With mounting human costs from wars in Yemen, Ukraine, Syria, Somalia and Ethiopia (among many others), it might seem like an odd time to talk about “A Good War.” That’s the title of author and policy analyst Seth Klein’s debut book, which looks at what Canada can learn from its experience in WWII when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.
As Russia kicks off what looks like a new arms race, and as political forces mobilize to use the escalating conflict as a pretext for everything from weapons deals to new pipelines, The Breach’s Dru Oja Jay spoke to Klein about collective security and how we can tackle the climate emergency with the same urgency given to war.
Klein spoke to us from his home in Vancouver via video conference. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You wrote a book titled A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, and I’m just wondering if you could catch us up on what that entails—as we witness what most would consider a bad war in Ukraine, what does it mean to talk about a ‘good war’?
I got my political teeth in the peace and disarmament movement in the 1980s. If you told anyone back then I was going to write a war story, they’d be mightily surprised—I was surprised.
My original intent with the book was to write a book that would try to tackle this gap between what scientists are saying we have to do on climate, and what our politics seem prepared to entertain.
Originally, I planned to have a single chapter on lessons from the Second World War, as an example of rapid economic transformation, right? Because we did retool the whole economy then, in a very short period of time. In fact, we did it twice: once to ramp up military production, then to reconvert to peacetime.
But as I delved into that, I saw more and more parallels to pressing questions today. Like how do you marshal public opinion in an emergency? In Canada, how do you navigate the quagmire of Confederation? What are the connections with inequality? What was the role of Indigenous people? What was the role of young people and civil society?
I’ve worked on the climate file for a couple of decades now. Delving into WWII history made me look at it with fresh eyes through the lens of emergency—the mindset of emergency. And, you know, that’s what the book tries to do.
Is there a difference between the climate mobilization you’re calling for and a Green New Deal?
I do call for a Green New Deal. But in Canada, we didn’t have an original New Deal. We had a government that just dragged its feet through the Great Depression and didn’t do what [Franklin D. Roosevelt] did in the United States. Effectively, the war was our New Deal. That became the galvanizing moment when finally the government shifted gears.
We saw full employment. We saw the government spend what had to be spent and create new institutions and all of the things that one needs to do in an emergency. So that’s why it’s a Canadian book. It’s rooted in our history.
Going forward, in policy terms, we need a Green New Deal. But the argument in the book goes a bit further than that. I’m trying to give examples of what it means to be in emergency mode, economically and politically.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted—as people across the political spectrum have noted—our dependence on fossil fuels, and Russian fossil fuels specifically. And that seems to have prompted calls to increase domestic fossil fuel production, and build new pipelines and so on. What do you make of this?
The right has certainly seized on this in a very crass manner. And by the way, in a ridiculous manner. If you try to get, say, Germany off of Russian gas by shipping in liquefied natural gas or building new pipelines, it would take years. The beauty of renewables is that they are deployable at scale so much more quickly.
This war is just one more reminder, on a long list, that oil and gas are poison. And they’re not just a poison to our atmosphere, they’re poison to our democracy, and to politics and to peace. And the sooner we can hasten the day when we are done with these things, the better off we will all be.
And you see, for example, in the States, Bill McKibben making the argument in the wake of the war, that maybe what we actually need is a new Marshall Plan for Europe, where we commandeer manufacturing and supply chains, and mass produce millions of electric heat pumps for Europe. The United States and Canada together could, if the will was there, produce millions of heat pumps in the space of a year, and actually get them to Europe and help them get off Russian gas.
And the great thing about that is that when that job is done, they could just pivot and produce millions for us.
I’m coming to you from British Columbia. In June, we had this heat dome event that killed almost 600 people in the space of a week. It wasn’t bloody—they perished in isolation in their homes. If their homes had already been converted to electric heat pumps—as we urgently need to do to lower our emissions—very likely, every one of those people would still be with us. Because heat pumps can also cool in the summer.
