No, Naomi Klein And Salon, ‘Denialism’ By Enviros Has Not Been ‘More Damaging Than The Right-Wing Denialism’

Naomi Klein has given an extended interview trashing the environmental movement, “Naomi Klein: Green groups may be more damaging than climate change deniers.” As I will show, she is not just wrong, she is profoundly wrong. Her revisionist history is wrong, too, and contradicted by her policy prescriptions.

Her interview with Jason Mark, published in Salon, is filled with contrarian “media bait” statements devoid of substance, like this:

Well, I think there is a very deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups. And to be very honest with you, I think it’s been more damaging than the right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost.

This is one of those blame-the-victim statements that is the exact opposite of the truth — it is literally a counter-factual.


Seriously, who is more to blame? The people who put this issue on the national agenda in the first place by persisting for decades against a largely indifferent political elite and media — and who have tried to rally action, however non-optimally? Or the people who have spread lies, funded disinformation campaigns, poisoned the public dialogue, and blocked even the most modest action?

If Dave Roberts were still tweeting or blogging, he might reply:

  • The key ankle-biter insight is that the RWers & FFers who oppose climate action don’t care what they say & won’t engage … but if they chew on the ankles of fellow climate hawks, they’ll get attention. It has always been thus, for any progressive movement.
  • Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, your main impediment is not other people trying to accomplish the same thing in different ways


  • The premise seems to be: if we’re not tackling climate, it’s because enviros are doing something wrong. I don’t think the premise is valid.

Yes, a few days before signing off, Roberts pre-butted Klein.

I’m not in one of the Big Green groups, but have been very critical of their messaging and strategy over the years, so I’m happy to defend them here. Anyone who talks to these enviros — from the top executives to the policy mavens to the foot soldiers — knows that they are not in denial about climate science or its implications for politics and economics. Seriously, how does Klein think they have stayed motivated through a quarter-century of 1) the most well-funded disinformation campaign in history and 2) the willful indifference of the media and cognoscenti, the ones who are responsible for making a true debate on the science all-but impossible, as illustrated in the graph above? Klein devotes not a single sentence to either of these crucial drivers of inaction.


Normally I would either ignore Klein or end here — but she deserves a more in-depth debunking because, as Salon reports:

With her newest, yet-to-be named book, Klein turns her attention to climate change. Scheduled for release in 2014, the book will also be made into a film by her husband and creative partner, Avi Lewis.

Now, movies by self-proclaimed environmentalists bashing the environmental community have been box office bombs — Bjorn Lomborg’s Cool It and Pandora’s Promise have a combined total box office gross of $130,000. And if Klein can make a best seller from the thousandth book on climate written in the last decade, we should all be impressed.

In all likelihood, though, the book and film will reach a few tens of thousands of people directly, but through reviews and media coverage, the most “newsworthy” of the ideas — a liberal denouncing the environmental movement — will reach millions.

MEMO TO MEDIA: While the book is no doubt being sold as a fresh piece of contrarianism, critiques of environmentalists and Al Gore and cap-and-trade from the left (and pseudo-left and academia) have become, ironically enough, conventional wisdom. Some folks make their living at it full time — I’m looking at you Bjorn Lomborg. Heck, there is an entire “paradigm-shifting think tank” (with senior fellows and interns and a perplexing number of promoters in the media) “committed to bashing modernizing environmentalism for the 21st century.” Zzzzzzzz.

These chimeras are entirely of the media’s making, since they combine the three things the media loves most — contrarianism, political infighting, and blame shifting (away from their own culpability for climate inaction).


BUT public perception of the movement is intermediated by — and hence constrained by — the major media outlets, the overwhelming majority of which are in denial, as I (and others) have discussed extensively.

That’s why whenever I have assigned blame for our inaction in the past, it’s been 60% right-wing deniers/disinformers (including politicians) and 30% the media. And let’s not forget the “Think Small” centrists and lukewarmers — the mainstream intelligentsia — who also helped shrink the political space in the debate to the range depicted in the top figure. Let’s give them 5%.

There just is not a lot of blame left for enviro denialism, whatever that is — especially since you have to throw some blame the way of team Obama and the Democratic establishment. The fact President Obama is forcing a vote on his wildly unpopular Syria policy — complete with an address to the nation and a big media blitz — gives a complete lie to the notion that he is to be excused for not forcing a vote in the Senate on a climate bill, which actually enjoyed majority support.

