Seth Klein, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency

The Abstract

Seth Klein, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, ECW Press, Toronto, 2020. 434 pp. $19.95. ISBN: 978-1-77041-545-4. I was standing with my young sons on the edge of a cornfield. It was late-December and snowing. We let the dog off her leash and watched as she ran across the field. Then she turned […]

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Book review by Anthony G. Siegrist

Seth Klein, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, ECW Press, Toronto, 2020. 434 pp. $19.95. ISBN: 978-1-77041-545-4.

I was standing with my young sons on the edge of a cornfield. It was late-December and snowing. We let the dog off her leash and watched as she ran across the field. Then she turned and leapt her way back toward us, jumping rows of downed cornstalks two-at-a-time. Bits of unfrozen soil flew through the air. I bent down so my face was even with that of my youngest son. We watched together. The falling snow thickened and the wind picked up. We could hardly see the opposite side of the field. “It’s very pretty,” he said. There was nothing really special about the place—a farm field that abutted a soccer pitch and a schoolyard. But my son was right; it was very pretty. As I dug the dog’s leash out of my pocket, the snowflakes grew heavy, like airborne slush. By the time we got home and I returned to sermon-writing, it was raining. Weeks later we learned that 2020 tied 2016 as the warmest year on record.

There is much at stake in the ecological crisis unfurling around us: places we love, crops we grow and eat, ecosystems we depend on in more ways than we know, even the character of the world our children will inherit. Despite all this, our collective response is falling far short. Too much of our action, including that of the church, is merely individual or half-hearted. What is the way forward? What would meaningfully address the crisis of climate change? Seth Klein’s new book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency aims to answer this question.

Klein is a policy wonk, with two decades of experience as the founding director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in British Columbia. The book’s title makes the essential point: climate change must be framed not as an optional, hobby issue but as an existential threat. If our political leaders approached climate change the way a previous generation approached war, we could muster change on a timeline and scale that would make a difference. The COVID-19 pandemic has been fortuitous in this regard. In Klein’s view, it has shown that “once emergencies are truly recognized, what seemed politically impossible and economically off-limits can be quickly embraced” (xvii).

A Good War is not a book about climate science. Klein simply accepts the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including the necessity of cutting C02 emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net carbon-zero by 2050. The burden of the book is to outline the sorts of policies that will get us there. Klein says, “We need to decarbonize and electrify everything, while also ensuring that we are no longer generating electricity by burning fossil fuels. And we need to do this in a hurry” (179).

Doing something big in a hurry is one way to describe Canada’s mobilization for the war effort in the 1940s. The pressure of total war required the federal government to rally the public, centralize decision-making, heavily regulate commerce, and raise the funds necessary to prevail. Changes weren’t encouraged; they were mandated. For instance, Klein tells us, “For the balance of the war, the production and sale of the private automobile was illegal” (159).

This was true in both the United States and Canada. The federal government limited the profits that firms could make on war-related ventures and created twenty-eight crown corporations to provide competitive pressure and bridge gaps in the supply chain. The government decided to spend whatever it cost to meet their war-time goals. It introduced new taxes and borrowed money from its citizens. The results were astounding. To pick but one example: whereas before the war Canada manufactured roughly forty airplanes a year, during the war the country produced sixteen thousand military aircraft.

Drawing on this precedent, Klein suggests that the Canadian federal government should take similar actions today. His policy suggestions include a plan for shifting to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, winding down fossil fuel extraction, developing green infrastructure, implementing a system of household carbon quotas, and enacting a series of new laws and regulations. Examples of the latter include prohibiting the use of fossil fuels in new buildings by 2022 and banning the sale of new fossil-fuel-combustion vehicles by 2025.

Klein believes that a massive mobilization like this could also be used to increase social equity. However, it is here that we see one of the chief risks of such a strategy, and Klein is not unaware of it. History shows that the centralization of power and the unity of purpose that wartime efforts engender creates an opportunity for increasing social inequity. The emergency mindset is volatile. With so much power gathered in the hands of so few, much depends on the character of the government.

Is there an alternative that doesn’t come with these risks? As it happens, there is, and Klein is aware of this too, though his philosophical scruples make him wary of it. The relevant pre-commitments surface when Klein writes: “What is notable about Canada’s wartime economic policies is that our leaders then were not bound by the straightjacket of neoliberal economic thinking” (171). Klein believes that current leaders willingly wear this sartorial encumbrance. He writes further, “Neoliberalism fetishizes the goal of balanced budgets and austerity.” It also “disparages and undervalues the public sphere” (173). The upshot, Klein says, is that “we are fiddling at the margins while the planet burns, hoping that market-based signals can sufficiently alter household consumption and business investment. They won’t” (171). It’s true that quite a lot of fiddling is going on, but it’s not quite true that the raft of policies Klein recommends necessarily leads in a different direction. It’s also not true that Klein knows that policies more reliant on market-based signals won’t work.