You know, that’s a different way of thinking about security.
And so what’s stopping us from defining collective security in terms that encompass the climate and energy security?
First, I would say the good news is that more and more people are rightly conceptualizing the common climate threat in security terms.
But it is the curse of climate, compared to the pandemic, and compared to war, that it moves in slow motion. Its attacks happen, but not at the same time in a way that would galvanize us. And that allows for our political leadership to kick the can down the road.
We do need to conceptualize climate as the actual security threat—as the civilizational threat—that it is.
We had another reminder of that in the last IPCC report, which the UN Secretary General described as an “atlas of human suffering.” There are 3.3 billion people—a massive share of humanity—who are at high risk to the impacts of climate change. And the Secretary General used really incredible language, calling the report a damning indictment of failed climate leadership. He actually called it a criminal abdication of leadership, which I think was pretty powerful.
Reports like this also highlight that the most vulnerable people are disproportionately in the Global South, where our news pays less attention than it does to a war in Europe.
So what these reports remind us is that if we fail to take quick action, the impacts are catastrophic and deadly for millions. They are deeply disruptive to the lives of everyone else. And they produce a world that is quite possibly ungovernable in terms of their impacts on food and water systems.
This is, objectively speaking, a far, far greater threat than anything else in the news.
You talked a little bit about climate change moving slowly and, you know, haphazardly—it’s not a full scale Russian invasion, certainly. But do you think that slowness is the crux of it, in terms of what’s holding us back from understanding climate as a security issue?
There are many barriers. One is the slow motion. One is the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry itself, and its role in our politics. One that I talk about in the book a lot is the 40-year legacy of neoliberalism.
Why aren’t we spending what it takes to actually tackle climate? Why aren’t we creating new institutions, new Crown enterprises to mass produce? Why aren’t we simply using the regulatory power of the state to require the changes instead of just trying to incentivize our way to victory with tax rebates and tax cuts and price signals and so on?
Because our leadership—across the political spectrum, incidentally—is locked into these neoliberal assumptions about what is and isn’t possible.
That said, if there’s some sort of silver lining in something like the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, it’s that they put the lie to what we can’t do. With the response to the war, it reveals the speed and scale of what’s actually possible—we see countries acting as allies in common cause, we see them instantly spending money that they said wasn’t there.
We see them commandeering supply chains, we see them freezing assets of the oligarchs, we see them divesting all of their holdings overnight, banning imports—you know, taking away most-favored-nation status from Russia. All of these things that we were told we can’t do with respect to the climate emergency, have been suddenly revealed to be instantly possible when a government actually sees emergencies for what they are.
So I think we need to hold on to that and say, ‘okay, now we know what’s possible.’
And what do you think the pathway is to—in the political imagination, in the public imagination—getting the response to climate crisis up to the same level as the response to an invasion?
I like your use of the word imagination. The most insidious legacy of those 40 years of neoliberalism isn’t the tax cuts, the spending cuts, the deregulation, the privatization or the trade deals—it is the sapping of our imagination, it is the sapping of our belief in our collective capacity to do great things together on behalf of each other.
I wrote the book before the pandemic, and I sent it off for final copy edit three days before the first lockdown, and we launched it during the pandemic.
Two years ago, if you had asked me “are there people at Finance Canada and the Bank of Canada who are capable of quickly pivoting in the space of a few weeks, and creating these audacious programs like the CERB and the wage subsidy? And that the Bank of Canada would buy up $5-billion a week in federal government securities to fund all of this for the better part of a year?’ I would have told you no, there’s nobody home there who thinks that way.
And I would have been wrong.
And by the way, I’m certain if you had asked Canadians in 1938 if this gang in the Mackenzie King Cabinet had any kind of imagination that would allow them to remake the Canadian economy—as was about to happen—I’m quite certain most Canadians would have said, no, not this gang.
And they would have been wrong.
