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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

The It Girl of climate change doesn’t get it Add to ...

Naomi Klein is by all accounts a wonderful person – warm, low-key, modest, committed and enormously hard-working. She also looks terrific in a crisp white shirt, which is what she wore for a recent photo shoot for Vogue. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Vogue is interested in fashionable intellectuals, and right now there’s no intellectual more fashionable than Ms. Klein. She told Vogue that her new book, This Changes Everything, is “a book about climate change for people who don’t read books about climate change.”

Ms. Klein and her new book are being written up everywhere. Its publication brilliantly coincides with today’s big UN climate-change gabfest in New York, which has been billed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a last chance (yet another one!) to save the planet.

Just one problem. The leaders of three of four of the world’s top carbon polluters – China, India and Russia – didn’t bother to show up. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel stayed home. Stephen Harper has been widely excoriated for his failure to attend, but it turns out he’s got lots of company.

The thesis of This Changes Everything is that global warming is a war of capitalism against the planet, and that we need a people’s uprising to reclaim true democracy from the venal and corrupt politicians who have been co-opted by Big Oil. If this sounds like the Occupy movement all over again, you’re right. “We need an ideological battle,” Ms. Klein told the Guardian.

But wait. What about the rest of the world? Do they need an ideological battle, too? How do we get them to sign on? Every effort at global collective action has so far been a colossal flop, and there is not a hope in hell that that is going to change.

China alone now accounts for a whopping 28 per cent of the world’s C02 emissions – twice as much as the U.S. Over the past five years, China’s emissions increased more than the rest of the world combined; on a per-capita basis, it now out-pollutes the EU. India produces less than 7 per cent of the world’s total emissions, but most of its people still live in a state of energy starvation. India’s most pressing health problem isn’t climate change. It’s indoor pollution from dung fires.

The developing world is now responsible for nearly 60 per cent of global emissions. Even if the developed nations make substantial cuts to CO2, over the coming decades emissions growth in the developing world will dwarf their efforts. Yet in every interview, excerpt and review I’ve read about her book, Ms. Klein has nothing to say on this subject. Talk about denial! No book on climate that ignores elementary facts like these can be counted as a serious work.

The folks who revere Ms. Klein and gushingly review her books don’t have a clue about this stuff either. I wouldn’t expect Vogue to know. I wouldn’t even expect the Guardian or the Nation to know. The CBC should know, but frequently does not. As for The New York Times – its chief climate drum-banger is currently Mark Bittman, who was formerly the newspaper’s chief recipe-writer. He knows how to make a mean Thai beef salad (you should look it up) but is shockingly ignorant about the climate facts of life. He thinks Ms. Klein walks on water. He, too, says that neoliberalism is the problem and reclaiming democracy is the solution. He thinks we could fix the climate – if only we took on the evil greedy corporations and put our minds to it. As for the rest of the world, he doesn’t seem to know it exists.

This is the most childish form of magical thinking. It’s like asking kids to clap their hands so that Tinker Bell won’t die. For activists, climate change is a simplistic and self-centred morality tale that pits our greed and wickedness against the Utopia of a kinder, gentler, fairer, better world. In fact, climate change is a complex and fiendishly hard problem, with huge uncertainties about what lies ahead and even greater uncertainties about effective policies to address it. The activists should do themselves a favour, and grow up.

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