Tag Archives: climate change

Does This Change Everything?

From notes for a panel discussion following a screening of “This Changes Everything,” at the Al Whittle Theatre in Wolfville on November 3. Thanks to the Fundy Film Society and Acadia ESST students for organizing the screening and panel.

This Changes Everything” starts with Naomi Klein confessing that she doesn’t like films about climate change. I feel the same way. Or at least, I feel like I have seen enough of them to be tired of some familiar tropes. Or maybe even that feeling is just a lazy generalization based on my frustration with “An Inconvenient Truth.” In any case, given Klein’s opening claim, I’d like to think about how This Changes Everything is both different from, and similar to, other climate change films.

Let’s start with the differences. Some of these are not stated as explicitly as I will put them here, but I am exaggerating both to highlight the contrasts and because I think these are directions worth pushing in. With that in mind, the first difference that strikes me is that the film talks about (or at least encourages us to talk about) the economics of climate change mitigation in terms of expropriation. The film talks about a global carbon budget, and how much of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves have to be kept in the ground in order to keep global temperature increase to 2 degrees or less. It is a lot. Dealing with climate change means stranding those assets, which means the companies that hold them will have to write them off their balance sheets. In other words, dealing with climate change requires potentially enormous financial losses for very powerful people and organizations (7 of the top 10 global Fortune 500 companies are oil and auto companies). Klein says at one point that she agrees with the climate deniers at the Heartland Institute about one thing: that what climate change activists (or environmentalists more generally) is a redistribution of wealth – that they are “watermelons: green on the outside, red on the inside.” It’s vanishingly rare that we contemplate the scale of expropriation that is suggested here (more on the scale of change that is implied later). One of the few comparable situations I can think of is the abolition of slavery in the United States. To see how that worked out, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award-winning essay “The Case for Reparations,” and his book published earlier this year, Between the World and Me. The book is commendable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is beautifully written. It has almost nothing to say about climate change, until the second-last paragraph, which is devastating.

A second difference is that the film’s prescriptive message is all about collective political action. As far as I can recall, there is not a single appeal to green consumerism, switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs, low-flow taps, etc. This is an important and welcome shift, for reasons Michael Maniates explained over a decade ago.

Third, a significant portion of the film focuses on the “environmentalism of the poor”: communities in the global South, who are not only facing some of the worst impacts of climate change, but are also portrayed as political agents, not just passive victims. For these people and communities, climate change represents an existential crisis. In that situation, the political choices are framed quite differently from the way climate change appeals are often framed for us in the wealthy global North. While the film’s cases are far from exclusively in the global South, many of those that aren’t seem to be marginal in different ways: indigenous communities dealing with the tar sands in northern Alberta, Greece in the midst economic disaster, and Montana ranchers trying to recuperate a traditional way of life – an eclectic group that Klein famously characterizes as “Blockadia.” I saw the movie with an audience that was mostly white, and dealing with what is, in comparative terms, relatively mild neoliberal austerity. What does the film have to say to those, and there are many, who don’t see climate change as an existential threat? What about those who aren’t inhabitants of Blockadia, but maybe read about it, or at best go there for a short visit?

In his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre says that, for Europeans, the book “often talks about you, but never to you.” (xlv) Then: “Why bother to read it if it is not meant for us? … read it, primarily, because it will make you feel shame, and shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary feeling.” (xlviii-xlix) There are a few moments like this in the film, particularly for a Canadian audience (Klein and Lewis are Canadian). But “This Changes Everything” isn’t really a shame-inducing movie. And that is partly because the film at least implies that we (those who are most responsible for climate change) don’t have to be constituted the way that we are, and that we can sense a profound wrong-ness in the way that we are constituted. Most powerfully, “we” here refers not just to the sorts of people who would walk into a film like this predisposed to liking it. Early in the film, the hollow pleasures of life in Fort MacMurray, despite (or because) of all the money that is flowing through, are nicely portrayed. And one of the more hopeful moments is the suggestion even those living through and benefiting from this hyper-extraction recognize its emptiness in relatively short order.

On the other hand, the emphasis on hopeful stories is not all that different from other climate change films. And as is often the case, I think some of these hopeful stories are overstated. Germany’s green energy revolution is one example. The extent to which (or speed with which) people in the Fort MacMurray/ Oil Sands machine recognize and rebel against the personal toll that it takes on them may be another. As well, if the stories are long on hope and inspiration, they are short on the strategies and tactics that activists in Blockadia use. Like many other climate change films, This Changes Everything is ultimately designed to inspire, but isn’t a toolkit.

