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Klein and Kolbert


A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of Naomi Klein’s new climate change book. Kolbert had her problems with it, primarily that Klein doesn’t offer a concrete path before. I was interested in this precisely because I think struggling for solutions to our problems, however tenuous or even unrealistic they might be, is really important. So in the nature of fairness, it’s worth noting that Klein is pushing back hard against that review, discussing the many concrete ideas she posits:

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 extractions—and much, much more.

Some of this would be very difficult to implement from a political perspective, but obviously these are the kinds of steps we need. So it’s slightly unclear why Kolbert focused so heavily on this issue in her review.

Klein goes farther on her website and wonders out loud whether what Kolbert is really doing is guarding her territory since she has criticized other climate change books for doing what she wants Klein to do.

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?

One would hope turf-guarding is not what is happening here. But of course sometimes this very much happens. I doubt Kolbert would agree. But people get real cranky when they think (and often are) experts on a topic. However, we need as many calls to action climate change as possible, especially by people who are already famous. One would certainly think there would be room for a range of books on the topic and what to do. If my book inspires other people to write about the problems of capital mobility but posited completely different solutions and emphasized different issues, great!

And the critique of how long one has been interested in an issue is just petty.

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  • Marek

    Yeah, I was surprised by the tone of Kolbert’s review myself. I haven’t yet read Klein’s book (waiting for me at the library!), so I’ll reserve judgment on the content.

  • AA

    I haven’t read Klein’s book, but Kolbert is at least the third person I respect to post a negative review.

    Klein does set herself up for some of the pushback she’s getting not merely by coming late to the party, but by basically admitting she has little interest in climate change as a physical science issue, which of course it fundamentally is.

    The reviews I’ve read of Klein’s book, to put it undelicately, write it off as hopeless kumbayahism. Klein criticizes everyone who came before her for their lack of results, then launches into a proposal that’s dead on arrival.

    Kolbert’s specific argument with Klein’s work is that an equal division of allowable emissions requires some combination of an omnipresent renewables infrastructure and savage reductions in consumption, and such a change is far beyond the means of piecemeal voluntarism. If even the most enlightened and motivated liberal intelligentsia emit far more than an equal share of global emissions; how are we going to get anybody else to sign up for a shared poverty exercise? If you fly to a conference to give your paper on global equality, that’s great… you also just availed yourself of 1 or 2 shares of the global emissions budget, courtesy of some less fortunate soul in a faraway land.

    Klein argues that the “2000W” threshold is too low and we can increase supply. Theoretically yes (the “2000W society” already includes a hefty chunk of renewable energy), but the scale of such an exercise is daunting. Those watts mean paving over deserts with solar installations, planting hundreds of thousands of 150m tall wind turbines, operating hundreds of nuclear plants, and/or a continent’s worth of biofuels. Mix and match to your pleasure, but be warned none of the options will leave you at all satisfied (Aside: I highly recommend David MacKay’s book “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air,” it’s really good at establishing a proper sense of scale. Free online, but certainly worth buying the dead tree version too).

    Climate change is not a problem of local politics, it’s a problem of the nature of human civilization.

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