Vancouver public-policy analyst Seth Klein has a problem with many books about the climate breakdown. They’re too wonky.
And he believes that many of the authors scrupulously avoid linking the fight to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to struggles for social justice and against inequality.
So he set out to do something radically different in his new book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency.
Drawing upon the country’s experience in the Second World War, he proposes to replicate the same can-do mindset to enlist masses of Canadians, as well as governments, to seriously confront the existential crisis generated by a warming planet.
“This is a life-and-death struggle,” Klein tells the Straight by phone, “and it deserves to be told with some passion. I tried to bring some of that into it. I tried to write something that would touch the heart as well as the head.”
During the Second World War, the government, led by Mackenzie King, threw out the rulebook. It created more than 28 Crown corporations to meet the needs of the war effort, which was led by munitions and supply minister C. D. Howe.
Howe, in turn, hired more than 100 “dollar a year” men from the private sector as managers. Klein reports that during the Second World War, Canada produced more than 16,000 military aircraft and more military transport vehicles than the three Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—combined.
And the public was extremely supportive, notwithstanding intense inequality before the war.
In fact, Klein points out, the greatest income inequality in the 20th century occurred in 1938—just one year before the war began.
Linking climate and inequality mobilizes people
The war effort made great use of posters, public radio, and the National Film Board to generate public support. Klein discovered in his research that the King government modified its message over time to woo more Canadians to fight fascism.
Initially, government officials relied on traditional propaganda, with messages like ”Go get Hitler!”
“Then they realized in ’41 that they actually had to shift gears,” Klein says. “If they were going to get the enlistment numbers that they needed, they had to engage people in a conversation about what kind of society they were going to come back to.”
That led to economist Leonard Marsh’s 1943 Report on Social Security for Canada, which called for social insurance and public-welfare supports. It formed a blueprint for the creation of a welfare state after the war. Klein points out that the first income transfers occurred during the Second World War. And Tommy Douglas was elected premier of Saskatchewan in 1944, putting that province on the road toward creating the country’s first public health-insurance program.
While researching his book, Klein commissioned Abacus Data to survey Canadian attitudes toward climate action.
More than four in five respondents described climate change as a "serious problem". Nearly half characterized it as "extremely serious".
He also discovered that the public responds better to the climate crisis when it’s linked to creating a more just society in the future. Hence, the appeal of the Green New Deal south of the border.
“What the polling clearly showed is that, you know, when you link a bold climate plan to tackling inequality, support doesn’t go down,” he says. “It goes through the goddamn roof.”
Climate Emergency Just Transition Transfer
Canada is a very decentralized federation.
And that makes it tougher for the country to fulfill its international obligations when one or more rogue provinces refuse to bend to the national will.
Here, Klein put on his public-policy thinking cap and came up with an original solution.
In A Good War, he proposes a new federal program called the “Climate Emergency Just Transition Transfer” to offer a strong financial inducement to provinces to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Such a transfer could be specifically linked to funding green infrastructure projects that would create thousands of jobs, along with training/apprenticeships,” he writes. “It could be a mechanism to renew confederation while rising to the climate crisis.”
And, yes, he also believes that—just like during the Second World War—an onslaught of posters, art projects, music, and films about the climate crisis would also help the situation.