Wednesday, 15 October 2014

My invited review of Naomi Klein’s book in Literary Review of Canada

My review of Naomi Klein’s book is now up on the website of the Literary Review of Canada, and will appear in the November 2014 print edition.  Please distribute by e-mail, twitter (@MarkJaccard) and Facebook to people who might be interested.

Below is my blog that provides some elaboration.

Notes to accompany Jaccard review of Klein book: This Changes Everything

October 14, 2014

What is Klein’s thesis? What is the contribution of her book? I think she would say that her book demonstrates that we must change capitalism if we are to succeed against the climate threat: “system change, not climate change.”

But to convince us of her thesis she needs to show: (A) why efforts that do not involve profoundly changing capitalism have not worked and will not work; and (B) why her proposals will work and why they “change everything about our economic system.”
This second point is problematic because she never clearly articulates what she means by “changing everything” about our economic system. But her random comments suggest that her desired changes include: (1) replacing all (or key?) large energy corporations with collectives or small businesses that develop and operate small, decentralized, renewables-based energy systems, thereby eliminating global trade in energy, and (2) meeting most of our non-energy needs with local production, thereby dramatically reducing global trade (and the energy and infrastructure this requires), (3) empowering local communities (collectives, indigenous peoples, perhaps individuals) with control over local economic activity and environmental and health regulation in order to prevent harm to their environment and themselves, and (4) ending economic growth, although perhaps she assumes that (1), (2) and (3) will both reduce economic growth and change economic activity to be much more benign to ecosystems and people.

As is clear from reading my piece in the Literary Review of Canada, I feel that her thesis fails because she is not able to demonstrate (A) or (B) above, except by ignoring or distorting the evidence about key technologies, policies and jurisdictions. In the rest of these notes, I provide additional evidence to support the arguments in my review.

In my view, this distortion of the evidence is a big criticism. Her book is based on the argument that we should believe climate science. She even explains how wishful thinking and cultural biases cause some people to disbelieve climate science. Then, on the all-critical page 59, she admits that readers might equally suspect her of wishful thinking and cultural biases in “rejecting possible solutions because they threaten my worldview.” In other words, she opens the question of whether her thesis is based on what the world’s leading independent researchers have found, or is simply a consequence of her preference that capitalism profoundly change and that the climate threat provides a convenient rationale – even if unsupported by the best available independent evidence.

Her answer on the climate science is that she follows the world’s leading researchers – the IPCC and similar studies by national academies, etc. Her answer on the solution? Not a mention of independent assessments of emission reduction and emission policy, such as the IPCC (Volume III), the Global Energy Assessment, and other major studies by the world’s leading research academies. These are ignored in her references. Instead, she cherry-picks evidence, much of it produced by think tanks and researchers who share her worldview. This leads to the disturbing outcome in which she ignores: (1) blatant success stories where GHG emissions have been decreased without changing the economic system, and (2) obvious non-capitalistic reasons why humans are so attached to fossil fuels and usually so incapable of addressing global challenges, climate change being just one of these.

Klein’s presentation of the policy called cap-and-trade is an example. She never distinguishes offsets from cap-and-trade (p.218-225), using examples from offsets to critique cap-and-trade. Honest writing would have explained the small percentage of offsets in any of the existing or proposed cap-and-trade systems. And of course she never refers to any of the leading work assessing the effectiveness of policy approaches (IPCC, GEA, research at MIT, Stanford, Resources for the Future, London School of Economics, etc.) and the numerous examples of cap-and-trade being used to reduce acid emissions and in some cases urban smog and water pollution. When she finally discusses the EU’s GHG cap-and-trade system (p.224) she claims it has “failed as a market” and as evidence notes that permit prices have fallen. As Joskow at MIT, or any other leading scholar, would explain, this is what is supposed to happen if the cap is achieved because of an economic recession or technological advance that lowers costs. This is a sign of the success of the policy, just as occurred with the falling price for acid permits in the US sulfur emissions cap-and-trade program implemented by George Bush senior (one of the main reasons we no longer worry much about acid rain – or assume that we need to change capitalism to address it). Europe met its cap and still is. But not a word about that from Klein.

(Incidentally, there is strong independent world-leading research to suggest that offsets are ineffective, which is why we must make sure that cap-and-trade systems forbid them or allow only a small amount – as is the case with the EU system and would have been the case had the Waxman-Markey bill passed in the US Senate.)