This is the point I’m trying to make: you never know.
We’re all wrestling in this awkward interregnum, this period of disconnect between, you know what the moment is telling us—in this case, what the scientists are telling us—and what our politics seems prepared to entertain.
A point is coming at which that gap will be joined. The only question is, will it come in time?
So you’re in B.C., where—as you mentioned—you’ve had these really extreme weather events, that have just been awesomely disruptive. Have you seen those events elevate climate issues to the level of the crisis that it is?
Not adequately. Those examples you speak of—the heat dome event, the atmospheric river events in flooding in November, the forest fires—they have shifted the dial in the political culture of British Columbia. This was our year of reckoning; people understand the crisis.
But it has not translated into our politics yet—or into the policy agenda.
Our political leadership isn’t there. And I wish I could tell you that I knew what it would take to finally tip them into emergency mode. All I can tell you from these historic examples is you never know.
My understanding is that you’ve been involved in some small efforts to get some of the ideas that are in your book into some kind of party platform—or a debate within some of these political institutions. Can you talk about what that’s been like, and what you’ve learned from that?
Small efforts—that would be the operative word. Before writing the book, I spent 20 years with the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. As soon as the book was out, I started to meet with political leaders, who were interested in talking about the ideas in the book.
The funny thing about writing a book is, you know, you can meet with these people. But you can only get so far when you’re just a guy with a book. I was realizing that I needed an institutional home to try to build more political pressure behind those ideas.
So David Suzuki and Tara Cullis gave me a home with the David Suzuki Institute. And we created this thing called the Climate Emergency Unit. The purpose is to try to advance the emergency ideas in the book. We have a small team, and what we’re trying to do is create coalition tables around those ideas provincially, federally, and sectorally.
In B.C. we have 25 organizations collaborating, trying to pull the B.C. government into emergency mode. We’re trying to recreate that in some other provinces. We teamed up with Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) to build a national campaign around banning fossil fuel advertising—another idea in the book.
So the idea is to try to bring people together around defining what an emergency agenda actually looks like, and to have leaders from outside the traditional environmental movement really bringing their voices to that call as well.
And how’s that going? Have you seen any breakthroughs or hopeful signs of shifts happening?
The terrain is shifting. In the lead up to the last election, the federal Liberals for the first time named the elephant in the room that they never named, right, which is the quarter of our emissions that comes from the oil and gas sector itself. They never would speak to that before.
And worse than that, they were peddling a falsehood, which was that we can be serious about climate while still doubling down on the extraction of fossil fuels.
The problem is we’re not going to see the downward slope be as steep as the science demands. So we’re stuck in that awkward space, trying to build the call here in British Columbia where we have this pretty active table.
The neat thing is that the table has defined a 10 point agenda of what an emergency plan looks like. Whether it’s the David Suzuki foundation or the Wilderness Committee or the Georgia straight alliance, or Stand, LeadNow, or Dogwood, or the United Church, the Anglican Church or the Union of BC Indian Chiefs—they’re all pushing the government on the same list of 10 actions, saying this is what we mean when we say emergency. So there’s some unity of purpose there that we haven’t seen.
But I don’t want to make more of it than it is. Has it been successful? Not yet.
One of the key markers of being in emergency mode is this idea of new buildings simply being banned from tying into gas. I live in Vancouver, and I’m a little biased in this because Christine Boyle, my wife, is the Vancouver city councilor who moved the climate emergency motion here.
In Vancouver, as of January, new buildings can’t use gas for space and water heating. That’s emergency. And as of about 2025, they’ve put a regulatory system in place, that even older and existing buildings—if your furnace or boiler needs to be replaced, you won’t be able to replace it with gas. And other municipalities are starting to look at that model too. Do I think that we can start to get federal and provincial building codes there? I do. I think we’re gonna win that soon.
So how are you defining ‘emergency’?
So let me give you my list of six markers of emergency.
