The Current

'New climate denialism' is stopping Canada from approaching crisis with WWII-level effort: Seth Klein

In his new book, public policy expert Seth Klein argues Canada must mobilize to fight climate change in the same way the country did to fight climate change.

Politicians acknowledge climate crisis but don't govern in ways to fight it, says author

Environmental activists in Berlin on Dec. 1, 2018, left, and Canadian soldiers arrive in England during the Second World War in 1939. Author and public policy expert Seth Klein 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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There is a "new climate denialism" that is impeding efforts to fight the environmental crisis, according to a public policy expert who argues Canada must mobilize like it did for the Second World War.

"The new climate denialism is when our leaders say that they get the climate crisis, but then they don't practise politics that aligns with what the science says we have to do," said Seth Klein, the former B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency.

"That is really the Phoney War period in which we currently live," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The Phoney War describes the months of inaction after the Nazi invasion of Poland in Sept. 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany days later, but there was little direct conflict between the main powers until the following spring.

"As we experienced at the beginning of the Second World War, it didn't last then and I don't think it's going to last now." 

Seth Klein is the former B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency. (Erica Johnson)

In his new book, Klein draws a direct comparison between how Canada pivoted to fight the Second World War, and why he thinks there should be a similar approach to the climate crisis.

He initially only intended to write one chapter looking at the war, but said he was struck by "more and more parallels" during his research, including the economics, the task of transitioning workers, shifting public opinion, and how the entire country marshalled against a common threat.

"The overarching parallel was so strong because these are both existential threats — these are both the task of each generation's lives."

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued stark warnings about the need to reduce emissions by 2030, in order to limit climate change over this century. An October 2018 report on the stakes of the climate crisis described it as "a life or death situation."

But while Canada has set multiple emissions reduction targets over the years, it has never met them.

"We need an entirely new approach if we're going to accomplish what we need to at the speed and scale required," Klein said

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Transition would create 'economic refugees'

With hundreds of thousands employed in Canada's energy sector, long-time oil and gas industry executive David Yager argued giving up fossil fuels would lead to "a lot of economic refugees."

"They call it 'just transition;' that is a throwaway line to make everybody feel better about it, but it is impossible," said Yager, author of From Miracle to Menace: Alberta, a Carbon Story.  

"We can't take these people and say: 'Well, we'd like you to somehow go into the renewable energy business,'" he said.

"That is more political [savvy] than economic fact."

Klein said "that's a logic by which we're all going to burn," adding that it's also "a logic by which we would have sat out the Second World War."

A pumpjack operates beneath the aurora borealis northwest of Calgary, Alta. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

He acknowledged that Alberta would be heaviest hit by a transition away from fossil fuels, but said there should be government funding, via a new federal transfer programme, to ease the transition.

"About 38 per cent of Canada's emissions are from Alberta, way more than their share of the population," he said. 

"So unlike most transfers that divvy it up by population, I think we should give 38 per cent to Alberta in order to fund that kind of transition."

But he criticized the federal Liberal government for practising a "politics of appeasement," and "trying to find a climate plan with which the fossil fuel industry can find comfort." 

"At this late hour, any climate plan that isn't making the fossil fuel industry deeply, deeply anxious isn't a climate plan worth having," he said.

In the book, Klein interviews politicians who he believes understand the science around climate change, but whose governments "aren't doing what we need to do."

He said those politicians often argued the public is not ready to accept radical action on climate change, telling him that "you've got to meet the public where they're at."

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)

"I found that a very frustrating answer," he told Galloway. 

"The leaders we most remember from the Second World War didn't meet the public where they were at — they took the public where they needed to go," he said.

He also said he believes governments are underestimating the public appetite to combat the climate crisis.

Spend what it takes, give people hope: Klein

Klein said there are four markers of when a government has shifted into a warlike "emergency mode."

The first is that "you spend what it takes to win."

"In COVID, we've been spending what we have to spend, but in climate, we are spending nothing close to what we need to be spending," he said.

There was a good chunk of the war in the early years when it was far from clear what the outcome would be. And yet that generation rallied regardless- Seth Klein

"Number two, you create new economic institutions to get the job done," he said, pointing to the dozens of Crown Corporations established during the war, for production requirements not suited to private industry.

Third is a shift from voluntary to mandatory measures, such as banning the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles by a certain year. (Quebec's provincial government recently announced plans to ban new gas-powered vehicles by 2035).

"The fourth marker is that you tell the truth, you communicate a sense of urgency," he said.

"Interestingly, when you think about those four markers, I would say the Trudeau government passes all of them with respect to COVID, and none of them with respect to climate."

Klein said it's worth remembering that those who joined the war effort 80 years ago did so not knowing if they would win.

"There was a good chunk of the war in the early years when it was far from clear what the outcome would be," he told Galloway.

"And yet that generation rallied regardless, and in the process, they surprised themselves by what they were capable of achieving," he said.

"That gives me some hope. And I think that's the spirit we need today." 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Lindsay Rempel.

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