Who Owns the Human Climate Movement? (In which I take another crack at the Romm-Klein spat)

(For the confused, new readers: Naomi Klein and Joe Romm got into a fracas last week over comments Naomi made in an interview, blaming “Big Green” environmental groups for the country’s sorry emissions record. I offered the couple some “couples therapy,” counseling the pair to move past blame and focus on solutions. Romm made me very proud by responding to my intervention, though he wasn’t totally convinced. In this article, I take another crack at it!)

Joe, during our session you made an interesting comment. You stated that your argument with Naomi Klein (no relation, by the way) was relevant because it was “really a proxy for who we should listen to going forward.”  And that Naomi was attempting to discredit Big Green/ old-guard environmentalists’ ability to lead the Human Climate Movement.

Ahhh I thought. They are not only a couple who is casting aspersions on each other, as they struggle to cope with the overwhelming pain of their child’s suicidality (or in this case, ecocidality) they are also having a power struggle.

Well, psychologists don’t like proxy arguments. We know that frank discussions, though they can be tough, yield better results. If you want to have an argument over leadership, let’s have it in broad daylight. Who should we listen to going forward? Klein? Romm? Big Green? New Green?

Naomi believes that the failure of the Big Green groups to effectively combat climate change, particularly due to corporate partnerships and an inside-the-beltway mentality,  necessitates radical changes in Human Climate Movement leadership and direction. The Human Climate Movement should reject the old guard environmentalists, ceding intellectual leadership to progressive intellectuals such as herself. She thinks that people should listen to her going forward because climate change is fundamentally a problem of global capitalism, about which she is an expert, and because she is a forceful speaker and writer who can captivate a crowd. Naomi is relatively new to working on climate change, but she views this as an asset. The movement needs revitalization and redirection!

Joe believes that we should listen to him because of his track record. Joe is a scientist, a PhD physicist. For more than 20 years, he has worked on energy and climate issues. Joe has served in government, and knows how politics works from the inside; he is a realist. He has nearly gone hoarse from all the shouting he has done, trying to raise awareness of the dire climate change scenarios facing us. Joe is proud of his career of service and of his current intellectual leadership position in the Human Climate Movement.

Its easy to imagine why Joe would feel angry at Naomi when she criticizes the environmental establishment and their handling of the climate crisis; that’s some pretty brazen Monday-morning quarterbacking! Naomi was virtually ignoring the climate for years while Romm and the leadership of “Big Green” were dedicating their careers to it. They made some mistakes, sure.  But only when climate change becomes tangibly acute does she comes waltzing onto Green turf and starts making pronouncements, criticizing past decisions. She is a new comer and a non-scientist, yet she has the gall to blame the environmental movement for the not averting the climate crisis!

Joe, it must feel like Naomi is wantonly disrespecting you, your career, and even your values.

This clash of values and personalities is occurring with increasing frequency in the Human Climate Movement. As climate change’s impacts become more palpable, more people, including scholars and activists, are waking up to its terrible threat. They are New Green; and they bring new perspectives and values to the climate fight.  They look at Big Green and see a failed strategy, and a need for change. Not surprisingly, the environmental establishment feels offended by that. The reward for all of their efforts, the reward for having been right is to be criticized for not have handled climate change better? Where do these Johnny-come-latelies get the nerve? They seem to have no concept of how difficult the fight has been, or how hard environmentalists have worked.

Now that we have ditched the proxy and addressed the heart of this conflict, we can address the real problems and look for real solutions.

The better angels of all participants of this debate: Romm, Klein, Big Green, New Green—know that they are all on the same side. We all want a climate that supports human civilization. We know that in order to get there, we need people get out of intellectual and emotional denial, to wake up to the terrible threat of climate change. We know that everyone is welcome in the Human Climate Movement, and that the more people making diverse contributions, the better. We know that climate change is not merely a scientific issue, but a human issue that involves every single one of us. We know we should relentlessly seek the best organizing strategy, no matter its source.

To be most effective, the movement must incorporate all comers, and to take their ideas seriously, while those new to the party should be appropriately respectful to those who came before. (Let he who has successfully solved climate change cast the first stone!)

A forum is needed to turn disagreements into collaborative discussions rather than disputes. We should open-source Human Climate Movement Strategy and undertake a process of considering, discussing, and evaluating Movement strategy proposals. This will allow for collaboration and hybridization of plans and will facilitate the formation of relationships and trust between Big Green and New Green. Most importantly, undertaking a process of reflection and collaboration around strategy will lead us to the most effective final plan.

Any social and political movement will have different factions, personality clashes, and territoriality. But we cannot let these differences derail us from out most critical mission. Let’s discuss strategy and leadership issues collaboratively, respectfully, and publicly. No more proxies.

