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The Battle Plan: Key Lessons from the Second World War for the Climate Mobilization (Part 2)

This is the second of two excerpts from Seth Klein’s A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, published in early September and available here. The book includes Klein’s “battle plan”, a set of key lessons for the climate mobilization from the Second World War.

“To execute a successful battle, we need a plan—a roadmap to guide us through the stages of climate mobilization,” Klein writes. “From my study of Canada’s Second World War experience, and in particular how we successfully mobilized on the home front, the following key strategic lessons emerge.”

Transform government. Once an extended emergency is truly recognized, all the institutions and machinery of government are focused on the task of confronting it. During the Second World War, King appointed a powerful war subcommittee of cabinet to oversee the government’s efforts. We need a Climate Emergency War Cabinet Committee today, and a Climate Emergency Secretariat in the Prime Minister’s Office and each premier’s office, coordinating our emergency response as a whole-of-government approach.

Just as we have created a governance architecture for fiscal planning, budgeting, budget consultations, and accountability in the present, so too we need to build similar systems for carbon budgeting. We need new federal-provincial-municipal cost-shared programs focused on the climate crisis, including a new federal Climate Emergency Just Transition Transfer to collaboratively fund new green infrastructure and job training initiatives, with funding going disproportionately to the provinces with the most heavy-lifting to do in this transition.

We need to breathe a new, ambitious spirit into the civil service. During the war, C.D. Howe created end runs around the existing civil service to expedite wartime production. That was effective but also produced its own problems. The challenge now is to transform the public service—to recruit and promote the people willing and able to make bold things happen quickly. We need visionary and creative people in key leadership positions in the civil service and to bring in outside experts, civil society leaders, and entrepreneurs as needed to drive change and oversee the necessary scale-up. And we need all political parties to advance policy agendas that are truly consistent with what the science demands of us.

Indigenous leadership, culture, and title and rights are central to winning. Indigenous people played an important role in the Second World War. Today, their role in successfully confronting the climate crisis is pivotal. As our mainstream politics dithers and dodges meaningful and coherent climate action, the assertion of Indigenous title and rights is buying us time, slowing and blocking new fossil fuel projects until our larger politics come into compliance with the climate science. Some of Canada’s most inspiring renewable energy projects are also happening under First Nations’ leadership. It is imperative to both honour and support such efforts, first by embedding the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into law at all levels of government, and second by ensuring that Indigenous communities and nations are full partners in the development of our climate emergency plans.

Everyone has to do their bit. The Second World War was a total war effort. It was not merely prosecuted by government, the military, and war manufacturing firms. All households played their part. Every company in the country made adjustments. All institutions were engaged. The same is true today. Households will need to shift their consumption, their transportation, and how they heat their homes. All companies and institutions, public and private, need transition plans. Thousands of young people want a role to play, and many could find meaning in a new national Youth Climate Corps. And social movements will need to keep governments’ feet to the fire at every stage.

This time, human rights must not be sacrificed. The government’s invocation of the War Measures Act in 1939 came at too high a price. People were imprisoned and interned without due process. Communities were forcibly relocated. Civil liberties were forsaken. Canada’s wartime experience offers cautionary tales of what not to do. The current crisis gives us an historic opportunity to avoid the sins of the past, and to engage in a form of emergency mobilization that is collaborative rather than coercive.

Canada is not an island. We don’t win wars by ourselves, and neither can we opt out when justice demands our engagement. Canada’s population is relatively small, yet we have punched above our weight before—we certainly did in the Second World War—and we can again. This lesson applies at multiple levels.

First, while Canada’s domestic GHG emissions may be small at a global level, we are also a major international exporter of fossil fuels.

Second, in addition to taking climate action at home, Canada must embrace our responsibilities to the rest of the world. During the Second World War, Canada was extremely generous with our financial transfers to various Allies, despite unprecedented demands at home. Our historic per capita GHG emissions have been disproportionately high, carbon pollution does not stop at our borders, and we are one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Given all this, it is incumbent on Canada to substantially boost our financial transfers to poorer countries, particularly in those regions hardest hit by the climate crisis and extreme weather. This is not a matter of charity, but of necessity and justice.

Third, we must make right one of the most shameful chapters of Canada’s Second World War legacy—the response to refugees. Before, during, and after the war, Canada refused to open its doors to people fleeing persecution, particularly Jews seeking to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. In the coming decades, the crises of people displaced by climate impacts will surely be a defining issue. This time, we need to act with honour.

When necessary, real leaders throw out the rule book, and they are the heroes. Stay alert throughout this book to people who, in the face of a humanitarian crisis, defy orders and the norms of their time and circumstance—they are the ones who change the course of events. These are some of the people we remember from the Second World War, and they will be the people history again recalls as climate emergency champions.

Know thine enemy. Before engaging in battle, we need to know what we are up against. The enemy was clear in the Second World War—today, less so. We face numerous barriers to change, particularly a fossil fuel industry that has done much to block climate action. One of the most insidious barriers is a dynamic I call the “new climate denialism,” along with its various manifestations, peddlers, and enablers. The new climate denialism currently dominates our politics, and it is the new modus operandi of the fossil fuel industry.

Click here to order a copy of Klein’s A Good War: Mobilizing for Canada’s Climate Emergency.