#965 A call to arms for the planet

A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency
by Seth Klein

Toronto: ECW Press, 2020
$24.95 / 9781770415454

Reviewed by Howard Stewart


Editor’s note: The West Coast Book Prize Society announced on April 8, 2021, that A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, by Seth Klein, has been shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Non-fiction Prize in the 2021 BC and Yukon Book Prizes. Winners will be announced on Saturday, September 18th, 2021 — Richard Mackie


Seth Klein’s Good War is big and dense and not a fun read. But it’s a timely and important book. The more I knew I just had to finish it, the more I longed to escape to the simple pleasures of a Mavis Gallant or William Dalrymple. It’s not that Seth Klein’s new book is badly written, on the contrary. It’s just that a book about our urgent need to go to war and save the world as we know it doesn’t make for good bedtime reading. I persevered though and hope others will too. 

Inconvenient Truths, Again. Klein, like Al Gore fifteen years ago and the UN almost thirty, exposes us to the “inconvenient truth” about accelerating climate change. If we want to be spared the most severe and catastrophic outcomes of this thing then we’d damn well better start acting like it. Back in 1992, when the first global treaty on climate change was penned, we still had considerable margin for manoeuvre. Then we burnt fossil fuels like there was no tomorrow though the 1990s, the decade of SUVs and minivans. So, we had less wiggle room by the time Gore made his film. Today we have almost none left. Dealing effectively with the very real and present danger of climate change will require mobilizing on a scale last seen during our war against fascism in the 1940s. That’s Klein’s elevator pitch: we’ve done it before and we can do it again and our wartime experience offers us invaluable guidance about how to “… mobilise all of society, galvanise our politics and fundamentally remake our economy” (p. xix) in the face of this existential threat.

Seth Klein of East Vancouver. Photo by Erica Johnson

So, what’s stopping us? More than anything, Klein blames the “new climate denialism” that paralyses our politicians and enables our fossil fuel industries. While only a small minority of us north of the 49th still deny the human role in climate change, our leaders go on denying our need to do much about it. Instead they collectively cling to “incremental” or “adaptive” approaches so conservative that even dowdy Economist magazine abandoned them years ago.

Yet today it really is a dire nation-threatening emergency. This is the basis for Klein’s Second World War analogy, the vehicle he uses to show us how we can best address today’s crisis, rather than being defeated by it: “… once emergencies are truly recognised, what seemed politically impossible and economically off-limits can be quickly embraced…” (p. xxvii). But why wade into such a maelstrom of political and economic peril? I expect most readers are painfully familiar with it but here’s a short list of the most serious effects we face, according to the vast majority of climate scientists: massive disruption of global food systems; a growing number of extreme heat events; far more major weather events (hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.); accelerated sea level rise; growing losses of fresh water resources; spikes in insect born diseases; and massive displacements of human populations.

Not only are the prospects dire but Canadians have much to be ashamed of. We are driving the climate change threat far more than most. On a per capita basis, we’re the world’s greatest emitters of greenhouse gases and drive the world’s most inefficient vehicles. We rank among the world’s top ten emitters of GHGs despite being only 37th largest in population; our 0.5 percent of global population spews 3 percent of emissions. Other countries to which we might compare ourselves, from Sweden to New Zealand, are far ahead of us in the transition to a carbon free future. California, with a population 10 percent greater than ours, and a well-deserved reputation for profligacy, emits only 60 percent as many GHGs as Canada does.

Excavating and hauling the tar sands near Fort McMurray. Photo by Jeff McIntosh

What Is to Be Done? Having established why we need to act (survival) and how (throw everything we’ve got at it), Klein spends much of the book telling us the what we need to do, and not do, if we’re to avoid succumbing to rapidly advancing climate change.

One of the biggest pitfalls to avoid is appeasement. Appeasement in the years before the Second World War, the author reminds us, meant abandoning a string of hapless victims to the Fascists. Appeasement finished off the dwindling credibility of the League of Nations, already undermined by the US refusal to join, and diminished the Allies capacity to eventually fight back against the aggressors. The inevitable fight would have been easier had we not left China then Ethiopia then Czechoslovakia (and let’s not forget gallant little Albania) to face the invaders alone. Today’s aggressors in the Canadian context are mostly different divisions of the hydrocarbon industry — oil, gas and coal (farting cows are apparently off the hook). And our leaders are modern-day Chamberlain’s, all committed (in their actions if not their rhetoric) to appeasing our hydrocarbon industry and its allies. This despite the fossil fuel industries’ role in driving a threat to our human future that’s at least as grave as global fascism was eighty years ago (and may soon be again?).

The essence of contemporary appeasement is the “new denialism” mentioned earlier, the huge disconnect between our leaders’ discourse and their actions on climate change. To pursue Klein’s analogy, imagine if Winston Churchill had not delivered his stirring wartime speeches in London to a defiant Britain but instead had spoken from exile to a country already surrendered to the Nazis. Come to think of it, that’s what de Gaulle did. We’d all be speaking German as our first language if we’d had to depend on his wartime leadership. How will it end if we have to depend on Justin Trudeau’s loquacious leadership to lead us, uh, out of the climate crisis?

A big problem for appeasers like Trudeau (and John Horgan) is that, as in 1939, we have many fifth columnists; the climate fascists remain numerous in our ranks. In the leadup to the Second World War it was homegrown Nazis, Fascists and fellow travellers whereas today we have our own branch plant yellow jackets and oil industry cheer leaders like Jason Kenney. At least as important is the vast, well funded, and perpetual lobbying financed by the producers of fossil fuels and their supporters. From 2011 to 2018, Klein tells us, they made an average of more than six lobbying approaches to federal officials, every day. For seven years.

Our response to the climate crisis, Klein assures us, must go far beyond feel-good voluntary measures like consumer boycotts or a dull-witted neoliberal dependence on the “magic of the market place.” Such measures are as woefully inadequate in the context of today’s struggle as they would have been against the Third Reich. Imagine fighting Hitler with a consumer boycott had he tried to export his Volkswagen. And why do we still tolerate the billions spent to persuade consumers they must buy gas guzzling SUVs and pickups, or any gas-powered vehicle? Why allow such propaganda for the enemy when we’ve long since banned the same for tobacco products? Would the Allies have allowed Goebbels to purchase prime time ads on British or North American radio? Our resolute WWII approach is a better guide to the way forward.

The Trans Mountain crude oil terminal (below) on Burnaby Mountain near Vancouver, which Trans Mountain shares, incongruously, with Simon Fraser University (above). Photo courtesy Google Earth via dogwood.bc

To make the world safe from the climate change beast, Klein says, we must spend whatever needs to be spent. As our Second World War Minister of Everything, C.D. Howe, said at the time: “If we lose the war, nothing will matter.” At its peak, the British were spending over 50 percent of their annual GDP on their war effort and the Americans, 40 percent. If today’s Canada spent just 2 percent of our GDP on the climate crisis, that would amount to almost $50 billion a year. Klein suggests this is the kind of effort we need to commit to, for starters.

The Allied war effort, to which Canada made a remarkable contribution, involved the setting and meeting of clear and ambitious targets. Similar goals for today’s crisis, Klein suggests, ought to include cutting Canada’s GHG emissions by 50 percent within ten years, banning the sale of all fossil fuel combustion vehicles within five, ending the extraction and export of all Canadian fossil fuels by 2050 (if not 2040), expanding e-car and e-bike sharing services, converting all public transit vehicles and trains to electric motors, moving airplanes to renewable fuels and electric engines, ramping up of video conferencing and telecommuting, and so on.

Klein argues that winning our good war the way our parents and grandparents won theirs will also require creating and empowering many new government agencies, from a federal high-speed rail corporation to renewable energy corporations (perhaps in every province) and new public housing corporations for low income, “carbon zero” homes. Robust central control and coordination mechanisms, of the kind exercised by C.D. Howe et al in the Second World War, would be needed to guide such restructuring and ensure effective use of scarce resources.

The success of such efforts will depend on the ability of our climate change crisis leaders to galvanise and inspire shared effort and sacrifice by most Canadians, including workers and business leaders. Achieving this kind of mobilisation, Klein says, will require a “just transition” that offers good jobs for workers, valid alternatives to hollowed-out hydrocarbon industries and support for communities in transition.

