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We need more climate change warriors like Naomi Klein

11 November 2016

The Sydney Peace Prize jury has recognised Klein for exposing the structural causes and responsibility for the climate crisis, writes David Hirsch, Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation.

A photograph of Naomi Klein holding spectacles.

In 2015 Pope Francis invited the Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein to the Vatican to enlist her support for his encyclical on capitalism, climate change and morality – an unlikely invitation to a self-described secular Jewish feminist.

But as Klein explained "the stakes are so high, time is so short and the task is so large that we cannot afford to allow those differences to divide us". "To change everything" says Klein, "we need everyone".

The climate crisis is real. Human culpability is clear and plausible deniability of this, the refuge of climate change sceptics, is not tenable. The Pope has called for urgent action. Even recalcitrant Australian politicians are getting nervous.

But the climate crisis is more than an environmental and political issue. It is also a social and economic justice issue. And that's why this November, Naomi Klein will be awarded the 2016 Sydney Peace Prize.

Klein has been staring down uncomfortable truths and calling us out on them for years. In her latest book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, she calls out the fossil fuel industry and the politicians they control. She identifies our own reckless complicity in all of this as well. But for Klein the climate crisis is an opportunity – and quite possibly our last chance – to build a better world.

Now in its 19th year, the Sydney Peace Prize is awarded by the Sydney Peace Foundation to those who have made significant contributions to peace with justice, human rights and the language and practice of non-violence. The Peace Prize jury recognised Klein for exposing the structural causes and responsibility for the climate crisis and for inspiring us to demand a new agenda for sharing the planet that respects human rights and equality.

According to the Climate Institute, Australia is the worst per capita emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world. Polls tell us that Australians want the government to do more to tackle climate change, but the government is caught between public opinion and business interests. Over the longer term, transitioning to renewable energy will deliver jobs, profit and revenue, as well as a healthier planet. Yet this transition is impossible without committed and principled political will and leadership, neither of which exists in Australia right now.

Thus far, when it comes to the climate crisis Australia has been a leaner, not a lifter. This cannot continue.

There is more to the climate crisis, however, than unsustainable consumption habits and the profiteering of unregulated capitalism. There is a justice dimension that cannot be ignored.

According to Klein the extraction of fossil fuels is impossible without "sacrifice zones" where people and places are considered expendable. In our own backyard Pacific Islands are disappearing under the waves as carbon emissions heat up the atmosphere. Those set to become climate change refugees are the poor, the powerless, and the people least responsible for the climate crisis. These people, says Klein, are unjustly made to wear the "toxic burden of our collective addiction to fossil fuel".

Selfishness may explain part of our disinterest in the fate of these people but Klein says "You can't have a system built on sacrificial places and sacrificial people unless intellectual theories that justify their sacrifice exist and persist: from manifest destiny to terra nullius".

To turn this around we need a new way of thinking and acting. Klein says we need to develop "a culture of caretaking where nowhere and no one is thrown away","a world view based on regeneration and renewal rather than domination and depletion".

And it seems that this optimism in the face of the climate crisis is bringing people together. In 2015 tens of thousands of Australians joined the People's Climate March demanding action at the Paris climate summit, as did the citizens of some 600 cities in 120 countries around the world.

"Resistance to high-risk extreme extraction is building a global, grassroots, and broad-based network the likes of which the environmental movement has rarely seen." But it is more than an environmental movement. Klein says "it is primarily driven by a desire for a deeper form of democracy, one that provides communities with real control over those resources that are most critical to collective survival—the health of the water, air, and soil."

We see evidence of this phenomenon here. Farmers are standing together with conservationists to stop coal seam gas exploration in the Hunter Valley. In Queensland the Wangan and Jagalingou people are banding together with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters to protect their ancestral lands in the Galilee Basin from the proposed Carmichael coal mine.

Thus far, when it comes to the climate crisis Australia has been a leaner, not a lifter. This cannot continue.

It is naive to expect world leaders to put aside their countries' self-interest for the good of the planet. It is also fantasy to expect technology to save us in the nick of time. As Klein says, the climate crisis "changes everything" and this must include our expectations of passive salvation. Only if we stand up and stand together can we save the planet for our children, do justice to our neighbours, and elevate our better selves. The Pope agrees.

David Hirsch is a barrister and Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald