At this point, one should not have to set the scene for a review of Seth Klein’s A Good War, yet the notion of a “climate emergency” still has an empty rhetorical flavour for far too many. The reality: Massive wildfires in Australia, the Amazon, and North America. Increasingly powerful hurricanes, so numerous that meteorologists run out of names. The rapid melting of Arctic ice. A measurable rise in sea levels. Road-melting summer highs. Accelerating extinctions, including what’s been dubbed the insect apocalypse. These and other sobering developments are all now defining features of our planetscape. But no signal of crisis has been enough, so far, to make our government (and most others) shake off the political lethargy that’s preventing the forceful action required to reverse course.
As those who have been paying attention know, we have dangerously little time. A near-perfect consensus of climate scientists tells us that we have about a decade to act before we slip into catastrophe, as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made abundantly clear in its 2018 special report. Simply to hold current atmospheric warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we must halve global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and achieve net‑zero emissions by 2050. And even with that rise, the IPCC report states, “climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase.”
The difficulties in actually doing something more than continually repeating the above statistics are overwhelming. The problems to be solved are complex, multi-faceted, and full of traps. They will require fundamental changes in our thinking, our political culture, and our economy. That’s a steep hill to climb but, as Klein argues, not an insurmountable one. The worst obstacle is what he calls the “new climate denialism.” Unlike the classic version — pushed by assorted ideological cranks and fossil fuel industry shills facing off against bona fide climate scientists — the new denialists concede that anthropogenic global warming is an actual thing. But their “unspoken defeatism infects and shuts down the real debate we so urgently need to have.”
Klein, the former director of the British Columbia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, cites a particularly ripe example of that stifling. Paul Hambleton, the CBC’s director of journalistic standards, has argued that journalists should use “climate emergency” and “climate crisis” with extreme caution. The phrases, he explained in June 2019, “have a whiff of advocacy to them. They sort of imply, you know, something more serious, where climate change and global warming are more neutral terms.”
If there’s a problem within the national media, it’s even more acute in the political sphere. As Klein observes, the Liberal government introduced and passed a climate emergency motion in mid‑2019 — before reapproving the Trans Mountain expansion project the very next day, having already bought and paid for the existing pipeline. Justin Trudeau has repeatedly reaffirmed his support for Keystone XL (though, on his first day in office, the new U.S. president blocked further construction on that controversial pipeline, in which Alberta has invested $1.5 billion). And the Liberals’ “net‑zero by 2050” climate legislation, introduced in November 2020, is merely aspirational, lacking any penalties for non-compliance.
At the provincial level, Rachel Notley imposed a carbon tax when she was the NDP premier of Alberta, even as she pushed for more pipelines and oversaw a 40 percent increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the development of the oil sands. Her successor, the United Conservative Party premier Jason Kenney, launched a McCarthy-style inquiry into “anti-Alberta energy campaigns.” In Victoria, John Horgan’s NDP government came up with a “Clean BC” climate plan, in late 2018, even as the premier promoted fracking and the natural gas industry.
While governments of all stripes palaver and obstruct rather than confronting the deadly reality of the crisis, Canada is the tenth-highest GHG emitter in the world and, per capita, the second-worst emitter of all the G20 countries: nineteen tonnes per person per year, more than two and a half times the group’s average. Our emissions remain about as high as they were in 2005. Meanwhile, world GHG emissions continue to rise. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that the 7 percent decrease in energy-related emissions in 2020, due to COVID‑19 shutdowns, is anything but temporary relief. (And as the International Energy Agency reported in January, emissions from inefficient yet increasingly popular sport utility vehicles continued to rise, even with the pandemic.)
Half-hearted, equivocal measures won’t cut it, and the pun is intended.
That’s why Klein proposes a profoundly different approach: to put Canada on a war footing, while mobilizing all levels of government and the Canadian population as a whole to fight. For him, this is much more than a facile military metaphor — it’s the real thing.