As an aside, perhaps the best way to apportion blame in a counterfactual about climate action is to imagine as best you can how things would have been different if the group in question had adopted the optimal strategy for achieving climate action rather than the strategy they actually did. In a world where 60 votes are required in the U.S. Senate for any serious legislation, that kind of makes it obvious whose “denialism” deserves the vast majority of the blame.

Here’s what Klein imagines enviro denialism to be:

I think it’s a really important question why the green groups have been so unwilling to follow science to its logical conclusions. I think the scientists Kevin Anderson and his colleague Alice Bows at the Tyndall Centre have been the most courageous on this because they don’t just take on the green groups, they take on their fellow scientists for the way in which neoliberal economic orthodoxy has infiltrated the scientific establishment. It’s really scary reading. Because they have been saying, for at least for a decade, that getting to the emissions reduction levels that we need to get to in the developed world is not compatible with economic growth.

First off, Klein has conflated the science with the economics (with the politics). I don’t know anyone in any of the green groups who is in denial on the science. In my experience, at most 5 percent of the nation’s influencers, intelligentsia and media have any real understanding of the science aka the shitstorm coming our way that will have the billions of people cursing our greed and myopia for generations to come. Again, that’s a key reason the debate is so constrained. But the overwhelming majority of those who understand our predicament are in the green groups.

I probably quote Anderson on the science as much as anyone on the planet. He is dead right when he says (here) that 7+°F global warming is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e. 4°C [7F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level).”

But I don’t agree with Anderson that “getting to the emissions reduction levels that we need to get to in the developed world is not compatible with economic growth” — mainly because the literature, as well as my own experience helping companies reduce carbon pollution for two decades, doesn’t support that view (see “Introduction to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost”).

Indeed, the IPCC’s last review of the mainstream economic literature found that even for stabilization at CO2 levels as low as 350 ppm, “global average macro-economic costs” in 2050 correspond to “slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points.” And remember, most of these models are from mainstream economists who generally do a poor job of modeling the full benefits of efficiency and innovation.

It should be obvious the net cost is low. Energy use is responsible for the overwhelming majority of emissions, and energy costs are typically about 10 percent of GDP. What we need to do is replace our dirty, inefficient energy system with a clean, efficient one over a period of a few decades. That involves investing a lot of money but not flushing it down the toilet. And the gains in efficiency help pay back much of the initial cost of the transition.

I believe the green groups disagree with Klein’s (and Anderson’s) view of economics primarily because they think it is wrong, not because they are in denial.

I do agree we’ve “globalized an utterly untenable economic model of hyperconsumerism.” But that isn’t the enviros fault!

We cannot stop catastrophic climate change — in the long term and possibly even the medium-term — without a pretty dramatic change to our consumption-based economic system. As I’ve said many times, the global economic system is a Ponzi scheme, an utterly unsustainable system that effectively takes wealth from our children and future generations — wealth in the form of ground water, arable land, fisheries, a livable climate — to prop up our carbon-intensive lifestyles.

The more we delay action, the more compressed our energy system overhaul must be, and the more it will look like what the U.S. economy did in World War II. That means, ironically enough, that the ones who doing the most to undermine our current economic system are those who are delaying action — again that would be the right-wing deniers/disinformers, not enviros.

BUT if we ever got serious about climate change, we could dramatically cut national and global emissions for decades under the auspices of our basic economic system. You could use a high and rising price for CO2 plus smart regulations to encourage efficiency at a state and national level.

The end to hyper-consumerism is not something amenable to legislation. I’ve argued that it is most likely to come when we are desperate — when the reality that we are destroying a livable climate is so painful that we give it up voluntarily, albeit reluctantly, like a smoker diagnosed with early-stage emphysema. I’m not in denial on the science or the economics, but unlike Klein, I try hard not to be in denial about the politics.

Not surprisingly, Klein saves much of her wrath for cap-and-trade — the favorite whipping boy of the counterfactual crowd — but to understand why her analysis is so wrong we need to first look at her revisionist history.

[Yes, this is going to be a long piece but look at it this way, it will save you the trouble of reading Klein’s book or seeing the movie or even reading any of the reviews.]

KLEIN: What we know is that the environmental movement had a series of dazzling victories in the late ’60s and in the ’70s where the whole legal framework for responding to pollution and to protecting wildlife came into law. It was just victory after victory after victory. And these were what came to be called “command-and-control” pieces of legislation. It was “don’t do that.” That substance is banned or tightly regulated. It was a top-down regulatory approach. And then it came to screeching halt when Reagan was elected. And he essentially waged war on the environmental movement very openly. We started to see some of the language that is common among those deniers — to equate environmentalism with Communism and so on. As the Cold War dwindled, environmentalism became the next target, the next Communism. Now, the movement at that stage could have responded in one of the two ways. It could have fought back and defended the values it stood for at that point, and tried to resist the steamroller that was neoliberalism in its early days. Or it could have adapted itself to this new reality, and changed itself to fit the rise of corporatist government. And it did the latter. Very consciously if you read what [Environmental Defense Fund president] Fred Krupp was saying at the time.

