- In Search of a Slingshot:Climate Action’s David and the Goliath of Deregulated Capitalism
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the island of Nauru is a gutted shell, its interior rock, primarily phosphate of lime, long ago hauled away to be used as agricultural fertilizer in Australia and New Zealand. Financially and ecologically bankrupt, Nauru’s population has been reduced to living on an ever-shrinking strip of land. They are part of what author Naomi Klein calls the expanding “sacrifice zone,” those areas of the planet suffering the harshest development-related ecological degradation and the worst effects of climate change. Caught between the costs of rampant extractivism—the large-scale removal of minerals and raw materials from the earth, often for export—and a coming climate crisis, Nauru’s leaders have gone public, using their story as a cautionary tale so that other nations might act to avoid similar fates.
Nauru is one of the cases in Klein’s 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, a wide-ranging exploration of the intersection of climate science and the dynamics of the international political and economic systems that prevent climate issues from meriting top billing on the global political agenda. In Klein’s view, climate change is not just another issue; it is the issue to end all issues, with links to the anti-globalization and anti-corporation arguments at the center of her other books, The Shock Doctrine (2007) and No Logo (1999).
Deregulated capitalism, as the world’s dominant economic system with its attendant demands for continual growth, is on a collision course with the finitelyresourced planet that houses it. Klein makes clear that only one of these factors can change: nature or the economic model; and it will not be nature.
The litany of climate change casualties is familiar: rising sea levels, intensifying severe weather patterns, acidifying oceans, disruption to harvests and supply chains, and swells of climate migrants and refugees. Those who agree that danger [End Page 205] is imminent and that now is the time for action include more than scientists and small island nations; the International Energy Agency wrote in 2012, “the climate goal of limiting warming to 2°C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes.”1 The World Bank too has sounded alarms, warning that there is “no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”2 Even Catholic bishops have called for halts at 1.5°C—a more progressive emissions target than negotiators within the international system have ever incorporated into proposals for ratification by member states.3
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry is working to bring extraction to new extremes, pulling crude bitumen from Alberta’s Athabasca oil sands and suing to overturn local bans on hydraulic fracturing. The major energy companies already hold enough conventional fossil fuel in reserves to far exceed estimates of the planet’s atmospheric capacity to absorb carbon, meaning that the addition of these new, unconventional methods for obtaining further supplies—which extrexact a higher environmental cost in extraction than their conventional counterparts—may push potential carbon consumption far beyond pivotal thresholds. The irreconcilability of the shrinking emissions needed to avoid disastrous climate consequences with these growing pools of exploitable fossil fuels is exacerbated by an economic system not built to take environmental externalities into account and incapable of holding polluters fully accountable.
Separate from fossil fuel sector interests, Klein cites whole industries of “disaster capitalists” preparing to seize profit opportunities. Disaster insurers, climate futures traders, weapons manufacturers, security corporations, upscale disaster-ready housing construction firms, and multinational agrochemical and biotechnology companies preparing “climate-ready” seed varietals are among those poised to benefit from climate change-related dramatic environmental events.
The dismal picture Klein paints is enough for overload; even she admits to having indulged the impulse to look away when faced with evidence of the gravity of the situation. But in This Changes Everything, Klein confronts these issues head on, grappling with the question “What is really preventing us from putting out the fire...