“Climate change and social justice are intrinsically linked”

Hannah Finke reviews How To Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other, by Naomi Klein, with Rebecca Stefoff, published by Penguin.

At eighteen, I have known about the existence of climate change and global warming for more or less my entire life. As an individual effort to reduce my carbon footprint, I haven’t bought new clothing in over two years, don’t take the train or bus to places that aren’t within walking distance and avoid meat, especially beef, as well as dairy. As someone who, like the majority of young people, holds the issue very close to my heart, I’ll admit I began How To Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other rather cautiously and vaguely offended – who did Naomi Klein think she was? Did she think that young people didn’t know? That we didn’t care? That we weren’t already taking action against climate change? Fortunately, I found myself wrong on two counts: neither was I an expert on climate change, nor was Klein writing this book because she had undermined my generation’s commitment to a good future. 

The introduction is exactly what it should be: it begins with a description of the fish in one of the world’s most important habitats, the Great Barrier Reef, the joy that coral reefs brought Klein herself as a child and her sorrow that perhaps her four-year-old son would be one of the last kids able to appreciate them. Incredible natural places like this are what we are privileged to have, and they are also what we are losing: a quarter of the Great Barrier Reef died in the Spring of 2016. Klein explains this, and tells us of her hope for the next generation. 

Part One is about the present. The experiences of kids who are tirelessly fighting for the governments to do something about climate change are shared. Klein writes of how young people are taking legal action to try to change the way things are and, of course, Greta Thunberg is discussed, as well as the School Strike for Climate and the Fridays for Future movement. 

She then goes on to explain, in sufficient and often scientific detail, what climate change is all about, from the history of earth’s changing climate and what’s different this time, to why extreme weather events – even cold ones – are caused by climate change. The language is clear, and therefore accessible to children across a wide range of ages, but not patronising. Any terms that could cause difficulty are simply and swiftly explained. I now feel more informed on things that have always been on the periphery of my understanding, such as what fracking actually is, the gulf stream and how climate projections work. 

Perhaps the most important idea that permeates this book is how climate change and social justice are intrinsically linked. Klein explains what is meant by climate justice and she uses a range of examples, like the horrific effects that Hurricane Katrina had on the poorest people in New Orleans. She tells us how the political system is structured more and more to benefit big business and neglect the least powerful. This is highlighted in the government’s appalling lack of preparation for Katrina regarding the poorest neighbourhoods and then its atrocious response in the aftermath. That the effects of climate change are worse for the poorest people – no matter where in the world they are happening – is something that might not occur to you: I had often considered the demise of humanity thanks to global warming a shared fate, but Klein puts it perfectly: “Climate change makes all of our social ills worse. It speeds up or strengthens the bad effects of wars, racism, inequality, domestic violence, and lack of health care.”

To prevent you from falling into a hopeless heap upon reading all of this bad news, Klein intersperses distressing truths with uplifting stories of battles that have been fought and won, usually by small groups and movements. She highlights the often successful protest efforts of Indigenous Peoples, particularly Native Americans and First Nations, to keep their living spaces clean and free from oil companies’ interference. The way in which these Peoples are connected with the earth, and how they live in harmony with it, is a cause for admiration. We are pressed to re-evaluate our individual and societal relationship with nature and the planet. Klein reminds us that for many people, particularly Indigenous populations, the effects of climate change are being felt now. As sea levels rise and storms become more violent, it isn’t their future but their current existence that is under threat. On top of this, these are often the people doing the least to harm the planet, in fact, “it is the richest parts of the world and the very richest people that have polluted our planet most.”

This book is stuffed with factual and historical information, and to make your understanding of the current crisis whole, Klein dips into the past. In this section she begins with the frightful thinking that preceded the industrial revolution. Those who first saw the earth as a limitless resource, destined to be owned and controlled by humans, are named and shamed. James Watt and his modernisation of the engine that was vital to the industrial revolution are all laid out.

She makes poignant links between global warming, the industrial revolution and Britain’s colonial and slave-trading roots. The idea that as the biggest polluters, countries like Britain and the US, and huge oil companies like Exxon, owe a climate debt to the poorest people, who are living the worst consequences of this pollution, is one that really struck me as making perfect sense. It seems obvious that the richer nations, whose wealth is almost entirely built on the fossil fuels they have burnt, ought to compensate poorer ones for the situation in which we find ourselves. Those poorer countries are also more likely to be situated in warm places that are suffering the most from drought and extreme heat. 

How To Change Everything is very much a temporal book. Klein looks into the past, even before humans had a hand in the climate. She discusses the present: what scientists and activists are doing now. Then there’s the future. Klein presents the desperate need for deep change across all levels of society, and points out that it has been done before, such as with the New Deal. After inspiring the hell out of whoever reads this book, Klein leaves a toolkit – it provides all the ideas you need, to go and make a change and a difference, no matter how big or small.

Klein perfectly balances the urgency and terrifying nature of global warming with the hope for a better future and plenty of examples of successes that have already come to pass. How To Change Everything is both alarming and inspiring. Don’t just buy your kids this book. Read it yourself.

Hannah Finke is a sixth form student in London, and about to become a first-time Labour voter. You can follow her on Twitter at @hannahrubyy

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