moment to be complacent. I mean, when the Economist is calling this a once in a generation opportunity, think about that: it means it doesn’t come around again.
One of the reasons that it’s been difficult to win and sustain victories to put a price on carbon, a carbon tax—and I don’t think a carbon tax is a silver bullet, but I think a progressively designed carbon tax is part of a slate of policies that we need to make this transition happen—is that when consumers are hurting (and we’ve been in the midst of an economic downturn, recession, or crisis depending on where you live) it’s hard for politicians to increase the price of energy. When suddenly oil is way cheaper and your energy bill is dropping, that’s a good time to introduce a progressive carbon tax.
"We’re going to win this by building the arguments that will then lead to big demands, like no new fossil fuel frontiers, country-wide bans on fracking, closing off the Arctic to drilling permanently, and those types of policies."
Between the capacity to win some big keep-it-in-ground fights in the midst of falling prices, and the ability to fight for a progressive carbon tax, and that we now have these great examples of what a rapid renewables transition might look like—I think it is an extraordinary moment, to be honest.
MB: Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. And extraordinary moments can pass.
NK: They can and do pass. I mean, some of you have heard me say this before, but I am haunted by the long shadow of 2008, when the financial crisis hit and we all witnessed this huge transfer of wealth from public hands into the hands of the banks. And this was a moment when it could have been a real leap forward, especially in the US. It could have been a real leap forward because Obama had just been elected. He was elected with a clear mandate to act on climate change. It was also a moment when the car companies were bankrupt, and it was possible to write a really big stimulus bill, and we could have told the banks what to lend—they could have funded the energy transition—but that became this period of demobilization for people as they sort of waited for what Obama would do. And now I feel like we’re being given a second chance. When that happened and we didn’t seize that moment, I thought “Am I ever going to see another moment like this, with this amount of potential?”
And here we are now, with this opening, and we’re also seeing some big political shifts. Syriza just won in Greece, that’s a big message. Podemos is rising in Spain. There are political parties that need vision. They need a vision for what the next economy should look like, and I believe that the climate movement should be very much a part of that conversation.
MB: Absolutely. You know, I think about 2015 as the year that we have to demonstrate irrevocably that the age of fossil fuels is over. If we think about 2014 as the year that—through your book, through our mobilizations like the People’s Climate March—that brought this idea that climate change changes everything, and we need everyone to be part of the moment. That was the 2014 moment. Here we are in 2015. So how are you thinking about that? What’s on your wishlist for the climate movement in 2015? If you could sort of just snap your fingers and make it happen, what would be taking place?
NK: My personal obsession is that I feel like there’s this way in which we are still failing to break out of our respective issue silos. There are people who are working on climate where that doesn’t intersect nearly enough with the people working for the public sphere, fighting for the commons, fighting against austerity—even when it’s the same people. They put on their climate and they’re being one person, and then they put on their “no cuts” hat or their anti-austerity hat, and it somehow doesn’t become the same conversation. Even when we intellectually understand it as the same.
"There are political parties that need vision. They need a vision for what the next economy should look like, and I believe that the climate movement should be very much a part of that conversation."
I have a lot of hope about the fact that the next COP is happening in Europe. I think that presents enormous opportunities, because in Europe the anti-austerity movement is so strong. In this moment, we have these political parties that are running on anti-austerity agendas that are winning elections or are poised to win elections. It’s a moment when we can bring our movements together and have one conversation instead of these separate conversations.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I was going from Amsterdam to Brussels and there was a train strike. Belgium is getting hit with a round of austerity right now, and one of the services that’s getting hit is the public trains, and they’re having series of rotating strikes leading up to a general strike. The day I was there, there was a rail strike, and all of the climate activists were generally talking about it as a bit of an inconvenience getting from point A to point B. I was just amazed that it wasn’t being talked about as part of the climate movement.
Now, May, you and I have talked about this as one of the things that we want to do at 350 is have the fight for not just affordable, but in my opinion, free public transit, be welcomed into the climate movement. When you see the people on the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo fighting for affordable public transit it doesn’t matter if they call themselves climate activists. They are climate activists. Because affordable public transit is central to any just transition or any transition whatsoever.
That’s part of what I mean when I say that somehow we’re not yet having the same conversation. When, of course, it’s the same conversation. This is the world we’re fighting for. And so my real hope is that the labor movement, the anti-cuts movement, the climate movement will really come together in a coherent demand for a just transition away from fossil fuels, using this price shock as the catalyst.
Because climate change is never going to be that shock. We think it is, that if we scare people enough, then that will shock them.There’s this great group in the Bay Area called Movement Generation that we work with at 350, who are just an amazing group of thinkers and theorists, and they have this presentation that they do called, “Shock, Slide, Shift.” It’s about how you have these punctuated shocks and these long slides. A disaster is a shock. Climate change is a slide. Our mission is to harness the shocks and the slides to win the shifts that we want. We’re in a slide, we just got a shock, and now we need to fight for the shift.
"When you see the people on the streets fighting for affordable public transit it doesn’t matter if they call themselves climate activists. They are climate activists."
