Three pages into her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal ($27, Simon & Schuster), Naomi Klein baldly states the urgency of the climate crisis and why we need a massive, expensive infrastructure deal to address it. “Money won’t matter when we’re dead,” she writes.
Klein is an author and activist who writes most broadly about climate and its knotty relationship with capitalism. Author and activist Bill McKibben calls her the intellectual godmother of the Green New Deal, and she’s helped legislators like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shape their visions. She told me over the phone—in a narrow window in a schedule packed with events to enact change—that in On Fire, she wanted to lean into that history to outline her vision for the future.
The book starts with a 50-page rationale for a global Green New Deal, then rolls into a decade’s worth of Klein’s reporting and speeches on the global climate crisis, from the insidious spread of the BP oil spill to the moral dilemma of sacrificing coastal communities to sea-level rise. But she also anchors her stories of catastrophe in particular places: she watches her young son choking on smoke in a British Columbia forest, for instance, as he worries about where animals go in the face of flames. The question is: How many stories like these do we need before we start making changes?
The most powerful thrust of Klein’s book, however, is not story but action. “The book is very much about connecting the dots between various crises that we face,” she told me. “It’s about the climate crisis and parts of the world literally on fire, but it’s also about political forces raging on the right, xenophobia, and fascism, and the war on women. One of the things that has really held us back in the climate movement is the way of carving it up into these issue-based silos. I want to connect the crises and connect the solutions.”
Scientists say we have 12 years to cut emissions before the living systems that support us are altered beyond repair, especially if we want to get our emissions to net zero in accordance with the Paris climate accord by 2050. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere has already locked us in for more warming.
Things are going to get worse, that’s for sure. It’s just a question of who and where will be most impacted. It’s an equity question as much as an environmental one. That’s why, Klein said, the Green New Deal model is necessary to shake up the economy that depends on fossil-fuel subsidies and tax breaks and to make investment for the greater good.
“This is a huge economic paradigm shift, in breaking out of straight capitalism and consumerism—people are not going to make as much money,” she said. “Our society isn’t built for equity, and the people in power don’t want to change that.”
We can’t just let the market make choices, she argues. The solution won’t be something relatively simple, like cap and trade or a carbon tax. It’s going to take a drastic cut in emissions, along with new frameworks for transportation, energy, and food systems.
“Some [presidential] candidates are paying lip service to the Green New Deal by calling it a climate plan, and it’s clear that they don’t understand,” Klein told me. “It’s a plan for a new economy. If you’re just treating it as climate policy, you don’t understand it. FDR’s New Deal was not a narrow framework. Dozens and dozens of policies fit inside it.”
That’s why the New Deal model is useful. It evokes a historical memory, a starting point for broad-scale social change. In the 1930s, when it was enacted, the Depression had thrown the country into such upheaval that increasing national debt by a third seemed like a pretty good idea. Calling the climate emergency “our third world war,” economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote that World War II is another example of when we’ve effectively thrown money at a threat to the country. We must do so again now.
“We have generations that have grown up with no historical memory of their own of a time when big, collective positive change was possible, when they’re told something is too big or impossible that has a lot of persuasive power, especially after years of hyperindividualism and deconstruction and war on collective action in society,” Klein said.
“Whatever we do now will make the difference between whether we weather those shocks with some kind of decency or truly descend into barbarism,” she said, noting that we have a tiny window to make massive changes. When she gets depressed—as she told me she often does about this work—it’s helpful to remember how much further along we are than even five years ago.
That’s the most positive, urgent point right now. Millions of kids are marching in the streets. Presidential candidates are one-upping each other with climate proposals, pushing some iteration of a Green New Deal to the forefront of the Democratic Party’s platform. Young activists are leaning hard against significant structures of power. “I see our moment as this time of three fires,” Klein writes. “It’s climate change; the angry, raging, reactionary right; and the fire in the belly of this new generation.” Now we have stoke that last fire and give it air to grow.
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