To develop his argument, Klein recounts in detail how Canada mobilized for the Second World War, an impressive story in itself. After the so‑called Phony War period, from September 1939 to April 1940, a time when much was said but little actually happened, the country finally came to grips with the Nazi threat when it became apparent that Germany would win the war. And once it had actually confronted the emergency, Canada punched well above its weight. Out of a population of 11.5 million, 1.1 million men enlisted, nearly half of whom served overseas. Some 44,000 died. Wartime production was prodigious, helmed by C. D. Howe, a man of extraordinary capacity who eventually became known as the minister of everything.
Private enterprise and an expanded public service, including numerous Crown corporations, ramped up production almost ex nihilo. It was a period of major innovation and job creation, as well as unprecedented productivity: our matériel output was fourth among the Allies, after the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. And, thanks to sound transition measures, the postwar decades were years of prosperity.
The media played its part as well: it didn’t circulate crude war propaganda, but it did keep citizens informed — while never pretending to be neutral in its coverage. Nazi sympathizers got no airtime to present “the other side.”
A vital element of Canada’s all‑in commitment was the real sense that everyone was working together. There were enforced wage and price controls and a tax on excess profits. Social solidarity was built with the introduction of unemployment insurance and the family allowance. As Klein notes, inequality is “toxic” to the kinds of efforts that are once again required.
The overall point that Klein is making is that, in the face of a real emergency like the Second World War, Canadians can throw themselves into the struggle, make the sacrifices that are needed, and work together for a common purpose. Instead of practising austerity, the government of the day can spend as required — and the economy will grow. In the same way, Klein argues, we can confront the climate emergency and do well at it.
Indeed, there is increasing popular awareness that the emergency is upon us. Even in Alberta, where 40 percent of our national GHG emissions are generated, 56 percent of the population is favourable toward a Green New Deal, when it’s defined as a comprehensive set of measures to tackle both climate change and inequality. What is needed — and there are few signs of it at present — is resolute, imaginative political leadership so that we can achieve and sustain, as the IPCC puts it, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
Moreover, doing too little will cost us much more in the not-all-that-long run. Klein cites Joseph Stiglitz, the economist and Nobel laureate, who has pointed out that, in the United States, 2 percent of GDP has already been lost to weather-related disasters and that direct costs to health have been in the tens of billions. “It makes sense,” Stiglitz wrote in the Guardian, in 2018, “to spend money now to reduce emissions rather than wait until later to pay a lot more for the consequences.”
Klein sets out in considerable detail how Canada should spend that money: massive investments in public transportation and green infrastructure, a rapid transition to green energy, major retrofitting programs, and extensive carbon capture projects. Tied to this environmental agenda would be measures to sharply reduce social and economic inequality. To be successful, these major changes would have to be supported by a whole-of-government approach at all levels, with legally enforceable target timelines. This program will all cost considerable amounts of money, but somehow that money always seems to be found in times of crisis (as, for example, during the COVID‑19 pandemic).
Klein’s proposals are entirely sensible once the premise of an emergency situation is accepted — and, at this point, it must be — but he concedes that a new transitional economy will not be successful with only empty promises of green “jobs, jobs, jobs.” A transition plan must include clear individual paths to specific, high-quality jobs, with training and relocation costs thrown in. And we won’t be flying blind: other countries, like Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, are already far ahead of us. We can build upon their best practices.
Unlike his sister, Naomi, whose suspicion of top-down state leadership in this fight is clear in her recent books, Seth Klein clearly believes that a state-led mobilization is essential to meet the crisis. But his proposal does not preclude more democratic forms of participation, including protest as necessary; nor does it mean repeating the human rights violations that marred our achievements during the Second World War. Klein insists, for example, that Indigenous peoples, rightly wary of the state, must have a seat at the planning table, control over their own lands, and the right to develop their own environmental solutions — as many First Nations are already doing.
A Good War, as Klein points out at the beginning, is not a book about climate science. It’s a readable set of suggestions — solidly rooted in our own history in Canada — for how to put out the fire that is rapidly consuming our house. As such, it is yet another solid contribution by yet another person who smells the smoke and sees the flames. But, as he would agree, the point is not to talk about the emergency in various ways but to end it. We have less than ten years to do so.