My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am a little late to this party, and I admit that I initially picked this book up simply as research for my SF novel set in the year 2074. I felt I needed a reality check. I wanted to know what experts thought the world would actually look like then, since we’re not there now and it’s unlikely I’ll be there to see it when we are.
In my fictional world, people don’t fly much at all, just for medical or military emergencies. They use the internet and virtual reality technology for business and for some pleasure travel, like the Star Trek holodeck; otherwise they take a sailboat, an electric motorboat, a rowboat, a canal barge, or an electric train, trolley or car. Electricity comes from wind, hydroelectric, and solar power. Some of them walk, or ride bikes, segways, mopeds, or horses. But they still travel, and live close to the land at the same time. It’s not a dystopian future.
As it turns out, I have gone, and am still going, through many of the phases of denial that the author describes in the first chapter: when I think about climate change at all, it is as something theoretical that I will write about as a science fiction story. Or, I think that there will be a prize-winning technical fix for it, invented by some brilliant wunderkind. Or I think that the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, to whom I give money, and the non-climate-change-denying politicians to whom I give my vote, will act on my behalf to slow the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Or I think that the solar panels we installed on our roof when we moved to California will make a difference.
I had even been, wishfully, thinking that things were improving, that worldwide emissions were being slowly reduced due to global agreements made at various climate summits that I read about in the news, but don’t read very carefully, because the particulars of trade negotiations bore me. Distracted by the circus that some people called a Presidential primary in the United States, by both the actuality of terrorism and the mirage of scaremongering about terrorism, and by the particulars of my own life, I had put climate change back in my own mind to being one of many “issues” that I sometimes thought about when I had time and energy to do so.
According to this meticulously researched, compelling tour de force of a book, however, I have been wrong. Really, totally, scary wrong. As the author says, climate change due to human-caused carbon emissions has gone from a “grandchildren” problem to a “banging on the door” problem, something that needs to be addressed in the next decade or we face not only the prospect of warmer average temperature in both winters and summers, increased intensity and number of storms and more extreme weather generally, but also the drowning of major cities and even entire nations, the desertification of others, and the displacement and death of millions of people.
Some of the interesting, shocking, and potentially hopeful facts she enumerates that are no doubt familiar to many, but which bear repeating here are the following:
– The big multinational energy companies have already identified and claimed the right to extract and emit more carbon into the atmosphere than it can safely absorb without triggering catastrophic, unpredictable events (“non-linear tipping elements”) such as the melting of the West Arctic ice sheet or large-scale Amazon dieback.
– In wealthy industrialized countries (the US, Canada, and Western Europe), the collapse of Communism has led to a kind of free-market fundamentalism in which economic policy choices are seen in stark, binary terms, with the only “right” choice, called “neoliberalism,” leading to ever-higher carbon emissions.
– Cap and trade, carbon/emissions credit agreements have been a failure at reducing emissions. Countries are getting carbon “credits” for merely slightly reducing dirty, poisonous practices that they shouldn’t have started doing in the first place. Indigenous people leading sustainable lifestyles in carbon offset areas are being uprooted and forbidden from practicing their livelihoods.
– We already have clean energy technology that can make a difference. The biggest problem is deployment and distribution of existing solutions, not a lack of game-changing technologies yet to be invented. For example, renewable energy such as wind and rooftop solar already supplies 25% of Germany’s energy needs. Relatively small shifts in government policy could make these technologies competitive with fossil fuels and also have the benefit of creating more “green” jobs than are lost from the falling away of the fossil fuel extractive industries.
– Indigenous peoples’ and First Nations’ land rights and treaties are some of the last defenses and best hopes for protecting land and have resulted in unlikely alliances between groups with a common interest in protecting land from being exploited, ruined, and poisoned by energy extraction.
– Local (city, town, tribal) ownership of the means of energy production and distribution results in a better outcome for everyone than private ownership of these things by large multinational corporations. Several cities in Germany have de-privatized their energy companies and have then made the switch to renewables.
– The abolitionist, feminist, and civil rights movements have the best blueprint for social change that a “climate justice” can also be modeled on. Climate justice works in the same direction as these movements, bringing more justice and a better standard of living to historically disenfranchised and exploited people.
I don’t have the time or resources to fact check this entire book, but it is extensively footnoted and the sources I am familiar with seem trustworthy to me. The author worked on it for 5 years, employed 2 full-time research assistants, and has attended numerous conferences representing many points of view, all the way from the Heartland Institute who deny any role for human activity in climate change, to the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009. But even if some, or many, of the particulars here are found to be incomplete or even wrong, it doesn’t matter. The collective actions recommended in this book would be good for the world, and for its people, even if the climate deadline were not looming so precipitously as Klein thinks.
I read this book while traveling in Europe and wrote the bulk of the review on the plane back home to California. I am painfully aware, even as I type this, of the inherent contradictions in that situation. Here I am, writing about the need for reducing carbon emissions as I cross an ocean and a continent in a miraculous yet fossil-fuel-guzzling and carbon-spewing metal tube. Sure, I feel guilty, to the point that I am almost reluctant to write and post this review at all.
But I take some hope from the book’s conclusion, which points the only way forward that I can understand, and which I want to keep in mind as I try to finish my climate science fiction novel:
“Indeed a great deal of the work of deep social change involves having debates during which new stories can be told to replace the ones that have failed us. . . . (W)e will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy—the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics . . . Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.” (pp. 461-2).