One is, you spend what it takes to win. Are the federal and provincial government spending what it takes to win on climate? Nowhere close, they’re off by probably a tenfold order of magnitude.
Number two, you create new institutions to get the job done. And by that I particularly mean, new public enterprises that are mass producing this stuff. Are they doing that? No, they are not. They’re still trying to incentivize the private sector to do it.
The last federal budget had a 50 per cent corporate income tax cut for the companies that will produce the stuff that we need to electrify everything. Will a bunch of companies take them up on that? Yes. Will they do it at scale? No.
We need to create the institutions ourselves to actually do that. And this is where the work you’ve done around thinking about how we transform existing Crown corporations, like Canada Post, figure into this as well. I actually think we need a new federal transfer to the provinces that’s big and audacious—something like $20-billion a year to fund the transition and invest in climate infrastructure.
A youth climate corps would be another new institution that signals to a whole new generation: if you want to meet this moment, we have a place for you.
The third marker is what we’ve been talking about: the shift from voluntary to mandatory measures. So we have provincial building codes that are starting to say new buildings are going to have to be carbon zero—but by 2030; that’s not emergency. The zero emission vehicle mandate is 2035.
The fourth marker is you tell the truth. This is what I mean about that shift from the Liberals around the oil and gas sector, right. That’s an important pivot.
The fifth marker is you leave no one behind. And that’s really where the just transition stuff has been so lacking. Where is the compelling counter-offer to fossil fuel workers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, and to communities that have been on the frontlines? It just hasn’t come.
The sixth marker is around the role of Indigenous leadership, and rights and title. Frankly, that has been happening, and it’s been buying us time, right? If you look at this report from a few months ago from Indigenous Environment Network and Oil Change International, where they tried to tally up how much greenhouse gas pollution was left in the ground because of Indigenous-led efforts to block and slow fossil fuel development.
They calculated it to be equivalent to about 25 per cent of North American emissions. It’s remarkable. They are buying us time, until such time as the rest of our politics comes into compliance with the science.
I want to come back to Germany. In terms of the geopolitical situation, we’ve seen a number of commentators make the claim that Germany really screwed itself by phasing out its nuclear reactors and blaming that for its dependence on Russian natural gas. What’s your take on that?
Well, they certainly have allowed themselves to be incredibly reliant on Russian gas. There are many out there who make this argument—happens in Canada, too, happens where I am with everyone who pitches Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) as some bridge fuel.
I suppose one could have made a compelling case for gas as a bridge fuel 20 or 30 years ago. But the bridge was to now, and we’ve arrived. We ran out the clock. And now the war has forced this conversation that in fact, we needed to leapfrog into renewables in a way that they didn’t do.
I hear you asking a thornier question about the role of nuclear in all of this. And, you know, I’m someone who cut their teeth as well in the anti-nuclear movement. My own take on the nuclear situation now is I wouldn’t get rid of what we have for now.
But because of the speed and scale that’s required for the electrification we need to see, I am not sold that new nuclear is needed. Let me play with a famous line of Mackenzie King from the conscription referendum during the war: ‘Conscription, if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.’
That’s kind of how I feel about nuclear: ‘nuclear, if necessary, but not necessarily nuclear.’ I have not seen convincing evidence that we need nuclear to meet our electrification needs, certainly not new nuclear. And when it comes to new—because everything is about speed and scale in the next few years—nuclear doesn’t lend itself to speed and scale. Its regulatory approval is incredibly slow. Its cost is huge. That is the beauty of renewable energy—it lends itself to speed and scale in a way that nuclear doesn’t. And I think, rather than hanging our hopes on something that may not work, let’s just go gangbusters on what we know does work.
Just to take up the nuclear point for a second. The sort of entry level Facebook commenter response to that would be that with renewables, you’ll have baseload problems—
—Yeah, so the argument is that any electrical system needs backup firm power, and renewables in and of themselves aren’t firm because they’re intermittent. That’s the argument.
