Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything is arguably the most important and urgent political book to have come out in recent years. Of course, this can be said about each one of the writer and activist’s books – No Logo is a dissection of the globalised, brand-focused economy and The Shock Doctrine provides insight on the ways governments hijack the public sphere in their quest to impose neo-liberal policies as ‘shock therapy’.
Yet none is as urgent as her latest outing, which tackles the issue of climate change, exposing how governments in the developed world, along with major corporations, have systematically failed their nations’ citizens, putting the planet’s existence at risk. There are two very ominous and extensive passages in the book. One describes post-Hurricane-Katrina New Orleans and it is as bleak as anyone could imagine. The other takes place in Greece. Halfway through the book the reader is transported to Ierissos, the small community in Halkidiki, where Canadian miner Eldorado has developed a gold mine in the Skouries forest.
During the past few years the region – largely dependent on tourism, fishing and farming – has been transformed to a no-man’s land. The forest has been all but destroyed to make way for a large dam and tailings pond, filled with liquid waste contaminating the soil and endangering the water supplies. The place has become a battlezone, as locals persistently protest the investment for fear of the effects that such a large-scale toxic industrial operation will have on the health of children and livestock. Klein chronicles this as a perfect example of the urgency of environmental policies, seen from the point of view of local communities that are deeply affected. One could think of the small island nations of the Pacific that are in danger of sinking, as sea levels rise, as a result of global warming.
This kind of perspective is the stark opposite to the ‘Astronaut’s Eye View’ approach that has been part of the ecology rhetoric of much of the debate that has been going on for decades. The Earth is not this beautiful blue sphere that one can see from the moon and which we humans should protect, lest it dies. Humans are part of it, and its destruction directly affects our livelihood. Klein’s book was written when SYRIZA was the opposition party – using Skouries as a symbol of resistance and pledging to fight against privatisation of public assets (and municipal water supplies). But recently, the country’s leftist-led government has made another of its infamous policy U-turns, proceeding to a ‘compromise’ with the mining company, allowing for works to resume, after a brief halt, much to the locals’ dismay and disillusionment.
Australia may not face the same financial challenges as Greece, but it does face greater imminent environmental damage. As a result of climate change combined with weather phenomena, the Great Barrier Reef is in the midst of the worst crisis in recorded history. Unusually warm water has caused 93 per cent of the reefs along the 2,300km site to experience bleaching. In the northernmost, pristine part, scientists think half the coral might have died. One of the world’s most renowned natural marvels is in terminal decline and one can only imagine the effect that this will have on the country, both in terms of a chain reaction to the ecosystem and in a blow to the tourism industry. As far as warning signals go, this is as bad as it gets.
For a brief while, it seemed that the environmental policy would take centre stage in this election – especially given Malcolm Turnbull’s past stance on climate change, as opposed to Tony Abbott’ policy of denial (not to mention his dismissal of windfarms, as “ugly”). Yet we’re halfway into the election campaign, and neither of the contenders for PM seem to be very eager to enter this discussion. Surely, Bill Shorten might have offered to allocate $98.7m towards the creation of up to 10 community power hubs in the areas looking for renewable energy solutions, developing project such as ‘solar gardens’ (shared panels for groups of renters) or retrofitting of social housing to promote energy efficiency. But policies like that, as useful as they may be, hardly qualify as the consistent, hands-on, urgent approach to tackling climate change that the country needs. The opposition has also pledged to introduce an emissions trading scheme, with an aim of shifting to renewable energy for half of the country’s needs by 2030 and an ultimate goal of zero emissions by 2050.
It may sound promising, but it’s too little, too late. Even the pledge of $377m in funding for the Great Barrier Reef is far from the $10 billion policy scientists think is needed over the next decade to improve water quality before climate change impacts become worse than they already are.
Presented with an urgent situation, politicians respond with half measures. Australia’s environmental dilemma is well-documented: the country needs to move away from fossil fuels – shut down mines, close power stations, develop transition plans for workers. Given the country’s dependence on the mining industry – which is responsible for polluting the planet – this is an issue no government seems willing to tackle, even though polls show that Australian citizens are very concerned for the environment. Which means that the debate is dominated by various levels of denial.
Recently, the government stooped to a new low. The Department of Environment managed to get UNESCO to scrub every reference to Australia included in its report ‘World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate’, which it published with the United Nations environment program and the Union of Concerned Scientists. The abolished parts referred to the state of the Great Barrier Reef, but also to Kakadu and the Tasmanian forests, and the government was afraid of the impact of these mentions on tourism. As a result, Australia is now the only inhabited continent on the planet with no mentions in the report. One can imagine, upon hearing this, the governments of developed countries reacting with a collective cry of outrage: “How come we didn’t think of it first?”
Reluctance to deal with the issue is not a purely Australian trait. Most developed countries are not keen on inconveniencing the fossil fuel industry. Yet, on 22 April, around 60 heads of state gathered at the United Nations in New York for the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, in what was hailed as “the largest ever single-day turn-out for a signing ceremony”, indicating “strong international commitment to deliver on the promises”. The Paris Agreement, of course, aims to “strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty … to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels”.
These pledges are a great step forward in the race against catastrophic climate change, but by now we all know that a 2°C target is inadequate. Which is why, despite all the talk, Naomi Klein’s book is as relevant now as it was before the agreement. As long as someone is willing to overlook its mentions of SYRIZA.