Seth Klein (centre) at the gates of the terminal of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, Burnaby Mountain, BC, 2018. Photo courtesy Policynote

Klein’s Own Denialism. So far so good. I’m hardly a critical audience because I share Klein’s concerns about the climate crisis and our disgraceful failure to respond to it thus far. Among his book’s greatest strengths are its reminders about the dangers of appeasement and our “new denialism.” Yet I found he also suffers from his own denialism and this leaves gaps that weaken his argument.

Klein seems in denial, for example, about the resistance we can expect in response to his redistribution agenda. He assures us that greater equity must be at the core of a successful response to the climate crisis and I agree. But he ought to recognise more explicitly that this equity issue has been on the table for years now and that it’s one big reason why the agenda has stalled, not least on the global scale. Populists in rich countries have been remarkably successful at denouncing climate change as a “Third World money grab.” In the North American context, Klein says a push for equality and social justice is a sine qua non, an indispensable part of any successful fight against climate change. Otherwise, he says, ever growing inequality is sure to evoke a nasty right-wing populist backlash (à la Trump in 2016). Yet that nasty right-wing populist backlash is already being unleashed regularly at the mere mention of climate action and will likely continue for a while yet, with or without greater equity. Klein also reminds us that our response to the climate crisis must avoid impulses to block the inevitable waves of climate refugees or to victimise minorities (as we did in the Second World War). Yet again, while I agree with him, I believe it’s better to recognise up front that such pro-refugee and pro-minority policies are guaranteed to stir the hornets’ nest of right-wing populism he warns of. Better to face the inevitability of this backlash and prepare for it than to not talk about it.

Which brings us to another of the author’s optimistic denials. In his epilogue, Klein suggests the COVID crisis is likely to strengthen our general respect for science and scientists (and thereby bolster our efforts to tame climate change). I hope he’s right. But I also know that, in this benighted Trumpian era, COVID has had the opposite effect among a substantial, obnoxious minority. We should expect more of the same from the same Facebook fuelled fuckwits who will likely go on braying about conspiracies of elitist scientists, the guilty sun spots, and so on, throughout the climate crisis. Again, better to acknowledge this and prepare for it.

And we are not “all in this together,” not yet anyways. Like Klein, I wish it were so but it’s not. We still have to overcome bitter domestic resistance to the idea of declaring war on climate change. No matter how hard we try to soft pedal it (and I do too), we who lose sleep over climate change are already de facto at war with those family members who belong to the right-wing hydrocarbon loving conservatives of BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan (we’re not all related to Naomi). And their side is already talking about the wartime footing; just listen to Jason Kenney’s crowd-pleasing raves about foreign agents warring against his hurtin’ Albertans.

Then there is the global scale. We Canadians desperately need to sign up to fight in the climate struggle, at last. But our sacrifices will be for naught if much of the other 99.5 percent of the world’s people doesn’t fight too. For all our noble sacrifice and exceptional effort, having our own beach on D Day and all that, we Canadians didn’t actually win the Second World War. We helped of course but mostly it was the Soviets who beat the Nazis. Along with China, they paid an almost unimaginable price for the victory. I do not aim to disparage Klein’s thesis or his advice (I agree with both) when I point out that we won’t prevail in this contemporary struggle unless we are part of a global alliance led by people like the US and China. We might be able to afford a few obstinate laggards, like today’s Russia and Brazil. But “winning the war against climate change” will require a massive global effort to which Canada will inevitably make a relatively modest contribution. That is to say, while we must engage in this war, we must also do all we can to get others to engage too. Our taking climate change seriously, at last, is a long overdue first step towards convincing others. Klein surely knows this but he soft pedals it. In doing so, he leaves himself open to the familiar populist lie about how little Canada has to do with it all.

An Epilogue that focuses on the COVID crisis depicts our response to the pandemic as an example of what is possible if we devote our collective minds (and pocket books) to confronting such a crisis. Again, I heartily agree but I find Klein is ignoring another elephant in the room. The same COVID crisis is putting enormous pressure on financial resources that would otherwise be available to fight climate change. COVID will leave an imprint on our shared pocket book for years to come and will complicate our climate fight. Better to plan for this.

