Should Canada treat climate crisis like a war?

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Image: Marcus Kauffman/Unsplash

This is the book every climate-concerned Canadian has been waiting for. Seth Klein's A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency extends the political imagination, not through utopian speculation, but through an engaging analysis of state policy, both current and historical.

Klein finds that, when it comes to addressing an existential emergency, Canada has already risen to the challenge. Canada retooled the entire economy around shared objectives with remarkable efficiency, helping supercharge the Allied effort to defeat fascism in the Second World War.

What can Canadians learn from war mobilization in our current moment of climate emergency? 

The book thus highlights forgotten knowledge that free market fundamentalists would prefer we not know. First, adopt an emergency wartime mindset, and prepare to do whatever it takes to win. Consumer and volunteer action is laudable, but only the state can act with the speed and scale necessary. During the war, the federal government created new economic and governmental institutions, including 28 Crown corporations. They spent what was necessary and increased overall taxation to fund it. 

An effective response requires more democracy, not less. Strong wartime political leadership helped mobilize public support. Today, social movements and tactics ranging from grassroots education to civil disobedience are also needed to push politicians. Deep social inequality is toxic to the kind of necessary social solidarity, mass mobilization and sense of shared sacrifice needed to combat climate change. "Everyone has to do their bit," including shifts in consumption, transportation and home heating. A just transition for resource-sector workers, as well as Indigenous leadership, culture and respect for aboriginal title and rights, are all essential -- both as matters of justice, and to buy time as we build transformative coalitions.

Canada can't win the climate war single-handedly. But as in the Second World War, we should again punch above our weight, Klein argues. Besides being one of the world's highest per capita greenhouse gas polluters at home, we are a major exporter of fossil fuels. Canada can afford to help poorer countries, which contributed least but suffer most from climate chaos, to deal with extreme weather and to pursue low-carbon futures. 

Finally, as in wartime, know the enemy. In this case, it's the fossil fuel industry, and the syndrome Klein calls "the new climate denialism." Arguably the most important "Eureka" concept in the book, new climate denialism references political and industry leaders who verbally accept the scientific warnings about climate change (by contrast with "old" denialism), but ignore or block the policy implications of "this scientific reality." Despite promising climate action, governments "deliver underwhelming and contradictory policies" because they practice "appeasement" of vested corporate interests. 

New climate denialism suits the federal Liberals' longstanding strategy for political success, combining progressive rhetoric and meaningful but moderate social reforms -- like legalizing marijuana -- with economic policies that accommodate the interests of carbon capital.

But it's not just a Liberal syndrome. Klein demonstrates that the new climate denialism also characterizes the NDP's contradictory approach to climate policy. Incremental pro-climate measures like carbon taxes have been undercut by governments' championing of fossil fuel megaprojects (like the Trans Mountain pipeline in Alberta's case, or liquefied natural gas and fracking in B.C.).

Why didn't the Notley government raise Alberta's royalties on gas and oil, or create Crown corporations, to spearhead economic diversification? According to the veteran leftists Klein interviewed, too many NDP insiders don't get the climate emergency, are afraid of incurring corporate displeasure, or accept neoliberal assumptions that only private capital can create wealth and jobs -- contrary to Canada's experience during the Second World War.

The Green party's policies are more ambitious, but still inadequate to the crisis's scope, short on detailed social justice commitments, and hampered by balanced-budget promises. Klein recommends proportional representation as a possible solution. But as a veteran NDP member, I have to concede that broad rejuvenation and re-alignment on the Canadian left is overdue.

We shouldn't overextend the wartime/emergency frame, Klein rightly concedes. It can unleash authoritarianism and racism, particularly problematic with respect to Indigenous rights, and evident in Canada's shameful record of interning Japanese-Canadians and refusing entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Avoiding such consequences may be the biggest challenge for the wartime frame. Klein's briefly proposes remedies -- for example, include Indigenous leaders in defining and managing the crisis -- and he argues throughout that equality and inclusiveness are both politically and morally necessary for effective climate action.  Still, it's a theme that deserves further elaboration.

On the other hand, as an amateur history buff, I can see ways that the war/emergency analogy could actually be extended. Klein's focus is domestic mobilization, but there are also parallels with the military and strategic aspects -- strange alliances (like the U.S. and Soviet Union); resistance against illegitimate occupation; and the willingness of political elites not just to "appease" the enemy but to actively collude with them -- an analogy that points to how fossil fuel extractivism is embedded in the Canadian state.

Such a wide-ranging book productively invites further questions. Why has political energy not yet been mobilized to the same extent as in the Second World War? The nature of climate crisis is one factor: compared to war, it is slower paced, without definite ending. We can't sign a peace treaty with the climate. Victories and defeats are harder to measure, and the relationship between sacrifice and result is less direct.   

Another factor may be the spread of labour radicalism during the Depression, priming the growth of trade unionism, anti-fascism, and demands for remedial state action amongst the Canadian working class. Today, while there are welcome initiatives bringing together workers and environmentalists, the union movement is somewhat divided vis-à-vis climate action.

Most importantly, if the climate emergency is akin to war, there's less chance of a united social purpose because, in many ways, the enemy is within. Jason Kenney's hard-right government often seems to me, a former Edmonton resident, as threatening as any foreign dictatorship. As a long-term British Columbian, I'm not alone in sometimes seeing Kenney as a foreign dictator! Fortunately, Klein does suggest avenues around the challenges of regional differences in attitudes and political economy. 

The fossil fuel industry, however, is a more intractable barrier to climate action, and Klein briefly outlines ways to curb its political, economic, cultural and colonial power, such as divestment campaigns and limits to lobbying. He stops short of calling for the more radical measure of nationalization. 

As practitioners of new climate denialism, corporate media and their pundits have too often been another obstacle. They narrow debate to incremental measures compatible with existing power relations and underplay the extent and urgency of climate crisis. During the Second World War, the Canadian media reported on defeats as well as victories, but they did not pretend to be neutral; Adolf Hitler did not get equal time. 

To be sure, some of Klein's imaginative proposals may be problematic, such as limiting public subsidies to outlets that provide "needed climate emergency information." But making donations to non-profit independent news media tax deductible is surely preferable to the Liberals' current subsidies to newspaper-owning corporations, like Postmedia, owned by U.S. hedge funds. Democratic reform, addressing media's very structure and ownership, should be higher on the climate movement's agenda.

As Klein notes in the book's epilogue, while he was analyzing 80-year-old precedents for response to existential crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly provided a real-time model. Will fossil fuel industries and free market think tanks lead a retreat to a high-carbon and inegalitarian status quo, compounded by austerity policies? Or will COVID encourage Canadians to throw out the neoliberal rulebook to meet the even more challenging climate crisis? That will depend on political struggle over the next few years. In this coming "war," Klein's book -- with its wealth of historically grounded policy proposals, and a narrative more realistic than endless fossil fuel expansion and more hopeful than catastrophic collapse -- provides essential ammunition.

Robert Hackett is a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, and co-author of Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives. He is also a member of the NDP and of the non-partisan Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion (BROKE). 

Image: Marcus Kauffman/Unsplash

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