The art of climate war

Some thoughts on Seth Klein's book and why it sends the wrong message to those who care about good climate policy

My extremely online friend David Moscrop, whose Twitter account is one of my favourite follows (and whose books you should buy and read), dredged up a subject I thought I’d managed to put behind me: Seth Klein’s recent book, A Good War. In it, Klein (the former BC Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) argues that we should treat climate change the way previous generations of Canadians approach the Second World War. And while I managed to resist the temptation to write something about that when it came out, Moscrop dragged me back in. 

I’ll begin with the central conceit, which is that the war against the Nazis has something in common with climate change. Notwithstanding the fact that this pretty clearly encroaches on Godwin’s law, it also fundamentally misunderstands the differences between what Canadians in the 1930s and 1940s were facing and what we’re dealing with today. One, after all, involved a clear antagonist with homicidal intentions that directly threatened everyone’s way of life and potential freedoms. The other involves an invisible gas that doesn’t respect borders or economic jurisdictions and is intimately associated with some of our favourite things we do, whether that’s driving a car or using the internet. On climate change, it’s as the old saying goes: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

This war-oriented analogy is not a new one on the left. In a 2019 interview, former UK Labour Party leader Ed Milliband said that his country needed to be on a “war footing” to fight climate change, while the Climate Mobilization movement in the United States uses language very similar to Klein’s. But while it might be tempting to try and scare people into believing that climate change is just like Nazi Germany, the evidence here suggests this is a bad idea. As Eric Holthaus wrote a few years ago, “if you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy.”

So too is Klein’s rejection of incrementalism. “I started from a premise that everything we have been doing isn’t working,” he writes, but this is like pretending that the Allies weren’t making progress in 1944 because they hadn’t stormed the beaches of Normandy yet. As economists Blake Shaffer and Andrew Leach wrote last year, the shift away from coal power in Alberta is a massive success — one that Klein would surely dismiss or overlook. Canada’s implementation of a nation-wide carbon tax and its official commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 are meaningful, important achievements. 

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To Klein, though, they represent “the politics of appeasement”. What he wants, it seems, is the wholesale transformation of our entire economic system, regardless of the cost and who has to pay it. Ironically, there are shades of his own sister’s work here. In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein writes about how capitalist economies have used political turmoil to advance neo-liberal policies and ideas. Now, it seems, her brother wants to use the turmoil created by climate change to advance a whole raft of other policies, from tax increases to the wealthy to mandated changes to how and what we consume. 

And while Klein is happy to cast corporations and big business as the enemies, they’ve been doing a lot of the heavy lifting of late on climate change. Car companies from General Motors to Volkswagen and Volvo have all announced ambitious timelines for the phaseout of gasoline-powered vehicles, while large tech companies like Google and Amazon have committed to procuring 100% clean energy. Even FedEx, whose business relies on transportation more than any other, has pledged to reach net-zero by 2040. They may not be the kind of allies that people like Seth Klein want in the climate fight, but they’re the allies that we have right now. We should think of them the way Allied commanders thought about (oh, the irony!) the Red Army: not a friend, and someone to monitor carefully, but a powerful source of material and strategic support. 

But while these wartime metaphors can be fun, they don’t reflect just how different Canada is today from the one Klein looks back upon so fondly. Back then, we were a glorified colony that had declared its independence from Great Britain in word but not in deed, and one that felt an obvious affinity to the island that was so clearly under threat. And back then, there was a sophisticated network of government propaganda that carefully managed our attitudes towards Nazi Germany and fed our fear of its growing influence. 

Today, the propagandists are working on the other side of the issue, and they’ve spent so long seeding the fields of tax policy and climate science that it may be impossible to even come close to the kind of consensus that underwrote the war effort, much less replicating it. When we can’t even agree on the enemy, how on earth are we going to unite against it — much less in the numbers needed to create the kind of enduring political coalition in a democracy that could implement such aggressive changes? 

And therein lies the rub. One of the most telling details in Klein’s book is the roster of names at the back who endorse it. Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, Naomi Klein, and Raffi Cavoukian are all familiar names in the climate community, but they’re never had to actually implement policy or contend with competing political interests. And the two people on that list who have, Libby Davies and Elizabeth May, never had to contend with the messy realities of governing.

Those who have, whether it’s former Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips or former federal Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna, would surely have a much harder time signing onto Klein’s manifesto. They understand better than anyone that progress requires sacrifice, not stridency, and that forward movement on the metaphorical battlefield almost always involves casualties. And Klein, for his part, probably wouldn’t want them endorsing his book, given that they would probably fall somewhere between modern Neville Chamberlains and Marshall Pétains in his worldview.

So why does any of this matter? Why should people care about a book that misunderstands the challenge in front of us and misdiagnoses the best way to deal with it? Because, like a general misreading the field of battle, it risks turning a potential victory into a humiliating defeat. It risks distracting us from the victories that are possible, and it risks alienating people who could be useful and effective allies. Klein sounds a bit like the World War I British generals who were so famously (and catastrophically) divorced from the realities on the front, and what was needed to be successful there. 

Instead, let’s listen to the climate warriors who have their share of visible battle scars, and who have actually fought in the trenches. It’s easy to prescribe wholesale social and economic changes when you don’t have the power to implement them, and it’s even easier to blame the people who do. But if the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that the fight against climate change will be won through small victories, not big ones, and that our allies will not always be our friends. Ideological purity tests and Utopian manifestos only get in the way of the real work we need to be doing — and the real battles we need to win.  


Show me the money?

In other news, and in response to requests from some particularly excellent readers, I’ve decided to launch a payment option for this newsletter. If you think what I’m doing has value and is worth supporting, you now have the ability to do that — along with my everlasting gratitude and appreciation.

I’m still making my posts free for the time being, but in the future we’ll add some cool options for subscribers only. You can support me with a monthly subscription, which would be swell. And if you’re feeling particularly generous, you can unlock “Hero Status” — something that will eventually give you access to cool benefits that I’ve yet to think of (suggestions welcome, within reason….) Either way, it will help me continue building this out and dedicating more time and energy to it.

Oh, and David Moscrop? You owe me at least one subscription for this.