At this year’s World Economic Summit, in Davos, the teenage activist Greta Thunberg told the assembled, “I don’t want your hope. . . . I want you to panic. . . . I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.” Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, takes up this challenge. Made up of long-form reports, think pieces, and public talks written between 2010 and 2019, it is Klein’s attempt to decode the obstacles and “topple” the ideologies that hinder progressive and much-needed environmental policy. She presents a “burning case” for the Green New Deal, or GND, a modern rendition of Franklin Roosevelt’s radical progressive vision in the 1930s. It aims to reduce the world’s carbon footprint and, in doing so, fix its economic inequalities too.
In her introduction, “We Are the Wildfire,” Klein mentions a landmark UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from 2018. We must restrict the rise of global temperatures, it states, to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Otherwise, we might do irreversible damage to the planet. This prediction is the basis for the GND’s core tenet: it aims to halve global emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Yet the UN report is only landmark if we choose to act upon it.
Klein argues that implementing the GND will not just reduce emissions. She insists that challenging the “underlying forces” of climate change will create millions of jobs and “instill a sense of collective, higher purpose — a set of concrete goals that we are all working toward together.” She writes:
In the process of transforming the infrastructure of our societies at the speed and scale that scientists have called for, humanity has a once-in-a-century chance to fix an economic model that is failing the majority of people on multiple fronts. Because the factors that are destroying our planet are also destroying people’s quality of life in many other ways, from wage stagnation to gaping inequalities to crumbling services.
To counter opponents of the GND — who question the feasibility and economics of such a large-scale transition — Klein lists nine points. One of her strongest addresses the opportunity to rebuild our current economic model. She echoes the European Spring proposal for a Green New Deal, which calls for a global minimum tax rate on massive corporations —“the Apples and Googles of the world”— that currently dodge their fair share. She states that targeting “untenable levels of wealth concentration” and shifting “the burden to those most responsible for climate pollution” can help to finance the GND. She also suggests a 1 percent tax on billionaires, which the UN claims could raise $45 billion per year, and an international effort to close tax havens. It’s estimated that between $24 trillion and $36 trillion is stored in these safe harbours, serving the interests of a select few.
Klein cites a 2017 Climate Accountability Institute study that reports 100 corporations have been responsible for 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. She claims that a “polluter pays” model, which involves these “Carbon Majors” paying legal damages and higher royalties and having their subsidies slashed, will help relieve the burden of a GND transition. It’s an argument that more and more young people, especially, find fair and reasonable.
The bulk of Klein’s critique focuses on the “Anglosphere”— Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States — as well as some non-English-speaking parts of Europe. She asks why these countries, despite their wealth and resources, have proven particularly resistant to meaningful action. Indeed, Australia insists on expanding coal production; Canada maintains support for the Alberta tar sands; the U.K. continues fracking operations despite evidence that links them to earthquakes; and the U.S. is now among the world’s largest oil exporters. And we can’t forget that Washington has left the Paris Agreement, while several developing economies, such as Morocco and India, have not. (Nor can we overlook that Trump skipped the climate change discussion at the G7 meeting in August.)
Klein reminds us that these countries have a history of exploiting Indigenous lands and, often, slave labour, two practices of “brutal expropriation” that created such stupendous profits that they “generated the excess capital and power to launch the age of fossil fuel–led industrial revolution and, with it, the beginning of human-driven climate change.” And although they pioneered a global supply chain that birthed egregious consumption without ecological concern, they haven’t yet played a leading role in envisioning a climate-conscious future. This needs to change, because without participation from these powers — which possess the wealth and resources necessary to transition to a GND — radical environmental policy changes will not be possible.
A global crisis should beget a global solution. A worldwide target of net zero emissions by 2050, as stated in the 2018 UN report, requires all nations to cooperate. For poor and developing countries, embracing Klein’s vision — rebuilding a broken economic model and attaining emission controls — is not just important but vital for survival. Despite facing daily national crises, these countries are the ones most vulnerable to an increasingly inhospitable climate. Many are situated around the equator, and they will bear the brunt of higher average temperatures and the climate’s more drastic variations. Economic power is linked to the ability to cope with climate fallout; those most affected by climate change are also largely those least equipped to fight it. This will not be the only fire such nations have to put out.
It is worth asking if Klein’s vision can succeed outside the Anglosphere. One problem is that many countries have not yet seen a parallel to the original New Deal. Growing economies will need an alternative GND — a plan that embraces the essence of Klein’s idea yet customizes itself to regional and national needs. Raising the minimum wage could be turned into introducing a minimum wage in countries that don’t have one. Remedying the Anglosphere’s racial-economic divide could turn into bridging religious and caste-based economic divides elsewhere. Even something like building a set number of hospitals and schools in needy areas, instead of the Anglosphere’s broader calls for infrastructure development, would be a start. Solutions like this need to be sought at a local level too. If students in Montreal and New Delhi take to the streets to demand a cleaner future, then, sooner rather than later, their home countries will have no choice but to listen.
Many critics of the GND retain reservations about the feasibility of such large-scale change. But the climate crisis poses a threat to a safe and habitable future. One must take a worthy and progressive stance — and declare that the effects of climate change can be undone. One must be a true believer. On Fire is packed with solid data to build a case for radical climate and economic change. Klein highlights the dire situation and the urgency with which we need to act. Her argument makes at least one thing clear: the time for apathy and inaction is over.