MARK: It was go along or get along.

KLEIN: Exactly. We now understand it’s about corporate partnerships. It’s not, “sue the bastards;” it’s, “work through corporate partnerships with the bastards.” There is no enemy anymore.

More than that, it’s casting corporations as the solution, as the willing participants and part of this solution. That’s the model that has lasted to this day.

No, no, no, no, and no. There are so many misleading statements packed in there, it is hard to know where to begin.

First, having a substance banned or tightly controlled did not come to a screeching halt under Reagan. Heck, Reagan himself agreed to a phase out of ozone-destroying chemicals.

Second, the environmental movement did push back, hard, against Reagan. Why do you think we still have enforcement of the various tightly controlled substances in the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act?

Third, the environmental movement never stopped pushing for new tight regulations and against those who would roll them back. Perhaps Klein may recall the fight over the arsenic standard for drinking water. President George W. Bush tried to undo the Clinton Administration recommendation to tighten it. NRDC, which had filed lawsuits to get Clinton to tighten the standard in the first place, filed a lawsuit to stop the roll back. Bush ultimately signed into law the tougher standard, and NRDC then sued for a lower standard to make sure there was no backsliding.

Fourth, Klein appears to be conflating EDF with the entire environmental movement. In fact, buried in her sweeping indictment of the environmental movement over NAFTA, she sort of admits as much:

We’ve globalized an utterly untenable economic model of hyperconsumerism. It’s now successfully spreading across the world, and it’s killing us.

It’s not that the green groups were spectators to this — they were partners in this. They were willing participants in this. It’s not every green group. It’s not Greenpeace, it’s not Friends of the Earth, it’s not, for the most part, the Sierra Club. It’s not, because it didn’t even exist yet. But I think it goes back to the elite roots of the movement, and the fact that when a lot of these conservation groups began there was kind of a noblesse oblige approach to conservation. It was about elites getting together and hiking and deciding to save nature. And then the elites changed. So if the environmental movement was going to decide to fight, they would have had to give up their elite status. And weren’t willing to give up their elite status. I think that’s a huge part of the reason why emissions are where they are.

Ah, so now blame for high carbon emissions is pared down to elites in a tiny part of the environmental movement. Yes, it isn’t ExxonMobil or the Kochs or the Tea Party or the the media. It’s Fred Krupp and … who? Does Klein include NRDC, which has probably filed more lawsuits than any other group to advance or defend the environmental standards that she mistakenly thinks died three decades ago? Does she include the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International, which have corporate partnerships for conservation — which ain’t cheap (more on that later) — but which weren’t terribly big players in the climate bill?

Perhaps Klein would like to amend — or preferably withdraw — her remark about “very deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups” being “more damaging than the right-wing denialism.”

Fifth, Klein omits mention of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, a landmark tightening of air pollution standards under a Republican administration. But that is understandable since this major victory happened in part because of Krupp, EDF, and the willingness to adopt a more flexible (i.e. GOP-friendly) form of regulation, cap-and-trade. And cap-and-trade is the bête noire of Klein and the revisionists:

Well, I think there is a very deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups. And to be very honest with you, I think it’s been more damaging than the right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost. Because it has steered us in directions that have yielded very poor results. I think if we look at the track record of Kyoto, of the UN Clean Development Mechanism [CDM], the European Union’s emissions trading scheme [ETS] — we now have close to a decade that we can measure these schemes against, and it’s disastrous. Not only are emissions up, but you have no end of scams to point to, which gives fodder to the right. The right took on cap-and-trade by saying it’s going to bankrupt us, it’s handouts to corporations, and, by the way, it’s not going to work. And they were right on all counts. Not in the bankrupting part, but they were right that this was a massive corporate giveaway, and they were right that it wasn’t going to bring us anywhere near what scientists were saying we needed to do lower emissions.

Klein is the queen of conflation and revisionism. The right needed no “fodder” to oppose climate action — there isn’t a genuine climate action plan they would not be able to demagogue.

