“The stakes are so high, time is so short and the task so large…”
“The invitation came as a complete surprise to me,”
Canadian writer and climate movement activist Naomi Klein told journalists
at the July 1 Vatican press conference to discuss Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudito Si’.”
“And I do believe that given the attacks that are coming from the Republican Party around this and the fossil fuel interests in the United States,
it was a particularly courageous decision to invite me here.”
Here are her words as a member of that panel.
I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and to CIDSE for hosting us here and for convening this remarkable two-day gathering, which I’m very much looking forward to. It is also a real honor to be here supporting and indeed celebrating the historic publication of the pope’s encyclical.
“This encyclical certainly spoke to me”
Pope Francis writes early on in Laudito Si’ that this is not only a teaching for the Catholic world but for every person living on this planet. And I can say that, as a secular Jewish feminist who was rather surprised to be invited to the Vatican, it certainly spoke to me. “We are not God,” the encyclical states. All humans once knew this. But about 400 years ago, dizzying scientific breakthroughs made it seem to some humans that we were on the verge of knowing everything there was to know about the Earth and would therefore be nature’s masters and possessors, to quote René Descarte’s so memorable phrase. This, they claimed was what God had always wanted.
That theory held for a good long time, but subsequent breakthroughs in science have told us something very different. Because when we were burning ever larger amounts of fossil fuels, convinced that our container ships and jumbo jets had leveled the world, that we were as gods, greenhouse gases were accumulating in the atmosphere and relentlessly trapping heat. And now we are confronted with the reality that we were never the master, never the boss, and that we are unleashing natural forces that are far more powerful than us or our most ingenious machines.
We can save ourselves, but only if we let go of the myth of dominance and mastery and learn to work with nature, respecting and harnessing its intrinsic capacity for renewal and regeneration. And this brings us to the core message of interconnection at the heart of the encyclical. What climate change reaffirms, for that minority of the human species that ever forgot, is that there is no such thing as a one-way relationship of pure mastery in nature. As Pope Francis writes, “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.”
For some who see interconnection as a cosmic demotion, this is all too much to bear. And so, actively encouraged by fossil fuel-funded political actors, they choose to deny the science. But that is already changing as the climate changes, and it will likely change more with the publication of the encyclical. This could mean real trouble for American politicians who are counting on using the Bible as cover for their opposition to climate action. In this regard, Pope Francis’ trip to the United States in September could not be better timed.
Yet, as the encyclical rightly puts it, denial takes many forms. And there are many across the political spectrum and around the world who accept the science but reject the difficult implications of the science. I spent the past two weeks reading hundreds of reactions to the encyclical. And though the response has on the whole been overwhelmingly positive, I’ve noticed a common theme among many of the critiques: Pope Francis may be right about the science, we hear, and even about the morality, but he should leave the economics and policy to the experts. They are the ones, we are told, who understand how effectively markets can solve any problem. I forcefully disagree.
“Many economic experts have failed us”
The truth is that we have arrived at this dangerous place partly because many of those economic experts have failed us, wielding their powerful technocratic skills without wisdom. They produced models that placed scandalously little value on human life, particularly on the lives of the poor, and placed outsized value on protecting corporate profits and economic growth at all costs. That warped value system is how we ended up with ineffective carbon markets instead of strong carbon taxes and higher fossil fuel royalties; it’s how we ended up with a temperature target of 2 degrees, which would allow entire nations to disappear simply because their GDPs were deemed insufficiently large.
In a world where profit is consistently put above people and the planet, climate economics has everything to do with ethics and morality, because if we agree that endangering life on earth is a moral crisis, then it is incumbent on us to act like it.
That doesn’t mean gambling the future on the boom and bust cycle of the market. It means policies that directly regulate how much carbon can be extracted from the earth. It means policies that will get us to 100 percent renewable energy in two to three decades or at the latest by mid-century, not by the end of century. And it means allocating common shared resources like the atmosphere on the basis of justice and equity, not winner takes all or, as Professor Edenhofer has said, “Might makes right.”
“We need system change”
That’s why a new kind of climate movement is fast emerging. It is based on the most courageous truth expressed in the encyclical: that our current economic system is both fueling the climate crisis and actively preventing us from taking the necessary action to avert it. A movement based on the knowledge that if we don’t want runaway climate change, then we need system change. And because our current system is also fueling ever-widening inequality, we have a chance, in rising to the final challenge, to solve multiple overlapping crises at once. In short, we can shift to a more stable climate and a fair economy at the same time.
This growing understanding is why you are seeing some surprising and even unlikely alliances, like, for instance, me at the Vatican; like trade unions, indigenous groups, faith and green groups, climate scientists working more closely together than ever before. Inside these coalitions we don’t agree on everything, not by a long shot. But we understand that the stakes are so high, time is so short and the task so large that we cannot afford to allow these differences to divide us.
When 400,000 people marched for climate justice in New York City last September, the slogan was “To change everything, we need everyone.” Everyone, of course, includes political leaders. But having attended many meetings with social movements about the COP 21 summit in Paris, I can report this: there is zero tolerance for yet another failure being dressed up as a success for the cameras until a week later when those same politicians are back to drilling for oil in the Arctic and building more highways and pushing new trade deals that make it far more difficult to regulate polluters.
If the deal fails to bring about immediate emission reductions while providing real and substantive support to poor countries, then it will be declared a failure, as it should be.
