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The Positive Power of Emergencies

Seth Klein discusses his new book on tackling the climate crisis like we’ve fought wars — and now the pandemic.

Geoff Dembicki 27 Aug 2020 |

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times.

Seth Klein spends a lot of time thinking about emergencies. Earlier this spring, the former director of the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives had just finished writing a book drawing lessons for fighting climate change from the country’s Second World War experience when the coronavirus hit. “Talk about awkward timing,” Klein recalls in A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, which will be published on Sept. 1.

But Klein quickly realized that the global pandemic made his book’s central argument more relevant than ever. Whether it’s a war against Nazi aggression, a deadly and infectious virus or a climate emergency irreversibly changing our country, collective dangers require swift and transformative action. They are opportunities to overhaul conventional wisdom.

“Once emergencies are truly recognized,” Klein writes, “what seemed politically impossible and economically off-limits can be quickly embraced.”

In a recent interview with The Tyee about his forthcoming book, which is currently available for pre-order, Klein expands on that argument, explaining how Canada’s $250-billion response to COVID-19 has shattered mainstream conceptions about what’s feasible for climate action. He discusses what the Second World War can teach us about reducing social inequality in the face of a crisis, and the crucial role Indigenous people have played in both our wartime efforts and our current battles on climate change.

Geoff Dembicki: Where does the interest in WWII come from? Because it doesn’t seem like you're that much of a war person.

Seth Klein: Yeah [chuckles] I cut my teeth in the peace movement. I set out to write a book about what we do about this harrowing gap between what the science says we have to do on climate change and what our politics seems prepared to entertain. I've always been intrigued with what WWII has to tell us about how quickly we can ramp up an economic transformation and retool the economy in the space of a few years. Because I think often people wrestle with this feeling on climate change that the task is so great and there's so little time, can we really do this? But the more I delved into history, I kept seeing these parallels with WWII all over the place and not just with respect to the economic transition, but across a whole host of areas.

And then right when you were done writing the book, we entered this coronavirus emergency. How has that affected your thinking?

I was already wrestling with the fact that we were getting governments at different levels passing climate emergency motions, but they didn't really have the look and sound and feel of an emergency. For example, we had the federal Trudeau government introduce a climate emergency motion last year and the very next day they approved the Trans Mountain pipeline. Then along came COVID. And in contrast to our lackadaisical approach to climate, the government response on COVID looks and sounds and feels like an emergency. You get daily press briefings from senior officials and government ministers. You invoke states of emergencies. You ensure that things that need to get produced, get produced. And you spend the money that you have to spend. Across the board, we've seen governments basically say, ‘deficit, be damned.’ That's what we did in WWII. But that is notably not what we've been doing today in the face of the climate emergency.

Will people seeing Canada’s aggressive response to coronavirus change how we view our options on climate change?

Look what the government has just done. They've just spent over $250 billion responding to the virus and economically it's fine. The Bank of Canada is buying up billions of dollars of government securities a week. And Canada's debt to GDP ratio is going to go up to about 50 per cent. But at the end of WWII, it was over 100 per cent. What the government basically showed us is what they could've done all along in response to climate change and poverty and homelessness. Now the cat's out of the bag. We've seen what's possible. Now, we're going to need a whole lot of government investment because the private sector and households aren't going to be able to lead us into an economic recovery from COVID. What form will that state investment take? Will it be bailouts for the old industries or will it catapult us into the new?

How does this parallel the challenges Canada faced around the time of WWII?

During the 1930s, the Mackenzie King government was still stuck in an old mindset where they weren't prepared to spend what needed to be spent to get us out of the Depression. And they made the economic hardship needlessly tougher and longer than it had to be. The highest level of income inequality in Canada was in 1938, the year before we declared war.

Then something interesting happened. The King government really didn't want to bring in mandatory conscription for overseas services. That was their highest political priority. They had this dilemma: How do you get hundreds of thousands of people to voluntarily enlist and offer up their lives? Well, you need social solidarity for that. To have social solidarity, you have to convince people that they're not going to come back to the same unequal, unjust society. The government dealt with that seriously. They brought in an excess profits tax. They raised the corporate income tax rate from 18 to 40 per cent. Canada's first major income security programs were created during the war, unemployment insurance, the family allowance. And then you've got the Marsh report written during WWII, which is basically this report that is the architecture of the entire Canadian social welfare system.

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Klein: ‘Part of how you signal an emergency is that you set clear dates. So you say “next year no new buildings are going to be able to tie into natural gas because it's an emergency.” You also ban certain things. We don't allow tobacco advertising on television. Why do we still allow ads for fossil fuel cars and gas stations?’

Many people's first and foremost concern these days is ‘how do I secure employment and income for my family?’ Lots of people are still really concerned about climate change. The point I'm trying to make in the book is don't make people choose. Don’t make them choose between their economic security needs and the need for bold action on the climate emergency. Make it one and the same. Make the response to coronavirus and the climate emergency the biggest, baddest, boldest job creation plan we've seen since the war.

You have a whole chapter in the book devoted to Indigenous leadership. How does that fit into what we’ve been discussing?

I tell a story in the book from WWII. There were thousands of Indigenous people who enlisted in the war. Ultimately the Allied forces end up recruiting people from three dozen Indigenous language groups for the signal corps [which handles military communication]. The Japanese and the Germans kept breaking the Allied codes in the battlefield. But they couldn’t figure out these Indigenous languages. So you'd have these Indigenous guides on either end with these radios, using their languages as code to share military plans. In fact, there were key battles, particularly in the Pacific, where the use of these Indigenous languages was credited as being key to victory. It just struck me that here are these languages that both in Canada and the U.S. we spent decades trying to expunge from the Earth, literally beating them out of children in residential schools only to discover they were the unbreakable codes that were key to these victories.

Today, our politics is held back by this dynamic where our politicians say they get the climate emergency, but don’t do things that actually align with the science. In the face of that, the thing that is systematically buying us time is the assertion of Indigenous rights and title. Just like the code talkers, these battles in which Indigenous rights and title get asserted in blocking fossil fuel infrastructure are effectively buying us time as we wait for our politics to come into alignment with what the science says we have to do.

So pulling all these threads together, what might a true emergency response to climate change actually look like in Canada?

First of all, we need our political leaders, like they are in the pandemic, to look and sound and make this feel like it's an emergency. We need regular briefings and announcements. Part of how you signal an emergency is that you set clear dates. So you say "next year no new buildings are going to be able to tie into natural gas because it's an emergency." You also ban certain things. We don't allow tobacco advertising on television. Why do we still allow ads for fossil fuel cars and gas stations?

For the most part, our response on the climate front has been straitjacketed by neoliberal thinking and neoliberal assumptions, by which I mean, all of our climate tools are about these price signals and incentives and rebates. The analogy I used in the book, though, is that if a community in the B.C. Interior is facing the threat of a forest fire, we don't say to them, "we encourage you to leave." We say, "you gotta go" and mandate what has to happen.

The media also plays an incredibly important role. We want our media to be objective and we want them to be factual. But when you're facing a confrontation for the survival of civilization, there's no virtue in being neutral. You pick sides and you start to rally people. We’ve seen that with coronavirus. The media retooled and they informed us and they seem to feel no compulsion to be balanced and tell us the other side and give equal time to the skeptics.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Environment

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