OK. Times up, Good progress! I’ll see you guys next week.


  1. Now some, not Eli to be sure, might think that this is an issue between two worthies, each of whom have a different point of view on the way forward. Far from it. In the far corner, is Joe Romm, who perceives our messing with the climate as having very negative consequences for people in the near future. To him dealing with climate change is the issue. Nearest us is Naomi Klein, who sees climate as a club she can beat those who support the current economic system with on the glorious path to a socialist society.

    Romm understands that to make the climate issue a club for beating capitalism is a lose-lose. He has no desire to throw the Sierra Club types out of Klein’s Overton window. There are subsidiary issues where Romm might not agree with the Sierra Club, but Joe kindly has declined Naomi’s invitation to a circular firing squad party.

    Rick Piltz, with whom Eli mostly agrees, disagreed on the Rabett’s statement of the problem, ” Joe Romm, recognizes the need for allies, believes that climate issues can be resolved within the current society, and has no desire to suffer through a Cultural Revolution. Joe is not Pol Pot, Naomi would enjoy the chance to audition. “

  2. Margaret Klein

    Hi Eli, thank you for reading and participating.

    Your response indicates why it is so important to have a process of consideration and consensus building within the Human Climate Movement. You dislike Naomi Klein because she is too anti-capitalist, but many dislike the “big green” group because they are to pro-capitalism. Everyone has their own opinion.

    Maintainig a (relatively) stable climate for humanity is a gigantic task. If we spend our strength on infighting; if we allow ideological differences to divide us, we will surely lose. I give respect and appreciation to anyone who dedicates themselves to fighting climate change, even if I don’t agree with all of their advocacy.

    This is one reason that I propose open sourcing– so that differences can be debated in a collaborative search for efficacy.

  3. Thanks for bringing this topic forward. And a ruthless, psychologically balanced viewpoint is desperately needed. Because clearly the couple presented here here is not fully aware of the danger. (they seem to be more concerned with their respective brands). .

    When it comes to human caused global warming, we all have been jumping out of the airplane without our parachutes. So far, our fall is painless, but we must knit a parachute on the way down. The argument before us is: ‘how do we make a new system that will be able to save everybody’?. Well, we won’t. So we argue about who will get what, And Carbon capitalism by hosting ignorance and denial has refused to look down to learn how soon we will crash. Joe is saying that if he can just awaken Wall Street, we can all pull together – I promise – just you wait.. Naomi Klein seems to say if carbon capitalism is not part of the solution, it is the major part of the problem. .Since carbon is the cause, she is technically correct.

    It is just a matter of learning how dire the situation might be. I would think, given the risk, we should evaluate.the situation better. The new IPCC report will be out soon – it takes awhile to package it up – so the science there is at least 2 years old already. We still don’t have good information.

    Near term, the oceanographers I speak with say their research suggests that we could stay calm and cool for awhile – or an El Nino condition could slam us with more heat. Meanwhile the most reliable predictions – that of sea level rise – say that the exponential rise will continue well into the next century. And that multiple feet of rise is likely by the year 2050. Children alive today will be knee deep.

    These parental squabbles – amount to adaptation and mitigation fights — and they might be somewhat healthy, don’t you think? – as long as they return to preparing us to face the future.

    • Margaret Klein

      Bill McKibben said: “Like someone lost in the woods, we need to stop running, sit down, see what’s in our pockets that might be of use, and start figuring out what steps to take.”

      If there are a group of people lost in the woods, they need to discuss what to do next. Anyone with a plan should state their plan, and explain their reasoning. If they do this collaboratively and non-defensively, they will agree on the best course of action (likely a hybrid of a few of the plans).

      I am all for disagreement in the Human Climate Movement. At best, hearing from multiple perspectives keeps us grounded in reality, and keeps creative juices flowing (differing opinions can sometimes be creatively reconciled)

      However, if they let their egos get in the way, arguing for their plan out of ego rather than merit, if they make it personal and hold grudges, then the discussion will fail. The group will splinter, or choose a worse plan than they could have.

      We need to be extremely cognizant of using disagreement for furthering Movement aims and ALWAYS moving towards solutions. As you say, we are midair, crashing downward. There isn’t any time to waste with personal problems.

  4. Lennart van der Linde

    A view I think is also worth listening to is that of the wise (imo) Gus Speth:

    He said in 2008:
    “The methods and style of today’s environmentalism are not wrongheaded, just far, far too restricted as an overall approach. The problem has been the absence of a huge, complementary investment of time, energy, and money in other, deeper approaches to change. And here, the leading environmental organizations must be faulted for not doing nearly enough to ensure these investments were made.
    America has run a 40-year experiment on whether this mainstream environmentalism can succeed, and the results are now in. The full burden of managing accumulating environmental threats has fallen to the environmental community, both those in government and outside. But that burden is too great. The system of modern capitalism as it operates today will continue to grow in size and complexity and will generate ever-larger environmental consequences, outstripping efforts to cope with them. Indeed, the system will seek to undermine those efforts and constrain them within narrow limits. Working only within the system will, in the end, not succeed — what is needed is transformative change in the system itself.”