“Difficult is not the same as impossible”
What we must always remember is that it is not too late to veer off the dangerous road we are on, the one that is leading us not to 2 degrees of warming, but towards 4. Indeed we could still keep warming below 1.5 degrees if we made it our top collective priority. It would be difficult, to be sure, as difficult as the rationing and industrial conversion that were once made during wartime, as ambitious as the anti-poverty and public works programs that were launched in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Second World War. But difficult is not the same as impossible. And giving up in the face of a task that could save countless lives and prevent so much suffering simply because it is difficult and costly and requires sacrifice from those of us who can most afford to do with less is not pragmatism; it is surrender of the most cowardly kind. And there is no cost-benefit in the world that is capable of justifying that.
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” We’ve been hearing these supposedly serious-minded words for more than two decades, for the entire lifetime of today’s young climate activists. And every time another UN summit fails to deliver bold, legally binding and science-based policies while sprinkling empty promises of reshuffled aid money on the poor, we hear those words again: “Sure it’s not enough, but it’s a step in the right direction. We’ll do the harder stuff next time.” And always, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
This, it must be said inside these hallowed walls, is pure nonsense. Perfect left the station in the mid-1990s, after the first Río Earth Summit.
“Only two roads: Difficult, yet humane,
and easy, yet reprehensible”
Today we have only two roads in front of us: difficult, yet humane, and easy, yet reprehensible. To our so-called leaders preparing their pledges for COP 21, getting out the lipstick and heels to dress up another lousy deal, I have this to say: Read the encyclical; not the summary, the whole thing. Read it and let it into your hearts; the grief at what we have already lost and the celebration of what we can still protect and help to thrive.
Listen, too, to the voices of the hundreds of thousands who will be on the streets of Paris outside the summit and gathered simultaneously in cities and towns around the world. This time they will be saying more than “We need action.” They will be saying “We are already acting.” More than that, they will be saying “We are the solution: in our demands that institutions divest their holdings from fossil fuels: in our ecological farming methods which rely less on fossil fuels, provide healthy food and work at sequestering carbon; in our democratically controlled community energy projects; in our demand for reliable, affordable and even free public transit; in our uncompromising insistence that you cannot call yourself a climate leader while opening up vast new tracts of ocean and land to oil drilling, gas fracking and coal mining. We have to leave it in the ground. And in our conviction that you cannot call yourself a democracy if you are beholden to multinational polluters.”
Around the world the climate justice movement is saying “See the beautiful world that lies on the other side of courageous policy, the seeds of which are already bearing ample fruit for any who care to look. Then, stop making the difficult the enemy of the popular, and join us in making the possible real.
Extracts of her answers to journalist’s questions:
(On “inter-faith” cooperation with and support for the encyclical): I don’t know if you saw the news that the dalai lama was asked about the pope’s encyclical a couple days ago and he said he supported it wholeheartedly; so we’re already seeing some of that.
I would just clarify that this is an alliance on a specific issue; it’s not a merger. Nobody’s being asked to agree on everything. We do not even agree on everything related to climate change, but when you are faced with a crisis of this magnitude, people have to get out of their comfort zones. Like I said, that slogan that “if you’re going to change everything, it takes everyone…” I think we all know inside the climate movement that we don’t have the capacity to exert the kind of pressure the fossil fuel companies can on our own, without building these alliances, so for instance, where I live in Canada, the climate movement is now working very closely with the trade union movement, including from unions that represent workers in the tar sands because we have this common understanding that we need to change the economic model. So there are a lot of surprising alliances going on, and it isn’t about anybody’s world view being subsumed in anybody else’s.
(On her reaction upon first reading the encyclical and her reaction to the Vatican’s invitation): Even though I had read Pope Francis’ statements about climate change and Cardinal Turkson’s statements, so knew it was going to be a radical document, I was still shocked, frankly, by the courage and also by the poetry of the document, because I think it’s a wonderful combination of common sense language and also very, very moving poetic language that speaks to the heart, and that’s why I think it is so crucial that we read the encyclical and not just extracts or summaries. You know we live in a culture that is all about boiling everything down to the sound bite and within seconds it has been reduced to listicles and means and the top-ten this and top-ten that, but there’s really no substitute for actually reading the words and taking the time. On a personal level, I think that what is particularly courageous is that challenge to the dominance-based world view and the emphasis on interconnection and the quotes in the encyclical from St. Francis about being part of a community of living beings. I think that’s particularly important in the encyclical’s ability to reach everybody in the world. I see it as a document that is very informed by Latin America’s social movements in particular; I think that was a big part of the drafting…
The invitation came as a complete surprise to me. And I believe that given the attacks that are coming from the Republican Party around this and the fossil fuel interests in the United States, it was a particularly courageous decision to invite me here. It indicates that the Holy See is not being intimidated, and knows that when you say powerful truths you make some powerful enemies, and that’s part of what this is about.
But one of the most striking things about this is that we live in a time that really lacks political courage, right? We’re all used to politicians backing down at the first sign of controversy, so that both the willingness to say these controversial truths and to not back down from positions that are going to continue to be controversial because there are such powerful vested interests defending the status quo is something very new in the political discourse and really something that is much needed.
(On another panelist’s comment about the possibility of creating more new jobs in renewable energies than in any traditional energy sector): Yes, 400,000 jobs have been created in Germany in the energy transition, so I think that’s a really important living example of how rising to the challenge of climate change can be an opportunity to meet concrete economic needs. If we pit these economic needs against each other, climate will always lose to jobs; it will always lose to the imperative of parents to take care of their children, but these are false choices, as we are seeing.
Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo, Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Her speech at the Vatican Press Conference titled ‘People and Planet First’ was transcribed from http://www.radicalsense.com/2015/08/05/131/ Subtitles by envío.