Lessons from the Second World War for the climate emergency
Even before the arrival of COVID-19, the history of the Second World War was making a remarkable comeback. Our movie theatres (remember those?), Netflix offerings and bookstore shelves were full of modern reboots of our mid-century wartime experience. Then the global pandemic struck, and suddenly, everyone is drawing comparisons to the Second World War.
As it happens, I have spent the last year and a half writing a book about Canada’s Second World War experience—A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency—searching for lessons for how to confront the climate crisis and quickly transition off fossil fuels.
My book takes as its opening premise that the approach we have been taking to tackle climate change for the last 30 years is simply not working. Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have only flatlined since the year 2000—they are not going down. Our emissions in the year 2018 (the last year for which we have statistics) were almost exactly where they were in the year 2000. We are not on a path to stave off a horrific future for our children and future generations. We have run out the clock with distracting debates about incremental changes. But where it matters most—actual GHG emissions—we have accomplished precious little. And so, a new approach is needed.
We are not on a path to stave off a horrific future for our children and future generations.
I cut my political teeth in the peace movement of the 1980s, and I am the child of Vietnam War resisters. So there is no small irony in me saying this. But I am now convinced that to confront the climate emergency a wartime approach is needed, and moreover, that our wartime experience should be embraced as an instructive story. Climate breakdown requires a new mindset—to mobilize all of society, galvanize our politics and fundamentally remake our economy.
My book project began as an exploration of how we can align our politics and economy in Canada with what the science says we must urgently do to address the climate emergency. And it is that. I had always planned to include a chapter on lessons from the Second World War. But as I delved into that work, I began to see more and more parallels between our wartime experience and the current crisis, and ultimately decided to structure the entire book around lessons from Canada’s Second World War experience. Not because I get all weirdly animated about war. Rather, it is because I see in the history of our wartime experience a helpful—and indeed hopeful—reminder that we have done this before. We have mobilized in common cause across society to confront an existential threat. And in doing so, we have retooled our entire economy in the space of a few short years.
The battle plan: Key lessons from the Second World War
To execute a successful battle, we need a plan—a roadmap to guide us through the stages of climate mobilization. From my study of Canada’s Second World War experience, and in particular how we successfully mobilized on the home front, the following key strategic lessons emerge:
Adopt an emergency wartime mindset, prepared to do what it takes to win. Something powerful happens when we approach a crisis by naming the emergency and the need for wartime-scale action. It creates a new sense of shared purpose, a renewed unity across Canada’s confederation and liberates a level of political action that seemed previously impossible. Economic ideas deemed off-limits become newly considered and we open ourselves up to fresh ways of thinking. We see the attacks on our soil for what they are. And we become collectively willing to see our governments adopt mandatory policies, replacing voluntary measures that merely incentivize and encourage change, with clear timelines and regulatory fiat in order to drive change and meet ambitious targets.
Rally the public at every turn. Many assume that at the outbreak of the Second World War everyone understood the threat and was ready to rally to Mackenzie King’s call. But that was not so. It took leadership to mobilize the public. In frequency and tone, in words and in action, the climate mobilization needs to look and sound and feel like an emergency. If our governments are not behaving as if the situation is an emergency, then they are effectively communicating to the public that it is not. As occurred in the war, our governments need to develop and execute multifaceted advertising programs that boost the level of public “climate literacy” and outline and explain their policy responses. The news media and educational institutions need to reimagine their approach to this crisis, and we must demand that they do so. We need to marshal the cultural and entertainment sectors, which requires major public funding for arts and culture initiatives that seek to rally the public. And we need to better include the public in decision-making as we refine our climate policies through the use of citizen assemblies and other means of democratic engagement.
Inequality is toxic to social solidarity and mass mobilization. A successful mobilization requires that people make common cause across class, race and gender, and that the public have confidence that sacrifices are being made by the rich as well as middle- and modest-income people. During the First World War, inequality undermined such efforts. Consequently, at the outset of the Second World War, the government took bold steps to lessen inequality and limit excess profits. Such measures are needed again today.