A second similarity with other climate change films: whatever Klein herself thinks, the film sends confusing messages about the kinds of changes that are needed, and the ways in which different systems are interrelated. There are at least three systems operating, and it isn’t always clear which ones are driving what, or how best to intervene in them. At one level there is the technological system: how feasible is it to replace our fossil-fuel intensive system with low- or zero-carbon alternatives? How quickly can this be done, and to what extent is a downscaling of consumption patterns of the global North needed? Aside from the technical components of those questions, which different characters in the film seem to answer somewhat differently, these questions operate on political and economic levels, as well. I mentioned earlier the scale of expropriation that needs to be contemplated. Historically, this scale of change has been characterized as “revolutionary” (e.g. 1789 or 1917). Abolition in the US isn’t always characterized in those terms. Maybe that’s because the expropriation wasn’t really successful, and the exploitation of black bodies continues in other ways, as Coates and others argue (see above). Or maybe the Civil War did mark a revolutionary change in America’s political-economic system, comparable to the French, Russian, or Chinese revolutions, as Barrington Moore suggests in a classic study of comparative politics. And it is here that the film seems ambivalent in possibly unhelpful ways.

In terms of economic questions, I’ve already noted the film’s willingness to deal with the issue of inequality and of capitalism. But ultimately the film seems to waffle on whether the criticism is to be aimed at neoliberalism (a particular form of capitalism), or at capitalism itself, more generally. Do we need better regulation, the right market incentives, etc. to move from a fossil to a green energy system? Or do we need to socialize the means of (energy) production?

A similar ambivalence structures how the film deals with politics. What does “This Changes Everything” tell us about the state? Just as some of the actors in the film argue that better-regulated (non-neoliberal) capitalism can usher in an energy transition, some of them argue that more democratically responsive states can do so, as well. Indeed, Klein herself on at least one occasion in the film notes the importance of citizen action in pushing states to behave appropriately. It was citizen pressure, she says, that made the energy transition (to the extent that there has been one) in Germany happen. But just like capitalism, the state system has a logic of its own, which may not be compatible with a just energy transition. While some in the film argue that states (like corporations) need to be held more accountable, others (most clearly Indigenous communities) argue that the state itself is part of the problem. A couple of years ago, Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann argued that climate change may demand a politics that is both anti-capitalist and opposed to the state form at the planetary scale (“planetary sovereignty”) – what they call “Climate X.” Climate justice movements represent for them “the seeds of Climate X.” Although necessarily diffuse and shadowy, the Climate X does suggest a politics adequate to a condition – the potentiality of catastrophic climate change – that changes everything. At least some of the voices in Klein’s film, and maybe Klein herself, seem to be hedging their bets.

The Ivany Report: An Environmental Analysis

This post is (very loosely) based on my notes for a roundtable presentation on the Report of the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy (aka the Ivany Report): “Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Actions for Nova Scotians.” The roundtable was part of a conference put together by students in Acadia’s graduate program in Social and Political Thought, and was also recorded by the NS office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. (video of the roundtable discussion here)

The Report is explicitly directed at “building our new economy” in Nova Scotia. For those unfamiliar with the region, Nova Scotia is a province where (according to the 2009 State of Nova Scotia’s Coast report) some 70% of the population lives in coastal communities. Many of those communities, not surprisingly, are close to sea level. It’s not quite Florida, but there are clear climate change vulnerabilities associated with sea level rise and increased storm frequency and intensity (see for example this report on Halifax Regional Municipality; an elevation map of the province is here). On the other hand, what makes us vulnerable to climate change is also an asset: Nova Scotia’s licence plate motto is “Canada’s Ocean Playground.” This can be recognized iconographically in the report, which features seven full-page photos, three of which are of beaches. Put another way: something we recognize as an important asset, and defining part of our identity, is what is vulnerable to climate change.

To anyone aware of these vulnerabilities, the fact that this report appears to take no account of the “new climate” on which the “new economy” will have to be built, is striking. I think the way to explain this silence is through the Report’s committed refusal to engage in politics. I’ll describe the silence in a bit more detail before discussing what I think is its significance.

First, a quick content analysis of the Report with respect to global warming/ climate change:

  • The term “global warming” does not appear anywhere in the report’s 87 pages.
  • The word “climate” appears a total of six times, as follows:
    • three times, it is used to refer to the “macroeconomic climate” (pp. vii,48,70);
    • it is used once to refer to the “climate for risk taking and business development” (p. 28);
    • it is used once to refer to the “attitudinal climate” (p. 46);
    • the one time it is used in a weather-related context is in a boxed quotation, which discusses how the province’s “cooler climate” is conducive to growing premium varieties of apples (p. 40).

That’s it.

To be sure, the report does mention environmental issues beyond climate change, although for the most part these are vague references to “environmental protection” or “sustainability,” rather than specific issues. To the extent that environmental issues do appear in the report, they appear to emerge from the public engagement sessions that were conducted as part of the report’s fact-finding. Thus one of the nine “broad themes” that emerged from the public engagement was “sustainability and growth” (pp. 6-7) (I’ll come back to the significance of this by way of conclusion). Of the 19 “New Goals for Nova Scotia,” only one is directed at environmental sustainability (or two, if you count goal #15, which is to double agriculture and fisheries exports “on a sustainable basis”). Goal #17, “A province-wide plan to achieve Nova Scotia’s new goals for sustainable economic growth and population renewal,” includes the point that such a plan “must recognize that progressive land development can both strengthen our economy and reduce our negative impact on the environment” (p. 49). Here, and consistently throughout the report, environmental sustainability, or the reduction of environmental impacts, is hedged within a growth imperative.

