“Trade Trumps Climate” says Naomi Klein: Transcript


Naomi Klein spoke to over 3,000 people at the Climate Action Zone in Paris's 19th arrondissement.
Naomi Klein spoke to over 3,000 people at the Climate Action Zone in Paris’s 19th arrondissement.

Naomi Klein, speaking Thursday, December 10, 2015 in Paris at the Climate Action Zone, provided an update on the negotiations and situated them in the context of international trade agreements that can undermine efforts to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. I thought what she said was important enough that I had a transcript made from my poor-quality phone recording of the event and one answer. Feel free to use this any way you like; no permissions or credit needed.

In the interest of getting this information out, I haven’t delayed by going through the transcript to verify it. You can find time stamps every two minutes keyed to the audio files, and brackets around inaudible text. Please contact Felix Kramer with corrections. The original 28 minutes of audio can be downloaded at:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/lqijgjfjrud3gv0/Naomi%20Klein%20climate%20action%20zone.aiff?dl=0 (19:41)


[Begins with Klein speaking French for 18 seconds.]

What I’m going to be talking about is an epic case of bad timing. An epic case of bad timing, which I believe goes a long way towards explaining why our government, why our team, in places like Le Bourget and at twenty meetings before this twenty-first conference of the parties have failed so miserably to rise to the civilizational challenge that is climate change.

And that they have failed is beyond me. Since they have been talking, talking for longer than the young people in this room have been alive, emissions have increased by more than 60% globally.

The more they talk, the more emissions rise.

And this conference is no different. We have seen some wonderful speeches, we have heard talk of bold pledges and high ambitions. And yet the hard realities and the hard facts remain.

And those facts are that no matter what the governments that call themselves ambitious claim, the actual promises, the actual targets [02:00] that they have brought to this summit lead us to an extremely dangerous world. They don’t lead us to 1.5º or 2º Celsius. They lead us to warming of 3º to 4º Celsius, which is beyond catastrophic.

And beyond that, they have also told us that we can’t even hold them to the pledges that they are bringing. That this agreement will not be legally binding.

So what we’re going to be talking about here tonight are agreements that are very much legally binding. And these are the trade agreements that these same governments negotiate in other spaces, that very much have teeth, that very much have penalties, and that show that these same governments are capable of forging very complex agreements that are legally binding when those agreements serve multi-national corporations. (applause)

The epic case of bad timing is that climate change has landed on our collective lap at precisely the moment when these free trade deals started to proliferate around the world.

1988 was the year that our government first held an inter-governmental meeting about climate change. 1988 was the year that the inter-governmental panel on climate change was formed. 1988 was the year that the famous climate scientist who’s here in Paris for this summit, [04:00] James Hansen, formerly of NASA, testified before the U.S. Congress that he now could say, with a high degree of certainty, that humans were causing the planet to warm. 1988 was the year that we lost all ability to claim that we didn’t know that we weren’t sure. Because that was the year that our government decided that we had to act.

What else was happening in 1988? Well, it was the year that Canada and the United States signed the first free trade agreement that was eventually expanded into NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which became the model for all these free trade agreements that have proliferated around the world.

It was also the year before the Berlin Wall collapsed. It was the very moment when Francis Fukuyama famously declared that history was over. And now, there was what you in France call the “[French language 00:05:14],” The one way of thinking that spread around the world, what in most parts of the world is called “neoliberalism.”

And we know the tenets of neoliberalism. Privatization. Deregulation. Cuts to taxes for the wealthy and the corporations, paid for with austerity for everybody else. All of it locked in with these corporate free trade deals that make it so very hard to change, as you know so well here in Europe, when you’ve tried to change.

That is the epic case of bad timing. The epic case of bad timing also involves the fact that what would be enshrined in these trade deals [06:00] was the highest-emitting, most wasteful model of consumption imaginable. Right?

This form of consumption that imagines that distance didn’t matter. That it didn’t matter how far our goods travel to get to us, and so we’ve seen a huge spike in emissions related to transportation and shipping, because our goods travel so far.

