The leading climate activist and UBC professor of climate justice shares insights on what she’s learned about communicating the climate crisis over the past two decades, how Covid has impacted climate action, and how the UBC Centre for Climate Justice is tackling climate injustice in Canada and beyond.
Naomi Klein published her first book on climate change, This Changes Everything, almost a decade ago. Since then, she has dedicated her life to advancing climate justice through activism, films, books, and teaching. She was one of the organizers and authors of Canada’s Leap Manifesto, a blueprint for a rapid and justice-based transition off fossil fuels, which inspired climate justice initiatives around the world. In 2021, Klein joined the University of British Columbia as Professor of Climate Justice in the Department of Geography and co-director of Canada’s first Centre for Climate Justice.
We asked her to speak about what climate justice looks like in British Columbia, what she is watching out for in 2023 that will impact climate policy, and what advice she gives her students.
What is climate justice and how does it depart from climate action and environmentalism?
I always think about climate justice as multitasking. We live in a time of multiple overlapping crises: We have a health emergency, we have a housing emergency, we have an inequality emergency, we have a racial injustice emergency, and we have a climate emergency, so we’re not going to get anywhere if we try to address them one at a time. We need responses that are truly intersectional. So how about as we decarbonize and create a less polluted world, we also build a much fairer society on multiple fronts?
Many environmentalists hear that and think, “Well, that sounds a lot harder than just implementing a carbon tax or switching to green energy.” And the argument we make in the climate justice movement is that what we’re trying to do is to build a power base that is invested in climate action. Because if you’re only talking about carbon, then anybody who has a more daily emergency — whether it’s police violence, gender violence or housing precarity — is going to think “that’s a rich person problem. I’m focused on the daily emergency of staying alive.” But if you can connect the issues and show how climate action can create better jobs and redress gaping inequalities, and lower stress levels, then you start getting people’s attention and you build a broader constituency that is invested in getting climate policies passed.
You’ve been communicating the climate emergency for over a decade. How have your strategies changed over the years?
I date my awakening around climate change to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I saw how Katrina unveiled and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and injustices, in the same way that the pandemic and other climate disasters have served as social unveilings. The people who had resources and cars left town and got a hotel. But those who didn’t — who were overwhelmingly poor and Black — were stranded on their rooftops holding signs that said “Help.” And then, instead of investing in the neglected public services that had failed people, the government’s response was: Sell off the school system, sell off the public housing, turn the city into this laboratory for the neoliberal wishlist.
So the story I started telling was a very dystopian one: It was the story of the Shock Doctrine. The story was: “If we stay on this road, it leads to a world of Katrinas. Every disaster will intensify pre-existing inequalities and then the vultures will come in to take advantage of the pain to further enrich themselves and deepen those inequalities.” It wasn’t a very cheerful story, and I’m not sure it was very motivating.
Then, in This Changes Everything, the story I tried to tell was: “What if we responded to these unveilings with an intersectional response that actually tried to change the system that was producing these overlapping crises?” That’s the story I’ve been trying to tell for a decade now, along with many others. I think we’ve gotten a bit better at telling it, including in the “Message from the Future” films we produced with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Molly Crabapple and Avi Lewis. Our goal was to use the power of art and imagination to tell the story of a beautiful society we could live in if we responded in an intersectional way.
So do you think evoking hope is ultimately more effective in inspiring people to take climate action?
I have an ambivalent relationship with the word hope these days. We have to be realistic about the fact that we’ve locked in a very difficult future for a lot of people. We’ve screwed things up badly enough that even if we do everything right from here on out, we’re still looking at a future of staccato climate disasters.
But I don’t believe we have the luxury of throwing up our hands and saying, “We’re doomed, let’s just go Mad Max on this.” I think there are ways of preparing for those shocks, that build a way of living with one another that is significantly kinder and more generous than the way we currently live with one another, which is really quite brutal. That requires investing in the labour of care at every level, and guaranteeing basic economic rights, like the right to housing, food and clean water. If we build out that infrastructure, we can weather shocks with far greater grace. That’s where I place my hope.
You’ve written and spoken at length about how large-scale crises can either push societies backwards or spark positive change. What impact do you think the pandemic has had on our response to climate change?