Indeed, the growth imperative, and the need for an “attitude change” to accept that imperative – is the document’s overarching message. In their foreword, the commissioners helpfully lay out the “three core messages” of the report, which work as a sequence: 1) “there is a crisis”, 2) change is possible, and 3) “… the single most significant impediment to change and renewal is the lack of a shared vision and commitment to economic growth and renewal…” (p. vii, my emphasis).

The connection of the lack of “commitment to economic growth” with a “lack of a shared vision” is what I mean by a refusal to engage in politics: dissensus or disagreement is seen as a problem (to be solved), rather than a condition that we have to live with.

From the public engagement sessions, the authors have gleaned a couple of “fault lines” that inhibit a shared vision (pp. 9-10). One was about “public versus private sector roles in economic development,” with a somewhat related lack of agreement on whether or how much “private sector leadership” should be “recognize[d] and celebrate[d].” If we want to apply political economy labels (the Report doesn’t use these terms), the “fault line” is one between Keynesians and neoliberals, who disagree on the appropriate means to achieve more economic growth.

A second constellation of issues is around the rural-urban divide, and the trade-off between natural resource extraction and environmental protection. Rural Nova Scotia here is characterized more or less exclusively as a site for resource extraction (“pulp and paper and lumber mills, mines and quarries, fish plants and aquaculture operations”), and the questions are whether these “sectors” or “rural economies” can or should be modernized, and if so, how.

“Some participants emphasized the need to renew, modernize and in some cases expand these traditional sectors… Others asserted that maintaining a pristine environment may be more economically beneficial over the longer term that (sic) pursuing growth in the mining, forestry or energy fields.” (pp.9-10)

One thing to notice is that the Report frames these “fault lines” as disagreements about means, not about ends. Whether we prefer high levels of public sector spending or cutting corporate taxes, and whether we think lumber mills should be developed to the highest efficiency standards or shuttered to make way for eco-tourism, we are agreed on the end of trying to do what is most “economically beneficial.”

The presumed goal is sacrosanct. There is presumed agreement, first, that “Nova Scotians” are a monolithic community, even a “nation” unto ourselves. The idea that “Nova Scotians” includes multiple, sometimes antagonistic communities, is characterized as problematic “politics”: petty squabbling, a distraction from the serious tasks at hand, and precisely the bad attitude that needs to be left in the past. “The first [change] area identified is political leadership” (p. ix) – defined by refraining from “politics as usual” and “putting aside partisan interests.” “Political leadership” for the authors means getting away from those messy disagreements that divide rather than unite us. It is for this reason that the Report resorts so casually and consistently to the language of “crisis”: the emergency that will get us to see that we are all in this together, so that we can all engage in the serious work needed to reach our common goal.

But what is that serious business, that common goal? “Crisis” literally means “turning point.” But where are we to turn, other than away from the bad attitudes of the past? The second point of agreement presumed by the Report is that we should turn inexorably to more economic growth. Because of its ideological commitments, the idea that communities might have goals that aren’t measurable in positive economic terms (or maybe aren’t measurable at all) can hardly be registered.

This refusal to engage in thinking about ends, to ask, in an open and serious fashion, “what is more growth for?” is what I mean by the Report’s refusal to engage in politics. And it is the watermark that seeps through every page of the Report, starting from it’s first words: “Now or Never.”

As noted above, one time where engagement with substantive ends is forced onto the agenda is in discussing the public engagement findings, and more particularly the theme of sustainability and growth. This shouldn’t be surprising, because there is perhaps no issue that more clearly forces us to confront these differences than our desires for economic growth and the recognition of environmental limits – particularly in a community whose historic identity and prosperity literally sits on ground that is in danger of being washed away by climate change.

So it is not surprising that public discussions of “sustainability and growth” lead to:

“Success and growth can be measured in many ways beyond simply looking at GDP or other conventional indicators, and more consideration needs to be given to how communities envision their own success.” (6; my emphasis)

But no more consideration can happen, within the frame imposed by the Report. Communities can’t take the time to deliberate and determine their own vision(s) of success, because we’ve all got to pull together for greater growth, now or never.

In its recognition of limits, environmentalism should force us to confront anew the questions: What do we want? How should we live? Who are we? From an environmental perspective, what is even more significant than its silence on climate change, is the Report’s attempt to banish these profound, and irreducibly political, questions, or to presume that we have settled or can settle these questions once and for all, now or never.