And yet the emissions from transportation and shipping are not even included in what is being discussed in this trade deal. In fact, there were attempts to put it into the negotiating text, and they have been so far successfully fought off.

We have seen alongside the globalization of this particular model of consumption … I say “this particular model,” because when the rules of trade were being written, we could have decided on different priorities. We could have decided on a developing model that was low-emissions. We had that opportunity. But instead, our politicians did something pretty sneaky, which is they made sure that if it ever came down to it, that trade would always trump climate.

It was so clear that this fact is actually written into the UN Climate Treaty, I’ve had to debate this for all of these negotiations, that was signed in Rio in 1992. That agreement states that, “Measures taken to combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute a disguised restriction on international trade.” It said that explicitly, and very similar language was put into the Kyoto Protocol. [08:00]

What would be said is, “You can talk about whatever you want about the need to do something about climate change. But if it ever comes down to it, trade trumps climate.”

One of the things, when I was writing This Changes Everything, what I looked at is what this has meant in practice. And it’s meant something very explicit. It’s meant that in case after case, where people have tried to take climate change seriously and put laws in place, invariably under huge pressure from below, from social movements demanding that governments act, in many cases, those policies have been challenged, and too often successfully challenged, using these trade deals as tools.

I’m just going to give you three examples to set the stage.

One is very close to home for me. I live in Toronto, Ontario. And we’re lucky in Ontario that our government introduced a pretty bold climate policy in the midst of a financial crisis in 2009. It’s the kind of thing that should have happened in many European countries in the midst of a financial crisis. Basically what was going on was we had a jobs crisis, that you have in Europe, because factories were closing. And of course we also had a climate crisis. So our government introduced a green energy plan, which was the boldest in North America. It pledged to get our profits off of coal completely by 2014, but to do so in a way that would create huge numbers of manufacturing jobs. So they introduced a feed-in tariff, and also a requirement that 40-60% of the green technology used had to be made in Ontario. [10:00] 40-60%. It created 31,000 jobs very, very quickly. Many workers who had lost their jobs in auto plants got jobs making solar panels.

This is the essence of a just transition. This is what we mean by a “just transition”: more text that is … Another phrase that had been taken out of the text of the agreement and pushed into a non-binding plan, by the way.

So everything was going well, until we were challenged at the World Trade Organization by the European Union and Japan, who said that this was discrimination against their right to unfettered free trade and access to market. And the WTO ruled against us.

Trade trumped climate.

We were overturned. Quebec, under huge pressure from social movements, had one of the most powerful environmental movements in our country won one of the very first bans on fracking. We have a few Quebecers in here? Yes! (applause)

And then, Quebec was challenged, under NAFTA, under one of these investor-rights clauses that allowed the multi-national corporations to sue governments. They were sued by a company called Lone Pine for their lost profit because this apparently infringed on their rights to frack for gas under the St. Lawrence River.

The trick was, the really clever part, was that this was actually a Canadian company that just incorporated itself in the U.S. and pretended to not be Canadian, so that it could sue its own government.

This is how [12:00] these trade deals work against the kinds of victories that we know that we have been winning against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Against arctic drilling. Against fracking here in France. Against coal mining in Germany. This is where we have to move, precisely because our governments won’t [inaudible 00:12:18].

But we have to understand that corporations, as we win, are going to be using these trade deals as tools against us. And we can’t let them do it. We have to understand their tactics.

Another case: Germany. And my friend [inaudible 00:12:32] should be talking to you about Germany’s energy transition, which, imperfect as it is, is a model for energy democracy. Because in hundreds of towns and cities, people have taken back control over their energy grid from private companies that took them over, and they are keeping the profit from generating energy in their communities. Germany is now getting 30% of their electricity from renewable, much of it decentralized. They’ve created 400,000 jobs. But Germany is facing two challenges using a similar investor-safe clause by the Swedish company Vattenfall, that says that this energy transition, which is the kind of energy transition we need to see around the world, infringes on their rights to generate power from coal and from nuclear power.