The alternative to Klein’s wartime centralization of power is to tax carbon at a rate equal to the damage it does. This corrects the market failure that arises because nobody “owns” their own chunk of the atmosphere, and it doesn’t require the government to decide (and police) exactly how we heat our buildings or power our travel. In addition to being more efficient, taxing carbon is also more just. It requires those of us who use fossil fuels to pay for the damage those fuels do. While Klein’s sense of urgency is commendable, the core of his proposal asks future generations to pay to avoid the harm we are inflicting on them. There are a whole set of things one could untangle at this juncture related to Keynesian economic theory and the free market, but the crux of the matter is that the climate crisis is not something that can be dealt with as an acute emergency after which things will return to normal.

The climate crisis requires a solution that permanently corrects for the failure of markets to account for CO2 pollution. It is probably not a coincidence that Seth Klein lives in a jurisdiction that has become the textbook example to demonstrate that carbon can be taxed without negatively impacting the economy. It’s true that the carbon tax in British Columbia hasn’t yet reached the price point at which economists think it would be most effective. However, this is more a signal that neighboring jurisdictions must also implement a similar mechanism than it is a signal that the policy itself should not be at the core of our response to the climate crisis.

There are multiple pathways to decarbonization, and Klein’s proposal might well accomplish that objective. Creating green infrastructure projects expands a supportive constituency by immediately creating jobs that counteract those lost by making the use of fossil fuel illegal. That is smart. However, recent developments in Canada suggest that Klein may have underestimated the political feasibility of a more serious tax on carbon. This is a good thing, because putting that kind of a policy at the core of a national response to climate change is a more just and durable way forward. The flashes and smoke of Klein’s wartime metaphor make it hard to see this.

These kinds of discussions can be unsettling for Anabaptists, and not just because of the wartime analogy that undergirds this one. The fact is, many Anabaptists will find a kindred soul in Klein, who isn’t entirely comfortable with his own framing of the issue. Some Canadians will relate to Klein when he writes, “I am a Canadian because of my parents’ refusal to participate in war” (xvii). What is most troubling for Anabaptists is that our anti-Constantinian theology has not provided us with solid footing from which to address issues like climate change. Addressing the climate crisis with anything close to the speed and scale necessary requires collective action. Klein is right about that. What is more, it requires strong action from governments, action that will compel and not only invite. The toolkit must be stocked not just with carrots but also with sticks.

How do such measures—measures necessary to maintain the beauty and well-being of places and people we love—sit with Anabaptist theology and practice? With respect to values and virtues, the peaceful flourishing of communities and the development of God-honoring character, I think they fit quite well. Anabaptist readers of Scripture recognize that the earth and her myriad of non-human creatures matters to God. We know that following the example of Jesus calls us to grow our capacity for restraint, simplicity, and humility. We need little encouragement from civil authorities to put in victory gardens or advocate for climate migrants. Klein’s call to respect the sovereignty of First Nations and honor treaties should make eminent sense to us as well. However, the climate crises exposes our underdeveloped theology of government. Much of Anabaptist political theology in recent decades has taken the form of critique: critique of war, critique of colonialism, critique of the use of violence generally. These critiques are not wrong, but at a time when risky, government-led action is needed, they are insufficient.

Many of us Anabaptists have used our high ecclesiology to avoid thinking about the necessary collective action that governments represent. In that sense, I’m not sure Anabaptist life predisposes us to prefer Klein’s proposal or the alternative one based on the longstanding function of markets. Yet I doubt what churches think matters much to Seth Klein. He does wonder (rightly) why faith leaders have not been more vocal. He does offer an approving note about some faith institutions divesting of fossil fuel investments and another about the advocacy of an Irish Catholic mission organization. However, in this book churches are not considered a vital part of the political fabric. And that may be an important secondary lesson for us from A Good War. When it comes to this most crucial of issues, the future of the world our children will inherit, churches are mostly missing in action. This is important to recognize because climate change is not the only ecological crisis rushing toward us. The electrification of everything will actually contribute to some of the other crises.

In the long run, this conversation cannot be only about public policy, devolving into enviro-economic whack-a-mole. It must also be a conversation about consumption and what it means to live a meaningful human life. For those conversations, communities of faith are invaluable.

Anthony G. Siegrist serves as pastor at Ottawa Mennonite Church. His family’s dog, a coonhound named Rhubarb, serves as his spiritual director.