Finally, there is Klein’s call for a quantum leap towards the kind of centralised government power structures we adopted to deliver Canada’s war effort in the 1940s. He’s appears to be in denial about the kind of reactions this will evoke. Some of the reactions would be knee jerk ideological reflexes but others would be well-founded worries about the inevitable abuse of power that would take place — look at the cracks already emerged in the federal COVID response. Klein also avoids discussing the inevitability of other kinds of abuse, excess, and error in our war against climate change. Yet, in the process of resolutely standing up to the perpetrators of the climate holocaust, we are certain to commit new “crimes of collateral damage.” The best we can hope for is that our 21st century equivalents of Japanese interment, Dresden, and Hiroshima will be less egregious. One way to minimise the impacts of our inevitable mistakes and transgressions is to recognise they’ll happen no matter what, and find ways to keep them as small as possible.

The Suncor tarsands open-pit mine near Fort McMurray. Photo by Todd Korol

Whatever You Do, Don’t Give Up Hope. Those were my main concerns, the places where I felt Klein’s persuasion faltered. My favourite parts of his book were his reminders of our many reasons for hope. In particular he cites a recent Abacus poll that confirms how far the “new denialism” of our political leaders has left them behind the Canadian public. That poll suggested fully three quarters of Canadians are worried about climate change, and most of this group believe it’s either an emergency now or soon will be. Four out of five think it’s a major threat to our kids and their kids and are ready for a major energy transition, including bold policies to escape our dependence on hydro carbons. The stunning inaction of our leaders in the face of such public concern speaks volumes about the skill and efficacy of those many fossil fuel lobbyists.

Even Albertans, for goodness sake, aren’t as solidly against decisive climate action as Jason Kenney would have us believe. Albertans expressed levels of concern and openness to change not far behind those in other parts of the country. That is to say, Kenney’s government is not a heroic voice for a beleaguered resource dependent region. It’s just another government leading from behind, hamstrung by its commitment to special interests that lobby relentlessly to thwart our growing desire to confront an urgent crisis. Of course, it’s not just high paid lobbyists who undermine our urge to secure the future of our children. There are also the voices of hydrocarbon loving troglodytes, the Rex Murphys and Rupert Murdochs and their shadowy allies, as well as the more genteel “voices of reason” like The Globe and Mail. All of them encourage us to subscribe to what Klein calls “unspoken defeatism.” Not incidentally, many are the same people who have nourished the festering abscess of Trumpism. It’s not surprising, or coincidental, that the great orange thug is one of the hydrocarbon industry’s most vociferous supporters.

In closing, Klein also reminds us what American historian Howard Zinn told us about the history of the past century: it has been unpredictable. I’ll spare you a long pedantic list of examples; suffice it to say some stunning changes in recent history have been positive and some negative. But our record of sudden positive change is another reason for hope. And we don’t just have good reasons for hope, we have an obligation to hope, to force ourselves not to give up hope. As Klein says in wrapping up: “… each of us willing to see the world as it is, and with the conviction to seek to remake the world as it should be, walks a razor’s edge between hope and despair. We feel and know both…” (p. 372). But we owe it to our kids and theirs to resist despair and focus instead on what is most hopeful, then make it happen.


Howard Macdonald Stewart

Howard Macdonald Stewart is author of Views of the Salish Sea: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Change around the Strait of Georgia (Harbour Publishing, 2017). An historical geographer and semi-retired international consultant whose work has taken him to more than seventy countries since the 1970s, Howard has reviewed books for The Ormsby Review and BC Studies. He is now writing an insider’s view of his four decades on the road that followed his perambulations (below) of 1973, notionally titled Around the World on Someone Else’s Dime: Confessions of an International Worker. He has lived on Denman Island, off and on, for more than thirty years. Editor’s note: Howard Stewart has written three essays for The Ormsby Review: Bumbling down the Danube,” a memoir of a youthful bicycle trip down the Danube with the war hero and debonair cyclist Cornelius Burke; “The year of the bicycle: 1973,” a chronicle of a cycling tour of North America; and “Why the red poppies matter,” a family memoir that is a popular Remembrance Day piece. His recent reviews include books by Liliane Juma, Kate Harris, Deni Ellis Béchard, Meaghan Hackinen, Joy Davis, and Brian McDaniel.


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