President Donald Trump, echoing many right-wing figures in the past decade, has called global warming “a hoax.” Last November, he rejected a report on the potentially disastrous impacts of the climate crisis, despite that report having been produced by his own administration.
His denials are part of a brand: conservative, wealthy white men are six times more likely than the average adult to refute the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. This is the demographic that must lose power and wealth before we can save the planet—one of many provocative points made by Naomi Klein in her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.
A collection of essays, advocacy journalism and speeches, Klein’s second book on climate change proposes a sweeping industrial and infrastructure overhaul that would create millions of jobs globally in renewable energy and land rehabilitation while ending reliance on fossil fuels. Only by creating a new economy in which everyone has access to education, child care and health care, Klein writes, will the increased costs of using carbon be fairly mitigated.
The stakes couldn’t be higher: If the climate warms more than 2 degrees Celsius within the next decade “consequences [include] sea level rise that would swallow coastal cities, the total die-off of coral reefs, and droughts that would wipe out crops in huge parts of the globe.”
It is the broadness of the Green New Deal vision that Klein argues is key to its success. Become vegan, stop flying, get an electric car—those individual actions are laudable, but only by working together across movements can the political upheaval required to solve this climate crisis be accomplished. Klein encourages readers to consider the ways in which climate change is connected not just to fossil fuel extraction, but to missing and murdered indigenous women, insufficient wages, limited child care, poverty and war. Such cross-movement thinking and collective action isn’t foreign to feminists, which is perhaps why so many of today’s climate movement leaders are women and girls.
On Fire highlights the work of Greta Thunberg, a teenage Swedish activist who a year ago began skipping school to hold a solitary protest every Friday on the steps of Parliament in Stockholm. Her declaration—”act as if the house is on fire, because it is”—has galvanized youth internationally. It covers Zoe Buckley Lennox, an Australian science student and Greenpeace activist who camped for a week atop Shell’s Arctic drilling rig in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and Dalma Cartagena, who is calling for Puerto Rico to weather future hurricanes by reviving traditional agriculture.
Klein, the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University, has been a major voice on climate change for more than a decade. Her work is the basis for the Green New Deal resolution introduced in 2019 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Klein coauthored the Leap Manifesto in 2015, an effort by 60 Canadian thinkers and leaders to link “ambitious climate action with a transition to a much fairer and more inclusive economy.” On Fire clarifies and expands upon her earlier writing, with an urgent and pragmatic appeal.
Klein writes in a clear, efficient style, finding in a deeply sobering topic wry humor and fascinating insights. Her writing is most interesting when she tells stories grounded in place, such as when she is on a boat skimming through waters fouled by the BP oil spill, or when she and her family spend days breathing smoky air, the result of more than 130 wildfires burning in Canada’s interior. Klein has a unique ability to wrap terrifying science in a plan inspired by the dramatic social change achieved under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original New Deal and make it seem attainable, even comforting.
In the run-up to 2020, Trump will undoubtedly cast climate change as simply another wedge issue. Klein cuts through the political bloviating and demands action—now.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Ms.