The Ethics of Climate Hope: A Response to Elizabeth Kolbert

Note: This letter will be published in the next issue of the New York Review of Books, as well as a response by Kolbert. The letter is followed here by a short additional note and update, addressing Kolbert’s reply.

To the Editors:

According to Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of my book, This Changes Everything, humans are too selfish to respond effectively to the climate crisis. “Here’s my inconvenient truth,” she writes, “when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car.”

Kolbert’s only proof for this sweeping judgment is her partial account of a single Swiss research project that began in 1998. The researchers behind the 2,000-Watt Society, as the project is known, determined that if humans are to live within ecological limits, then every person on earth will need to keep their energy consumption below 2,000 watts. They created several fictional characters representing different lifestyles to illustrate what that would entail and, according to Kolbert, “Only ‘Alice,’ a resident of a retirement home who had no TV or personal computer and occasionally took the train to visit her children, met the target.”

From this Kolbert concludes that my argument—that responding to climate change could be the catalyst for a positive social and economic transformation—is a “maddeningly” optimistic “fable.” Fortunately, Kolbert’s grim conclusions are based on several mischaracterizations of the most current research on emissions reduction, as well as of the contents of my book.

Let’s start with the Swiss project. It is indeed difficult to reach a 2,000-watt target while living in a society that systematically encourages wasteful energy use (through long daily commutes, for instance) and when energy is overwhelmingly derived from fossil fuels. But that’s precisely why we need the kind of bold energy transformations described in my book and already underway in some countries: there is no need to accept the outdated fossil-fueled infrastructure that we have now, let alone what we had in 1998.

Big investments in renewables and efficiency, as well as re-imagining how we live and work, can deliver a low-carbon, high quality of life to everyone on this planet. And as I write on page 101, “In 2009, Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, and Mark A. Delucchi, a research scientist at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, authored a groundbreaking, detailed road map for ‘how 100 percent of the world’s energy, for all purposes, could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources, by as early as 2030.” Today, low-emission living is considered so achievable that the city of Zurich has adopted the 2,000 Watt Society as an official government target, a piece of good news Kolbert chose not to share.

To make sure I wasn’t missing something, I ran Kolbert’s invocation of the Swiss study by one of the world’s leading experts on radical emissions reduction, Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the U.K.’s Tyndall Centre on Climate Change Research. He was also baffled by the reliance on such out of date assumptions. “Arguably back in 1998 there may have been some merit in the sole focus on energy consumption as an adequate proxy for emissions—as the prospect of large-scale low carbon alternatives was still a long way off—both technically and in terms of economics. Sixteen or so years later and many of the alternatives are now sufficiently mature to compete with fossil fuels.” In short, the world has moved on.

It is true that it will take time to roll out the infrastructure and technologies to get off fossil fuels, and we will burn a lot of fossil fuel in the process. As a result, those of us who consume a great deal now will need to consume less in order to drive emissions down. In the book, I explain that, “we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980s.” The majority of the world’s population, however, would be able to consume more than they do at the moment.

Kolbert’s review makes the quite extraordinary claim that my book “avoids looking at all closely at what [emission reduction] would entail.” In fact the book contains an in-depth discussion of emission reduction strategies employed by large economies like Germany and Ontario. It dissects the policies that work and those that do not and explores how international trade policy needs to change to make such policies more effective. It delves into which agricultural practices carry the most climate benefits, goes into detail about how to pay for green transitions (from luxury taxes to public control over energy grids). It calls for a revolution in public transit and high-speed rail, for shorter workweeks and serious climate financing so that developing nations can leapfrog over fossil fuels. It also calls for moratoriums on particularly high risk forms of extraction—and much, much more.

I know Kolbert didn’t miss all of this because that would have meant missing hundreds of pages of text. It seems she would prefer me to have written a book focused on individual consumer behavior: how much people can drive and turn on their TVs. Yet there have been dozens of books that reduce the climate challenge to a question of individual consumer choices. My book is about the huge public policy shifts needed to make those low carbon choices far easier and accessible to all. It is therefore, a book first and foremost about ideology, and the need for a dramatic move away from the dominant free-market logic that has made so many of these necessary policies seem politically impossible.

This part of my thesis has been well understood by a great many reviewers, yet strangely ideology was not even mentioned by Kolbert. Her bleak conclusion, however, is confirmation of precisely why no real solutions have a chance unless this ideology is challenged. Right now we have an economic system that encourages and relies on selfishness and rampant consumption. Unless we change, well, everything, many of us can be counted on to cling to our HDTVs as the screens flash ever more apocalyptic images of a world in collapse. It may be wild optimism, but I insist on believing that humanity can do better.

