The release of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has given humanity a very grim warning and a 10-year time frame in which to make massive changes in how the human race creates energy, produces goods, feeds itself and manages its relationship with the natural world.
There have been numerous calls from scientists, news media and public figures to change our ways on a massive scale. These calls have not, however, provided a large-scale blueprint for sustained and organized change. This desperately needed blueprint for massive, effective and rapid social and economic transformation can be found in Canadian socio-economic mobilization for the Second World War.
When Canada entered the Second World War in 1939, it mobilized every part of its economy and society to meet its responsibilities as part of an international coalition of Allies to fight against Hitler’s Germany. Canada’s integrated and organized approach to fighting the war was highly successful. It helped Canada — a country with a small population — to more than hold its own on the world stage and to play a vital part in winning the war against the Nazis.
During the Second World War, the War Measures Act allowed the federal government to suspend civil liberties and to rule by Order in Council. This meant the prime minister and cabinet had the power to make laws without parliamentary approval. This was done to facilitate speed and efficiency in meeting the changing needs of the war effort. Parliament passed the Munitions and Supply Act to mobilize all aspects of the economy for war.
The Second World War mobilization included wage and price controls, food rationing and establishment of Crown (government-owned) corporations to produce war materials and supplies the private sector was unable or unwilling to provide.
Taxation of the wealthy and private businesses was dramatically increased to support the war effort during the Second World War. Amounts in excess of government-imposed profit levels were taxed away.
In order to mobilize all parts of society to support the war effort, the Canadian government provided housing and childcare for workers in war industries. Publicity campaigns encouraged women, children and all Canadians not stationed abroad to “do their bit” for the war effort. They conserved and recycled on a large scale, and made use of gardens and parks for food production. There was also a large-scale move toward reorienting education and training to support the war effort.
On the international stage, Canada and other western countries made a collective decision to put aside long-standing tensions and rivalries with other countries — in particular, the former Soviet Union — in the face of the enormous mutual threat they faced in the form of Nazi Germany and other enemy states.
Mobilization Policies: Updated and Adapted
One of the greatest concerns about implementing a centralized plan for the Canadian society and economy to meet the climate crisis is the potential for infringement of civil rights. This is a valid and serious concern, as the War Measures Act that was the legal basis for the transformation of the Canadian economy during the Second World War was based on the suspension of civil rights and the power of the Canadian Parliament. This underpinned internment of Japanese-Canadians and seizure of their property. The War Measures Act was also used during the FLQ Crisis of 1970 to send the Canadian military into Montreal.
In order to prevent further violations of civil liberties, the War Measures Act was replaced in 1988 by the Emergencies Act. It protects the civil liberties of Canadians that are enshrined in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The components of Second World War mobilization which should be updated and adapted to meet the climate crisis are:
1. Planned resource management and development, created in partnership with Indigenous communities, aimed at reducing carbon emissions and repairing environmental damage.
2. Taxation of wealth to fund the restructuring of the economy.
3. Reorienting education and training toward development of green industry and technology.
4. Creation of new Crown corporations to meet industrial production needs and protect access to necessaries of life.
5. Building co-operative international relations to reduce carbon emissions and protect shared environmental resources.
Planned resource management
Canada has a long history of resource overuse and long-lasting environmental destruction created by resource extraction. A tragic example is the ongoing mercury contamination crisis on the Ojibwe land of Grassy Narrows, caused by Dryden Chemicals Ltd. dumping mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system between 1962 and 1970. Resource management focused on preservation, serious environmental protection and repair of damaged natural areas must be given the highest priority. Canada must take rapid and effective action to protect ocean and inland waters, land and forests and animal habitats. Human expansion into protected lands must be minimized. For this purpose, a meaningful collaboration between the federal Canadian government and Indigenous governments and communities is absolutely vital. Indigenous-managed lands have been demonstrated to have 80 per cent more biodiversity than non-Indigenous-managed lands. As well, Indigenous communities have had great success in managing animal populations and in protecting water resources. Many Indigenous-led initiatives are underway throughout the country. For example, four First Nations in the Yukon provide environmental stewardship, heritage and culture protection and oversight of economic development in over 67,000 square kilometres of the Peel watershed region of the Yukon. This model should be emulated throughout Canada.
Another initiative is the placement of solar panels on the roofs of more than 300 Toronto schools. This initiative has now become countrywide. Toronto Community Housing has also mounted solar panels on some of its large residential buildings.
Taxation of wealth
Climate-emergency mobilization must be financed by heavily taxing the rich, particularly those who have made immense wealth from investment in the fossil fuels that have caused the climate crisis. As in the Second World War, profits in excess of a government-imposed limit should be taxed away to fund and support environmental restoration and protection. Climate-emergency taxes must support new Crown corporations, which will maintain and expand vital social services.
