Naomi Klein: Climate Movement Needs Radicals like Nelson Mandela
By Sophie Yeo /

The climate change movement needs to be as radical as Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid, said Naomi Klein, speaking to an audience in London today.

Gathering at the Royal Society for a conference on how global carbon emissions can be reduced drastically and immediately, speakers including Naomi Klein, Kevin Anderson and Corinne le Quéré argued for a new wave of radical environmental action.

“Transformative policies must be backed by transformative politics,” said Klein, a Canadian journalist and author on the green movement, via weblink. “An agenda capable of delivering radical emissions reductions will only advance if accompanied by a radical movement.”

As with the battle against apartheid in South Africa, fighting climate change requires “a clear moral vision of the alternative being fought for,” said Klein. Just as Mandela fought for a new “rainbow egalitarian society” rather than simply against racism, environmentalists need to establish a new approach to society.

It is time for a new generation of environmental activism to emerge, she said—one that is not dominated by acceptance of the prevailing world view, but one that breaks free from the “ideologically shackled environment in which we all operate”.

Failure to challenge an ideology based upon self-interest and an all-powerful market—reinforced this week by a deal struck by the World Trade Organisation in Bali to simplify the process of trade across borders—has hindered the environmental movement since its beginnings in the late 1980s, she said.

“This has been the strategy so far, and it has failed spectacularly. It has actively reinforced the ideas that have been our greatest obstacles—especially the idea that there is no society, that we are defined by self interested, consumer desires.”

Radical reductions

This radical rethinking of the environmental movement will be necessary if Professor Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre is to have his hopes realised.

He argues that if the fight against climate change is to be fair on developing countries, rich nations need to reduce their emissions by 10% year on year, meaning a 90% reduction by 2030.

This is based on the assumption that developing states will also peak their emissions by 2025, and reduce their emissions thereafter by 6-8% per year.

Anderson says it is only by adopting these tough targets that the world can stay within its carbon budget—the amount of CO2 that can be emitted if the world is to stay within safe limits of warming—at the same time as giving developing countries the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.

This is a long way off the current political goals and the sluggish rate at which the international process moves towards them. The EU, for instance, is currently considering setting a 2030 target of around 35-45% reductions.

Acknowledging that his idea would face ridicule he said: “That is a good thing … it is trying to help the imagination and the clarity of thought to think about the world differently.”

But he added that it wasn’t politically impossible, and that politicians ought not to be considered as an elite group operating in a completely different sphere. Many of them share similar aims, he said, and civil society ought to be there to support them in taking ambitious action.


But bringing about these radical changes doesn’t simply rely on activists managing to locate a sympathetic ear in Whitehall or the White House.

As the changes that occur in the climate become more dramatic, so attitudes within society will adopt a more radical approach, argued Corinne le Quéré, also from the Tyndall Centre.

Extreme weather events of the kind seen in recent years, such as Hurricane Sandy or the heat waves experiences in Europe in 2010 and 2003, will become more frequent and act as “triggers” to a new way of thinking, she said.

“Things could change rapidly and the reason for this is that society is not a rational entity. There are triggers that make people change their minds about things.

“I think that one of these things is the reaction to extreme events. This triggers a lot of thinking in society, and there has been a lot of extreme events in recent years.”

Other speakers at the conference compared the fight against climate change as similar to the war effort in the 1940s, where the industrialised world completely restructured their economies to tackle the challenge they faced.

There are of course limits to the comparison, said Laurence Delina from the University of New South Wales: “Climate change is more complex than fighting a war.” But the example shows that such a remodelling of society lies within the realms of possibility.

This is not simply an academic exercise, said Klein. “Rest assured there is a movement that is bubbling up. It is one that is going to take your most radical ideas and run with them.”

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Naomi Klein: Climate Movement Needs Radicals like Nelson Mandela