Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, I regularly heard about hurricanes hitting the coasts, but I didn’t live in fear of these intense storms because my parents and teachers reassured me that, living inland, we were unlikely to be affected. I moved away from Columbia in 2014. The very next year, I realized that there was in fact something to worry about. A catastrophic flood hit Columbia that year and, since then, flooding has become more common in Columbia, causing damage to my community. The 2015 flood was one of the first times that I felt the personal impact of climate change.
It struck me that conversations about flooding in South Carolina rarely revolved around its preponderant cause: global climate change.
Naomi Klein, the author, activist, and Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University, has spent years writing about climate change. Her latest research focuses on the reasons why more people are not acting like their “houses are on fire” in the face of the increasingly catastrophic effects of human-caused climate change. On October 2, Klein held a discussion with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the Princeton Professor of African American Studies, before a capacity audience at Richardson Auditorium. Throughout, Klein argued that capitalism is responsible for our complacency, and that Americans lack urgency because we do not want to believe that there are limits to what we can consume and to what we can extract from nature without irreparably harming it.
Klein argues that our “planetary and political fires are feeding each other,” and that leaders such as Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are making matters worse through their denialism, racism, and extractive policies. These practices reflect a nihilism at odds with the urgency of life-saving actions we need to save the planet, she argued. Klein refuses to separate the climate crisis from other crises in American society, such as racism, poverty, sexism, and other forms of inequality and exclusion. She has consistently argued that these problems cannot be solved separately since they are all interdependent. Just as scholars of anti-racism speak of “intersectionality,” Klein maintains that it is artificial to compartmentalize sexism, racism, overconsumption, and climate change.
This means, for Klein, that the politics of climate change must include a broader transformation in how we think about and engage in politics. A key part of her message is to underscore the ability of citizens to act collectively by developing a robust public sphere capable of addressing all of these issues simultaneously. For this reason, she supports a Green New Deal, which she sees as a set of massive government programs and policies and also as a massive social movement, a moral quest on par with great movements of the past, such as abolition, Civil Rights, and feminism. Legislation, programming, and collective action, all together, are necessary to deal with climate change by transforming virtually all aspects of our society. For example, a Green New Deal must marry a zero-carbon economy with affordable housing and universal healthcare to address environmental racism (pollution in low-income neighborhoods).
We need to advocate for value caring activities (like teaching, nursing, and home healthcare) that have a low carbon footprint and help us care for each other (especially with an aging population). A green infrastructure that pays a living wage could begin to address economic inequality.
For Klein, the planetary and political fires are not the only fires in our lives right now. There are three fires, she says. And we, energetic global citizens, are the third fire, an embodiment of “effervescence.” With the power of urgency, we have the power to cleanse and “clear away the debris” left by the damage of the other two fires. Combining dire warnings with optimism, Klein spoke about the hope she has in the climate activism movement, especially after the recent global climate strikes. Calling for intersectionality across race, class, and gender, she also called for interconnectedness among citizens—in the US and globally—to light the third fire.
More details about Klein’s research can be found in her book: A Call to Action: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.