I feel like it almost needs to be simple enough to fit on a postcard: what is it that we’re fighting for? We’re fighting to leave it in the ground. No new fossil fuel frontiers. We’re fighting for societies powered by 100% renewable energy. We’re fighting for free public transit, I would add that. We’re fighting for the principle that polluters should pay, that how we pay for the transition has to be justice based. We’re fighting for the principle of frontlines first, that the people who got the worst deal in the old economy should be the first in line to benefit in the new economy. Those are some principles that we can all agree on and rally behind.
That’s my hope for 2015. That we get off the defense and put forward this very clear vision, bringing all of our movements together, because they are mobilizing in incredible ways. Some of you may have read the piece I wrote trying to connect the #BlackLivesMatter movement with the climate justice movement, because so much of what we are fighting for is based on the principle that black lives matter, that all lives matter. The way our governments are behaving in the face of the climate crisis actively discounts black and brown lives over white lives. It is an actively racist response to climate change that we should expose. I think we have to not be afraid to bust down these barriers if we really mean it when we say that if we’re going to change everything, it’s going to take everyone.
MB: Absolutely. I think that coupled with what you were saying earlier about this moment is that there is so much energy and alignment happening within all these different movements. We have a moment, we have a movement, so let’s do it.
My last question is, as we move towards the 13th and 14th of February, Global Divestment Day, and think about the next moves on divestment, I wanted to ask you about that. You were instrumental in helping articulate the link between stranded assets, unburnable carbon, climate change, and divestment. The movement to divest has taken off in incredible ways, so I’d like to ask you a reflective question: what has been most significant about divestment and what is needed to keep that call fresh and alive in this moment?
NK: If you can just indulge me a moment, I want to give a little bit of history from my perspective of where all of this came from. When we had the idea for a national, and then international, divestment call on fossil fuels, there were already pockets at certain universities that were pushing their schools to divest from coal, but there wasn’t an overall fossil fuel divestment call that had been made.
That call came out of a call between Bill McKibben and I, that happened after both of us had read the Carbon Tracker research, which blew both of our minds. This is the research that all of this is based on, that shows that the fossil fuel industry has five times more carbon dioxide in their proven reserves than the atmosphere can absorb and leave us with a decent shot of keeping global warming below two degrees celsius.
"My real hope is that the labor movement, the anti-cuts movement, the climate movement will really come together in a coherent demand for a just transition away from fossil fuels, using this price shock as the catalyst."
Now, the thing that was striking when we were reading that research was that it was not addressed to us, this is research that was done for the investment community. It was addressed to investors as a warning to them, warning that there is a bubble in the market. This was a couple years out of the housing bubble bursting, and it was warning, “Ok, we see another bubble on the horizon, we don’t want to have another bubble burst.” Obviously, these companies cannot burn five times more carbon than the atmosphere can observe, so obviously these are going to become stranded assets.
Now, I read that research and I went, “No, that’s not right.” We’re the bubble. They’re planning to burn the carbon, and they have made a political assessment that when our politicians said they were going to keep warming below two degrees they were lying, that they didn’t mean it. The commitments made in Copenhagen were unbinding, and Exxon and Shell and everyone else decided that that was not something that they had to worry about, that they were going to go ahead and burn it anyway.
So, I didn’t think that this was a warning to investors. I thought that this was a warning to all of us, and that’s what Bill thought, too. So, the question is, ok, if we’re the bubble, how do we flip it? How do we turn them into the bubble that’s going to burst? And that’s where the divestment idea comes from. Those are the stakes, that’s really what that research shows: it’s them or us.
Bill wrote that incredible piece for Rolling Stone that popularized this idea, just laying it out, because people get these numbers. Bill is such an incredible teacher, such a patient explainer, and people got it. I had just had my kid at this point, so I wasn’t able to go on the full Fossil Free tour that Bill and 350 kicked off, but I did go, with my five-month old in tow, to New York and Boston, which were a couple of biggest events. What was amazing, was that people were on their feet before we said a word. I’d never seen anything like it. The movement was waiting for someone to admit that there was a war going on.
This comes back to one of the most controversial parts of This Changes Everything, the part about how so many of the big green groups have partnered with fossil fuel companies, based on the false idea that we’re in this together. No, we’re not. I think people really get this, and young people get this most of all. It all comes back to that research. Every time you explain it to somebody else, you are part of the solution, because these are illegitimate profits.
"I think we have to not be afraid to bust down barriers if we really mean it when we say that if we’re going to change everything, it’s going to take everyone."
Coming back to low oil prices, the other thing that helps is that fossil fuel stocks are not performing very well right now. So your opponents have just lost their best argument. They won’t lose it for long, so that’s another reason to just pound away at this. If this was last year, they could say, “these stocks are performing better than other ones, you want to bankrupt our schools.” But, no, in fact these stocks are underperforming. Not only are institutions destroying the planet, but they are also taking unnecessary risks with their endowments.