This is another example of how trade is trumping the climate, and we can’t let them do it.

I just want to read a quote for you that I think really sums this up, from the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz. And he was talking about the fact that these agreements that were written decades ago are increasingly being used [14:00] to stand in the way of good climate policy. He was commenting on the fact that the United States was challenging China and India for their support for renewable energy, which made absolutely no sense. Listen to our governments, and right now in Le Bourget, they’re all pointing fingers at each other about who is more ambitious, who’s doing enough, who’s not doing enough. And yet these same governments go to the World Trade Organization and try to knock down each others’ windmills.

What Joseph Stiglitz said was, “Should you let a group of foolish lawyers, who put something together before they understood these issues, interfere with saving the planet?” Which seems like a very good question.

But we do understand it now. The lawyers understand it. But they’re still making sure that there is no reference to climate change in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They’re still making sure that in new deals, like trade deals like TTiP between the European Union and the United States, like the similar deal between the European Union and Canada, they are protected from what they see as discrimination so that governments can’t favor renewable energy over fossil fuels, or the kind of sensible trade that we would want our governments to do.

But I think there’s something even more insidious, because if you look at what is going on at Le Bourget, this climate deal, in a way, failed before it even began.

Because before our governments even got to Paris, we heard from the United States, from the Obama administration, that this would not be a legally binding deal. They said that to begin with. And everybody had to accommodate that. Why? Because everybody understands that the United States [16:00] cannot take a binding climate treaty to the U.S. Congress. Why? Because it is controlled by politicians who are bought and paid for by the oil and gas industry.  (applause)

The ultimate irony is that the same oil and gas companies are inside those negotiations for trade agreements between Europe and the United States, and between Europe and Canada, making sure that those deals are as binding as possible. And that they have, in Chevron’s words, a “world-class investment chapter,” which means that Chevron and companies like it are able to sue our governments should we interfere with their future profit.

One of the most painful aspects of these negotiations is that in exchange for setting a target of warming that may allow the low-lying Pacific islands to survive, and I say “may,” because they may not even, but just for allowing the numbers 1.5 to potentially be in the text, our governments are demanding that those countries explicitly give up their right to seek loss and damages for climate change.

It says it in the text right now. There’s an asterisk next to the phrase “loss and damage,” and it says, “So long as this is not interpreted as the legal right to sue.”

At the same time, the fossil fuel companies are ensuring that they have the right to sue us for their loss and damages. The same fossil fuel companies, like Exxon, who have been systematically funding climate change denial [18:00] for decades, and standing in the way of the policies that will save our planet.

So the job of our movement is to quit them. Is to quit them. We need a system that allows the most vulnerable countries and the most vulnerable people to have the resources to pay for the loss and damages of the climate change that’s already here. And to have the resources to leapfrog to a post-private economy. To go straight to renewables. To go straight to the best public transit available.

And the way we need to pay for it is we need to have the polluters pay. We need to go after them … (applause)

I’m going to pass it over to [inaudible 00:18:54] … I’ll come back to you guys at the end.

That’s our job. We don’t share this information with you to feel disempowered. To feel like the corporations aren’t going to always win. Because the most important thing we need to remember is that the Climate Movement is a movement on a roll. We come here even though our politicians lack the ambition and the vision and the boldness that we deserve. This is a movement that comes here after winning big victories, and with many more victories on the way.

We need to look at these barriers as a challenge, and we need to understand that we are going to win this.

Thank you.



Another thing you need to understand what she was, first of all giving a classic example, how trade trumps climate. In the draft, from 2 days ago, there had been a passage that explicitly said that intellectual property right cannot stand in the way of technology transfers to developing world. In the newest draft, that passage has been taken out. The little gremlin of free trade, took it out. They do that all the time. The question is, why do these worlds not talk to each other? What is the barrier? What’s the barrier? This is something I’ve puzzled over. It isn’t only about why this trade … Why the trade world not speak to the climate world and vise versa.

