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Climate activist Seth Klein has issued a call to arms to make peace with the planet.
In his new book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, Klein imparts an unflinching warning about where this country stands in the fight to curb catastrophic climate change, and offers a plan for the path ahead.
The situation is dire, says Klein, a policy analyst and founding director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in British Columbia.
But he finds hope for the future by looking to the past: Canada’s mobilization for the Second World War.
Canada's National Observer spoke to Klein about the book, the big picture and the battle ahead.
Why the Second World War?
The original book outline had a single chapter of lessons from World War II. I have long found the war story intriguing, specifically around the question of the rapid economic retooling that occurred, because many of us have this question in our head: Can we really do this at the speed and scale required?
And in World War II, we did do that.
Who do you want to convince?
Climate activist @SethDKlein issues a call to arms to fight climate change. #climatechange #cdnpoli
The principal audience in my mind were progressive governments of different political stripes (that) purport to get it but aren’t practising a policy agenda that aligns with the science. The book is an endeavour to encourage them to be more daring than we have seen to date and to practise politics that align with what the science says we must do.
But the book was also intended for a more general audience to basically ask the question: Who do you want to be?
In the book, you liken the fossil fuel industry to war profiteers who did business with Nazi Germany. You write: “Just as the lead-up to war saw American corporate interests who advocated neutrality so that they could continue to do business with the Nazi regime, so too does the climate emergency face obstruction from corporations reluctant to give up their profits.”
Have you given up on industry’s willing participation in the transformation that needs to take place?
It depends what you mean by industry. I really want, broadly speaking, business and industry participation just like we had it in World War II. But when it comes to the fossil fuel industry, its days are numbered. It has to be managed for wind down over the next 20 to 30 years.
Yet all the federal and provincial climate advisory groups struck in recent years have representatives from that sector. I don’t think they should be there because, by having them there, what we are saying is we want a climate plan in which they can find comfort. I’m saying any climate plan that isn’t making them deeply anxious at this late hour isn’t a plan worth having.
I am saying we should stop appeasing the fossil fuel industry.
The book was written prior to COVID-19. How do you think the pandemic will affect political and public resolve?
It could go either way, like all historic moments. The 1930s gave birth to both Nazism and the promise of the New Deal.
The bad news is that the pandemic has, for the near term, forced everything else off the front burner. That’s frustrating, because the momentum for bold climate action was really building.
On the other hand, we’ve all been given a reminder of what it looks like when a government treats an emergency as an emergency: Spend what you have to spend to win, create new economic institutions to get the job done, move to mandatory measures when necessary and communicate that it’s an emergency every day.
Why must some measures be mandatory?
I think there are hundreds of thousands of people who want to do the right thing on climate. The problem with a voluntary approach is a “chump dynamic” takes hold, which is when lots of people say, “I want to do the right thing, but it doesn’t mean anything if I do it and my neighbour doesn’t.” And they’re right.
The benefit of having it be mandatory is you escape the chump dynamic, because everyone knows that everyone’s in.
What is the fossil fuel non-proliferation agreement and how are you involved?
It’s a new global initiative modelled on the original nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
In the same way that mandatory measures domestically help individual households get over the “chump dynamic,” the fossil fuel treaty does that at an international level. One of the barriers to change now, if you’re a fossil fuel-producing country like Canada, is you know that we need to wind down the industries, but you’re afraid that if you wind down production, someone else will just occupy that space.
The fossil fuel treaty is a path out of that dilemma.
I’m just trying to find municipal governments around the world that will endorse the idea.
Where did you find hope in researching and writing the book?
The situation is grave and there is no guarantee that we’re going to do this in time, but I still think there’s hope. I find the story of how quickly we pivoted and the scale and the speed of what we did in World War II inspirational.
Those million-plus people who enlisted also didn’t know if they would succeed, and they did what they had to do anyway. In the process, they surprised themselves, not just by the speed and scale of what they built, but by the fact that they also changed the economic and social landscape of the country for the better.