The Current

Activist urges WWII-level global effort to fight climate change

As part of The Current's special edition on climate change, we talk to two experts about the level of commitment needed to tackle the problem — and why that action isn't taking place.

Too late in the game for gradual change, says Margaret Klein Salamon

An environmental activist in Berlin on Dec. 1, left, and Canadian soldiers arrive in England during the Second World War in 1939. One activist says we should approach climate change in a similar fashion to the war effort. (Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS; Harold Clements/London Express/Getty Images)

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Originally published on Dec. 13, 2018.

An activist is arguing that nations must mobilize to fight climate change in the same way that they did during the Second World War. 

"We are too late in the game for gradualism ... or for individualism — the idea that 'I'll take care of my emissions, you take care of your emissions,'" said Margaret Klein Salamon, a former clinical psychologist and the founder and director of The Climate Mobilization. 

Instead, Klein Salamon's organization calls for an "immediate ban of all new fossil fuel infrastructure, and a 10-year timeline for retiring the fossil fuel infrastructure that we do have."

"What we envision is a rapid transition of our entire economy and society, with all hands on deck," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

The people who lived through World War II ... often looked back at it as some of the best years of their lives.- Margaret Klein Salamon

In late November, the United Nations Environment office issued a report warning that there was "an enormous gap between what we need to do and what we're actually doing to prevent dangerous levels of climate change" and that gap was getting wider. It said in order to limit global warming to 1.5 C (2.7 F) this century, emissions need to drop 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 2017 levels.

In October, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a similar report, described by one of its lead authors as "a life-or-death situation."

Addressing such a challenge will take an effort that was last seen during the Second World War, Klein Salamon noted, using the example of "victory gardens" in the U.S. in the 1940s.

"During World War II, 40 per cent of American vegetables were grown at home, in the front and back yard, by the people that ate them," Klein Salamon said.

The gardens were also popular in Canada, while in Britain they were part of the "Dig for Victory" campaign.

Klein Salamon suggested we could adopt a similar tactic today. She argued that growing produce on private and community gardens would increase local food security and eliminate emissions that come from food transportation.

A mother and her children display the results of the Dig For Victory war effort in Britain during the Second World War. (Hudson/Getty Images)

She said the effort could have its own rewards.

"The people who lived through World War II on the home front often looked back at it as some of the best years of their lives," she said.

"They felt productive and meaningfully employed in a cause that was greater than them."

'Dragons of inaction'

But faced with global climate change, people feel their individual contributions won't amount to much, said Robert Gifford, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria.

He described the causes of reluctance as "dragons of inaction," such as a distrust of the data or experts saying that there's a problem.

The UN has warned that to limit the impact of climate change, emissions need to drop 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 2017 levels. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

"There [are] usually some risks involved in making any kind of change in lifestyle, and a lot of people are risk-averse," he said.

How climate change may have an impact on your life in 2050 can feel like a far-off problem when you're trying to help your child with their homework, he added.

Gifford added that demanding people make sacrifices or issuing dire warnings like the UN report from October can often turn people off.

"My approach would be more toward talking about what can be gained by being more of an activist. We all at some level want to help other people to build a better world."

There is no hope for a smooth transition to zero emissions, over decades, that doesn't bother anyone.- Margaret Klein Salamon

Klein Salamon agreed that the fight does need hopefulness and positivity, but "it has to be based on reality and telling the truth."

"There is no hope for a smooth transition to zero emissions, over decades, that doesn't bother anyone," she said.

"Maybe we could have done that if we had started it in the '70s, but we didn't."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Kristin Nelson and Julie Crysler. With thanks to Anne Penman, Suzanne Dufresne, Susan McKenzie, Mary-Catherine McIntosh, Kieran Oudshoorn and Ellen Payne Smith.