Embrace economic planning and create the economic institutions needed to get the job done. During the Second World War, starting from a base of virtually nothing, the Canadian economy and its labour force pumped out planes, military vehicles, ships and armaments at a speed and scale that is simply mind-blowing. Remarkably, the Canadian government (under the leadership of C.D. Howe) established 28 crown corporations to meet the supply and munitions requirements of the war effort. That is just one example of what the government was prepared to do to transform the Canadian economy to meet wartime production needs. The private sector had a key role to play in that economic transition, but vitally, it was not allowed to determine the allocation of scarce resources. In a time of emergency, we don’t leave such decisions to the market. Throughout most of the war years, the production and sale of the private automobile, in both Canada and the US, was effectively banned; instead those auto factories were operating full tilt to churn out wartime vehicles. Howe’s department undertook detailed economic planning to ensure wartime production was prioritized, conducting a national inventory of wartime supply needs and production capacity and coordinating the supply chains of all core war production inputs (machine tools, rubber, metals, timber, coal, oil and more). The climate emergency demands a similar approach to economic planning. We must again conduct an inventory of conversion needs, determining how many heat pumps, solar arrays, wind farms, electric buses, etc., we will need to electrify virtually everything and end our reliance on fossil fuels. We will need a new generation of crown corporations to then ensure those items are manufactured and deployed at the requisite scale. We will require huge public investments in green and social infrastructure to expedite the transformation of our economy and communities. And as we did in the war, we will need to mobilize labour to get this job done, banishing unemployment in the years to come.
Spend what it takes to win. A benefit of an emergency or wartime mentality is that it forces governments out of an austerity mindset and liberates the public purse (much like we have seen in response to the current pandemic). The Second World War saw an explosion in government spending. In order to finance the war effort, the government issued new public Victory Bonds and new forms of progressive taxation were instituted. Yet these new taxes and what remains to this day historic levels of public debt did not produce economic disaster, as is so often claimed. On the contrary, they heralded an era of record economic performance. As we confront the climate emergency, financing the transformation before us requires that we employ similar tools.
Leave no one behind. The Second World War saw over one million Canadians enlist in military service and a similar number employed in munitions production (far more than are employed in the fossil fuel industry today). After the war, all those people had to be reintegrated into a peacetime economy. That too required careful economic planning, and the development of new programs for returning soldiers, from income support to housing to post-secondary training. Those post-war programs weren’t simply the result of government largesse and goodwill; they stemmed from the demands of labour and social movements, which after the ravages of the Depression and war insisted on a new deal. The ambition of these initiatives provides a model for what a just transition can look like today; they should inspire us to develop robust programs for all workers whose economic and employment security is currently tied to the fossil fuel economy, with a special focus on those provinces and regions most reliant on oil and gas production.
Reject the straightjacket of neoliberal economic thinking. The previous lessons all share a common thread—the casting off of free-market economic ideas and assumptions that have kept us from doing what we need to do in the face of the climate emergency. During the war, given the urgency and scale of the task, both the general public and private-sector leaders understood that the economic transformation had to be state-led. Canada’s Second World War government was by and large a free-market oriented administration (indeed, that orientation had severely constrained government action during the Depression of the 1930s, at the price of great hardship). But in the face of the urgent need to confront fascism, its leaders were no longer ideologically rigid. They were prepared to embrace a level of economic planning, public investment and public enterprise that seemed previously unimaginable.
Transform government. Once an extended emergency is truly recognized, all the institutions and machinery of government are focused on the task of confronting it. During the Second World War, Mackenzie King appointed a powerful war subcommittee of cabinet to oversee the government’s efforts. We need a Climate Emergency War Cabinet Committee today, and a Climate Emergency Secretariat in the Prime Minister’s Office and each premier’s office, coordinating our emergency response as a whole-of-government approach. Just as we have created a governance architecture for fiscal planning, budgeting, budget consultations and accountability in the present, so too we need to build similar systems for carbon budgeting. We need new federal-provincial-municipal cost-shared programs focused on the climate crisis, including a new federal Climate Emergency Just Transition Transfer to collaboratively fund new green infrastructure and job training initiatives, with funding going disproportionately to the provinces with the most heavy-lifting to do in this transition. We need to breathe a new, ambitious spirit into the civil service. During the war, C.D. Howe created end runs around the existing civil service to expedite wartime production. That was effective but also produced its own problems. The challenge now is to transform the public service—to recruit and promote the people willing and able to make bold things happen quickly. We need visionary and creative people in key leadership positions in the civil service and to bring in outside experts, civil society leaders and entrepreneurs as needed to drive change and oversee the necessary scale-up. And we need all political parties to advance policy agendas that are truly consistent with what the science demands of us.
Indigenous leadership, culture, and title and rights are central to winning. Indigenous people played an important role in the Second World War. Today, their role in successfully confronting the climate crisis is pivotal. As our mainstream politics dithers and dodges meaningful and coherent climate action, the assertion of Indigenous title and rights is buying us time, slowing and blocking new fossil fuel projects until our larger politics come into compliance with the climate science. Some of Canada’s most inspiring renewable energy projects are also happening under First Nations’ leadership. It is imperative to both honour and support such efforts, first by embedding the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into law at all levels of government, and second by ensuring that Indigenous communities and nations are full partners in the development of our climate emergency plans.