Certainly in Canada, I would say, we have the firm backup, we have sufficient existing nuclear and more importantly, hydro dams that provide that firm backup. And coming online now is incredible battery storage capacity. The combination of those things across a wellintegrated grid—I’m not an engineer, but from what I hear from those who are, that would be sufficient.
I can’t speak to other jurisdictions. Are there countries in the world that, as they seek to electrify and decarbonize everything, might need some nuclear for some piece of that firm backup? I don’t know enough to say.
I want to bring it back to imagination. Can you talk about specific examples in terms of government action or movement action, that made those kinds of huge shifts in policy and public imagination possible?
Yes. Let me go back to that second marker, creating new institutions. The person in the Mackenzie King Cabinet who oversaw this incredible ramp up in military production was C.D. Howe. In the war, he was basically the Minister for State Economic Planning.
Now, don’t get me wrong, he was no lefty—he was definitely, firmly on the right wing of the Mackenzie King cabinet. He was in a hurry. He got the emergency. Anytime the private sector couldn’t quickly do what needed doing, he created a new crown corporation to do it.
In the course of the war he created 28 crown corporations—it’s remarkable. The Justin Trudeau Government has created two crown corporations: the Canada Infrastructure Bank, and the Trans Mountain Pipeline Corporation.
In the early months of the pandemic, there was much the federal government did that was laudatory, with pressure. But one thing that they didn’t do—and Linda McQuaig has written about this—is recreate a crown corporation to mass produce vaccines. In the pandemic, we ended up using our economic muscle to outbid poor countries and secure the vaccine supply that we needed.
If you’re not creating new public enterprises, the best you can do is try to incentivize somebody else to do what needs doing.
Like with climate issues, it has been demonstrated that none of us are free until all of us are free—if we aren’t providing vaccine for the world, we’re just going to get whacked by new variants.
But also, the pandemic response was the opposite of what we did in the Second World War—we were the arsenal for our allies, all those Crown corporations were mass producing what was needed, and most of it wasn’t for us. We were producing for our allies.
In the book, I have a three-page list of what those Next Generation Public Enterprises would be. If we were to get serious about producing and deploying at speed and scale, all of the things that we need to electrify and decarbonize our society.
So to wrap up, what are the social forces or political institutions that you see being able to drive this agenda forward?
As I said earlier, the Indigenous leadership piece of it is huge and already in play.
Also, I derive considerable hope from the role of youth. Again, there are interesting historic comparisons. It was youth who mobilized in the Second World War. From a population of about 11 million Canadians, over a million enlisted and 64 per cent were under the age of 21. And young people are mobilizing again to secure our future when it comes to climate.
It’s worth remembering that just a few months before the pandemic, we saw the climate strike, a youth-led national mobilization that was the largest single day of protest in Canadian history, near as I can tell. And there’s no doubt that it shifted our politics. It shifted the conversation—in the federal election a month later, everyone running felt compelled to speak to that youth-led movement.
I said earlier how Vancouver has a genuine climate emergency plan. Let me say a bit more about that and how it happened. Vancouver has a very split council where no party has a majority. They’re all over the political spectrum. And let me tell you, you never know how this gang is gonna vote on anything. Long, drawn out meetings. But those early climate emergency motions passed unanimously.
Now, how did that happen? Part of it happened because my wife’s really good at her job and very convincing. But she would say that it also happened because each time those votes happened, dozens of high school students skipped school, and rallied outside and spoke before council and filled the galleries and basically made it politically impossible even for the conservative councillors to vote no.
So when we think about what needs to happen for wins like this, in some ways, you kind of need three legs of a stool. You need a political champion, you need some people in the bureaucracy who get it—talented people who are helping you design the policies—and then you need these outside forces to bring that pressure. In this case, this youth-led movement applied the pressure from the outside.
When all three of those stars align. That’s when the magic happens.