Seth Klein believes that the speed and scale of Canada’s historic wartime mobilization can be a source of inspiration in the face of the climate emergency.

Faculty and Staff

Canadians ready for bold action on climate change

August 12, 2019
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Seth Klein

By Geoff Gilliard

A majority of Canadians are willing to support bold policies to tackle the climate crisis and Seth Klein has the numbers to back it up.

Klein, an adjunct professor in SFU’s Urban Studies Program, commissioned a major national online poll from Abacus Data to inform the book he is writing about mobilizing Canada to take on the climate emergency.

Of particular interest to Klein are the lessons to be drawn from Canada’s most cohesive and concerted response to an existential threat – namely, how the country mobilized in WWII.

“It has long been my view that recalling the speed and scale of our historic wartime mobilization can be a source of inspiration in the face of the climate emergency,” Klein says. “In undertaking this poll, I sought to determine whether or not this framing would resonate among the Canadian public and whether there is an appetite for systems-level solutions."

More half of the 2,000 people polled agreed with the statement that the climate emergency requires that governments adopt a wartime-scale response, making major investments to retool the economy and mobilizing everyone in society to transition off fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“I find the lessons from World War II rather inspiring in terms of the speed and the scale of what happened,” Klein says. “I’ve been collecting incredible stories of what people did at an individual level, and the speed and the scope of what the government did once it realized it had to mobilize.”

Klein offers the example of ship building in the province of British Columbia as a lesson we can draw on. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, B.C.’s ship building industry went dormant other than a couple of shipyards in North Vancouver that were doing repairs. Then Canada declared war. Over the next five years, B.C. shipyards built over 300 ships, 250 of which were Liberty ships, the 10,000-ton merchant marine cargo vessels that kept food and supplies moving around the world.

The number of North Vancouver’s shipyard employees exploded in 1942 and 1943 when up to 14,000 people worked at Burrard Dry Dock in three round-the-clock shifts. Photo: North Vancouver Museum & Archives, #27-678.

Klein’s impetus for the book project was to explore the gap between what science says we must do to mitigate against climate change impacts, and what elected leaders are prepared to entertain.

“I’ve interviewed a number of politicians and political insiders for my book, who understand the science of climate change, and yet whose governments, I believe, still practice a kind of new climate denialism, whereby they accept the science but still practice policies that don’t line up,” Klein says. “These people, in one way or another, almost always come back to the line that says, you have to start with where the public is at. And they make this assumption that the public isn’t there yet and isn’t prepared to embrace truly ambitious goals and policies equivalent of the crisis.”

When faced with the threat of fascist domination in World War II, Klein points out that the political leaders of the day didn’t meet the public where they are at. Rather, they took them where they needed to go. Could contemporary Canadians adopt that same wartime “can do” attitude to tackle the climate crisis?

The wartime-frame resonates with many Canadians, particularly in Quebec, with 68 per cent of respondents agreeing with the statement that the climate emergency requires that governments adopt a wartime-scale response, making major investments to retool the economy and mobilizing everyone in society to transition off fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“The reality is that we do face an emergency, and we do need a wartime-scale response,” says Klein. “For a majority of Canadians, climate change is no longer an abstract threat impacting people somewhere else or at some time in the future. They see it happening here and now. People are ready for bold policies to move us off fossil fuels.

“The prevailing assumption within the leadership of our political parties appears to be that it would be political suicide to articulate (let alone undertake) what the climate science tells us is necessary,” Klein adds. “Yet according to the poll, 74 per cent of Canadians are already worried about the impact of climate change, and they are ready for ambitious policies.” The poll finds very high support for ambitious policies such as phasing out fossil fuel extraction and export within 30 years, banning the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2030, ending the use of fossil fuels to heat homes and buildings, and supporting investment in renewable energy. And support for these actions increases if governments also support low and modest income households with income supports to ease the transition and offers employment supports for oil and gas workers to allow them to transition to jobs in a retooled green economy.

“I find the poll results very hopeful and exciting,” Klein says. “Even many of those ‘in the middle’ still wrestling with these ideas are open to bold leadership.”

The full poll results can be found here.

Klein’s analysis of the results can be found here.