Reorienting education and training
There is enormous fear and concern from many working people in Canada regarding job loss and economic hardship in the transition away from a fossil-fuel-based economy. This is especially true in Western Canada because of its dependency on the oilsands industries. Reorienting education and training to support oil and gas workers in a just transition of the economy away from fossil-fuel dependency can also be modelled on the policies of the Second World War, when large numbers of workers were retrained and relocated for work in war industries. There is already a movement of this sort in Western Canada. Iron and Earth, a non-profit organization, retrains oil and gas workers for jobs in green industries. This movement could grow exponentially with government support, particularly if the annual multibillion-dollar subsidies of the fossil-fuel industry were redirected toward green-sector education and training.
Creation of new Crown corporations
Crown corporations, modelled on Second World War mobilization, can be used to rapidly transition to new forms of production on a mass scale. As Crown corporations were used to quickly change industries from peacetime to wartime production, Crown corporations could be used to undertake a massive and rapid shift in production to meet the climate crisis. They could be used to transition to mass production of electric vehicles, a move that has already been proposed by Green Jobs Oshawa and members of UNIFOR Local 222 to produce electric vehicles at the defunct General Motors plant in Oshawa. Crown corporations could also be used for a swift change in energy production, especially with a move toward small-scale local energy production in the form of micro-grids. Some of these are already in use and production in parts of Canada. Sustainable farming practices that guarantee local food production could greatly reduce the carbon footprint caused by international transport of food. Crown corporations focused on the creation of plant-based biodegradable products and packaging could also allow for a rapid, large-scale shift away from plastic pollution.
Building co-operative international relations
Climate crisis mobilization must involve international co-operation on a massive scale. Struggle between trade blocs for political-economic dominance must be set aside, and countries must work together to meet the unprecedented risk to our species posed by the climate crisis. For example, current trade wars should be abandoned in favour of meaningful and enforceable methods of regulating pollution of the oceans. Damage to the oceans and to oceanic food chains from de-oxygenation, plastic waste and other toxic wastes is escalating daily and poses a risk to the entire planet. This must be curbed by enforced international agreements.
Naming the enemy
During Second World War mobilization in Canada, Hitler’s Germany was the enemy of Canada and the other Allied countries. In the climate crisis, fossil-fuel corporations and related industries are the enemies of all countries because they have created the crisis we now face. It is clear they intend to continue their practices that now threaten the existence of human life on our shared planet.
Fossil-fuel companies are now claiming we are all responsible for the climate crisis because most of us use fossil fuels. This is a diversionary tactic by fossil-fuel companies to distract the general public from the basic fact that it is these companies who are to blame for what we now face. It has now been revealed that major oil companies such as Exxon knew for decades combustion of fossil fuels causes global warming. Instead of changing their industries, they funded climate-science denial on a massive scale.
Every person currently alive was born into a fossil-fuel economy and infrastructure. We did not give our consent to be part of this destructive system, and numerous attempts by both scientists and ordinary people to change it have been aggressively suppressed and undermined by the economic giants of the fossil-fuel industry. But there are now warnings by major financial institutions such as the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England that fossil-fuelled climate change threatens the global financial system. If carbon emissions are to be reduced in accordance with internationally adopted targets, coal and oil must be left in the ground. This will remove the profitability of large fossil-fuel corporations. There are also a rapidly growing number of lawsuits in various countries against fossil-fuel corporations. These lawsuits contend that fossil-fuel corporations are legally liable for the damage caused by extreme weather events to infrastructure, crops, fisheries and other resources.
Looking to the past for a way forward
Public awareness of the climate crisis is increasing daily, as is public anger and fear. People are afraid the climate crisis will bring breakdowns of social infrastructure, as well as serious threats to public safety and, ultimately, large-scale loss of human life.
It is important in times of crisis to look to history for solutions. The Second World War was a global disaster that involved unprecedented loss of life. We now face potential loss of life on a much larger scale because of climate change resulting from combustion of fossil fuels. The model of Second World War mobilization in Canada demonstrates the incredible capacity of people and society to change rapidly, to adapt and plan and to successfully navigate and survive crises.
Fossil-fuel corporations and related industries have denied climate science. They deny the possibility that we can change the ways we generate energy. They deny the possibility that we can distribute goods and services fairly. They deny the possibility that we can create equitable and sustainable relationships with the natural world and with each other. Second World War mobilization in Canada demonstrates these fossil-fuel companies are wrong. Canada is capable of making the massive, effective and rapid economic transformation we now need. Second World War mobilization has given us the blueprint from which we can meet the crisis we now face and build a new and better way of living.