By Seth Klein. Toronto: ECW Press, 2020
Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist, warns that the climate crisis “is our Third World War” and that our “lives and civilization as we know it are at stake, just as they were in the Second World War.” This is the main premise of Seth Klein’s book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency.
I begin with a disclaimer. I met Seth in the 1980s when, in the SAGE Youth Nuclear Disarmament Tour, he visited Toronto where I was working for the Canadian Peace Alliance. We were united in opposing the nuclear arms race, the existential crisis of that time, and today I share his desire to confront the climate crisis as peace activists confronted the nuclear crisis then.
_A Good War _has four parts. In the first part he shows that WWII reveals what we are capable of when we respond collectively to an emergency. He sees the key lessons of WWII as a roadmap through the contemporary climate crisis, and points out the ineffectiveness of governments in addressing the climate emergency.
Klein describes the political, economic, and cultural barriers to fighting it and argues that our primary “enemy” is denialism. Our leaders claim to accept the science behind climate change but their policies do not align with what scientists assert.
Part II is a call for public support for fighting the crisis, as occurred 80 years ago in the war effort. Klein claims that WWII political leaders induced a recalcitrant public to make a collective effort to fight. He cites hopeful climate polls suggesting that the majority of Canadians are worried about climate change and ready for bold climate policies. Canadian politicians underestimate the public’s willingness to tackle the crisis. He argues for public education about climate change. Klein also insists on the need to simultaneously tackle inequality, decolonization, poverty, and homelessness as we fight the crisis. He specifies the challenges Canadians face due to regional differences and the jurisdictional barriers between the federal and provincial governments.
Part III recalls what the public and private sectors did during WWII for the war effort. It provides a plan for economic transformation to combat today’s climate crisis. Klein shows that public institutions and services, buildings, homes and household consumption must be transformed. During WWII, labour was mobilized, much as today’s New Green Deal now is committed to creating jobs that fight global warming. He gives an overview of financing plans for mobilizing our economy and labour force.
The final part of the book is the most exciting. Klein outlines the essential leadership role of Indigenous and civil society in the climate emergency. He shows us how Indigenous peoples led during WWII—and again today in fights against pipelines and fracking. In writing about civil society, he pushes for a broader role for youth, citizen assemblies, social movements, and faith leaders.
A Good War is long and empirically rich. Those skeptical about the climate crisis may wish it were more concise. As a former history teacher, I was surprised that he draws heavily on the work of Jack Granatstein, a traditional military and political historian and critic of Indigenous, immigrants, women and working class histories.
And, while acknowledging the limits of the analogy between WWII and the current climate crisis, he uses such militaristic terms as “battle plan” and “enemies,” which are not necessary. I question the use of “A Good War” for the title of the book. It perpetuates the idea that WWII was virtuous and heroic. Perhaps “A Necessary War” would have been a better title.
Nevertheless, this is an extremely important and inspiring book. Despite the dire climate crisis, Klein remains hopeful about how to confront the climate emergency, largely because we already have a blueprint for fighting a previous crisis.
Moreover, the current Covid 19 crisis shows how emergencies can create a sense of purpose and bring out the best in us. We see now that the government, in following science, can rapidly mobilize our resources as a nation to fight a common battle.
Reviewed by Marianne A. Larsen, Professor Emeritus of Education, Western University