Everyone has to do their bit. The Second World War was a total war effort. It was not merely prosecuted by government, the military and war manufacturing firms. All households played their part. Every company in the country made adjustments. All institutions were engaged. The same is true today. Households will need to shift their consumption, their transportation and how they heat their homes. All companies and institutions, public and private, need transition plans. Thousands of young people want a role to play and many could find meaning in a new national Youth Climate Corps. And social movements will need to keep governments’ feet to the fire at every stage.
This time, human rights must not be sacrificed. The government’s invocation of the War Measures Act in 1939 came at too high a price. People were imprisoned and interned without due process. Communities were forcibly relocated. Civil liberties were forsaken. Canada’s wartime experience offers cautionary tales of what not to do. The current crisis gives us an historic opportunity to avoid the sins of the past, and to engage in a form of emergency mobilization that is collaborative rather than coercive.
Canada is not an island. We don’t win wars by ourselves, and neither can we opt out when justice demands our engagement. Canada’s population is relatively small, yet we have punched above our weight before—we certainly did in the Second World War—and we can again. This lesson applies at multiple levels. First, while Canada’s domestic GHG emissions may be small at a global level, we are also a major international exporter of fossil fuels. Second, in addition to taking climate action at home, Canada must embrace our responsibilities to the rest of the world. During the Second World War, Canada was extremely generous with our financial transfers to various Allies, despite unprecedented demands at home. Our historic per capita GHG emissions have been disproportionately high, carbon pollution does not stop at our borders, and we are one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Given all this, it is incumbent on Canada to substantially boost our financial transfers to poorer countries, particularly in those regions hardest hit by the climate crisis and extreme weather. This is not a matter of charity, but of necessity and justice. Third, we must make right one of the most shameful chapters of Canada’s Second World War legacy—the response to refugees. Before, during and after the war, Canada refused to open its doors to people fleeing persecution, particularly Jews seeking to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. In the coming decades, the crises of people displaced by climate impacts will surely be a defining issue. This time, we need to act with honour.
When necessary, real leaders throw out the rule book, and they are the heroes. Throughout my book we encounter people who, in the face of a humanitarian crisis, defy orders and the norms of their time and circumstance—they are the ones who change the course of events. These are some of the people we remember from the Second World War, and they will be the people history again recalls as climate emergency champions.
Know thine enemy. Before engaging in battle, we need to know what we are up against. The enemy was clear in the Second World War—today, less so. We face numerous barriers to change, particularly a fossil fuel industry that has done much to block climate action. One of the most insidious barriers is a dynamic I call the “new climate denialism,” along with its various manifestations, peddlers and enablers. The new climate denialism currently dominates our politics, and it is the new modus operandi of the fossil fuel industry.
A Good War puts “meat on the bones” of each of these lessons. The book is an historical excavation—an unearthing of what we are capable of when we collectively approach an emergency with a new mindset, not only with respect to economic change, but with a new spirit of collaboration and purpose.
The book is an invitation to our political leaders to reflect on the leaders who saw us through the Second World War and to consider who they want to be and how they wish to be remembered as we undertake this defining task of our lives. My hope is that this book might embolden them to be more politically daring than we have seen to date, because that is what this moment demands.
And much like the trials that tested the character of past generations, this book is also an invitation to all of us to reflect on who we want to be as we together confront this crisis.
Confronting the climate emergency is not precisely the same as war and the battle against fascism. There are differences, of course. But I am arguing that our wartime experience provides very instructive lessons about how to confront an existential threat.
I am arguing that our wartime experience provides very instructive lessons about how to confront an existential threat.
As you read the book, my hope is that you will marvel, as I have while researching and writing it, at the scale and scope and speed of what Canada did during the war years. And that you will find inspiration that we are capable of once again accomplishing something amazing—that we can do ourselves proud and, like then, that we can come out the other end of this transformation not only with a safer environment, but with a better and more just society than the one we are leaving behind.
Our sense of what is possible is contained by what we know. Hopefully this exploration of what we did the last time we faced an existential threat can serve to blow open our sense of political and transformative possibility.
Like many of you, as I read the latest scientific warnings, I’m afraid. In particular, I feel deep anxiety for my children, and about the state of the world we are leaving to those who will live throughout most of this century and beyond. All of us who take seriously these scientific realities wrestle with despair. The truth is that we don’t know if we will win this fight—if we will rise to this challenge in time. But it is worth appreciating that those who rallied in the face of fascism 80 years ago likewise didn’t know if they would win. We often forget that there was a good chunk of the war’s early years during which the outcome was far from certain. Yet that generation rallied regardless, and in the process surprised themselves by what they were capable of achieving. That’s the spirit we need today.
This post was excerpted from A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency and first appeared in CCPA’s The Monitor.
This post is part of the Corporate Mapping Project, a research and public engagement project investigating the power of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada, led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (BC and Saskatchewan Offices) and Parkland Institute. This research is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Minor Foundation for Major Challenges.