Naomi Klein Connects Climate to Democracy


Like the trees, soil, rocks, and clay that the industry’s machines scrape up, masticate, and pile into great slag heaps, democracy is getting torn into rubble too, chewed up and tossed aside to make way for the bulldozers.” 

- Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

The Ecological Challenges conference that was hosted by New Compass and the University of Oslo September last year, made it clear that the quality of our democracy and the health of our climate are profoundly connected. As Ingerid Straume argued in one of the panel discussions: “If citizens did control the political agenda, I am quite certain that the question of climate change would have been up for discussion a long time ago”.

Another profile making a similar connection is Naomi Klein – activist, journalist and author of global bestsellers such as No Logo and The Shock Doctrine. In her most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, she argues that the absence of real democracy lies at the heart of the global warming crisis.


Image: Naomi Klein has written a book on climate change where she argues that a nonextractive society has to be based on community self-determination and participatory democracy.

In Klein’s view, climate change is driven by an extractive economy that is dominated by a power nexus consisting of business corporations and the state. Fighting this power nexus has led many environmentalists, including herself, to “face up to the underlying democratic crisis that has allowed multinationals to be the authors of the laws under which they operate — whether at the municipal, state/provincial, national, or international level” (This Changes Everything, p. 361). It is the corroded nature of the political system that is turning environmental movements to question conventional democracy and search for alternatives.

Community Self-Determination

Central to these alternatives is an endeavor to reclaim a degree of community self-determination that is lost under the dominant power nexus:

“Having the ability to defend one’s community’s water source from danger seems to a great many people like the very essence of self-determination. What is democracy is if doesn’t encompass the capacity to decide, collectively, to protect something that no one can live without? […] And yet the most jarring part of the grassroots anti-extraction uprising has been the rude realization that most communities do appear to lack this power; that outside forces, working hand-in-glove with transnational companies — are simply imposing enormous health and safety risks on residents, even when that means overturning local laws.” (This Changes Everything, p. 361)

Video: One of the protagonists in Klein’s book is Blockadia – a North American movement that works in solidarity with communities that are most affected by tar sands mining, transport and refining.

It might seem futile to advocate community self-determination in the face of a truly global problem such as climate change, but as Klein points out the international agencies and national governments who supposedly are best equipped to fix the problem have failed us. It is cities and even smaller communities that are leading the way on climate action. One of the examples she uses is the Transition Town movement, which is trying to mobilize local communities to reduce CO2 emissions and strengthen their abilities to withstand climate change shocks, such as extreme weathers.

Video: If you can spare the time, this documentary gives you pretty good insight into what the Transition Town movement is about.

According to Klein, one of the significant advances of the Transition Town movement, is that it also “opens up rare spaces for participatory democracy, with neighbors packing consultation meetings at city halls to share ideas about everything from how to increase their food security through increased local agriculture to building more efficient affordable housing.” (This Changes Everything, p. 364)

A People’s Recovery

This type of civic engagement has to be part of what Klein calls a People’s Recovery. Her proposal is basically to redirect money that today goes to saving banks from bankruptcy or that comes from taxes on the fossil fuel industry, to rebuild cities and communities that are affected by climate change. The goal should be to transform these into “models of nonextractive living” and would require “new democratic processes, including neighborhood assemblies, to decide how hard-hit communities should be rebuilt” (This Changes Everything, p. 406).

A recurring message in Klein’s book is that it is not enough to think about environmental problems alone, but that these have to be solved together with other social problems such as economic inequality and political domination:

“Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of world-views, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect.” (This Changes Everything, p. 460).

Video: This Changes Everything treats a huge variety of issues – not only participatory democracy. Here is one of many recorded lectures that are available online where Klein provides a fuller overview of her argument.