While cap-and-trade is a critical policy example, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a technology example. Klein devotes a whole chapter and parts of the book to dismissing various technological proposals to deflect solar rays or suck carbon out of the atmosphere. This is consistent with her message that from a technological standpoint the only legitimate solution is a wholesale shift to renewables in concert with developing people-oriented cities that require very little mobility and have zero-emission options (transit, bikes, walking) when mobility is needed. Because fossil fuels must not be seen as a potential climate-friendly energy option, she only talks about CCS (p.244-248) in the context of using it to get more oil out of a given reservoir – what is called enhanced oil recovery. She presents Richard Branson and other promoters of CCS as idiots incapable of understanding that the oil from enhanced oil recovery will increase emissions. Actually, the effect of using CCS for enhanced oil recovery is a net decrease in emissions. But the real application of CCS as a climate technology is for CO2 storage in deep saline aquifers, which have an enormous capacity. This is quite exciting because this technology might enable China to revamp its coal plants without destroying them – a cheaper and quicker way of reducing emissions. Klein never mentions this game-changing option – which, of course, conflicts with her renewables-only worldview.

Something else that conflicts with her worldview is global trade. At various places she argues that global trade agreements are in conflict with actions to reduce GHG emissions, but the example she uses is Ontario – where (p.65) “free-trade against climate action was playing out.” The problem for Klein, though, is that “free-trade” was not preventing “climate action.” Ontario’s climate action was to close all of its coal plants, which has been the single, most dramatic and successful GHG reducing policy in North America. There was no free-trade challenge against this major climate action. In fact, Ontario could have driven its emissions to zero with a combination of regulations and cap-and-trade, and there would have been no trade challenges. In contrast, a requirement that solar panel manufacturers locate in Ontario in order to sell there is not a “climate action.” It is an industrial action or protectionist action, but certainly not a climate action. Again, any independent expert in the leading institutes would agree with this. And, as noted, it is quite ironic that she chose Ontario as her example. Its decision to close coal plants made its per capita GHG reductions the greatest in Canada. Challenges against its protectionist manufacturing policy had no restraining effect on its successful climate policy.

Klein is very selective in her presentation of success stories in emissions reduction, which gives a false impression that nothing is possible as an alternative to changing capitalism. She mentions Germany’s push for renewables, but only because she can associate it with a movement for greater municipal and local control over energy choices (which is not accurate anyway). There are many other examples that she should discuss, but she needs to ignore these because they contradict her thesis. I pointed out California in my review. But I could have given many other examples from individual jurisdictions or sectors within them. Examples are electricity in France with the development of nuclear, transportation in Brazil with the development of biofuels, emissions throughout the Swedish and Danish economies, with the exception of their transportation sectors, and so on.

Finally, Klein does not talk about all of the reasons why humans are having such difficulty with addressing climate change other than the reasons that relate to her worldview. I agree with many of the political-economy reasons she presents for our inability to act on the climate threat. But I am shocked – and then again not shocked – that she ignores the other important reasons for our inability. Fossil fuels have offered, and still offer, enormous benefits to humanity, especially to the poorest on this planet. And humanity is horrible in dealing with global threats, especially if they require coordinated actions by countries or regions with very different interests. This is obviously the case with climate change. She dare not mention it.


  1. I think Klein missed a lot of things, including that the bank bailout in 2008 which led to over $16 trillion in bailouts. The free market failed, but in fact a Keynesian solution saved capitalism as we know it. You fail to address that we are having resource depletion. Agriculture is in fact a primary driver of climate change. How does the free market plan to address that? Phosphorous is in decline as are many important metals and minerals, some of which can be recycled, others can't. You simply can't run an infinite growth "mechanistic" economy on a "living self-organizing" finite planet. I agree Klein misses important technologies that may not fit her worldview, for example, work in nuclear fusion. This is far from a dream technology that has yet to be invented. And it could help us into the future. But things will change, capitalism has to change. That doesn't mean pure socialism is the solution either however.

  2. Boundary dam, WA Parish, and Peterhead are all attached to enhanced oil recovery projects. But Klein merely labels these as potentially "a menace". What she ignores in her "cherry picking" is the substantive political will and government funding behind the 3 leading CCS to CO2 for EOR projects. David Cameron, Stephen Harper, and Gina McCarthy (US EPA) have all been forthright in their support for post combustion CCS. IPCC chair RK Pachauri has left the door open as has the IEA. Bill McKibben uses the tired old line that CCS is a "pipedream" (he was in London speaking at the Shell sponsored Chatham House when the very same were advertising the Peterhead project on the major Tube stations). Naomi Klein's book reads like project managed prose, a string of position points colonising liberal world views for the sake of the hot topic. You were right to point out her "world view" sharing friends, many of whom were either partly funded or incubated by a Rockefeller foundation, just like her beloved

  3. Brilliant review. Better written than the book although her heart's in the right place and she's done a lot of research. But she's prone to hyperbole and overreach.