Naomi Klein

After submitting this letter, someone pointed me to a review Kolbert wrote several years ago of a very different kind of climate change book, No Impact Man by Colin Beavan. Beavan’s book could scarcely be more different from This Changes Everything. Indeed No Impact Man does exactly what Kolbert criticizes me for not doing: it spells out in minute detail exactly what comfortable, middle-class Americans would have to give up in order to dramatically lower their emissions. And yet in her long New Yorker review, Kolbert mocks Beavan quite mercilessly for turning his life into a low-carbon P.R. “stunt,” taking shots at several other writers focused on personal carbon consumption along the way (Beavan’s response is here).

But with hindsight, the most striking part of Kolbert’s piece on Beavan is her conclusion about the kind of book she would preferred to have read: “The real work of ‘saving the world’ goes way beyond the sorts of action that ‘No Impact Man’ is all about,” she writes. “What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: ‘Impact Man.'”

Kolbert, in other words, wanted Beavan to write a book about movement building and big policy shifts—a little like the book that I actually wrote.  Which makes it particularly strange that she now longs for me to write a book a lot more like Beavan’s.

Or maybe there is something else going on here. Kolbert’s review contained a couple of digs at my lack of earlier engagement with climate change. Including this painfully revealing line: “Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change…” (This was the set up for her invocation of the Swiss study.) So… yes, Kolbert has been writing about climate change longer than I have. And it’s quite true that, back in 1998, I was writing a book about consumption and corporate power, not climate change specifically. But does this kind of petty turf-protection really have a place in the face of a collective crisis of such magnitude? Personally, I much prefer the spirit of the slogan of New York City’s People’s Climate March: “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone.”

Writing this response has not been fun. I have long admired Elizabeth Kolbert’s vivid reporting from the front lines of ecological collapse and the climate movement unquestionably owes her a debt of gratitude. Which is why I find it particularly troubling that someone so intimately aware of the stakes in this struggle would devote so much intellectual energy to describing why change of the scale we need is a “fable.” Why should hope—even deeply qualified hope like mine—be maddening?

I have yet to meet anyone professionally focused on the science of our warming planet who does not wrestle with despair, myself included. Yet surely the decision about whether to maintain some hope in the face of an existential crisis that is still technically preventable is not just a matter of cold calculation. It’s also a question of ethics. If there is any chance of turning the tide, and if taking action could actually lead to all kinds of ancillary benefits, then it seems to me that those of us with public platforms have a responsibility to share that good news, alongside all the painful truths.

At the very least, we should refrain from digging up fictionalized residents of Swiss nursing homes to make responding to the climate crisis seem infinitely more grim and punishing than it actually is.

Despair in the face of difficult odds is understandable. It is also highly contagious.

UPDATE: The New York Review of Books has just posted my letter, followed by a response from Elizabeth Kolbert. You can read that here. Sadly, much of Kolbert’s response is based on a complete misreading of my letter. As readers can clearly see, I did not criticize the 2,000-Watt Society itself, but rather the way she misrepresented the project in her very partial treatment of it in the review, cherry picking results and using them to support a message of despair. (I was quite clear about this, objecting to Kolbert’s “partial account” of the project and her “mischaracterizations of the most current research”—if my problem was with the project, I would not have hesitated to say so. As for the implication that I can’t even master Wikipedia, oh my…)

Kolbert has written in more depth about the 2,000-Watt Society elsewhere, but in her review of my book, she completely fails to mention that it envisions a robust, rapid transition to renewable energy, one that is looking more feasible every year. That leaves readers unfamiliar with the project (and that would be most readers) to conclude that reducing individual consumption is the primary lever we have, and, moreover, that the researchers are calling for us all to live like elderly Swiss shut-ins. It’s a selective account that supports a message of political hopelessness, when the laudable goal of the project is precisely the opposite.

Obviously, I’m well aware that the project does not paint such a bleak future—as I state, the city of Zurich has officially embraced the goal of a 2,000-Watt Society, and Swiss researchers are not the only ones who have concluded that drastically expanding efficiency and renewables *in tandem with* reduced consumption can deliver a very high quality of life. Of course politicians are not doing nearly enough get us there, which is why my book argues that success depends on social movements.

Finally, my observation in the book about returning to a 1970s lifestyle was not a specific analysis of per capita US energy consumption. The point was a much broader one—namely, that a big part of radical emissions reduction is cracking down on the out of control consumption of the super-rich. As Dr. Kevin Anderson explains here, returning as soon as possible to the lower emissions levels of the 1960s and 1970s would impact the wealthiest most of all, and there is no reason to doubt that as long as we are focused on equity, industrialized countries could make those reductions while maintaining a perfectly acceptable quality of life.

 

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the international bestsellers This Changes Everything, The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. She writes a regular column for The Nation and The Guardian and is a contributing editor at Harper's.