Klein, writes, “The right took on cap-and-trade by saying it’s going to bankrupt us, it’s handouts to corporations, and, by the way, it’s not going to work. And they were right on all counts.” Except they weren’t right about the bankrupting part. Oh and the right generally argued it would work (too well) and the price of carbon would be very high (thereby supposedly bankrupting us). Obviously if cap-and-trade didn’t work it would be because scams and gimmicks kept the price so low that there was no incentive to reduce actual emissions. It was the left who mostly argued it wouldn’t achieve its goals.

As for handouts to corporations, that, too, was mostly a critique from the left. Does Klein really think that the right wing had problems with subsidies to the coal industry for carbon capture and storage? Or with giving carbon permits to utilities — the same thing Republicans had voted for in 1990? [Yes, I know giving carbon permits to utilities is not a handout since they are regulated entities and would in virtually every case have to return that money to consumers and businesses.]

Oh, and emissions under the ETS aren’t up, they are down. Here’s a chart from a good article this year in the Washington Post:

This piece is already too long so I’m just gonna have to send you off to a Dave Roberts post from April to explain why “the ETS is not a mess/broken/dying, it’s working like it’s supposed to” (but the cap is too weak). Roberts, who coined the term climate hawk, ain’t in denial either.

I have no great desire to defend cap-and-trade from Klein’s flawed flogging, since one can’t revive a horse that’s been dead so long it can be found in bottles of Elmer’s glue, but I think I may update my 2011 discussion “Why did environmentalists pursue cap-and-trade and was it a doomed strategy?” since so many people like Klein seem to think it was an obviously dumb idea that was doomed to fail and that there were other viable strategies that would have succeeded politically.

Yes, the CDM has lots of problems, which were inevitable since it was always going to be very hard to “trade” with countries that are not under a cap. But Klein actually seems to like her version of CDM:

I came across the idea of “climate debt” when I was doing a piece on reparations for Harper’s magazine. I had a meeting with Bolivia’s climate negotiator in Geneva — her name is Angélica Navarro — and she put the case to me that climate change could be an opportunity for a global Green Marshall Plan with the North paying climate debts in the form of huge green development project.

As Jon Stewart might say, “And once Congress passes that, they’ll pass a law giving everyone a unicorn that poops Gummy bears.”

Let’s see. How could the North pay for huge clean development projects when more deficit spending seems a nonstarter? And how are we going to be sure those clean development projects would not have happened anyway and/or actually result in net carbon reductions? Hmm. Maybe we need to set up some sort of Mechanism to allow the international community to examine each project. And if the funding doesn’t come from deficit spending, then it is probably going to have to come from … the money raised by reducing Northern carbon pollution through some sort of trading scheme built around a carbon price.

Yes, in the real world the global Green Marshall Plan would look a lot like the Clean Development Mechanism to have any chance whatsoever of actually happening. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to prove a project wouldn’t have happened anyway or that it actually saves net carbon reductions — for instance, if you pay someone to preserve part of a forest they can just cut down a different part. So the initial launch of this is likely to be filled with projects that are dubious and easy for people to question. The point is that the CDM wasn’t an inherently bad idea it’s just an inherently difficult one, especially at the beginning. Personally, I have never been a big fan of allowing countries to trade for emission reductions if they don’t have a hard cap on emissions, but here is a response to one of my early critiques of CDM.

Klein writes of enviro groups:

… what I see is really a willingness to sacrifice the basic principles of solidarity, whether it is to that fence-line community in Richmond, Calif., or whether it’s with that Indigenous community in Brazil that, you know, is forced off their territory because their forest has just become a carbon sink or an offset and they no longer have access to the forest that allowed them to live sustainably because it’s policed. Because a conservation group has decided to trade it.

The only way to stop carbon emissions from deforestation is to come up with a lot of money to pay people more to preserve the forest (while extracting value sustainably, if that can be done). If you oppose corporate partnerships to preserve forest land, then once again, other than finding the goose that lays golden eggs, you’re going to have to set up some sort of a trading scheme that values a preserved forest.

I’ll be the first to admit that preserving whole forests is hard, and early efforts are likely to be flawed and make some folks angry. Hopefully, people can learn from their mistakes. But Klein appears to dismiss the whole notion of valuing “ecosystem services and natural capital.”

I still can’t say this better than Dave Roberts already has:

Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, your main impediment is not other people trying to accomplish the same thing in different ways.

Note: Michael Tobis (and Stephen Ban) gave us the top figure. It is definitely time to update that chart, since our inaction has shifted “most informed opinion” to overlap almost exactly with “Considered Unreasonable: Not reported.”

h/t Desi Doyen for the Roberts’ tweets