It’s also you know, [Tashio 00:00:57] and I … The last time I saw [Tashio 00:00:58], we were in Frankfurt about 8 months ago. We were at an amazing [inaudible 00:01:05] demonstration outside the European central bank and there were 40,000 people in the street. They had been giving classic speeches all day, about the brutal impact of German prescribed prosperity on the rest of Europe and all of the social implications, but nobody had mentioned the word climate, all day. When I spoke, I did talk about the connections because the connections are obvious. Right?

When they exist under austerity, under the logic of austerity, there is no possibility for the kinds of actions that we need in the face of climate change. All over southern Europe, in Spain, [02:00] Greece, Portugal, Italy, supports for renewable have been flashed. Public transit fees have gone up, when they should be going down to accrued use. Italy is planning to double its offshore oil drilling. Greece is being pushed to get out of debt by drilling for oil and gas in the IO unit. There are pushes for fracking in Spain. I could go on and on. The connections are obvious, you know?

I guess the connections don’t get made and we can even point to the leaders of the biggest anti-austerity parties in Europe as the fact that they have never mentioned climate change. I mean, some of them mentioned climate change for the first time, last week. Why is it? Why is it that we stay in these silos? I think some of it is habit. I think that traditionally, on the left, there is a feeling that almost like, climate is the one issue you don’t have to care about. There’s so many other issues, so urgent. I think climate change had this reputation of being almost like this [borgua 00:03:16] issue, for people who don’t have real issues to care about like, how do I make it? People can’t care about climate when they have to put food on the table.

I think you would probably disagree. That this is not some luxury issue. This is about survival and more than that, avid climate justice movement, we can chart the most credible path for how people can put food on the table. Create millions of well paying jobs and bring down emission at the same time.

I think on the left, some of it is habit. Some of it [04:00] is, I think exactly as you said, that it does challenge the growth in [Perdue 00:04:06]. This must be said. It’s easy to understand how climate change threatens an extreme right wing world view, right? If you don’t believe in government, if you don’t believe in collective action, if you don’t believe in regulation, if you don’t believe in taxation, climate change is going to make your hair catch on fire. You must regulate. You must tax [inaudible 00:04:31] to pay for it. You have to manage it somehow.

The truth is that there are large parts of the left that have really treated our economic system as purely a problem of distribution and have not looked at this core problem of pursuing infinite growth on a finite planet. This is a challenge for all of us. It’s really a challenge of world view, of the world view that we take and take, without limit. I think that’s the critique of the left. That’s the [inaudible 00:05:09] left critique. I include myself in this. I came to climate late. My wake up call wasn’t until 10 years ago when I was in New Orleans, when it was under water. It was so obvious what a new liberal ideology and a racist society looks like, with climate change. It was impossible not to understand those connections.

It took me a long time because I was one of those people who was just saying, “Oh let the environmentalists deal with this one. We’re busy.” Right? I think there is a more troubling answer to the question. I say this with some trepidation because I think unity is important in the movement. I think there are many forces trying to divide us. The fact is that there are also [06:00] parts of the climate movement that are more aligned with preparations than they are with workers that are more comfortable in rooms underneath than they are in rooms like this.

Traditionally there have been [inaudible 00:06:19]. In the United States, there’s some very … [Alanna 00:06:26] knows this history. There’s some really painful history where when we were in this huge fight NAFTA, a really fateful struggle against the North America free trade agreement. Our social movements were so strong against NAFTA that when Bill Clinton ran for president, he had to promise that he would reverse it. Right? That he would not put it into practice. That he would renegotiate it.

Then what happened is that he was able to divide the left with the help of Al Gore, labor continued to oppose NAFTA and after the Clinton administration took power, but they were able to peel off 10 big green groups and get them to support NAFTA because they added a clause saying that it wouldn’t hurt the environment. In the primeval, right? Never trust a primeval everybody. Never trust a primeval. There is this history and I would love to hear [Alanna’s 00:07:33] perspective on this because, you know …