    “The environmental agenda should expand to embrace a profound challenge to consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer, a healthy skepticism of growthmania and a redefinition of what society should be striving to grow, a challenge to corporate dominance and a redefinition of the corporation and its goals, a commitment to deep change in both the functioning and the reach of the market, and a powerful assault on the anthropocentric and contempocentric values that currently dominate.”

    “The best hope for real change in America is a fusion of those concerned about environment, social justice, and strong democracy into one powerful progressive force.
    The new environmentalism must work with this progressive coalition to build a mighty force in electoral politics. This will require major efforts at grassroots organizing; strengthening groups working at the state and community levels; and developing motivational messages and appeals — indeed, writing a new American story, as Bill Moyers has urged. Our environmental discourse has thus far been dominated by lawyers, scientists, and economists. Now, we need to hear a lot more from the poets, preachers, philosophers, and psychologists.
    Above all, the new environmental politics must be broadly inclusive, reaching out to embrace union members and working families, minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women’s movement, and other communities of complementary interest and shared fate. It is unfortunate but true that stronger alliances are still needed to overcome the “silo effect” that separates the environmental community from those working on domestic political reforms, a progressive social agenda, human rights, international peace, consumer issues, world health and population concerns, and world poverty and underdevelopment.
    The final watchword of the new environmental politics must be, “Build the movement.” We have had movements against slavery and many have participated in movements for civil rights and against apartheid and the Vietnam War. Environmentalists are often said to be part of “the environmental movement.” We need a real one — networked together, protesting, demanding action and accountability from governments and corporations, and taking steps as consumers and communities to realize sustainability and social justice in everyday life.
    Can one see the beginnings of a new social movement in America? Perhaps I am letting my hopes get the better of me, but I think we can.”

    • Margaret Klein

      This is great, thank you so much for sharing Lennart! One of my biggest questions about Human Climate Movement strategy is how and how much it should combine with other issues. I think there are good reasons to create a comprehensive agenda, but also good reasons to stay single-issue (maintaining a climate that supports human civilization). Its something I want to learn a lot more about. And I am excited to read Speth’s thoughts.

      And I couldn’t agree more that the final watchword of the new environmental politics must be, “Build the movement.”

  5. I have been a big fan of Naomi Klein for a long time. Perhaps she got some details of her history wrong, and perhaps she didn’t present her arguments in the clearest fashion for an audience not familiar with them, but I still am in agreement with her. Dr. Maggie, I believe that neither you nor Joe Romm really have properly understood Naomi Klein’s main points. I will try to restate some of them, and I hope I am not misrepresenting her.

    All of us on the positive side of sanity are in agreement about what the climate problem is, and what ought to be done about it. In some fashion or other, we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels, etc. But that is not happening. The Republicans say “never,” and the Democrats say “yes, but later, always later,” so essentially the two parties are in agreement.

    And the reason is because they depend on campaign donations to get re-elected, and a large portion of those campaign contributions come from the fossil fuel companies, who will rake in fewer profits if we do actually start reducing our use of fossil fuels.

    Bill McKibben came close to this point in an article a few months ago. He pointed out that the fossil fuel companies see the fossil fuel still in the ground as trillions of dollars already in the bank. I would take it a step further: They see it as money to which they are entitled, and they themselves being robbed by any attempts we might make to reduce the use of fossil fuels. But McKibben didn’t draw the radical conclusion that I draw: as long as our world is run for profit, there will be no reduction in the use of fossil fuels. To fight climate change, we must actually change our economic system.

    For starters, I would suggest that we nationalize the fossil fuel companies, and take the profit incentive out of their operation. I’m advocating socialism. Market prices do not reflect externalized costs, and ecocide is an externalized cost.

    I didn’t understand a lot of what Joe Romm said. But it seemed to me that he was talking about what is or is not feasible within our current economic system; he is not able to even think about changing the economic system itself. Indeed, most environmentalists are not able to think about that. They are in denial about such a change being necessary. That is the denial that I think Naomi Klein is talking about. And so I think he missed her main point entirely.

    Romm concluded by saying ” Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, your main impediment is not other people trying to accomplish the same thing in different ways.” I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. If you’re calling people toward a plan that could work, and someone else is distracting them away with a different plan that cannot possibly work, then that person may be a great impediment, even if that person’s ultimate goals are the same as yours. Indeed, that person might be the greatest impediment, because he is depriving you of the few other people who might actually have tried to help.

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