A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency

Seth Klein & cover of
his book about climate change

Review/Interview by MARTIN ZEILIG
There are parallels between our wartime experience and the climate current crisis, maintains author Seth Klein in his optimistic new book.
“I ultimately decided to structure the entire book around lessons from Canada’s Second World War experience,” he writes.


Klein served for 22 years as the founding director of the British Columbia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), Canada’s foremost social justice think tank, says an online biography. He is now a freelance policy consultant, speaker, researcher and writer, and author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency. Seth is an adjunct professor with Simon Fraser University’s Urban Studies program, and remains a research associate with the CCPA’s BC Office.
The book explores what wartime-scale climate mobilization could actually mean.
“Each chapter jumps back and forth in time between stories of what Canada did during the war and what we now face,” Klein writes.
Among the many questions it answers are: How was public opinion rallied to support mobilization during the war, and how might it be galvanized again?
What were the roles of governments, news media, and arts and culture? And critically, what sort of political leadership do we require to see us through challenges like this? How was social solidarity secured across class, race and gender, and how can we do so again?

Mr. Klein consented to an email interview with The Jewish Post & News.
JP&N: Why did you decide to write this book now?
SK: Like many people, I think, as I read the latest scientific warnings, I’m afraid. In particular, I feel deep anxiety about the state of the world we are leaving to our kids and those who will live throughout most of this century and beyond. And so this book project began with a desire to address this harrowing gap between what the science says we must do and what our politics seems prepared to entertain. I wanted to explore if and how we can align our politics and economy in Canada with what the science says we must urgently do to address the climate emergency. And it is that. I had always planned to include a chapter on lessons from the Second World War for rapid transformation as a reminder that we have done this before. We have mobilized in common cause across society to confront an existential threat. And in doing so, we have retooled our entire economy – twice, in fact, once to wrap up wartime production and again to reconvert back to a peace-time economy – all in the space of six short years.

JP&N: What are the most essential/realistic policies that Canada should implement to deal with the climate crisis?
SK: To execute a successful battle, we need a plan. Here, then, are seven key strategic lessons that emerge from my study of our WWII mobilization:

1. Adopt an emergency mindset. As we’ve all witnessed in recent months, something powerful happens when we approach a crisis by naming the emergency and the need for wartime-scale action. It creates a new sense of shared purpose, a renewed unity across Canada’s confederation, and liberates a level of political action that seemed previously impossible. Economic ideas deemed off-limits become newly considered. And we become collectively willing to see our governments adopt mandatory policies, replacing voluntary measures that merely incentivize and encourage change with clear timelines and regulatory fiat in order to drive change.

2. Rally the public at every turn. Many assume that at the outbreak of the Second World War everyone understood the threat and were ready to rally. But that was not so. It took leadership to mobilize the public. In frequency and tone, in words and in action, the climate mobilization needs to look and sound and feel like an emergency. If our governments are not behaving as if the situation is an emergency – or they send contradictory messages by approving new fossil fuel infrastructure – then they are effectively communicating to the public that it is not.

3. Inequality is toxic to social solidarity and mass mobilization. A successful mobilization requires that people make common cause across class, race and gender, and that the public have confidence that sacrifices are being made by the rich as well as middle-class and modest-income people. During the First World War, inequality undermined such efforts. Consequently, at the outset of the Second World War, the government took bold steps to lessen inequality and limit excess profits. Such measures are needed again today. Moreover, polling clearly shows that when ambitious climate action is linked to tackling inequality, support does not go down – rather, it goes dramatically up.

4. Embrace economic planning and create the economic institutions needed to get the job done. During WWII, starting from a base of virtually nothing, the Canadian economy and its labour force pumped out planes, military vehicles, ships and armaments at a speed and scale that is simply mind-blowing. Remarkably, the Canadian government (under the leadership of C.D. Howe) established 28 crown corporations to meet the supply and munitions requirements of the war effort. The private sector had a key role to play in that economic transition, but vitally, it was not allowed to determine the allocation of scarce resources. In a time of emergency, we don’t leave such decisions to the market. Howe’s department undertook detailed economic planning to ensure wartime production was prioritized, conducting a national inventory of wartime supply needs and production capacity and coordinating the supply chains of all core war production inputs (machine tools, rubber, metals, timber, coal, oil and more). The climate emergency demands a similar approach. We must again conduct an inventory of conversion needs, determining how many heat pumps, solar arrays, wind farms, electric buses, etc., we will need to electrify virtually everything and end our reliance on fossil fuels. And we will need a new generation of crown corporations to then ensure those items are manufactured and deployed at the requisite scale.

5. Spend what it takes to win. A benefit of an emergency mentality is that it forces governments out of an austerity mindset. This year, in response to the COVID emergency, Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio will rise to about 50%. At the end of WWII, it was 108%. In order to finance the war effort, the government issued new public Victory Bonds and new forms of progressive taxation were instituted. Yet these new taxes, and, what remains to this day historic levels of public debt, did not produce economic disaster. On the contrary, they heralded an era of record economic performance. As we confront the climate emergency, financing the transformation before us requires that we employ similar tools.

6. Indigenous leadership, title and rights are central to winning. Indigenous people played an important role in the Second World War. Today, their role in successfully confronting the climate crisis is pivotal. As our mainstream politics dithers on meaningful and coherent climate action, the assertion of Indigenous title and rights is buying us time, slowing and blocking new fossil fuel projects until our larger politics come into compliance with the climate science. Some of Canada’s most inspiring renewable energy projects are also happening under First Nations’ leadership. It is imperative to both honour and support such efforts.

7. Leave no one behind. The Second World War saw over one million Canadians enlist in military service and even more employed in munitions production (far more than are employed in the fossil fuel industry today). After the war, all those people had to be reintegrated into a peacetime economy. That too required careful planning, and the development of new programs for returning soldiers, from income support to housing to post-secondary training. The ambition of these initiatives provides a model for what a just transition can look like today for all workers whose economic and employment security is currently tied to the fossil fuel economy, with a special focus on those provinces and regions most reliant on oil and gas production.

JP&N: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
SK: The book is an invitation to our political leaders, to reflect on the leaders who saw us through the Second World War and to consider who they want to be, and how they wish to be remembered, as we undertake this defining task of our lives. My hope is that this book might embolden them to be more politically daring than we have seen to date, because that is what this moment demands.
And much like the trials that tested the character of past generations, the book is also an invitation to all of us to reflect on who we want to be as we together confront this crisis.

 

A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency
By Seth Klein
(ECW Press 464 pg. $24.95)
Available on Amazon.ca in both paperback and Kindle format