It’s too soon to tell. I think the isolation that was required to prevent further mass death during Covid damaged social relations in a significant way, and I don’t think we’ve quite rebuilt our connective tissue yet. I think our greatest barrier to believing we’re capable of the scale of change that this crisis demands of us is that we tend to think about what we can do as individuals instead of what we can do collectively. The fact that we’ve had few collective experiences over the past three years because of Covid hasn’t been good for our ability to believe we can do big things. I don’t think the climate justice movement has gotten its fire back to the level we saw in 2019 with the student climate strikes that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets in Vancouver alone. But I think we will, and I think that the pandemic has exposed other things that will help us.
“Covid showed us what it looks like when our institutions treat an emergency like an actual emergency. Climate demands different responses, but the same sense of urgency.”
For instance, we now have a recent collective memory of a true emergency response, even if it was abandoned too soon. This is different from the climate response. Everybody’s passed their climate emergency declarations – whether it’s universities, cities, or nations. But we’ve never seen anything close to the level of urgency, spending, and doing “whatever it takes” that we saw during that first Covid year and half. Nobody has responded to the climate crisis with the urgency the crisis demands.
Previously, I would have to harken back to the New Deal or the Second World War mobilization to be like, “Look, way back in the black-and-white movie times there were these society-level responses to crises!” Now I don’t need to – Covid showed us what it looks like when our institutions treat an emergency like an actual emergency. Climate demands different responses, but the same sense of urgency.
Climate Justice is often discussed in terms of rich countries paying their climate debt to poor countries. What does climate justice look like within British Columbia?
It’s inseparable from the Indigenous calls for land back and reparations for damage done. Because the reason land was taken in the first place was for extraction, including extracting fossil fuels. And that extraction and theft continues to this day.
Climate justice also means, at its most basic level, dealing with the wild overconsumption of the rich and the underconsumption of the poor. Survival demands a correction because climate change keeps showing us that it’s inequality and injustice that kills.
“We have multiple emergencies here in British Columbia that are costing many lives, whether it’s a heat dome that kills 600 people, or a toxic drug supply. What we’re trying to understand is how are they feeding and intersecting with each other?”
It’s not just Katrina, think about the British Columbia heat dome in 2021: when you turn the heat up, it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Over 600 people died in the heat dome. We now know that there was a strong relationship between the lack of affordable, adequate housing and those fatalities. Almost all of these deaths occurred at home or in a hotel and disproportionately impacted the elderly, disabled, and poor. Many of those people were trapped in small rental units with very little air circulation and inadequate shade and weren’t physically able or didn’t feel safe getting to a cooling centre.
We have multiple emergencies here in British Columbia that are costing many lives, whether it’s a heat dome that kills 600 people, or a toxic drug supply. What we’re trying to understand is how are they feeding and intersecting with each other?
The UBC Centre for Climate Justice has been active for about a year. What projects are you working on that advance climate justice locally?
This first year was about growing roots where we are. We wanted to get the infrastructure in place and focus on consultations before doing anything outward-facing. But because the climate crisis is accelerating so quickly, and because British Columbia is very much on the front lines, we ended up rolling out projects earlier than planned. A lot of our work has focused around Indigenous rights in BC. We have projects in early stages with West Moberly First Nations, with Squamish Nation, and with the Union of BC Indian Chiefs relating to what a just transition would look like and providing research support for communities to define what climate justice means to them.
We’re also working with the BC Tenant Resources and Advisory Centre to study the intersection of housing justice and climate justice. Our goal is to make concrete policy recommendations around affordable housing and tenant protections, grounded in an understanding that climate change intensifies housing injustice. We want to make sure tenants have access to housing that can survive the kinds of extreme weather events we’re going to face more of in the future. For example, ensuring landlords provide low-emission cooling solutions like heat pumps, but also making sure those adaptations don’t lead to climate renovictions.
In the context of housing justice, we know that housing density is a climate solution — people who live in denser neighbourhoods tend to drive less and live in smaller homes that require less energy to heat and cool. But how do we live more densely in ways that we don’t turn on each other, or where xenophobia or racism don’t spiral? Something I’ve found in my own research is there’s often a spike in domestic and gender-based violence after a disaster. Anything that increases stress in the home will tend to express itself in violence against women and children. That intersection is something that we’re really committed to exploring.