Another point I would make, and this comes back to the issue around carbon pricing, is that when we make the argument that this is a rogue sector, that their business plan is at odds with life on earth, we are creating an intellectual and political space where it becomes much easier to tax those profits, to increase royalties, and even, if there is too much resistance, to nationalizing these companies. This is not just about the fact that we want to separate ourselves from these companies, it’s also that we have a right to those profits. If those profits are so illegitimate that Harvard shouldn’t be invested in them, they’re also so illegitimate that taxpayers have a right to them to pay for a transition away from fossil fuels, and to pay the bills for a crisis created by this sector. It’s not just about dissociating ourselves from their profits, but potentially getting a much larger piece of them.
MB: Here’s a question from online, “Where do we put our divested funds? How do we push local economy investment in the transition?”
NK: I think the reason why the reinvestment piece is a little bit trickier than the divestment call, is because what we need to get out of is really simple, we want to divest from the fossil fuel companies, but what we want to get into will look a little bit different everywhere we live. There isn’t one blanket investment, nor should their be. I don’t think that the response should be, “Goodbye, big carbon. Hello, big wind, big solar.” I think we can do better than that.
"It’s not just about dissociating ourselves from [fossil fuel] profits, but potentially getting a much larger piece of them."
Which isn’t to say big green companies don’t have a place in the transition. I think they do, but I think we should also be looking at supporting local solar coops, that reinvestment should be very much a tool for climate justice. The answer for what that means is only going to come from building alliances with frontline communities in all of your communities and developing tools and projects that can be supported and are being prioritized.
The Our Power campaign in the US is a great example of identifying six climate communities that have great transition plans, some of them already quite far along, that can be supported. We should resist the temptation of just presenting this as flipping the switch from dirty energy to big, clean, green energy that will be controlled by a different set of corporations. I realize that it’s tempting and that some people will disagree with me on that.
MB: Next question is from Eileen, who says she’s 93, in Manchester, UK. The question is, “Of all the urgent environmental issues in your book that you identified that we could campaign on, which should we prioritize?”
NK: Once again, I would say that this is really dependent on where you live. Anyone who would pretend that there is one answer to that question is leading us down the wrong path.
Something I write about in the book is that for too long the climate movement has adopted the astronauts eye view of the Earth. The icon of the globe seen from space that has been adopted by the green movement has been a bit of a problem. Because when you are looking down at the Earth from space, things get very blurry and then you can say, well, there’s one solution, and we should all just be fighting on this very narrow solution. That it’s all about just parts per million, for example. What we’ve found at 350, and I mean, we are an organization that’s named after parts per million, and we care about carbon, but we have found that this movement is powered by people fighting for the places we love. It’s a movement that is not driven by hatred of fossil fuel companies, more than anything it’s driven by love of place. It’s driven by a duty and responsibility to protect the land and water for future generations.
So wherever you live, it’s going to look differently. If there’s fracking in your backyard, which is certainly an issue in Manchester, then it’s probably fracking, especially what the British government is doing. But that doesn’t mean it’s fracking everywhere (although they would like to frack everywhere).
"We have found that this movement is powered by people fighting for the places we love. It’s a movement that is not driven by hatred of fossil fuel companies, more than anything it’s driven by love of place. It’s driven by a duty and responsibility to protect the land and water for future generations."
MB: The third question here is from Ian Middleton. Ian asks, “We’ve been here before though, haven’t we? What’s to stop the reversion to business as usual when the price of oil rises again?”
NK: Yes, we have been here before. But we have never been exactly here before, in the sense of this particular confluence of events, with the price of renewables dropping, with the German transition, and with where the climate movement is. The climate movement of today is not Al Gore’s climate movement, it is a much more grassroots movement, a much more youth-led movement. I think it is a movement that is a lot clearer about what it is fighting for and who it is fighting against.
I am by no means saying that this price shock is going to do this for us. It’s about what we do in this window, and what you do once you get a few of these policies in place. It’s really about taking advantage of the fact that it’s a little bit easier to get some big wins right now. It’s a little bit easier to win a carbon tax right now, it’s a little bit easier to win some “keep it in the ground” fights right now, it’s a little bit easier to fight for visionary policies right now, policies that then have their own momentum. This is the thing about Germany: once you have proof of concept, once people are experiencing it, then they start fighting to defend it.
"We can’t beat the bean counters at their own game. We’re going to win this, because this is an issue of values, human rights, right and wrong."
So, it isn’t saying that the market is going to take care of this for us, it’s that we a have a very brief moment where a few market forces are working in our favor. It will not last, it will not do it for us, but we need to use this moment to push for policies that can then create a context where people are fighting for the policies that work. Our problem is that we haven’t had the chance to get the right policies in place.
MB: Here’s a specific campaign question, the question is, “What do you think the likelihood is that Pope Francis will divest the Vatican and call on all Catholics to divest?”
NK: Hmm, you know, well that guy is full of surprises, that’s all I can say. I think it’s great to keep the pressure up.
I do think that raises a slightly different point. You know, I’ve been making these arguments around economics, but there is nothing more powerful than a values based argument. We’re not going to win this as bean counters. We can’t beat the bean counters at their own game. We’re going to win this, because this is an issue of values, human rights, right and wrong. We just have this brief period where we also have to have some nice stats that we can wield, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that what actually moves people’s hearts are the arguments based on the value of life.
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