Last fall, you and your colleagues became active in highlighting the human rights situation during the COP climate summit in Egypt. What is the intersection between climate justice and human rights?
The way I put it is: We’re not going to win climate justice if we’re not free to fight for it, if we’re not free to research, if we’re not free to speak, if we’re not free to protest, if we’re not free to strike. And none of those freedoms exist for Egyptians under the current regime.
In the lead-up to COP27, our internationalist approach to climate justice accelerated very quickly, because we realized that even within climate justice organizations, there wasn’t much discussion taking place about the justice implications of having the United Nations Summit in such a repressive police state. Egypt is in a human rights crisis. It has more than 60,000 political prisoners. Those of us who have relationships with Egyptian civil society believed that it wasn’t ethical to treat this COP like any other and just show up with badges and treat the country as a kind of backdrop for our PowerPoint presentations.
So the Centre for Climate Justice went into very high gear to do public education around the political situation in Egypt. We co-sponsored an event with The Intercept that got 25,000 views. I wrote a long-form piece for The Guardian and Prof. Mohammed Rafi Arefin was interviewed on The Current. Rafi and I also partnered with researchers on the ground in Egypt to get information out about what was going on outside of what we call the Green Bubble, where there was a huge national crackdown to keep Egypt under control during COP. Political freedoms are under siege around the world and it really underscored for us that we need more research that connects the dots across these issue silos. That’s work we are developing now.
One of the big headlines to come out of COP27 was the “loss and damage agreement” which aims to compensate low-income countries for climate damages caused by wealthy, polluting countries. Do you think this means climate justice is being taken more seriously than before?
There’s definitely been a breakthrough in accepting that there is a climate debt owed. I remember the first COP I attended in 2009 when climate debt came up and it was flatly rejected by the American delegates. Acknowledging that there is a debt is the result of decades of work.
But the devil is in the details in terms of whether the financing actually arrives and, if it does, how it is spent. My concern is that if damage payments are finally breaking through at a time when more countries are slipping under authoritarian rule, and these governments are at war with their own people, then it isn’t really a political breakthrough. This is the point our Egyptian colleagues were making during COP: A system that subsidizes our military regime is not actually helping us.
That said, this in no way absolves historically large emitters like the US and Canada and the EU from our responsibilities. We can’t use authoritarianism in the global south as an excuse not to pay our international debts. And we have authoritarianism in the global north too of course, which is why Indigenous communities insist that land must be returned so reparation can come under Indigenous governance rather than reinscribe coloniality. What’s needed are structures that bypass authoritarian governments and get resources to the grassroots to be able to pay for projects like decentralized renewable grids and so on.
The UBC Centre for Climate Justice is working on what just reparations could look like internationally, and also within highly unequal countries like Canada.
What are you watching out for in 2023 that will impact climate justice?
In Canada, I’m watching to see if Ottawa gives in to pressure from Alberta to drop its nascent and long overdue just transition plans for fossil fuel workers. Relatedly, I’m watching the ways that the war in Ukraine is both accelerating renewable energy transitions and making it more profitable to dig up the last remaining fossil fuels (because the price is so high) with dire impacts on Indigenous lands and ways of life. I’m watching with growing concern the ways that Covid denialism and climate change denialism are intersecting and reinforcing each other. And I’m watching to see whether we, as a climate movement, do a better job of connecting human rights with climate action during the next COP, which is scheduled to be held in the highly repressive United Arab Emirates.
You’re co-teaching an undergraduate course this term on the climate emergency. What advice do you give students and young people who want to advance climate justice in their own lives and work?
I think the most important thing is to just find other people. Trying to think through this by yourself is a recipe for feeling like a failure and getting dispirited very, very quickly. The benefit of being part of a broader movement is knowing that some people are doing some things, and other people are doing other things, and nobody has to do everything.
I always tell students to find a movement you feel comfortable in, make sure it’s interlinked with other movements, and then work in coalition as broadly as you possibly can.
And then marry your passion with need. Whatever you want to do, find a way to connect it with the climate crisis. Maybe it’s art, maybe it’s engineering, maybe it’s planning – it’s all needed. I don’t think people need to give up what they’re passionate about to tackle climate change. I think they need to figure out how to connect what they’re passionate about with the climate crisis. Because this is the work of our lifetimes.